Fifth in a Series of Recorded Question and Answer Interviews
As reported by The Austin Bulldog January 25, County Attorney David Escamilla is conducting an inquiry about a complaint that the Austin City Council may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.
This is a serious matter and the city is taking it seriously. In lieu of the private meetings that for years have been held among the mayor and council members to discuss items on the Thursday council meeting agendas, the council is now holding work sessions to discuss the agenda in posted open meetings.
If the mayor and council members should be found to have in fact violated the Act, they may be subject to criminal prosecution under Section 551.143 of the Government Code, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500; confinement in the county jail for not less than one month or more than six months; or both the fine and confinement.
The Austin Bulldog is publishing selected text excerpts from each of the exclusive interviews conducted with the council members before breaking the story. The complete copyrighted MP3 audio file for each interview is linked at the bottom of each article for easy access. You may listen to these recordings to gain a better understanding of the published excepts within the context of the complete interview.
Council Member Bill Spelman was interviewed in his office at City Hall on Monday, January 24, 2011. The recording runs 38 minutes 52 seconds.
The Austin Bulldog: I don’t want to take too much of your time so let’s jump right in. As I said in my e-mail requesting an interview I’m developing story about working relationships among the mayor and the council members and understanding how these folks work together to develop public policies. One thing that stands out of my mind is the four of you are pretty transparent on how you spend your time on council duties because you publish your calendars online.
Bill Spelman: Right.
The Austin Bulldog: Do you have any ideas about why (Mayor) Lee (Leffingwell), (Mayor Pro Tem) Mike (Martinez) and (Council Member) Sheryl (Cole) don’t publish their calendars?
Bill Spelman: The reason I do is mostly because people asked me to. (It was a) campaign issue, I remember, for (Council Member) Laura (Morrison). I guess Laura and (Council Member) Randi (Shade) were both asked, would you please publish your calendars? And they both agreed during the campaign that they would do it, and they did it.
The Austin Bulldog: Right.
Bill Spelman: Some people asked me and (Council Member) Chris (Riley) to do the same thing. We said we’d do it, and we’re both doing it. So that’s probably why you’ve got four of us because we were asked to. I don’t know, frankly, whether they asked (Mayor) Lee (Leffingwell) to publish his calendar or not, and it could be they didn’t ask, or it could be he didn’t agree he would. I don’t know why he wouldn’t but…
The Austin Bulldog: I was just curious.
Bill Spelman: I’m doing it. I would not do it had I not been asked, just because it’s a little bit of trouble for (Constituent Services Aide) Dee (Dena Estrada-Salinas) to put it up some place where people can see it.
The Austin Bulldog: Something that caught my eye in looking at the published calendars is that they indicate that the council members and mayor spent (a lot of time) meeting with each other.
Bill Spelman: Oh yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: It seems like all of you are making a big effort to take the time to go to those meetings. Can you tell me what do you all discuss in the meetings?
Bill Spelman: Well let me back up a little bit. This is an innovation from ’97 when Kirk Watson was first elected mayor.
The Austin Bulldog: That’s one of the things I was going to ask you about …
Bill Spelman: Sure. In ’97, one of the things that Watson campaigned on is that he thought that the council members need to talk to each other and get a better idea for what they thought about things, and not all of a sudden showing up on the (council meeting) dais and not having a clue as to what anybody else thinks. He just thought we’d make better decisions if we had a chance to chew on issues in private and just get a sense for what’s really at issue. We’d just know more about stuff. We’d be more thoughtful when we actually made a vote. I remember him talking about that on the campaign trail and one of the first things that happened is it became a standard operating procedure for all of us to talk to all other members of the council about what we needed to talk about, every week or every two weeks in advance of a meeting. I have a standing date now with every member of the council every week. Sometimes we decide we don’t need to have a meeting especially…
The Austin Bulldog: You’re trying to do that every week here?
Bill Spelman: Pretty much. Yeah. It’s on the calendar every week. It sometimes gets pulled off the calendar, maybe in advance of it being posted, if there’s…
The Austin Bulldog: Okay. So, it’s (former Mayor) Kirk’s (Kirk Watson’s) fault that you have to have all these (meetings)?
