By SHELLY WILKISON
In a 3-2 vote Monday, Liberty Hill’s City Manager received a three-year extension to his employment contract that includes a provision for up to a three-year buyout should he be fired without cause. His salary for each of the three years is $86,000.
Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy cast the tie-breaking vote in support of the contract after an 80-minute executive session. Council members Mike Crane and Byron Tippie voted no while Council members Charles Canady and Jack Harkrider voted yes.
Two weeks ago, Harkrider identified himself as the ”swing vote” on the issue of extending Manuel De La Rosa’s contract. At that time, he said he could not support a three-year contract and said that a three-year buyout was too much. But, the document he supported Monday was identical to the version considered two weeks ago when his opposition resulted in the Council taking no action.
He told The Independent Tuesday that he changed his mind after considering the alternatives and “talking to some people.
“We have a lot of projects going on and we can’t afford to lose Manny (De La Rosa) at this time,” Harkrider said.
“I wanted time to look at his contract more thoroughly,” he said, adding that he was “confused about the difference between removing him without cause and with cause.”
Under the terms of the contract, the City would pay De La Rosa a lump sum payment totaling the amount remaining on a three-year contract if the council were to fire him at some point “without cause.”
Harkrider said by nature of the job, De La Rosa had been “put in a controersial place and there had been some complaints. I wanted the chance to look into the background of those (complaints). What I found was that much of the negatives about Manny are rooted in the actions or non-actions of the Council, and we need to rectify that.”
Two weeks ago, Harkrider said that he had been told that he would have an opponent in May’s City Council election if he voted yes on the contract. After he voted yes, Harkrider said that didn’t matter.
“The community needs the stability of a city manager,” he said.
Also Monday, the Council took no action on a request by the school superintendent to provide wastewater service to the new high school facility — a decision that seemingly deepened a rift that has developed between the two entities in recent months.
Despite a plea from Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart to “put politics aside” and permit the school district to connect its new campus to the City’s sewer system, the Council took no action after reconvening from executive session where the matter was posted for private discussion. There was no discussion by Council in the public meeting where school principals, district administrators and other school supporters filled the Chamber.
“We’re excited about what’s happening in our schools and we would like you (the City Council) to join us in that. Put politics aside and take care of the young people of Liberty Hill,” said Hart.
It was the Superintendent’s first visit to a City Council meeting, and his first address to the City Council as a whole. He spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, along with school Trustee Clay Cole, who also requested that the Council approve the application for service. Cole, who is a Council-appointee to the City’s Parks & Recreation Board where he serves as chairman, stressed the importance of the two entities working together.
The point of contention between the school district and the City is an ordinance adopted by the Council in November 2011 requiring customers of the City’s wastewater service to also be city water customers and be annexed into the city’s corporate boundaires.
Hart has maintained that the district can save about $1 million if it uses Chisholm Trail Special Utility District for water rather than the City. However, he wants to use the City for sewer service and claims the district filed an application for wastewater service prior to the adoption of the ordinance.
In December 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved the district’s request to be released from the City’s water service area (CCN), but the City appealed to the entire Board of Commissioners hoping to get the decision overturned.
Hart said the City’s motion was “overruled by operation of law” on Feb. 3.
After the Council meeting, he told The Independent that the Commission “refused to hear the City’s case” by not responding within the 45-day window from the date that TCEQ granted the district’s release from the City’s water CCN.
“The TCEQ during that 45-day period could set a hearing date, grant an extension or do nothing. If they do nothing, the motion is overruled by operation of law. Basically they refused to hear the City’s case,” Hart told the newspaper.
“The decision on the water…well, it is what it is,” Hart told the Council Monday. “Don’t take further action because it is what it is.”
Hart says the City’s legal maneuverings are creating delays for the $71 million facility, which is scheduled to open to students in summer 2013.
“Tonight, you have the opportunity to help us out,” Hart told the Council. “I ask you to accept it (the district’s wastewater application). We will be responsible for paying all fair and necessary fees.”
De La Rosa has said that the district’s application for sewer service is not complete and the City had no record of it being filed when Dr. Hart said it was filed.
After the meeting, De La Rosa said the Council has authorized him to continue negotiations with the school district.
“This is still a discussion. No decision has been made,” he said. “The Council still believes the matter lies with the manager and it is incumbent on me to negotiate something.”
Although TCEQ’s decision to release the the new school property from the City’s water service area stands, De La Rosa said he believes there is still an opportunity to persuade district officials to change their minds.
He said he would like school district officials to see “the bigger picture” and understand the full impact of a decision to use another water provider.
To that end, De La Rosa said he plans to reach out to district officials in the coming days and will propose that a meeting be held involving some members of the council and school board, along with administrators and engineers representing the two entities.
“I think it’s time we take personalities out of this,” he added. “This (decision) is bigger than a city administrator and a school superintendent, and has long-term effects on the community. I don’t want the school district spending any more than what it would spend with another provider.”
In other business Monday, the Council:
* Unanimously approved an ordinance calling for the city council election May 12.
* Unanimously approved a letter of engagement for CPA services at the rate of $120 per hour with the firm of Taber and Burnett, P.C. of Burnet.
* Authorized Harkrider to develop a plan for future Town Hall meetings this spring.
* Unanimously approved a request to abandon a utility easement on two lots in Purser Estates.
The Council took no action on proposed changes to the City’s burn ordinance. The delay was made at the request of the interim fire chief for Williamson County Emergency Services District #4, who said more time was needed to ensure compliance with state law.