Mayor: Liberty Hill is on the right track

By SHELLY WILKISON

Mayor Jamie Williamson from her office at Liberty Hill City Hall.

What appears to be the early signs of a fruit basket turnover at Liberty Hill City Hall means city government “is on the right track,” according to the city’s mayor, who was elected in May as part of a pro-business slate of candidates.

Mayor Jamie Williamson took office two months ago and during that time four city employees have resigned, the City’s legal counsel has been replaced, an appointed commission is considering suspension of a code of ordinances and a master plan, decisions made by previous councils have been reversed, and a former employee who was fired by a previous administration is being welcomed back into the fold.

While it may appear to some observers that the new council is on a mission to undo actions taken by their predecessors, Mayor Williamson, who by law serves as chief executive officer of the City, said there is no such plan. In fact, she says as Mayor, she has no plan except to take direction from the Council and “regular citizens out there.” The Mayor has no vote except to break a tie.

“I’m not the one raising my hand  to say yes or no,” she said. “If they (council members) ask for my opinion, I will give it. The way I see it, I am the CEO and I have a board of directors (the council). They are extremely qualified and bring something different to the table. The Council has a new set of eyes. We have some good ideas. We don’t always know how to get there, but that’s part of the challenge,” she said.

Mrs. Williamson, who has spent years covering city government for her newspaper, The Leader, and served on the city council for a short time some years ago,  said restoring the public’s confidence in the City of Liberty Hill is important and she believes the way to make that happen is by being “open and honest.”

And in keeping with that goal, the new mayor began her interview with The Independent by admitting that even though her desk at City Hall was clear, it should not be viewed as a sign that everything is in its place and under control. She laughed and pointed to the tables along the walls that were stacked with documents.

“Is it going to be a struggle? Yes,” she said. “It has been. The City isn’t in bad shape, but it’s going to be challenging.”

Mrs. Williamson said she isn’t sure how much time she spends on city business every week, but between the countless meetings and numerous hours spent at City Hall, she spends less time now on her own business. She said she still approves all content before the newspaper goes to press on Tuesdays and she distributes the paper on Wednesdays, but the bulk of the creative work is left to others.

She said that while the challenges at City Hall may appear daunting, she does not feel frustrated or overwhelmed. Instead, she sees opportunities.

“We just have to make sure we have the right money for the right items,” she said. “We have to be very careful and be more hands on with what’s going on. I was well aware of the situation (when she took office). What’s frustrating is that the citizens didn’t see it (the problems) sooner. We’ve got to be as honest as we can with the citizens on everything.”

She agreed to an interview with The Independent a few days after learning that three city employees had resigned, bringing the total to four resignations since she took office in May. Prior to the series of resignations, the Council had voted during one of its first meetings to eliminate the position of City Administrator/Manager after the April resignation of Manuel De La Rosa. In the absence of a manager, some duties fell to remaining staff members and others to the Mayor.

Deputy City Secretary Rachel Austin resigned effective July 6 to accept the City Secretary’s position in Jonestown. Municipal Court Clerk Jodie Wells resigned days later leaving no explanation.

Police Officer George Nassour and his wife, Mindy Nassour, who was serving as City Clerk, both resigned two weeks ago to accept law enforcement employment out of state. Officer Nassour, who is working K9 interdiction, filed a workplace grievance with the City of Liberty Hill weeks prior to his resignation. That grievance remains  unresolved.

“We lost some employees. Okay. I don’t know why they are all leaving,” Mayor Williamson said, adding that so far the absence of Mrs. Austin has been most significant. Mrs. Austin was responsible for the City’s finances. In her absence, the City Council hired a local bookkeeping firm at $35 per hour — much higher than the hourly rate Mrs. Austin was earning. Mrs. Williamson said the firm will also assist with budget preparations later this summer.

Now short-staffed, Mrs. Williamson and Council member Vicki Brewer are volunteering many hours each week at City Hall. Mrs. Williamson said other Council members are also volunteering time to help with administrative tasks that were previously part of the job responsibilities of paid employees.

“There was a lot of grumbling (from the public). During the election the big thing I heard was clean sweep,” Mrs. Williamson said. “They  wanted us to get rid of all of them. I said no — there may be assets as well as liabilities.”

Mrs. Williamson said she was listening to the complaints and suggestions of  “regular people” who she further identified as voters living within the city boundaries.

She said that while it is not unusual for a newly-elected council to make personnel and consulting changes on day one, she wanted time to determine the value of each individual and what they contributed to city government.

“I wanted to see why they were there,” she said.

As long as she was representing her newspaper, Mrs. Williamson said she had no problem with the law firm of Russell and Rodriguez of Georgetown, which has represented the city for more than a decade. But despite the firm’s historical knowledge of Liberty Hill city government and its facilitation of significant projects that have contributed to the city’s development, the City Council voted unanimously July 16 to replace the firm. Proposals from two other law firms were considered before the Council voted to retain the Bojorquez Law Firm, PLLC, of Austin.

