The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Still Unsettled

The Sanders saga, set to close before a changed council

By Wells Dunbar, August 26, 2011, News

One year and one election later, it looks like City Coun­cil has the votes to settle the lawsuit brought over the police shooting death of Nathaniel Sanders II, today, Thursday, Aug. 25.

Item 82, sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo, would direct the city manager to execute a settlement between the city of Austin and the Sanders family. Sanders was fatally shot by (now former) Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana in the early hours of May 11, 2009. Sanders was allegedly asleep in the car when Quintana roused him; seeing a gun in his waistband, Quintana shot Sanders and another occupant, Sir Smith. Without Quintana's dashboard camera running, no footage of the incident between Quintana and Sanders exists. (See "Nathaniel and Li'l Nate," May 29, 2009.)

Under such charged but murky circumstances, any action to settle would have proven divisive; the Sanders family's attorney Adam Loewy made his own job more difficult by depicting the settlement as amounting to an admission of guilt on the city's part. When a settlement motion came to council July 29, 2010, the whole thing collapsed. Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, Chris Riley, and Randi Shade voted against the $750,000 settlement, and a substitute motion from Riley and Shade to settle at $500,000 garnered only their own support – still too much money for Martinez and Leffing­well, who preferred the case go to trial, and unacceptable to the three votes on the council (Cole, Morrison, and Bill Spelman) who unsuccessfully attempted to settle at the original amount.

Fast-forward to a year later, and following Tovo's defeat of Shade, there are four votes to settle at $750,000 (the three sponsors, plus Spelman). Cole, who took the decision not to settle very personally (supporting Tovo in her bid to unseat colleague Shade, for starters), remained relatively tight-lipped about the agreement when the Hustle spoke with her. "It's time to close this chapter in Austin's history – where there's been no villains or heroes – and move forward," she says. "This litigation has and continues to be costly as we prepare for trial. ... A trial is a risk – it is a roll of the dice, and settlement guarantees a sum certain that the city has to pay." She emphasizes that "it is not a reflection of the innocence or guilt of our officers," noting that "we make settlements almost weekly.

"The community needs to heal," she sums up. "I hope to bring an end to this chapter and move forward."

Those votes opposing settlement – Leffingwell and Martinez – held that a trial instead of a settlement would engender greater reconciliation by getting everything out on the table. As Martinez wrote last year while announcing that he would oppose the settlement, a trial "would move the community toward hearing all of the facts and advance the goal of understanding how to prevent future occurrences. ... Settling this case does not get us any closer to that place, and I do not think it is prudent to debate the issue without addressing the larger issues at hand that are much more vital to this community."

"The fundamental reasons I opposed it the first time haven't changed, so I don't anticipate my vote changing," Martinez told us this week. Referring to his statement from last summer, he said, "those points are still valid today." He added that "the amount of the settlement offer is not consistent with what we've discussed in terms of previous settlements and the circumstances and facts surrounding the case." How the $750,000 figure came into being has become an increasingly prominent backstory. "Other than us having a conversation about a certain settlement range" in executive session – Martinez recalls "the high end was $750,000 [and] the low end was something like $350,000" – he notes "there was never a specific amount discussed" and that he didn't learn the final amount Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald offered in negotiations until it occurred.

That said, Martinez adds: "I totally understand why some people want to revisit this and see if there can be some closure added to it – and they certainly have that right. ... I just believe that the facts surrounding the case haven't changed, so I can't see how it would change my position."

While the facts may not have changed, the votes have. Hopefully the settlement can bring closure to one of the most divisive chapters in local history – one that's already altered the course of council, and perhaps the city in general. But let's be cautious not to sweep this sad saga's broader lessons under the rug: what those with the will and ability can do to provide opportunity to all citizens of Austin, regardless of class, age, or race.

The Hustle will be tweeting from City Council chambers Thursday. Follow @CityHallHustle.

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