HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) – It’s not often you see a city council member showing off a sworn ethics complaint— just inches away from the fellow council member he’s accused of misconduct.
But, it happened Thursday night in Hutto.
“Mayor, before we start, I have a slight addition I need to make,” Councilmember Tanner Rose said at the start of the meeting. “I’m going to be requesting an official ethics review into councilwoman Patti Martinez’s wedding that took place on June 22.”
Rose handed the notarized complaint to the city secretary.
“We’ll have to address that at a future meeting,” Hutto Mayor Doug Gaul said in response to Rose’s announcement, “We’ll have to get the Ethics Committee to meet.”
That complaint is now on its way to the city’s Ethics Review Commission for a formal investigation. It all has to do with questions over how city councilwoman Patti Turner-Martinez was able to hold her wedding at a new multi-million dollar park the city hadn’t yet opened to the public.
Turner-Martinez told KXAN “No, thank you,” during a break in Thursday night’s council meeting when asked for comment on the ethics complaint.
The city’s newest park is tucked along the banks of Brushy Creek. Pecan trees line the banks and stand tall over the grassy lawn surrounding the park’s pavilion. On June 22, Councilwoman Turner-Martinez’s family and friends gathered there to celebrate her wedding.
Photographs and videos posted to Turner-Martinez’s personal Facebook page on June 22 and June 23 prove the wedding happened at the new park. One video shows children dancing under the pavilion and tables of food set up on tables.
The park wasn’t yet open to the public.
The official park opening wasn’t announced until 11 days after Turner-Martinez’s wedding. The announcement happened during the July 3 Hutto City Council meeting.
“Are we at a point where that’ll be open to the public after tomorrow?” Councilman Peter Gordon asked Hutto City Manager Odis Jones at the time.
“Yeah, I think—thanks for bringing that up,” Jones said, “Moving forward, it’ll be open from dusk to dawn [sic].”
The city posted a Facebook video on July 16 — 23 days after Turner-Martinez’s wedding — to announce the official opening of the Brushy Creek park.
During our investigation, we obtained a July 11 email where a woman asked the city’s Recreation Coordinator, Daniel Roque, about using the park pavilion area for her October wedding. The same day, the city emailed the woman back, telling her she couldn’t use the public park for her wedding.
“Unfortunately, we do not have permission to rent out anything at Hutto Park @ Brushy Creek. The company who runs the amphitheater is still scheduling out all of their events so we are unable to rent out before they finish. We do have Fritz Park Pavilion if that is something you would be interested in,” Roque wrote in the email.
The Roque email denying the woman the use of the park was written 21 days after Roque accepted a $125 rental fee from Councilwoman Turner-Martinez on June 20. The city provided Turner-Martinez’s rental application for the wedding and the application lists Roque’s name in the “prepared by” line.
The application shows Turner-Martinez reserved “Pavilion A” for five hours the morning of June 22 for “Patty [sic] Turner’s Wedding.”
On July 23 — one month after Councilwoman Turner-Martinez’s wedding — the city told a second taxpayer the Brushy Creek park was not available for wedding rentals. The taxpayer posted the question in the comment section of the city’s July 16 Facebook video, announcing the opening of the park to the public.
“Will the pavilions be available for rental? This would be a beautiful park for small weddings,” the woman asked the city. “Right now, the pavilions are not available for rental/reservation, but we’ll update if that changes,” Hutto’s Public Information Office wrote in response.
‘We made a mistake’
“I understand that you want to try to have a story be made out of this, but really the story is that we have a new employee to make a mistake. Poor guy, he’s only been with the city for a couple months. He doesn’t set policy for the city — I do,” Hutto City Manager Odis Jones told KXAN, referring to Roque.
Jones called the July 11 Roque email a “miscommunication.” Jones would not answer questions about who instructed the employee to pass along the message about the park being unavailable for rent.
Jones also would not answer questions about why his city’s public information office told another taxpayer the same thing in the July 23 Facebook post — or who instructed that office to relay that message about the park’s availability.
“I know you’re trying to make an issue of this, but as I’ve said before, I am aware that we had a new employee who’s a part-time seasonal employee — poor kid out of college — who made a mistake and sent some communication,” Jones said.
