Council moves forward to acquire Loop 332, votes to unseat appointees

The Liberty Hill City Council voted 3-2 Monday to move forward with plans to acquire Loop 332 from the State of Texas.

Over the opposition of Council members Wendell McLeod and Byron Tippie, the Council authorized City Manager Manuel DeLaRosa to move forward with negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Because the Council agreed months ago to move forward with the acquisition, DeLaRosa said TxDOT began work this summer to replace bridge culverts at no cost to the City of Liberty Hill. The construction project, which is expected to be complete in August, will cost an estimated $676,000, he said. When the issue was first discussed last fall, the state proposed the City contribute 10 percent of the costs.

“They were willing to make improvements to the Loop in hopes that we would take it over and they are waiting for a Resolution to be adopted by Council,” he said. “I believe it is in the best interest of the City to acquire the road and work with them.”

He said he is worried about future drainage issues in the areas serviced by the road and believes having control of it will facilitate drainage improvements.

DeLaRosa said grants are available through the state to provide for the continued maintenance of the road.

Local business owner Frank Spinosa questioned whether the funds would actually be available when the City needed them. Spinosa spoke against the acquisition during the public comments portion of the meeting Monday.

“Why do you think they (TxDOT) want to give it up?” he asked the Council. “This is a financial drain we don’t need. If this doesn’t generate revenue, what the hell do we want it for?”

DeLaRosa reminded the Council of information they received during a presentation by a TxDOT official last fall that the road does not meet the agency’s priority for maintenance because it serves mostly local traffic.

“Liberty Hill has a little bit of a reputation of not playing well with others,” said Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy. “This is in our town and it is no longer a state highway.”

Councilman Jack Harkrider said if the City owns the Loop, it can make improvements to downtown sidewalks at a reasonable cost without having to meet the expensive standards of the state.

“Just about everyone I talk to agrees that taking over (Loop) 332 is a mistake,” said McLeod. “We’re a poor town, and we need to take one step at a time.”

McLeod made a motion, which was seconded by Tippie, not to acquire the Loop. After that motion failed 3-2, Harkrider made a second motion to authorize the Manager to move forward. His motion was adopted 3-2 with McLeod and Tippie voting no.

DeLaRosa said he anticipated that closing costs would be about $8,000.

In another controversial decision Monday, the Council voted to require volunteers currently serving on City committees and commissions to reapply and interview for those positions.

The issue of committee appointments was posted on the agenda for executive session, but Councilman Charles Canady requested it be discussed in open meeting. His wife, Kathy Canady, serves as Chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission. The Council brought the discussion into public meeting and agreed to look first at the makeup of that committee. Mayor Murphy said the Council would look first at Planning & Zoning because it had more vacancies than any other group.

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Crane, who was appointed by the Mayor to a committee to review the Code of Ethics for elected and appointed officials, said he decided that in the absence of a process to re-examine the appointees, it was best to “remove all from those committees and do a complete application and interview process to ensure each applicant is serving on the proper committee and in the best interest of the City.” The process will include background checks on all applicants.

The Mayor added that since the election in May, the City has receive “quite a few” applications from people interested in serving on committees.

“The only fair way is to remove them all and have this Council interview candidates,” she said.

Although Canady and Harkrider said it was wrong to remove committee appointees without cause before their terms were expired, it was Canady and McLeod who voted against the proposal.

“I’m concerned about the precedent this sets,” said Harkrider. If we do it in this fashion, what’s to keep it all from changing after every election? We should avoid the perception that this is subterfuge for personal politics.”

“I have no agenda except to do what’s best for the City as a whole,” said Crane.

Crane said the latest application for Planning & Zoning was dated 2003.

Harkrider suggested the Council hold a workshop to review and establish policies for each committee.

In other business Monday, the Council voted unanimously to approve a plan to allow the City Manager to grant a special permit to businesses that wish to post inflatable signs on a temporary basis.

Although inflatable signs are not permitted under the City’s sign ordinance, DeLaRosa proposed allowing businesses to obtain a permit to use them through the month of August. The provision for the special permit expires Aug. 31.

He said the issue was placed on the agenda at the request of the Red Brick Java Coffee House on SH 29, which used an inflatable cowboy to help promote the opening of its business in May. The owner wishes to post another inflatable sign, and was present at Monday’s Council meeting.

“This is a band-aid approach to help the current situation,” said DeLaRosa in reference to the business owner’s request for a variance.

He said the provision for a special permit is not business specific allowing others to also request a permit to use an inflatable sign during the specified period.

Also Monday, the Council voted 4-1 to lock in for three years the current commercial rate of $7,500 to connect to the wastewater system. McLeod voted no.

DeLaRosa said that by locking in the rate, the City could get easements from owners of three key properties in Phase 3A of the wastewater construction project. He said the owners, whom he did not identify, requested the rate be locked in to give them time to maximize new septic systems.

DeLaRosa requested the Council approve a proposal to allow a water line to be moved that is in conflict with wastewater lines proposed near the office of the Liberty Hill Cemetery Association. He said he did not know yet how much it would cost to move the line, but it would be cheaper to do it as the Phase 3A construction is under way.

The vote was split with Harkrider and Canady voting yes, Crane and McLeod voting no. When Tippie abstained, the Mayor cast the tie-breaking vote in the affirmative.

Following a 35-minute closed session, the Council reconvened to vote 4-1 in favor of accepting the transfer of operations of the water system. The Council first voted on the issue June 20 pending a ratification vote by the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp.’s Board of Directors. That vote was ratified on June 25.