Bill Spelman: Well Kirk’s idea, and I thought it was a good idea, especially when I started because I didn’t know the six people I was working with very well. I knew all of them a little, but being a candidate with somebody is not the same as having an ongoing working relationship.
The Austin Bulldog: Right.
Bill Spelman: So, having a chance to talk with them about what’s important to you, how you feel about things, what issues you have I maybe have not thought about, was a real useful thing to me. At some point, especially in that council, it was pretty clear where the splits were likely to be in issues, and there were some (one-on-one) meetings which I cancelled or didn’t take. I know what (then Council Member) Willie’s (Lewis is) going to say, especially Willie. … Most of the time I thought (these meetings were) a useful thing. Here’s an issue. I know what I think. I know what I think is the issue. Is there something else going on, on (agenda) item number 41 that I haven’t thought of yet? And it’s a useful thing, because people think about the same thing from different points of view. I want to try and take everybody’s point of view into account. So, I think that was a very useful thing, even on a council where we ended up voting together almost all the time….
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah. The first 7-0 council backed by the environmentalists.
Bill Spelman: Yeah. This (current city council) is not a typically 7-0 council on controversial issues. … This council is not as unified in its approach to things.
The Austin Bulldog: You mean (like on) Water Treatment Plant 4?
Bill Spelman: For example, and there have been a few other things which are controversial I think more than in the (1990s). So, I think that’s all the more reason for us to get a sense. Okay, your point of view is different from mine; help me understand your point of view. And I think that’s what’s valuable to me about the one-on-one meetings in advance is getting a sense for what have I not thought about, and maybe what you haven’t thought about that I have.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay. … So, I was going to ask you what sort of things you discuss in these meetings, but I think you basically just told me.
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay. Well you already answered the second question I was going to ask you, if these one-on-ones (meetings) were (being) held when you were on the council the first time from 1997 to 2000, and obviously (they) were.
Bill Spelman: They were.
The Austin Bulldog: You came in with (Mayor Kirk) Watson in 1997.
Bill Spelman: Yeah. That’s when they (the meetings) started.
The Austin Bulldog: I was going to ask you, what are mayor and council members trying to accomplish in these round-robin meetings? Is there anything else, in addition to this getting different perspectives?
Bill Spelman: That’s what I’m trying to accomplish. … I remember one of the first times that you and I had a conversation was when I was on the (Water and) Wastewater Commission and we had a break between parts of a meeting. … There was a break in the meeting and we took like a ten-minute recess and there was some controversial issue. … Somebody had a sewer (application pending) and so we were talking about it…
The Austin Bulldog: We being?
Bill Spelman: The commission members.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay.
Bill Spelman: And, there were four us that happened to be in the conversation together, and of course there were only seven commission members, and of course that’s a quorum discussing a public issue, and you came up and said, “You know you guys can’t do this because there’s four of you. You’re a quorum.”
The Austin Bulldog: I did?
Bill Spelman: You did.
The Austin Bulldog: I didn’t remember that.
Bill Spelman: I thought, “Oh he’s right. We can’t do this.” …
The Austin Bulldog: Gosh. I was a better cop than I thought I was.
Bill Spelman: You were. It was a very smart thing to say. So, I think I got…
The Austin Bulldog: Well would you rather have me come up and tell you or would you rather read it in a newsletter?
Bill Spelman: Exactly. Exactly. “Illegal conversation held in recess.” So, I got out of the conversation and then we had most of the conversation, far as I know, back after we came out of recess but. … And we also all have to go through this training over meeting stuff.
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah. What (training) do you get (on the Open Meetings Act) besides having to watch the video (on the Attorney General’s website)?
Bill Spelman: Nothing much. We have to watch the video, and I don’t remember if the law-staff have given us any cautionary fables.
The Austin Bulldog: I’m sorry?
Bill Spelman: Well we did have a discussion over (City of) Alpine (et al v. Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General, and the State of Texas) in the executive session. The lawyers were briefing us as to what Alpine (meant).
The Austin Bulldog: Now who gave that (briefing)?
Bill Spelman: Probably it was (Acting City Attorney) Karen Kennard’s predecessor. (City Attorney) David Smith probably did that. They were giving (the briefing in) an executive session.