“I think if two people are giving the same message then it’s probably what the message was supposed to be,” Rose told KXAN in response to the city’s explanation.
Turner-Martinez would not agree to be interviewed as part of this report, but told KXAN in a July 29 email that she “was not aware anyone had been told they were not able to use the venue.”
“There was a misunderstanding with a temporary staff member, which has been corrected,” Turner-Martinez wrote. Turner-Martinez was referring to Roque and the July 11 email. The city confirmed to KXAN Roque is a permanent employee and still employed with the city.
We contacted Jones and his public information officer, Emily Parks, on July 29 asking about the councilwoman’s use of the park and the city denying taxpayers the same use. Within a few hours, Parks emailed the woman who asked to rent the park on July 11, telling her the park was now available for rental.
Parks’ office also went back to the July 16 Facebook post to tell that taxpayer the city’s “information is incorrect,” and the park “is open and available to rent by the public on a first come, first served basis.” The city later edited that update, striking the word “rent” from the city’s Facebook comment.
City records show since the beginning of 2019, the public filed 215 city park rental applications through July 30. Those rentals are for the city’s five other park properties. The list shows Turner-Martinez is the only person to have used the Hutto Park at Brushy Creek pavilion for a personal event.
“I understand, Jody, that you’re trying to make a gotcha moment and have a big event here, there’s really not. I think it’s sad when you get outside of real journalism — this is — it’s not a gotcha moment, we had an employee that made a mistake,” Jones told KXAN investigative reporter Jody Barr.
“She’s not getting any special treatment,” Jones added.
Formal complaint filed
Councilman Rose handed the city secretary the notarized complaint during Thursday night’s council meeting. Rose sits directly beside Turner-Martinez on the dais.
“You can’t say ‘Hey, it’s not a big deal, so it’s OK to turn a blind eye,'” Rose told KXAN, explaining his reasons for asking the city’s Ethics Review Commission to investigate whether Turner-Martinez broke the city’s ethics ordinances.
Rose believes Turner-Martinez violated the city’s standard of conduct section of the city’s code of ordinances. The law is designed to prevent city officials from using their offices for personal benefit.
“It hadn’t been officially opened for the public to use yet,” Rose said. “We all have the same access that anyone else does. So, we shouldn’t try to use any of our positions to gain any additional access or special privileges to that. The minute we walk off that dais and go back to our normal lives, we’re just like anyone else in the community.”
Rose’s complaint quoted this section of the code as the specific city code he believes Turner-Martinez violated.
“I would like to have a formal review and investigation into the timing of the events and whether there are any ethics violations. I would like to know how access was given to the park. Who granted such authorization? How did the council member know the park was available when it still doesn’t show available on the website?” Rose wrote in the complaint.
Tanner also questioned how the city arrived at the $125 rental fee it charged Turner-Martinez, pointing out that council had yet to approve those fees for Hutto Park at Brushy Creek.
“It’s serious. If the perception is someone took advantage of that, then that’s the reality we need to deal with, and we need to look at it. And, it could potentially be a big deal that needs to be looked at,” Rose said.
The city secretary has until Aug.6 to formally notify Turner-Martinez, the city attorney, outside counsel and the Ethics Review Commission of the complaint and provide each with a certified copy of the allegations. The city has until Aug. 15 to set a preliminary hearing on the complaint. If the city does not hold a hearing by Aug. 29, it must explain the delay to Rose, according to the city’s code of ordinances.
The city has a maximum of 60 days, or until Oct. 1, to hold the preliminary hearing, according to the city’s ordinance detailing the commission’s hearing process. The hearing could result in a dismissal of the complaint or the commission could send it on to a final hearing if it finds “there are reasonable grounds to believe that a violation of this article has occurred,” the city’s ordinance shows.
If the ethics commission determines a violation occurred, it could recommend one of four options: file a written notice of violation against the violator, issue a letter of admonition, issue a reprimand or censure the official if the “commission finds that a serious or repeated violation(s),” the city’s codebook shows.
A reprimand or censure would be published in the “city’s official newspaper and shall be sent to the city council,” the code book shows.