City Hall Hustle: Involuntary Blood Drive

Council creates a new jail blood policy ... then raises its own eyebrows

What you don't know can hurt you: Just ask the City Coun­cil. At its Sept. 25 meeting two weeks back, council members considered Item 43, approving a $5 million "Interlocal Agreement for Booking and Related Services" between the city and Travis County.

Just not too closely.

The item was unanimously passed on consent. But buried beneath the innocuous legalese was a controversial provision which caught council off guard, after the fact: Item 43 sets aside space in the Travis County Jail for "blood draws" from arrestees suspected of driving under the influence, a program rife with a welter of medical, safety, and privacy issues and one which would undoubtedly benefit from public deliberation.

Most items before the council arrive with backup, the attached documentation spelling out each item's effect in full. Not Item 43; even on the archived meeting agenda, it still lacks any backup. "We adopted this without any language in the backup," Mike Martinez said at the beginning of their Oct. 2 meeting, a week following the vote. "And in fact, we didn't get the language of the interlocal agreement until two days ago, five days after we adopted it." Moreover, Martinez, who chairs the council's Public Safety Task Force, said the unwitting decision was "a significant policy shift, in that it spoke to a potential phlebotomist doing blood draws ... a major policy shift that had no public scrutiny, no public input, and no council scrutiny." Having realized his error, Martinez e-mailed City Manager Marc Ott's office "requesting that we not sign that interlocal agreement, repost it, allow for public scrutiny and comment, and then if we vote for it, we move forward. ... I'm very concerned that we adopt an interlocal agreement with a major policy shift, and nobody knew about it."

Debbie Russell of the local chapter of the ACLU was incensed about the unwitting approval of space for blood draws, a measure the union has been tracking for some time with deep concern. Calling the agreement "too vague," Russell says "without more clear guidance, we are concerned how this room will be used. In the past, APD has publicly discussed seeking grant funding for training officers to draw blood, which raises concerns about civil rights violations, forced blood draws in an isolated jail cell, and liability for both the city of Austin and Travis County." Indeed, all the agreement calls for is a city-provided "medical technician/phlebotomist" and a "sanitary" space with "storage [for] necessary equipment and supplies."

"Austin City Council should remedy this situation by retroactively amending the agreement to indicate appropriate uses for the blood-draw room," Russell writes.

Ah, if it were only that easy: After Martinez proposed the city ixnay the interlocal agreement, he continued that he "was told by a senior staff member that I should not be doing things like that, and in the future I should use the normal council process – meaning put an item from the council, let four council members vote for it. That's what we do.

"I believe it's my absolute right and responsibility to make that request when the process is that flawed," Martinez continued. "I understand the city manager has acknowledged that it's flawed. And it won't happen again." But pledges to fix the "flawed process" aside, Martinez wants more assurance council won't get blindsided again – so he says he'll be "working with staff on process improvements that are clearly outlined and defined and if need be that are codified so that we don't have this happen again."

Russell proposed one fix to the Hustle: "Further, council should take steps to codify this longstanding disclosure problem so that all meeting items have the finalized backup – and not merely 'placeholder language' – attached 72 hours prior so that we clearly comply with the state's Open Meetings Act and so the public and council both have time to vet it."

And as for the actual blood-draw agreement? With the majority of council out of town as of this writing, on a trip to Vancouver, Canada, with members from the Chamber of Commerce, it's hard to get a straight answer. Plus there's the question of whether the city can unilaterally alter an agreement with the county, after the fact. But one thing's for certain – council needs to fix its flawed posting policies to flush out the bad blood.

The Hustle hears ya: wells@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Travis County Jail, Mike Martinez

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