City officials announced Tuesday that Michael Martello, Mountain View's longest serving city attorney, is set to retire in December at age 57. His retirement is characterized by officials as "a big loss" for Mountain View.
Since being hired by the City Council in January 1994, Martello has defended the city in some of the most significant legal battles in its history. In 2005 he successfully won the city more than $10 million in a lawsuit against Clear Channel and others for rent due on the Shoreline Amphitheatre.
He successfully sued AT&T over problems it created when it took over the city's cable service. And in the mid-1990s he led eight cities in risky legal battle with Merrill Lynch and Orange County for millions lost in an investment pool when Orange County went bankrupt. Cities with less aggressive legal help got far less than Mountain View did, said city manager Kevin Duggan.
"When he feels the city's interests are threatened he will not back down from a confrontation or legal fight," Duggan said, adding that Martello is good at fighting "frivolous claims" where people "unfairly look at taxpayers as a deep pocket for exaggerated circumstances.
"How do we end up getting into fights with Merrill Lynch, AT&T and Clear Channel? It is kind of unusual we have gotten into fights like that and been successful," he said. "You could never find a better attorney in tough times."
Since Martello took the helm, there have been far fewer questionable "big pocket" claims against the city, officials say. Whenever there was any doubt about the validity of a claim against Mountain View — for example, claims that a city tree's roots damaged a resident's sewer line — Martello would take the claim to court. After a while the number of claims just "dropped off," said council member Jac Siegel.
The city's numerous land deals and lucrative land leases, including the large pieces of city-owned land under Google's biggest campuses, have been created under Martello's leadership. He also employs a staff of three other lawyers.
"Before he came here no one had much confidence in the legal office and we had a lot of problems," recalls Siegel. Martello made his office accessible to council members and staff, he said. "He was one of those guys who would say, 'We'll figure out a way.'"
Looking back on his career, Martello says he is "somewhat amazed." Growing up in Reading, Penn., "I was somewhat of a street kid. It really could have gone a lot of different ways, most of them not great. But my parents hung in there."
Martello decided to be a lawyer after serving in the Air Force for four years on a base in northern Michigan, where it was 40 degrees below zero, and realizing he had made a mistake "for not wanting to go to college."
He got his law degree in Arizona before applying for a graduate program in tax law. "I looked for a school with warm weather and a beach and picked Pepperdine, because I was still cold from Michigan."
Martello discovered a passion for city government work after taking an internship with the city of Thousand Oaks. He had believed city employees were "retired on-duty" types who could never compete with the private sector — but that notion was turned on its head, he said, when he began working for "the guy that wrote the book" on California land use regulations.
He was given one of the largest legal cases in state history after a landowner sued more than a dozen cities, and hundreds of mobile home park tenants, in a case regarding rent control. He was hooked ever since.
City officials say Martello never lost a high-profile lawsuit in his 16 years in Mountain View. In his 29-year career he also served as city attorney in Concord and Thousand Oaks and has become a leader among city attorneys statewide. He is considered an expert in conflict of interest law and is a certified to train city officials on the topic.
Martello said he almost went to work for the private sector before finding his job in Mountain View.
"When I left Concord I was ready to go back into private practice because I didn't believe city government was all that ethical," he said. "But I was assured Kevin Duggan wasn't that way."
As for the council members who hired him, "Right away you could tell they were straight up and down," Martello said. Those members included Art Takahara, Bob Schatz, Jim Cochran and Maryce Freelyn.
What Martello he had seen in Concord "reminded me of back East" where "old families have way too much influence and campaign contributions have too much impact. That doesn't fly — I don't work in that kind of system.
"In Mountain View no one I know is afforded some special privilege. But there are loads of stories about the old days."
Code of conduct
In one famous case under Martello's tenure, council member Mario Ambra was removed by fellow council members who felt his conduct in attempting to get favors from city staff had crossed the line. Martello and Duggan felt it was their duty to build the case against him.
We hope council members have "all the intellect and skill set they need and we just try to help, but we didn't succeed in that case," Martello said. The benefit of all the turmoil was that "the council adopted a formal code of conduct. We had a real frank discussion about writing the standards down."
Martello also took on the duties of code enforcement by putting that department under his control, rather than under the Police Department, and adding staff. Duggan said it was an unusual move that has worked out for the best, although some property owners have come to see Martello as their enemy, including longtime gadfly Don Letcher.
Martello says he has no special reason for retiring and was actually planning to do it before his birthday last year. He has been collecting information for two years for a book about conflict of interest law, he said. And he plans to spend lots of time remodeling his two homes in Mountain View.
"He's one of the most respected city attorneys in the state," Duggan said. "It is a big loss to the city. He's got an incredible amount of knowledge."