Martinez On the Record About Private Meetings

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Mike Martinez
Mike Martinez

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez Goes On the Record About Private Meetings

First in a Series of Recorded Question-and-Answer Interviews

The Austin Bulldog’s investigation of the Austin City Council’s possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act included exclusive private interviews with each of the city council members. (Due to oversight in operating the equipment, however, the interview with Council Member Laura Morrison was not recorded.)

As reported by The Austin Bulldog January 25, County Attorney David Escamilla has received a complaint about these allegations and his office is reviewing it. This is a serious matter. 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.

Given the serious nature of the complaint, The Austin Bulldog will publish selected text excerpts from each of the recorded interviews. The complete unedited, copyrighted MP3 audio file for each interview will be 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.

Mike Martinez
Mike Martinez

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez was interviewed in his City Hall office on January 20, 2011. The recording runs 39 minutes 22 seconds.

Before starting the recorder, The Austin Bulldog noted that some council members post their calendars online on the city website and some do not.

The Austin Bulldog:

For example you don’t.

Mike Martinez:

It’s all public information. I guess the biggest reason why is we’ve never been asked to do it and I never really thought about putting it online. I figured it was all public information.

The Austin Bulldog:

What sort of things do you all talk about in these meetings?

Mike Martinez:

We talk about whatever issue it is we’re working on, obviously. So, the way it works is, obviously, the majority of us that can meet at any one time is only three.

The Austin Bulldog:

Right.

Mike Martinez:

You typically have three counsel sponsors on any item that we put forward. But, really, the process, I think, works very well in that we have a subcommittee process, and we have a boards and commissions process. So, there is a lot of public venting, there is a lot of public input, there is a lot of board and commission suggestions and direction to counsel all happening before it gets to us.

So, during this time before it gets to the council meeting we’re watching, and we’re staying in touch, and we’re talking to each other about what’s coming towards us.

The Austin Bulldog:

Oh, okay.

Mike Martinez:

While it seemingly may look like we only meet once a week right before the council meeting on an agenda that has 150 items, we really have been talking about these items for some time as they are making their way down that pipeline to the council meeting.

The Austin Bulldog:

When did you first start participating in these meetings with other council members and the mayor? Having been out of the loop so long I don’t even know when the practice started.

Mike Martinez:

Ever since I came on council, actually before I even got on council. Once I was elected, that entire month leading up to the swearing in, I was in meetings constantly being prepared.

The Austin Bulldog:

But you weren’t even sworn in yet so you weren’t a public official that had to worry about any accountability for what you were doing. You were just going around getting snapped in.

So, basically, ever since you started serving on the council.

Mike Martinez:

The only thing I’ve known is that there is a standard process of weekly one-on-ones with each council member and the city manager. This is the template. This is the standard template for every council office is you have at least one meeting a week with each council member and the manager.

Now, outside of that template, depending on the issues you’re working on, it can be multiple meetings with any combination of members of the council and/or the city manager, and/or the city manager’s staff, but usually, as a standard format, those are the standing meetings we have once a week.

The Austin Bulldog:

So it’s just always been this way.

Mike Martinez:

As far as I know.

The Austin Bulldog:

And you got (elected in) 2006 was it?

Mike Martinez:

Yes Sir, May of 2006.

The Austin Bulldog:

What are the mayor and council members trying to accomplish, and the city manager because he’s involved in these too, are trying to accomplish by holding these round-robin meetings?

Mike Martinez:

You know, Ken, I don’t know this but I have to assume this happens in other deliberative bodies like the legislature and county commissioners (court). I can’t imagine not having discussions and meetings leading up to a policy decision. I couldn’t fathom that. We’d never get anything done here at City Hall.

I think the meetings are important and we do talk about where our differences lie. If there are some strong feelings and strong differences, the time to air those out and figure those out are in our one-on-ones and not necessarily on the dais.

We certainly reserve the right to change our mind or hold a stronger opinion on council (meeting) day, but I think for the most part, we work very well together. Some issues we remain divided (on): Water Treatment Plant 4, big controversial issue. We can meet to death and I think we’re going to stay four-to-three (in voting) on this thing, you know, all the way through.

That is a rarity. That’s not the norm around here but it does happen.

The Austin Bulldog:

Are the meetings completely private or do you have staff members in there to take notes or something?

Mike Martinez:

It just depends on the meeting. They are private in the sense that they are usually in one of our offices, but depending on the subject matter. So, if my chief of staff is working on an issue and I’m working with Council Member (Randi) Shade, he obviously has the most knowledgeable information. So, Council Member Shade brings in her aide working on the issue, I bring in mine, and we all four sit down and discuss it and they tell us what they’ve researched, what they’ve come up with, what they found in other cities. So, it just depends on the subject.

