As a high-stakes race for the Orange County Board of Supervisors enters its final days, Democratic candidate Michele Martinez is drawing flak for meeting absences, lucrative public stipends, and luxury travel on the taxpayers’ dime.
Martinez, a Santa Ana councilwoman running for the 1st District seat, has missed nearly all of the meetings for committees she serves on as the city’s representative at Southern California’s main water agency, records show.
She’s also been collecting $50-per-month payments from the city for short Housing Authority meetings that frequently last for just seconds. And this summer, she and other members of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) board stayed in high-end hotels in Europe, and received more than $1,000 in stipends during a taxpayer-funded trip to study transportation systems.
These details were first revealed in a post last weekend by the OC Political blog and have become fodder for incumbent Supervisor Andrew Do, her opponent in the 1st District race.
“Michele Martinez was busy vacationing in London and Milan – at taxpayers’ expense – instead of addressing Santa Ana’s homeless crisis,” said Do’s chief re-election strategist, John Thomas, in a news release from the campaign this past weekend.
Martinez declined a Voice of OC interview request Wednesday, saying she was “tied up in work meetings all day.”
Late in the day, she emailed a statement that addressed only the European trip criticism. She said that as president of the SCAG board, the trip, which was paid for by the federal government, was valuable because it helped her better understand public transportation systems.
“The trip to Europe was paid for by a federal grant in order to explore ways to reduce traffic in Southern California,” Martinez said in her statement. “Had I not gone, the grant would have likely funded the travel of a non-Orange County representative.”
Martinez did not respond to follow-up requests for an interview.
During the week-long Europe trip, she and other SCAG delegates stayed at London’s Mondrian at Sea Containers hotel, which is promoted as a five-star hotel, and Milan’s four-star NH Collection Milano President Hotel. Delegates’ accommodations were estimated to cost an average of $260 per night per person, with an additional per-diem of $285 per day for each delegate, according to SCAG records reviewed by Voice of OC.
Good government expert Tracy Westen said sometimes there are reasons officials on taxpayer-funded trips stay at a better hotel, such as meetings or a conference taking place there, or less expensive accommodations not being available.
At the same time, he said, “anytime you use taxpayer money, the watchword usually is, be conservative, conserve money. It’s not yours.”
Thomas Gordon, a longtime Santa Ana activist who serves on the Orange County Republican Central Committee, said he’s disappointed.
“I think it’s sad. We’ve got hundreds of people [who are] sleeping outside on the streets of Santa Ana every single night…and Michele Martinez is taking a taxpayer-paid jauntlet over to London and Milan…she’s staying in the best of the best hotel,” Gordon said in an interview.
“Do we know what she even learned?” he asked. “What good does that do to the taxpayer of the city of Santa Ana?”
While Martinez avoided being interviewed, her campaign consultant defended the trip and went on the attack against Do.
“Andrew Do is the poster child for politicians who waste taxpayer money, and his allegations against Michele Martinez are ridiculous and reflect the desperation of his re-election campaign,” said Derek Humphrey. “The trip in question was approved by the [SCAG] regional council, Michele only gets paid for meetings she attends, and Michele has never violated any laws.”
Another issue the Do campaign is focusing on is Martinez’s poor attendance record at meetings of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, where she serves as Santa Ana’s representative.
Martinez joined the water district board in March 2015, and the following month was appointed to three committees, responsible for finance, legislation, and water planning, which has been involved in the drought response.
After attending her first finance committee meeting in May 2015, Martinez has missed every one of the 18 meetings since, according to meeting minutes reviewed by Voice of OC.
This April, she missed both the finance committee and full board meetings where consumer water rates, and the water agency’s budget for the next two years, were approved. She was the only finance committee member to miss the meeting.
Her attendance record on the other two committees was so bad that her fellow board members voted to remove her from them less than a year after she was appointed.
Between May 2015 and her removal in January 2016, Martinez missed seven out of the nine water planning meetings. And though appointed to the board’s communications and legislation committee, records show she never attended any of the nine meetings that were held while she served on it.
Altogether, she has only attended just three of the 37 committee meetings she was assigned to.
And in Santa Ana, Martinez and her City Council colleagues have been accepting $600 per year for monthly meetings of the city’s housing authority that frequently only last for a few seconds.
Because Santa Ana has a public housing authority, it’s required under state law to meet once a month, according to City Clerk Maria Huizar. Those meetings take place during regular council meetings, and are typically routine approvals that last under a minute and involve no discussion.
Last month, for example, council members met for a total of 25 seconds as the Housing Authority.
Despite their short duration, Martinez and the other council members collect $50 for each meeting.
Perhaps the most important housing authority meeting of the year was in March, when the city’s annual public housing plan was up for approval. Martinez was traveling in Washington D.C. and missed the meeting.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount allotted to members of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) board for a European trip in July.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.