HomeCity of AustinCity CouncilCole On the Record About Private Meetings

Cole On the Record About Private Meetings

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Council Member Sheryl Cole Goes On the Record About Private Meetings

Second in a Series of Recorded Question and Answer Interviews

As reported by The Austin Bulldog January 25, County Attorney David Escamilla is reviewing a complaint about allegations 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. The Austin American-Statesman editorial published today announced Mayor Lee Leffingwell is reinstituting council work sessions to be held in posted open meetings and he is canceling the private meetings he has for years been holding with other council members.

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 with the council members that were conducted before breaking the story on January 25. The interviews are being published in the order in which they were conducted.

The complete 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.

Sheryl Cole
Sheryl Cole

Council Member Sheryl Cole was interviewed outdoors at Starbuck’s Coffee in the Mueller Commercial District on January 21, 2011. The recording runs 33 minutes 20 seconds. (The background noise in the recording is from passing traffic.)

The Austin Bulldog:
As I said in the e-mail that I requested the interview, I’m developing a story about how the city council develops policies. One thing that stands out in my mind is the council members are pretty transparent on how they spend their time on council duties. Four of the council members put their calendars online. Some don’t. I was wondering, why don’t you put your calendar online?

Sheryl Cole:
Well, I have three boys and a husband and a mom. I still take a lot of responsibility for them from soccer to doctor appointments. It just has not been possible for me to keep a separate calendar of those activities.

The Austin Bulldog:
It seems like from looking at the other council members’ calendars that they post online that you all are spending a lot of time coordinating, meeting each other to work on city business. It seems like you’re making a big effort to plan, coordinate, and things like that. What I’m interested in, what sort of things do you all talk about in those one-on-one meetings with council members and with the mayor?

Sheryl Cole:
Well, a lot of times you talk about the resolutions that you have brought forward and that you are planning to bring forward. Usually, whatever you’ve discussed with the city manager or the…

The Austin Bulldog:
Yeah, that’s right. What about the city manager?

Sheryl Cole:
Well, we have one-on-ones with each other but we also have one-on-ones with the city manager. Usually, he’s talking about initiatives that the staff wants to bring or are interested in. We’re talking about initiatives that we work on. So, when we meet with each other we’re kind of talking about the same issues.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. When did you first begin participating in these one-on-ones with the mayor and the city council and the manager?

Sheryl Cole:
As far as I remember, since I’ve been on council in 2006.

The Austin Bulldog:
So you came along at the same time Mike Martinez did?

Sheryl Cole:
Uh-hum.

The Austin Bulldog:
Is this a long-standing practice then? I mean since you all started you both said the same thing. That kind of thing was already going on.

Sheryl Cole:
As far as I know. Right.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. What are you all trying to accomplish by holding these round-robin meetings? For example, is it to avoid having big fights in public or what?

Sheryl Cole:
You don’t think we have enough big fights in public? I mean what are we trying to accomplish? Usually, the one-on-ones, I think they’re more for you to…it’s your personal time with an individual council member. Because rarely…I mean we don’t do them every week. We usually only do them I guess once about every other week or when we have a council meeting. So, the number one thing I think we’re trying to accomplish is relationship building.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. Anything else that sticks out in your mind about that?

Sheryl Cole:
No. I mean you sometimes discuss big policy issues from a 30,000 feet high approach.

The Austin Bulldog:
From 30,000 feet?

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. From 30,000 feet. You know, kind of, how is the comprehensive plan going, Sheryl?

The Austin Bulldog:
How is the comprehensive plan (going)?

Sheryl Cole:
Because it’s not on the agenda, you know? We sit on subcommittees. I mean we really don’t know what the other council members are working on. In particular, items that might come through subcommittee. Like I didn’t know what was going on with the social service contracts. You don’t want to have to vote on something that big and not have any input in the process.

The Austin Bulldog:
Exactly. Okay. All right. That’s great. Are these meetings completely private, just the office holders and the manager? Does anybody take notes?

Sheryl Cole:
Let’s see. I don’t think all of us do it the same. I meet mostly just one-on-ones just me and the city manager and me and the other council members. Sometimes I meet with the mayor and (Council Member) Bill (Spelman) together. But I don’t always do that. I mean sometimes the mayor and I have some issues that Bill isn’t that interested in, like transportation.

The Austin Bulldog:
So you meet sometimes with the mayor?

Sheryl Cole:
Well, you just never know. I could get a call right now and I’ve got to go talk to (Council Member) Randi (Shade). I guess I’m trying to say we talk more than just those meetings and I don’t want to see you just make a big deal out of those meetings.