But, yes, it can be just…sometimes it’s just me and another council member. Sometimes it’s me and two other council members and all of our staff. Sometimes it’s me and the city manager, and an assistant city manager, and a department director. It just really depends on the issue and what we’re talking about.

The Austin Bulldog:

Do you take notes yourself about your conversations with other council members and the mayor?

Mike Martinez:

In fact I do, Ken. And you know what? I’ve saved every single meeting note since I’ve been elected, since day one.

The Austin Bulldog:

Wow.

Mike Martinez:

And this is the original book that I bought. All I do is I replace this and I time-stamp it with the start date and the end date and I have all of these books since the first day I got elected.

The Austin Bulldog:

How many books do you have like this?

Mike Martinez:

Heck, I don’t know, probably 10.

The Austin Bulldog:

For six years in a row?

Mike Martinez:

One, two, three, four, five; you know I take notes almost at every meeting. Obviously, there are a bunch of meetings that I don’t, but if I take notes they’re all in here and I’ve saved every one of them. So, I date them and I put who they are with, then I start taking notes, then I refer back to them when I have subsequent meetings.

It helps me remember what we discussed even if, without referring back to it, I can remember what I wrote down and I just think it’s…and for me it’s important to have a record of who I met with and what we discussed, and why, and where the issues were. That, to me, is really important.

The Austin Bulldog:

I take it, then, that these private discussions do help you make up your mind about the position you are going to take on things that you discuss. So like some hot little issues come down the line, like maybe the settlement of the, you know, that young man that was shot and his family sued.

Mike Martinez:

Yeah, the (Nathaniel) Sanders (II) case.

The Austin Bulldog:

The Sanders case, yeah. I imagine a hot-button issue like that would have to be something you might think about talking about.

Mike Martinez:

You know, that one, because it was so controversial and so much in the public realm, it was really different. I mean, I was the only council member that put out a public statement two weeks prior to the council meeting. I really felt like it was important to state my position and state why I reached this conclusion so that the public could see it.

Other council members chose not to talk about it until the day of (the council meeting). And to be quite honest with you, people did not know, including us on the dais, we did not know how some of our colleagues were going to vote until that very moment.

Again, that’s the rarity, but it did happen in this case. I think because it was so controversial, and I think because it was a very hard decision to make. They wanted to literally wait until they heard all of the testimony and that day of the council meeting to make their final decision.

You know, there are some times when we meet and a council member will make a commitment on, or just express that they’re leaning a certain way on an item, and then vote totally different on the dais. It could be because of new information, new testimony, just a total change of opinion since the last time we met. Again, that’s the rarity, but it has happened.

You know, obviously every one of us reserves the right to make a decision that’s different than what we talked about when the time comes to vote. But, in my opinion, I want my colleagues to know as much as they possibly can about where I lie on an issue, and the direction I’m leaning towards my vote. I don’t want them to walk out of my office wondering; man, what’s he thinking? I want us to be able to work together and if we have differences, the only way we’re going to be able to talk about them is for me to lay mine out on the table as well. So, I try to do that. I certainly try to do that in every case.

The Austin Bulldog:

The following thought, which is obvious after all that’s been said already, is that these meetings must give you a better understanding of other how other council members feel about the issue that you discuss.

Mike Martinez:

They do.

The Austin Bulldog:

Okay.

Mike Martinez:

A lot of times they do. But, Ken, obviously I would be remiss if I did not discuss what everybody knows that goes on. That is sometimes you know, or you intuitively have a feeling of where certain council members are going to lie on an issue so you don’t tip your hand, totally, as to what you’re working on, or what your plan is, one; because they’re probably going to be against is, or, two; because, you know,…

The Austin Bulldog:

So you might be playing a little poker in there.

Mike Martinez:

Absolutely. Everybody knows that goes on and, you know, we have to form coalitions, we have to gain the majority vote if we want our item to pass. So, there are some “strategery” that goes into that, if I can borrow President Bush’s term.

So, that stuff does go on. When I pick an item I think about what the item entails. I think about what I know about my colleagues and where their passions lie, and I selectively go to the co-sponsors based on who I think, one; would want to co-sponsor, two; would be the best co-sponsor, and three; be knowledgeable about the subject.

The Austin Bulldog:

So, basically I guess the next question is, obviously, do you reach any kind of agreement about where you and other council members stand on the issues. You said a minute ago yes, you do, but you reserve the right to think about it.

Mike Martinez:

Sure. I think probably the more appropriate word, other than agreement, is we reach an understanding.

The Austin Bulldog:

Okay. That’s a good…

Mike Martinez:

We can’t make an agreement except for on the dais. But we can certainly have a level of understanding and they can know where I’m leaning on an issue if I have strong feelings one way or another.

I think we do. We try to achieve that level of understanding so that on Thursday we can minimize the line of questioning, and the debate, and move forward through the agenda.