The Austin Bulldog: This was an oral briefing then?
Bill Spelman: We had an oral briefing on that.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay.
Bill Spelman: I can’t remember any other time when it’s come up.
The Austin Bulldog: Well. … I got a copy (of a letter) from … (Mayor Pro Tem) Mike Martinez. I asked if he had ever received any written guidance (on compliance with the Open Meetings Act) and he said, “Yeah we got that letter.” What happened was he came (into office in) 2006. He was sworn-in in June and then July of ’06 (City Manager) Toby (Futrell) sent out a letter saying that the (open meetings) law just changed, and you had to watch these videos and you had to get certifications….
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: And, (that requirement) was new. So, you’ve got to do it by this date. … With the exception of that document, have you ever received anything in writing as to how to conduct yourself with respect to the Open Meetings Act?
Bill Spelman: I remember receiving a memo once, answering a question of, are one-on-one meetings okay, and there was…
The Austin Bulldog: That’s one I’d really like to see. That’s exactly what I’m driving at. That’s the document I’ve been looking for.
Bill Spelman: Really?
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah … a memo that (says) one-on-ones are okay.
Bill Spelman: You mean…there are caveats, obviously. If you’re doing one-on-ones with the intent to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, of course you can’t do that. If you’re taking votes you can’t do that. If you are persuading people to your point of view and saying, “Okay well I’ve already got three votes I want you to be the fourth.” You can’t do that, but within limits…
The Austin Bulldog: You can’t lobby just for votes basically.
Bill Spelman: You can’t lobby. But if you’re not lobbying, if you’re not logrolling (the trading of favors, or quid pro quo), which is where I actually started with. If you’re not logrolling or you’re not lobbying then it’s okay to meet just to see what they think.
The Austin Bulldog: So if you’re…
Bill Spelman: … [L]ogrolling is actually where I started. Because as a group, I was expecting when I first came on the council in the 1990s, that there would be a lot of trading, horse trading. I’ll (vote) yes on (agenda item) 41 but you need to vote yes on (agenda item) 44, and that wasn’t where anybody went and I’m not sure…
The Austin Bulldog: That was what?
Bill Spelman: We never did that. And I don’t know whether that is because of the Open Meetings Act and a caution from the law staff or because (Mayor Kirk) Watson knew the law and didn’t want to go there himself or what, but it was never any place where anybody went.
The Austin Bulldog: Well when you got that memo (about one-on-one meetings), was that during your first term? …
Bill Spelman: No I never got a memo from…no. I don’t remember receiving a memo in the 1990s on the subject.
The Austin Bulldog: I’m sorry?
Bill Spelman: I do not remember receiving a memo on the subject from the nineties.
The Austin Bulldog: On the subject?
Bill Spelman: On the subject of open meetings of any kind.
The Austin Bulldog: Really? I’m sorry that’s what I thought you said just a moment ago.
Bill Spelman: No. No. I’m sorry, this is more recently, that (Acting City Attorney) Karen (Kennard) …
The Austin Bulldog: I asked you did you get anything else in writing and you said you received a memo that one-on-one meetings are okay, if not with the intent to circumvent the Open Meetings Act.
Bill Spelman: Right.
The Austin Bulldog: So, did you get a memo?
Bill Spelman: Yeah. I got a memo.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay. When?
Bill Spelman: This afternoon.
The Austin Bulldog: Really?
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay. Can I have a copy of it?
Bill Spelman: I don’t think I can because I would be breaking the attorney-client privilege.
The Austin Bulldog: The attorney-client privilege.
Bill Spelman: And, I would be breaking that without conferring with anybody else. So, I feel uncomfortable.
The Austin Bulldog: Well okay. That’s good. Who sent the memo?
Bill Spelman: … Karen Kennard. I think she’s still acting city attorney. I’m not sure she’s actually got the job.
The Austin Bulldog: … So you just got that today?
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: Hot off the presses.
Bill Spelman: Literally hot off the presses.
The Austin Bulldog: I wonder why? Could it be because you’re the (fifth) council member I have interviewed? … That’s really interesting.
Bill Spelman: Yeah. Somebody asked Karen, “Help us understand what we can and can’t say to Ken, I’m guessing.” That is why she sent that out.
