Naked City

Outside Council

City Manager Jesus Garza cited "very mixed emotions" in announcing the resignation of City Attorney Andy Martin last Wednesday, but left the precise composition of that mixture -- Sadness? Regret? Secret relief? -- a mystery in his otherwise accolade-heavy memo to the mayor and City Council. Citing several legal victories Martin spearheaded during his six years in the position -- the validation of the SOS Ordinance, the Supreme Court decision striking down water quality protection zones, the annexation of Gary Bradley's Circle C -- Garza wrote, "I have enjoyed working with Andy and know that he will be sorely missed."

Well, that depends on whom you talk to. At City Hall, Martin's fans may outweigh his detractors, but many outside that cozy circle have been disappointed by the city attorney's performance on numerous critical issues, including the (now-much-amended) Bradley bill, the city's (failed) eminent domain lawsuit seeking land for the Convention Center parking garage, and Martin's defense of the city's (again failed) attempt to scuttle a campaign finance reform petition in 1996.

A short sampling of Martin's follies:

° In 1999, the city attorney underestimated the cost of hiring outside counsel to negotiate Austin's long-term water deal with the Lower Colorado River Authority by around $100,000, but failed to notify the city (as required) that the total fee charged by outside firm Akin, Gump would increase. Because the city had hired the firm with the understanding that their fee would not exceed $39,000 -- then the limit on what the city could spend without a public hearing before the City Council -- the error meant that the negotiations that resulted in the $100 million water deal were not made public until months later, when the deal was nearly completed. When asked by Ken Martin of In Fact Daily why Akin, Gump was allowed to serve as counsel for nearly a year without billing the city, Martin had this to say: "I'm embarrassed … I didn't consciously decide not to do that; I just didn't. I goofed up." (Baloney, says SOS general counsel Bill Bunch, who filed an open records request seeking the billing records: "You don't deal with a huge law firm and then they forget to bill you for it for eight or nine months.")

° A process server hired by the city attorney's office to serve Harry Whittington and his family with notice of a lawsuit claiming eminent domain over their land, where the city wants to locate its Convention Center parking garage, failed to serve Whittington's wife and oldest daughter separately, costing the city the lawsuit -- and a $150,000 settlement. "It got all fouled up," Martin was quoted as saying.

° A bad thing could have been made worse thanks to a Martin error on this session's Bradley legislation, which would have created a special taxing district with eminent domain, debt issuing, and road building powers on land owned by Gary Bradley in Hays County. Martin held onto the bill for three weeks after Bradley sent it to him asking for council members' comments, saying, "I don't drop everything the second something from Mr. Bradley comes in." (SOS attorney Bunch has filed an open records request seeking to find out how much Martin knew in advance about the bill and when he knew it, but has had little luck in retrieving the documents even though the city's 10-day window for producing them has long expired.)

Critics also point out that outside counsel has played a crucial role in many, if not most, of the city's major legal victories in recent years. In fairness, that's not particularly unusual: Casey Dobson, a lawyer for Scott, Douglass, and McConnico who frequently represents the city, points out that most cities keep their in-house staff focused on the small stuff, bringing out the big guns for "big, complex cases" that require a lot of manpower. And money: Dobson's discounted rate, he says, is $230 an hour. Of Martin, Dobson says, he "has the most amazing capacity I've run across in 15 years of law practice to keep a multitude of very different tasks and ideas and things to do and problems in his mind. … He has what's got to be one of the hardest jobs in the city, and the city's going to miss him."

On the positive side: In his nearly seven years as city attorney, Martin has helped win many key cases for the city, including the 1995 Supreme Court decision upholding the SOS Ordinance protecting Austin's water quality. The city attorney also helped shut down numerous Austin-bashing laws passed in the 1995 and 1999 legislative sessions, including a bill allowing large landowners to form so-called water quality protection zones, in effect exempting themselves from Austin's environmental regulations. The city was also victorious in its suit against the Southwest Travis County Water District at Circle C, which placed much of "Bradleyville" outside Austin's jurisdiction. "Had the city ultimately lost that case, it would have unraveled the city's ability to annex Circle C," Martin says. "All that was backdrop for Mr. Bradley to decide to negotiate with the city" and ultimately strike a deal settling four Bradley water quality and land-use lawsuits early last year.

Unlike many cities, Austin does not elect its city attorney, so the task of finding a replacement to fill Martin's $123,052 shoes falls to City Manager Garza. For now, Martin's duties will be picked up by deputy city attorney Sedora Jefferson until a permanent replacement can be found. Martin, 50, has said he will probably go into private practice -- perhaps in land-use law, his area of specialty, or housing law, which he practiced before moving to Austin and taking a job as assistant city attorney in 1984.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Andy Martin, city attorney, Jesus Garza, Bill Bunch, Sedora Jefferson, Lower Colorado River Authority, Gary Bradley, Harry Whittington, convention center parking garage, Casey Dobson, SOS Ordinance, Southwest Travis County Water District, water quality protection zon

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