The Austin Bulldog:
But those kinds of meetings are probably not recorded on those calendars that others are (publishing). What I’ve looked at on there, they’re one-on-ones almost always.

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. Yeah. Those are standard because they’re hard to get scheduled.

The Austin Bulldog:
But you do talk outside of that?

Sheryl Cole:
Oh, of course. Of course.

The Austin Bulldog:
Do you take notes at these meetings?

Sheryl Cole:
No, I generally don’t. If it’s about an agenda item I will. Usually I’ll put notes in the corner about an agenda item.

The Austin Bulldog:
Like scratch it on the agenda itself?

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah.

The Austin Bulldog:
I was wondering, (Mayor Pro Tem) Mike Martinez said he’s been keeping notes ever since he came into office and he’s got a whole bunch of spiral notebooks.

Sheryl Cole:
Oh, about the meetings you mean?

The Austin Bulldog:
Yeah, about these meetings. He takes notes on all of them.

Sheryl Cole:
The one-on-ones?

The Austin Bulldog:
That’s what he gave me the impression.

Sheryl Cole:
I do sometimes take notes for the city manager. It’s not notes of what he said. It’s more like Texas Relays. It’s to remind me I need to talk to him about Texas Relays, stuff like that. Or I have a list with (Council Member) Randi (Shade) (discussing) social services, auditor.

The Austin Bulldog:
But you’re not writing down things that you all are saying at the meetings?

Sheryl Cole:
No.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. Do these discussions help you make up your mind about the position you’re going to take?

Sheryl Cole:
Do they help? Yeah, I wouldn’t say they don’t help. Yeah. Yeah, they help. Yes. I mean you maybe have to think about it, but they help.

The Austin Bulldog:
All right. So I assume these meetings give you a better understanding of the issues that you discuss. I mean like you said, you’re not keeping track of what somebody else is…

Sheryl Cole:
Not to the same depth. I mean I wouldn’t say that any of us are…like, I know that they’re considering the social service contracts. I know that they’re trying to bring it in line with, say, our affordable housing policy. But which agencies are going to be impacted and how much, I don’t know that. Or who’s been to see who about what, I don’t know that.

The Austin Bulldog:
Right. Okay. So these meetings help you to understand that.

Sheryl Cole:
Oh yeah. Because one particular agency will want to get on my calendar. I don’t want to meet with them until I talk to the members of the Health and Human Services Committee because I don’t want…

The Austin Bulldog:
To get background.

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. I don’t want to be saying…you know, because they know more.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. Right. Right. Of course they do, that’s their baby. Do you reach any kind of agreement about where you and other council members stand on the issues you discuss.

Sheryl Cole:
An agreement? No. No.

The Austin Bulldog:
I mean sort of a meeting of the minds?

Sheryl Cole:
I mean I’ve said…

The Austin Bulldog:
I mean they fill you in, you fill them in on things that you know about.

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. I mean we talk about what we’re hearing, what we’re thinking, what we read, that kind of thing. “Have you seen the backup (material)?” I’ll say, “I thought the backup said this.” They say, “No, it didn’t. It said that.” “Well wait a minute.” That kind of thing. So, we do exchange information, I would say.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. Do other council members pretty much maintain their positions as expressed to you in these meetings? Or do they sometimes vote differently than you thought they would?

Sheryl Cole:
Oh, of course they do. I vote differently than what I said in a meeting.

The Austin Bulldog:
Give me an example.

Sheryl Cole:
It could be anything. I don’t think I knew what I was going to do on the recycling contract. I mean that’s a good example.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. Until what? Until you got to the council meeting and heard what? I mean is that what you’re saying?

Sheryl Cole:
Oh yeah. Or even when you look at something like the transportation bonds.

The Austin Bulldog:
Another big issue.

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. But when that resolution was first brought…and it wasn’t the resolution to go to the voters with the final package. It was the resolution to create the bond committee. I had no idea until I got there that morning and heard some of the amendments.

The Austin Bulldog:
And heard what?

Sheryl Cole:
Some of the amendments on the dais. … That can change everything.

The Austin Bulldog:
When you get to the council meetings and you listen to what staff and citizens are saying about the issues that you’ve previously discussed in these meetings, do you sometimes hear new information that causes you to change your position based on what you learned at the council meeting?

Sheryl Cole:
Oh sure. Yes.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. I guess that goes back to what you were saying before that sometimes you vote differently than what you said in the meeting.