The Austin Bulldog:

Again, because of everything said before this, this is probably redundant. Do the other council members pretty much maintain their positions as expressed in these meetings, or do they sometimes vote differently than you thought they would. I think you already answered that. You said that you reserve the right to…

What kind of percentage? Is it rare when people change their vote?

Mike Martinez:

It is.

The Austin Bulldog:

Pretty frequent?

Mike Martinez:

It’s rare. I think what’s more significant is the issue. So, if it happens on a very serious, complicated issue that’s hotly debated, that’s going to mean more to me than it would on, you know, what color we paint a bridge in a park.

The Austin Bulldog:

So a hotly debated issue like what?

Mike Martinez:

It could be a zoning case. It could be a…

The Austin Bulldog:

Historic preservation?

Mike Martinez:

It could be something like that. It could be a new policy coming down that the city manager has worked with us on. Again, it’s so rare that I really can’t give direct examples. For me it means something if you’re going to make a commitment, or make a level of understanding and then change that at the last minute. I would want my colleagues to know if I were going to do that. I don’t think I’ve done that. I can’t say for sure, but I do not think I’ve ever switched a vote unbeknownst to my colleagues.

The Austin Bulldog:

Well, I guess the converse to that is; do other council members sometimes switch their vote? I think you’ve already spoke to that.

Talking to people about this, I’ve heard rumors, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but Bill (Spelman) is the wild card.

Mike Martinez:

I hesitate to go into that. I am not going to sit here and be critical of my colleagues. They reserve the right to make their decision at the very last second and I can’t take that right away from them. So, I can say that it has happened but it doesn’t happen often. But, I can also say that to those who conduct themselves that way it does go noticed, you know, as colleagues we notice that and it does have an impact on us.

The Austin Bulldog:

And, it does have an impact?

Mike Martinez:

I think it has an impact on how we handle further experiences down the line.

The Austin Bulldog:

When you get to the council meetings and you listen to what the staff and the citizens are saying about the issues…of course you probably already heard all the staff stuff but…the citizens, primarily, what they are saying about the issues you’ve discussed in these meetings? Do you sometimes hear any information that causes you to change your position based on what you learned at the council meetings?

Mike Martinez:

Yes. I think sometimes we do, but most of the citizens that come down to speak are the same citizens who requested meetings leading up to this council meeting. So typically it’s very rare that we would find just this shocking revelation that we didn’t know about. And, in the instances, I think, that I remember we didn’t necessarily change our position. In fact we didn’t take a position. What we typically do is postpone the item and drill further down into this new information that was given.

The Austin Bulldog:

Right, right, okay, rather than just settle the hash right there.

Mike Martinez:

Exactly, and rather than just take it as the gospel. I mean, I certainly don’t believe that people come down here to mislead us but when you have some shocking new revelation that holistically changes your position, I think the appropriate thing to do is get this, take this new set of information, determine whether it truly is what’s being presented, and then make your position later on.

I can remember that every now and then that happening and what we typically did in those cases was we said, you know what, this is new. I’m not going to vote for or against this today. I’m going to ask you all to help me postpone it. In fact, we just did it on the Holly Power Plant; just did it last week and I’ve got to go through that entire accordion folder of documents to try to get to a position by next Thursday.

The Austin Bulldog:

Have you ever had any second thoughts about engaging in these kinds of private meetings among the council members to discuss city business?

Mike Martinez:

Honestly, no. I guess I haven’t. I kind of feel like if we weren’t able to have these one-on-one meetings as colleagues, because of transparency, and because the public would want to know, I think it would be a detriment to government. I think it would make government worse. We have to be able to have our differences and work on those differences so that we can come to a position out in the public realm. I don’t know. I just think it’s healthier. I don’t second guess them or have any second thoughts about them.

The Austin Bulldog:

Have you ever raised a question of whether these kinds of meetings are appropriate, and if so, who answered the question? What did they say? It goes back to you inherited this system when you came on the council so, you know, did you ever say…?

Mike Martinez:

You know what? I never questioned whether they were appropriate, Ken. I did question whether they had any value.

The Austin Bulldog:

By what you said earlier you’ve determined that they have. They have value.

Mike Martinez:

They do, but I questioned at certain times whether or not there was value in it.

The Austin Bulldog:

You mean you still do.

Mike Martinez:

No, I have in the past. I’ll give you the direct example so that you can understand better what I’m talking about. So, it was no secret that (former city manager) Toby (Futrell) and I did not have the best of relationships among city manager and council member.

The Austin Bulldog:

Okay.

Mike Martinez:

So I, literally, sent her an e-mail saying I don’t think we need to meet. I know what you’re going to do. I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to hand me a script and you’re going to tell me to go out on the dais and say this. It made the paper. It made the (Austin American-) Statesman. You can research this e-mail chain. Because I felt like our budget process was a sham that year when I first got on council. I felt like there was a script wandering around and everybody was going to follow the script. And I literally told the city manager, “I don’t need to meet with you. I know what’s going to happen and we’re all going to get along, and we’re all going to say our part. It’s going to be a nice orchestrated play out there.” That was the time that I questioned whether there was any value in having the meeting.

