Council discusses changes to sign ordinance, ethics issues

The Liberty Hill City Council discussed sign ordinances and possible ethics and Code of Conduct violations on the part of appointees to city committees.

In response to complaints from business owners in recent months, including a Town Hall meeting Nov. 7, Councilmember Byron Tippie brought an item to Monday’s regular agenda to discuss a moratorium on enforcing the City’s Sign Ordinance until the ordinance can be rewritten by the Planning & Zoning Commission.

“It started at the Town Hall, there was just so much confusion on that. That’s why I wanted to just stop the enforcement, until we could get a new one (ordinance) written out, so everyone can have a notice,” Tippie said. “My intention was that everybody have a notice and have 60 or 90 days to get compliant…It’s turned into a huge fiasco out there.”

City Manager Manuel De La Rosa explained that to place a moratorium “not only are you not enforcing the sign ordinance, but you are not allowing any signs.”

Tippie indicated that he had likely “used the wrong word,” but said there was still a need to clear up sign ordinance confusion, a sentiment echoed by Councilmember Mike Crane.

“I think these (the current proposed ordinances) are a great start. But we do need a little more in-depth on them,” he said.

Crane noted an ordinance change recommended by the Planning & Zoning Commission allowing signage in windows as long as it is not “offensive.”

De La Rosa said the proposal was too subjective and asked for time to review the proposed ordinances. He said they should be used “as a guideline,” and Planning & Zoning  should move forward within the next 90 days to offer suggestions.

The Council also addressed the ongoing issue of which voices to listen to – strictly registered voters or also owners of businesses within the city.

“I wanted to try to help solve some of the anger issues. I want to listen to everybody. I want to help everybody out,” Tippie said. “Because that’s our bosses. Our voters. They got a voice and I want to listen to them…when I read these (proposed ordinances) they’re so vague.”

“Let’s be clear,” responded Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy, “that the people that are asking for these changes are not voters in the city. They are business owners. I’m not discounting the fact that we need to listen to everybody, but let’s make sure that we don’t cross-reference this stuff here.”

De La Rosa replied, “To me, they’re all customers, so I’ll do the best I can to address all of their needs and make this Council happy.”

Councilmember Jack Harkrider proposed instituting a timeline for the Planning & Zoning Commission to come up with its suggestions.   He initially proposed a 30-day time limit, but due to the upcoming holiday season, that timeline was extended to 45-days, Jan. 15, with another 45 days for the Council to review or make changes to the P&Z Commissions suggestions.

During the City Manager’s Comments, De La Rosa addressed issues of Code of Ethics and Conduct violations, by encouraging current Council members to reach out to their committee appointees and offer “words of wisdom.”

De La Rosa stated that he felt there was no need for it to be put on the agenda yet, but felt that action could be taken later.

“If people continue to be on our boards and commissions and violate  ordinances, violate the ethics, violate the code of conduct, then they should be sanctioned,” he said.

De La Rosa said he felt that having Council members reach out and offer experience would potentially remind appointees “that they have an obligation to the city to follow whatever ordinances, whatever codes, whatever we agree to that’s already in place.”

Harkrider used his time during the Councilmember’s Comments to respond to what De La Rosa said.

“I have had a concern also, not only comments, not only on the record, but off the record, and I think there needs to be some kind of process that makes it fair. But the two things I have been most concerned about have been derogatory comments that have been made about people,” he said.

“I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems there has probably been some discussion taking place, where people did not reveal their interests, and I think that part of our ethics and bylaws is that if we have an interest in something, financial especially, then we should recuse ourselves from discussion and voting. I think that should go all the way up and down the line,” he continued.

“Mike (Crane) brought the Code of Conduct up, and I think we should be following that, no matter who it is, and we do need to put it on the next agenda, and follow through with it,” said Councilmember Charles Canady.

“I have attended meetings where mistakes were made, in ethics, and I agree with Council’s statement tonight,” added Mayor Murphy. “I chalked it up to inexperience, and hope for improvement. I know that everyone doesn’t have time to go to all the meetings, but I do think it is helpful to be there firsthand and experience the exchanges so that we are aware.”

Currently, all members of the city’s three boards — Planning & Zoning, Economic Development Corp., Parks & Recreation — have signed a Code of Ethics form from the city. The Code of Ethics requires persons serving on any boards to file an affidavit revealing either an interest or potential financial interest “in a business entity or property that would be beneficially affected by a decision of the governing body or of any other board or commission upon which the member serves and thereafter to abstain from participation in discussion and voting on the matter.” The Code also requires an affidavit to be filed “disclosing any business relationship with a person or business doing business with the City or being considered by the City for a business relationship.”

At press time, no affidavits had been filed by current appointees.

In other business Monday, the Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring intention to reimburse certain expenditures with borrowed proceeds, and to retain the services of Donald L. Allman, CPA, for an upcoming audit on the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp. Currently, Allman provides auditing services for the City of Liberty Hill, so De La Rosa recommended using him for the LHWSC to “keep everything in place with one firm.”

The Council also voted unanimously to designate The Liberty Hill Independent as the official newspaper for publication of the city’s legal notices.