The Austin Bulldog: Well that’s really interesting. I was hoping to get all you guys interviewed before anyone caught on to what I was doing because now that we’ve broken that egg and we can’t pick it back up and put it back together again, it is (possibly) against the law to meet one-on-one (in a daisy chain of meetings right before a council meeting).
Bill Spelman: Is it?
The Austin Bulldog: The (Attorney General’s) opinion … GA-0326 I think, and GA for Greg Abbott. …
Bill Spelman: I’d very much like to…
The Austin Bulldog: Meeting one-on-one is more than just the prohibitions on with the intent. Of course the intent…if somebody was going to try to get in your knickers and prosecute it, the intent is sort of like—as I understand it. You know I’m not a lawyer but I’ve been talking to lawyers who know the stuff really cold, and they say the intent is the key thing that’s difficult to prove.
Bill Spelman: Right.
The Austin Bulldog: Because you know you have to know more about the circumstances I guess. I haven’t been getting much sleep lately. I’ve been working so much on this story and frankly I’m pretty foggy headed. This is the third interview today and I’m supposed to have (two more) after this one.
Bill Spelman: I’m sorry.
The Austin Bulldog: No. It’s okay. It’s not your fault. I’m just saying I’m a little foggy headed so I can’t probably quote it as accurately as I would like to. I think it’s GA-0326, Greg Abbott, and it goes into this in great detail. It’s pretty comprehensive and it basically says you guys are not kosher (in meeting the way you have been).
Bill Spelman: Okay.
The Austin Bulldog: That’s the way I read it.
Bill Spelman: I need to see that. … I will look it up.
The Austin Bulldog: That’s what this is really all about, because I was trying to get an understanding of what the council members were doing in these meetings and, you know, whether you were arriving at a consensus. So, I’m going to go ahead and go through my questions, but now you’ve already dropped right to the bottom line and beyond.
Bill Spelman: Okay.
The Austin Bulldog: So, are these meetings completely private or do aides commonly attend and take notes or what?
Bill Spelman: Almost all the time if I’m meeting with a city council member it’s just me and the council member. There are … actually a fair number of cases, if we’re meeting on a specific issue, where one or the other or both of us will have aides to help us get stuff done after we’ve talked.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay. Do you take notes in these meetings?
Bill Spelman: Sometimes.
The Austin Bulldog: Do you keep them?
Bill Spelman: Yeah. Everything I write I keep.
The Austin Bulldog: Do these private discussions help you make up your mind about the position you will take on the things you discuss?
Bill Spelman: Yeah. They do. Fairly often I will have one point of view and I’ll discuss it with another council member and they will suggest a different point of view, and I’ll have to think about it differently than I did before—which is what they’re (these meetings are) for.
The Austin Bulldog: Do these meetings give you a good understanding about what other council members think about he issues you discuss?
Bill Spelman: I think so. Actually the biggest problem with them is that something happens in the (open council) meeting and I realize, gosh, I wish I had known what you thought about such and such. I didn’t ask about that or you didn’t offer it, but this turns out to be a more interesting issue than I thought, or there’s another point of view out there I didn’t know about. Whenever we have a conversation about an item I usually learn something.
The Austin Bulldog: Right. Sure. Do you generally reach any meeting of the minds or agreement about where council members stand on the issues you have discussed?
Bill Spelman: I don’t usually say, “I’m voting yes on such and such.” I’ve said it. I know I’ve said it, but I try and avoid saying it and I don’t usually, and I’m more interested not what people are voting (on) but what they’re thinking. I’m going to make my own mind up, but I want to make my mind up on the best case.
The Austin Bulldog: Do other council members pretty much maintain their positions as expressed in these meetings or do they sometimes vote differently than you thought they would?
Bill Spelman: I see different…a year ago I’d say yes. Now I would say no, but I think that’s mostly because
The Austin Bulldog: Yes to what?
Bill Spelman: Okay. Do people vote differently than I thought they would? Yes, a year ago. No, now, because now that I’ve worked with all of these people for a year and a half I have a better idea for what their hot button issues are and how they think about stuff, but I think we surprise each other all the time. I surprised myself at the last meeting. Gosh, Emily Little, you’re right. I’m voting for that historic zoning. I think I shocked poor Karen McGraw.