The Austin Bulldog:

Have you ever refused to participate in these meetings?

Mike Martinez:

No. I guess you could take that one instance with City Manager. I mean, I didn’t refuse. I just said we don’t need to meet, and there are times when we all cancel meetings because of our schedules or we try to reschedule meetings, but not refusing to have them.

The Austin Bulldog:

Right. Things come up. You know, family…life happens, gets in the way of public business or any other kind of business.

Is there anybody else that you served with on the council that has ever refused to participate in these meetings? I mean as a matter of habit as opposed to that schedule conflict.

Mike Martinez:

I can’t say that they’ve refused. I can probably say it was noticeable how many meetings were being cancelled, but it wasn’t like it was any defiance or refusal to meet. It was just noticeable that the one-on-ones were frequently not held.

The Austin Bulldog:

Well, since you’ve not questioned it, you don’t know of anybody else that’s questioned it, having these meetings, the value of them, or the appropriateness of them, or whatever. So, that being the case, then, I guess my next question is moot then. Have you ever been provided legal guidance about these meetings to indicate whether or not they were appropriate?

Mike Martinez:

Yes, we actually have. The legal guidance is, obviously, that you can’t have a quorum; only three of you can meet. The other legal advice that we’re given is regarding e-mails. We can’t have an e-mail group with a majority of council in that e-mail group talking about an issue that can potentially become a policy decision at a later date. That’s a walking quorum. That’s a violation of Open Meetings Act. We’re very cognizant of that, very careful about that.

The Austin Bulldog:

You said something about you have had this legal guidance so was this written guidance, or was it…?

Mike Martinez:

We do. We have to go through training every year. As council members we are required by the Ethics Commission to go through training that teaches you about walking quorums and the opening meetings rules. We have to watch a video, and answer some questions, and we have to go through this certification process. So, yes, we do get training on it every year.

The Austin Bulldog:

Who conducts that?

Mike Martinez:

HR (Human Resources) Department, our city HR Department. They have the DVDs that they bring around and you have to sign a form that you’ve taken it.

The Austin Bulldog:

So it’s a DVD rather than…?

Mike Martinez:

Yes, you don’t go to a class or anything. No.

The Austin Bulldog:

Not a class, okay.

Mike Martinez:

You just watch, have to watch a video and…

The Austin Bulldog:

There’s an opinion floating around out there among some people, I don’t know whether it’s just malcontents or people that just don’t trust government. We talked about that earlier, you know, there is going to be a rising tide of people that just don’t trust anything coming to us, don’t even see the need for it sometimes. But, given that, is it possible that these meetings may be viewed by citizens as somehow being wrong, that you’re discussing city business in private instead of allowing the public to hear the issues debated in an open meeting?

Mike Martinez:

I’m sure you’ll find somebody that believes that. Do I believe it? No. We have to work together and we have to do business. Part of getting to a sound policy decision is, literally, brainstorming and throwing ideas out there that may never see the light of day.

But, with the reactionary things that you see in today’s political world, I mean, I think it would be virtually impossible to have all of these meetings open and available to the public because anything you might say as a proposal, not necessarily as a final product, would be turned into Twitter, Facebook, Talk Radio fodder, blog, you know.

So, I’m sure there are people that wish that all of our meetings were in public and that every meeting I have with my staff anybody could watch and it would be online. But, I don’t think that’s realistic. I just think it would be very, very difficult.

The Austin Bulldog:

In that regard, then, the following thought from that question is have you ever considered these meetings not violate the spirit, if not the intent, of the open meetings act?

Mike Martinez:

No, not until we started talking today. I don’t really see what we’re doing as an intentional violation of the spirit of the open meeting act. I think we’re trying to conduct business. We still have all of our subcommittee meetings and council meetings in public and a vote isn’t a vote until it’s taken at that public meeting. So, regardless of what position I may state to a reporter, or a writer, or journalist prior to the meeting, it’s meaningless until I vote and that’s the official open record and open discussion and debate to make that decision.

The Austin Bulldog:

Okay. Well, that was my last question, but I always ask an open-ended question; do you have anything to say that relates to any of this that we’ve been talking about?

Mike Martinez:

I think it’s interesting, kind of, that this is now a movement afoot to try to see if we may be doing something inappropriate, or we may need to be more transparent. I do think it’s part of that spirit of movement right now that is strongly questioning their government and that’s okay. It’s not a bad thing. That’s why I agreed to meet with you. I want to, not be silent on it.

The recording of this interview is subject to copyright © The Austin Bulldog 2011.

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