Sheryl Cole:
Right. I mean we went into executive session on (the) Holly (Power Plant contract) just last week. We were really trying to listen to all the issues to decide whether to postpone it or throw out all the bids. Then, we ultimately decided that council needed to take a closer look. I mean I didn’t know how I was going to land in it. You know, a lot depended on what staff said not only in open session but also in executive session.

The Austin Bulldog:
Have you ever had any second thoughts about engaging in these private meetings amongst council members to discuss city business?

Sheryl Cole:
Second thoughts? Why would I?

The Austin Bulldog:
I understand that some people occasionally might question the process. Have you ever questioned the process of having private meetings with the council members, with the mayor, or with the city manager?

Sheryl Cole:
No. I’ve never formally questioned that. No. I’ve never questioned that.

The Austin Bulldog:
Have you ever raised the question of whether these kinds of meetings are appropriate? I guess what I’m getting at here is there’s the Open Meetings Act. That’s sort of what’s underlying some of this. The Open Meetings Act has requirements. You all get trained on that, right?

Sheryl Cole:
Right. But these don’t violate the Open Meetings Act.

The Austin Bulldog:
How do you see the Open Meetings Act as applying to these kinds of meetings? I mean in other words, you’re having them, is there anything about the general idea of meeting among council members, the mayor, that you know that you have to avoid?

Sheryl Cole:
The Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of the council, which would be four members from deliberating about public issues. Our one-on-ones with just one single council member does not run afoul of that. I can’t imagine how we could govern a city of 750,000 with only seven of us and not be able to talk to each other on an individual basis.

The Austin Bulldog:
So you’ve never objected to these private meetings and you’ve never refused to participate in any of these meetings, is that what I understand?

Sheryl Cole:
Right.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. What kind of legal guidance about the Open Meetings Act have you been provided?

Sheryl Cole:
Besides the training that you already know about?

The Austin Bulldog:
Yeah. (Mayor Pro Tem) Mike (Martinez) told me that he watches a video.

Sheryl Cole:
We all have to watch it.

The Austin Bulldog:
One of his council aides just this morning sent me a copy of a memo that (then City Manager) Toby Futrell put out in July of 2006, which would have been right after you took office. That said that the new law requires you to do this every year and you have to watch the video and then you have to get a certificate. Is that when you found out about it?

Sheryl Cole:
I’m a lawyer, Ken.

The Austin Bulldog:
I know. I don’t know how you practice.

Sheryl Cole:
I practiced municipal law for the Texas Municipal League for six years.

The Austin Bulldog:
Oh, I didn’t know that.

Sheryl Cole:
So in addition to those meetings I guess I’ve had … I am familiar with the Open Meetings law.

The Austin Bulldog:
I didn’t realize that you had had that background. Okay. All right. Do you think it is 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?

Sheryl Cole:
I have not heard a citizen complain about that.

The Austin Bulldog:
Do you think that the citizens know? I mean they do if they’re reading the online calendars of the council members that post them. But do you think that most citizens even know about them?

Sheryl Cole:
Most citizens? … I have no way to know that. I mean I’ve never had a person say anything to me. I have no idea how prevalent that knowledge is.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. That’s fair. If nobody’s said anything to you, you wouldn’t know. But see, that’s certainly the underlying question here. How much do people know about their government? Some people, they don’t care at all. … I think when they care is when you all do something that makes them mad. Then of course they come down there calling you…

Sheryl Cole:
Well, there’s also the view that I actually think is more prevalent, which is that they’re not dissatisfied. They’re satisfied. Maybe we’re saying the same things. So, if we were really messing up they’d throw us out.

The Austin Bulldog:
Yeah. I mean like the year, back in the day when the council passed, without vote of the public, domestic partners insurance. You didn’t know about that?

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah, I do. I do. I do.

The Austin Bulldog:
Oh yeah. Then the citizens … the conservatives rose up and got a petition and put it on the ballot.

Sheryl Cole:
That’s when my friend Mary Arnold lost. Otherwise she wouldn’t have.

The Austin Bulldog:
So people went down over that.

Sheryl Cole:
Exactly.

The Austin Bulldog:
It’s the kind of thing that can change the council the next time an election comes around. To keep pursuing this one point that seems fruitless at this point, because I think you’ve explained yourself pretty well. Have you ever considered that these kinds of meetings may violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Meetings Act? The spirit being that public business should be deliberated in public?

Sheryl Cole:
We do deliberate public business in public. I don’t think these meetings violate the Open Meetings Act.