The Austin Bulldog: Well you recused yourself, you bowed out on that one right?
Bill Spelman: No. I voted in favor of historic zoning on Bradford-Nohra (house). … If it’s the other side of Hyde Park (from where my home is) it has no material affect on my house and I thought Emily Little was … right. Emily needs to convince the homeowner that she’s right. If she can’t convince them it’s a dead matter. We’re not going to zone it historic if I don’t think it makes sense to zone something historic. Well, we’re getting into the substance of a case you don’t really care about, but I surprise myself because on the dais I changed my mind. That happens sometimes. We all do that.
The Austin Bulldog: … Mike Martinez said it’s rare that someone changes his vote that’s different from what they understood in these one-on-one meetings. Would you agree with that or disagree?
Bill Spelman: I don’t usually ask people how they’re going to vote, so I wouldn’t say yes to that. I wouldn’t agree to that particular line. I would say most of the time people do what I expect them to do. If somebody says, “I’ve got some problems with (agenda) item 41 and let me tell you why I’ve got a problem with it,” that’s usually a signal that they’re going to vote against it.
The Austin Bulldog: That’s usually what?
Bill Spelman: A signal that they’re going to vote against it, but I think it’s fairly rare that people say, “I’m voting against item 41. Here’s why, and here’s why you should too.” I don’t hear that.
The Austin Bulldog: All right. (Council Member) Chris Riley said, “We all know how we’re going to vote on Thursday,” except you maybe are … sort of a wild card.”
Bill Spelman: Me. I am a wild card.
The Austin Bulldog: That you’re not terribly predictable about how you might vote on the issues discussed. Now I quoted that based on something that he said to somebody else, who told me about it. And this morning I interviewed him at his house and he looked a little dismayed to hear the question. And I think I heard him say, somewhere during the three times that I asked the question, that “I wouldn’t have said that to the press,” or something like that. … But, I have to go back and listen to the recording to know if for sure that is what he said but…
Bill Spelman: That’s probably accurate.
The Austin Bulldog: The point is that he was having a conversation with somebody who was thinking about running for council. He was being asked questions like, “What’s your day like, you know. Are you having any fun? He was told no. Of course when I told Chris that he said … “I don’t think (that) is what I said either.” So, anyway that seemed to be his position to someone else (he) was speaking (to) informally and not for publication. This morning I think he wanted for me to think otherwise. But…so but getting back to his point. Would you be the wild card? I asked (Mayor Pro Tem) Mike Martinez (about) this, and he thought for a minute. He said, “I’m not going to get into (that).”
Bill Spelman: I can see him say that. I do not make promises to people and I don’t … I do sometimes tell people how I’m going to vote. I shouldn’t. I do sometimes, but what I try and do is say here are things I’m thinking about and have you thought about this issue from these points of view, but sometimes I think about that point of view. I think about it from somebody else’s point of view and I finally say yes or no, and my signals are not always clear because I’m not always clear until I’ve thought about it. So, maybe that’s why I’m a wild card … because I don’t tell people what it is I’m thinking, and I try to incorporate all these viewpoints.
The Austin Bulldog: So, you’re poker playing.
Bill Spelman: Yeah, a little.
The Austin Bulldog: When you get the council meeting and listen to what staff and citizens are saying about the issues you’ve discussed in these meetings, do you sometimes hear new information from the citizens that causes you to change your position based on what you learned at…I didn’t say that right.
Bill Spelman: I know what you mean.
The Austin Bulldog: Do you sometimes hear new information that causes you to change your position based on what you learned at the council meeting?
Bill Spelman: Yeah. Yeah. Last Thursday. I voted yes on (historic preservation for the) Bradford-Nohra (House). I didn’t expect to. This doesn’t happen all the time but it happens as often as…well it doesn’t happen all the time but I do often learn something in the council meeting that changes my mind. That’s what the meeting’s for, isn’t it?
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah. Sometime in mid-year in 2010 … (council) members meetings with the mayor were changed from one-on-one to two-on-one.
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: Why were the council members paired up?
Bill Spelman: You’d have to ask (Mayor) Lee (Leffingwell). I mean, I know why I think we’re paired up but I…
The Austin Bulldog: Well what do you think?
Bill Spelman: I think he just wanted to reduce the number of hours he was meeting every week.
The Austin Bulldog: It doesn’t. If he spends an hour with two council members instead a half-hour with each, the math (that he’s saving time) doesn’t hold up.
Bill Spelman: I know. My original understanding is he was meeting with two of us for a half-hour and then they got broadened to an hour, which is the same number of hours. So, I can’t…I don’t know why.
The Austin Bulldog: Okay.
Bill Spelman: You’ll have to ask him.
The Austin Bulldog: But, it was his idea to change?
Bill Spelman: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t meet with anybody else that way.
The Austin Bulldog: Right. Do you have any idea why you were paired with (Council Member) Sheryl (Cole)?
Bill Spelman: No idea.
The Austin Bulldog: So, you had no say so in how you were paired?
Bill Spelman: No. This is how we’re going to do it in the mayor’s office, and I like meeting with Sheryl and that’s fine.
The Austin Bulldog: No. I didn’t mean to say … I’m just trying to understand how these things came about.
Bill Spelman: Yeah. It was not Sheryl’s or my decision. It was not my decision. I don’t think it was Sheryl’s.
The Austin Bulldog: I already talked to her. It wasn’t.
Bill Spelman: Okay.
The Austin Bulldog: When you’re meeting with the mayor, is (his chief of staff) Mark Nathan usually present, or ever present?
Bill Spelman: Sometimes. Sometimes I bring (my policy director) Heidi (Gerbracht), sometimes not. Since the two-on-ones, if there’s something where I know there’s some follow-up work, I want Heidi or somebody else to do, I’ll bring … it’s almost always Heidi. I’ll bring Heidi along and I think that (Council Member) Sheryl (Cole)…I don’t think Sheryl has ever brought (her policy director) Stephanie (McDonald) but (Mayor) Lee (Leffingwell) sometimes has Mark in the meetings for the same reason, I think, and sometimes it’s because Heidi just knows a particular issue a lot better than I do, and so I want to be able to have her there to rely on.
The Austin Bulldog: Sure. She doesn’t have all your meetings probably.
Bill Spelman: That’s true. She can learn something different.
The Austin Bulldog: To your knowledge have you, or any of the other council members, expressed concern about these private meetings, in either your current term or the first term? I mean concern in the context of the Open Meetings Act?
Bill Spelman: When we were…every year at budget time is the place where we get closest to the envelope and…
The Austin Bulldog: Is when you’re what?
Bill Spelman: Get closest to the envelope. When I think we start to push harder against the edge of what is allowable, and especially at budget time I think there’s a lot of discussion about, “Okay we can’t go there because that’s an open meetings violation.” The walking quorum thing is really easy to do the night or two before you have your first vote on the budget, and this is something that we talk about. Okay you can’t be in this room. We can’t have the kind of conversation of, “You vote yes on this, and I’ll vote yes on this,” or “You move and I’ll second.” Anything which looks like a script, I think people are very leery of. Apparently that wasn’t always true and the council did have scripts.
The Austin Bulldog: I can believe it. If you think it may have a tendency to try to happen sometimes, watch the commissioners court, like I did for three years in Williamson County.
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: You know, that stuff goes on all the time you know. This guy over in Precinct 4’s got this problem child, you know, an influential constituent, they want something. So, he brings it up but he makes sure the (other) commissioners know that he doesn’t really care if (they) vote against (it). “I’m going to go through the motion of putting this forward and telling you why it’s a good idea, but I know you’re probably not going to vote for it and that won’t upset me.” So, it started a little charade that’s going on up there. You know the constituent feels good because (his commissioner) tried. He can’t help it if the other guys don’t go along.
Bill Spelman: There you go.
The Austin Bulldog: That’s one of the concerns that people have. You know there’s a big front (page story in the) paper today as you know about the (mayor’s desire) for single-member districts and…
Bill Spelman: Yeah. I haven’t read it.
The Austin Bulldog: That is because it becomes more parochial and you get into that. You know a big thing in commissioners court is everybody wants an equal amount of resources—or more than anybody else gets if I can get it, but at least equal.
Bill Spelman: Right. Divide by five.