The Austin Bulldog:
Well, it goes back to the question of whether you arrive at a position…let’s say that you meet with any other council member. You all discuss whatever you discuss in these one-on-ones and because of the discussion that you had you get a sense of where that council member stands on any issue, particularly on big issues. Whatever. It doesn’t really make any difference if they’re big issues or not, except in the sense of whether they’re on the consent agenda or not. But anything that’s not on the consent agenda when it’s called up by the mayor to be considered, whether you’re going to put a motion on it or whatever. … Do you generally know how the other council members are going to react to that item on the agenda?

Sheryl Cole:
You never know how somebody’s going to vote until they vote. You just don’t. You don’t know what a particular staff member has brought to the council on the dais. You don’t know what e-mail has been sent from some organization. Because that happens to us. So, I mean the process of gathering information…I think I meet with (Council Member) Chris (Riley) or somebody on Tuesday and I won’t see them again until Thursday morning. So, the amount of time that it takes…because, see, that’s seven hours worth of time. Over a three day period, in our world, that’s a long time. We get texts, we get calls, we get e-mails, our staff gets the same plumb up to the time we vote. So, you don’t know for sure. If you did, that would just be a miracle. … But I’m just saying you don’t know who you’re going to get a text an e-mail from whose opinion you really value that you haven’t received yet that can make a major impact on your vote.

The Austin Bulldog:
That’s a really good point. That brings up the whole question…because this came up in Williamson County. I didn’t cover this, but there was a journalist that was doing some background research for The (Austin) Bulldog. This was months and months ago. She was saying that during the commissioner’s court meeting of Williamson County that the commissioners all had laptops in front of them. She was convinced that they were communicating back and forth on their laptops while the meeting was going on when they should have been listening and they should not have been communicating with each other on the QT, so to speak, because the public wasn’t aware. They could see them using the computer but they didn’t know what they were doing. Does that kind of stuff go on at the council meeting? Like, you get a text, you don’t turn your phone off. … [D]o you ever get e-mails or texts while you’re actually on the dais?

Sheryl Cole:
Oh yeah, we get e-mails and texts while we’re on the dais. … It’s a city (computer) system so it’s open. … We get Internet. … There’s no difference between the computer system we have on the dais and the one that we have at our office. Other than…you know, we have access to the mics and the camera. … We have to have the mics to vote. Then you can also watch. You know, that’s interesting because people really don’t realize that. When we’re looking at the screen and not looking at them, we’re looking at them on the screen. … You can get a closer view. You can pull it in. Like if they put a zoning map up you can do more with it to see what’s going on.

The Austin Bulldog:
Oh, okay. So you could get an e-mail to [email protected]?

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah, from Mary Arnold.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay. You get those during the council meeting?

Sheryl Cole:
Oh yeah.

The Austin Bulldog:
Wow. That must be a pain. … I never realized that you could actually be getting e-mails from the public while you’re on the dais. I would want to turn that off.

Sheryl Cole:
I do. I’m one of the ones that would.

The Austin Bulldog:
I guess that’d make some people mad though, wouldn’t it?

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. That would make them more mad than this. Because they want access.

The Austin Bulldog:
Okay.

Sheryl Cole:
You get it right up until you vote. Sometimes we get it after we vote because they didn’t like it and they’re watching it.

The Austin Bulldog:
Well, that’s basically all my questions. … Is there anything else you’d like to add about any of this? … In talking to other people about this, my impression is that in general people don’t know that this is going on.
It came to my mind because I went to (Council Member) Randi (Shade’s) fundraiser and I went to (Council Member) Laura (Morrison’s). When Randi was making her spiel over at Mercury Hall, she said something like she claimed that she was the first one to start putting her calendars online and now some of the other council members are doing it. So, I wanted to see what that was about.

Sheryl Cole:
Does she put her personal stuff on there?

The Austin Bulldog:
No. All these are only city business.

Sheryl Cole:
Well, then you’ve got the opposite question. How much time does that take? Does everybody want to pay for it?

The Austin Bulldog:
I’m sorry?

Sheryl Cole:
Then you have the flip side of that question, how much time does that take to put it on an e-mail system?

The Austin Bulldog:
Well, somebody in your office is keeping a calendar for you, right? I mean because it’s public information.

Sheryl Cole:
Yeah. They can request it. But I guess I don’t know enough about technology and I should stay away from that. I just don’t know. To me, keep making it public would take more staff time. … So then you get into the question of do all the citizens want to pay for that?

The Austin Bulldog:
I got you. Okay. Well, thank you very much for your time.

Sheryl Cole:
All right. Good to see you. Bye.

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

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