The Austin Bulldog: So, they’re always fighting over the budget about you know I’ve got more road miles to patch potholes in than you do.
Bill Spelman: But mine are more important because I’ve got more traffic on mine.
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah. You know it just goes on forever.
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: Part of it is, you know, fighting for the constituents, if you want to put it that way, or fighting for their power, if you want to put it that way, but it definitely goes on.
Bill Spelman: In the Los Angeles County … I worked for the county for a year and the catchword there was divide by five. Anything that happens, divide into five equal pieces and everybody gets their little chunk.
The Austin Bulldog: Right. Were there five precincts?
Bill Spelman: Five precincts and twenty percent went to everybody.
The Austin Bulldog: And, you’re going to see that when this goes down to … bond elections … something you know somebody would take a look at. Well where are all these projects going? If they’re all going on the west side you’re going to hear about it or whatever, you know. Or if they’re all going on the east side you’d hear about it. You have to spread them around unless there’s some geographical balance.
Bill Spelman: We’re really cognizant of where things go just to be sure we’re being equitable.
The Austin Bulldog: And, you’re doing that already as an at-large council, but if you get into districts that will be even probably more sensitive.
Bill Spelman: Probably.
The Austin Bulldog: You know come a bond election and your precinct doesn’t have much in it, and everybody else seems to have a lot.
Bill Spelman: Yeah. You’ve got to demand something.
The Austin Bulldog: Never mind that you already got all the resources that you need over there.
Bill Spelman: Remember Eric Blumberg?
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah. … Radio reporter for KLBJ, and he ran for council.
Bill Spelman: Ran for (city) council. He gave the best single speech of any council candidate I’ve ever heard, before SANE in ’96.
The Austin Bulldog: Before who?
Bill Spelman: Save Austin Neighborhoods and Environment.
The Austin Bulldog: Right. Right. Right.
Bill Spelman: It used to be the political arm of the (Austin) Neighborhoods Council I think. I’m not sure what SANE was exactly but I was running for ACC board and…
The Austin Bulldog: You were running for what?
Bill Spelman: ACC (Austin) Community College board, and so I was following all these (candidates) around and I had a whole different set of things to talk about (than council candidates did) but I was listening to what (they were) saying.
The Austin Bulldog: But, you were going to be on the ballot at the same time.
Bill Spelman: Yeah I was on the ballot at the same time. So, I was at all the same meetings and Eric gave terrible speeches. He was a terrible candidate. But one bright shining day he delivered a great 15-minute harangue on “stuff” and he says, “You’re a council member. You’ve got the number outside your door. People take a number, they come in and they want stuff, and it doesn’t matter what the stuff is, there’s always some stuff that they want, for their neighborhood, their interest group, and you’ve got to deliver stuff.” I don’t know what he was high on, but that “stuff” just came up over and over again and it was wonderful.
The Austin Bulldog: Yeah I wrote about him when he ran for council because here he is, a radio reporter, and it’s “Fly on the Wall Syndrome,” I call it. You sit here month after month, and year after year, watching these officials and some point you think to yourself, “I can do a better job than that.” Only I’ve never had that thought and never will because I don’t want the job. I would never even let the thought creep in to my head. In fact I’ve probably have nightmares thinking I was elected to something. Really. I mean…who wants it?
Bill Spelman: No.
The Austin Bulldog: … You’ve got to wrap up.
Bill Spelman: Yeah.
The Austin Bulldog: We had too much fun Bill. … Okay. I think I’ve actually covered all the ground. We went right to the bottom line with that thing about the (possible) violation (of the Open Meetings Act). Obviously someone has been alerted as a result of all the inquiries I’ve made. … That’s basically it. I think that there is a problem that the council (may have) been violating (the Act). … Well it is potentially a misdemeanor.
Bill Spelman: Yeah. Just against the law.
The Austin Bulldog: It’s good to see you again. I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances.
The recording of this interview is subject to copyright © The Austin Bulldog 2010. To listen to the complete recorded interview, click here.
Disclosure: Bill Spelman has contributed $100 to The Austin Bulldog.
This investigative report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. The Austin Bulldog has many investigative projects waiting to be funded. You can help bring these investigations to life by making a tax-deductible contribution.