There was no discussion in open meeting as to why the Council wanted to replace Attorney Art Rodriguez or why the Bojorquez Law Firm was the preferred choice. According to an engagement letter with the City of Liberty Hill, which was obtained by The Independent through an Open Records Request, Alan Bojorquez will earn $185 per hour and rates for other senior attorneys and legal staff in the firm will vary from $175  to $95 per hour. The rates are subject to a 5-10 percent increase each year. By comparison, Rodriguez’ firm charged the City $3,250 per month rather than an hourly rate, but he said he typically bills other clients starting at $200 per hour depending on the type of work performed. As was the case with Rodriguez’ firm, the City’s new law firm will also represent the City in Municipal Court.

“I always got along great with Art (Rodriguez) and that law firm, but I’m not the one voting,” said Mayor Williamson.

Elected with 112 votes over an incumbent council member, which in Liberty Hill terms was a landslide win, Mrs. Williamson said her campaign message for change resonated with 68 percent of voters who participated in the election. Although she claims she is not a politician, she spoke frequently during the campaign about her belief that the City “mishandled” the takeover of the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp. last year. Because city officials were not “open and honest” with water customers, they lost confidence in city government, she said.

In fact, that’s when she decided that something had to change at City Hall.

“I wish they would have taken over the water system in a different way,” she said. “I think it was done underhandedly. The Mayor (Michele “Mike” Murphy) should have made them have their annual meeting (of the LHWSC members) and helped them to understand (the need for the City to take over the system). I believe they (the City) should have been open and honest with them. A lot of citizens became disgruntled.”

Among them was Mrs. Williamson, who signed a petition presented to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing the City’s takeover of the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp. She and other petitioners requested TCEQ hold  a hearing on the matter, but their request was denied.

Later, in November 2011, Mrs. Williamson circulated another petition to stop the City from issuing certificate of obligation bonds to make improvements to the water system. She presented the petition to the City Manager two hours before the former Council was set to vote on the issue.  Weeks later, the Council voted to  issue revenue bonds, which carried a higher interest rate than certificate of obligation bonds, and the former Mayor and others blamed Mrs. Williamson for taking action that forced the city to pay  more in interest and fees — about $82,000. At the time, Mrs. Williamson said she thought the question should be decided by voters in an election.

During her interview with The Independent, Mayor Williamson said her problem with the water system takeover was less about which entity should manage the system and more about transparency in government.

“I didn’t  really care who ran the system, but thought the City should have been more honest with the citizens,” she said.

A year later, she said the water system has not improved under city management, except for the fact that two new wells are being constructed to increase the water supply.

“We have the same issues as we had before,” she said. “But, I think we’re on the right track. The water situation is getting better. We had some rain and the water wells are under way.”

Now that the City owns the water system as well as a wastewater treatment plant, Mrs. Williamson said that although she is concerned about city finances, there is no advantage to selling the water system or the treatment plant.

“Having the treatment plant is the only way Liberty Hill is going to grow,” she said. “It is good for Liberty Hill.”

She said among the problems she discovered at City Hall after she took office was a failure to create a billing system for wholesale and retail customers of the wastewater treatment plant. Because the system had not been created, the City was about six weeks behind in billing the Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) utilizing the plant. She said Severn Trent submitted a proposal to  handle the process, but the Council rejected it.  In the end, she contacted the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which agreed to help the City develop the system without cost. She said all of the customers have now been billed and the City is on track to meet its bond payments this fall.

As for the 2012 budget, Mrs. Williamson said it is still too early to tell how much money will be available and where it needs to be spent. A budget workshop that was scheduled in June was cancelled due to lack of a quorum and a new date has been set for 6 p.m. July 31.

“I don’t know where the budget is going to be or what the former council has committed us to. They have committed us and we will follow through with that work,” she said, referencing the water and wastewater revenue bonds, in addition to the bonds issued to construct the sewer system.

Although the commitment was not in writing, the previous council also agreed to acquire Loop 332 from the State of Texas. As part of that agreement, Texas Department of Transportation took the step last summer to replace culverts under bridges on the roadway and promised to repave the road before finally releasing it to the city. One of the advantages of owning the roadway as cited by the previous council was that the City would have more flexibility to improve sidewalks and downtown parking, which they believed might improve business opportunities there.

McLeod, who voted against the acquisition in 2011, raised the issue again earlier this month and the

Council voted July 9 without public discussion to overturn the previous council’s action.

After the vote, Mrs. Williamson said she did not believe that having Loop 332 would make any difference. She said voters were critical of the previous council’s decision to acquire it from the State.

“It was a hot topic (during the campaign),” she said. “But I don’t have a gut feeling on that (city ownership of the road). It will need a lot of work, but not having it probably won’t make a difference.”

On July 23 — two weeks after the Council voted to overturn the 2011 decision — another vote was held and two members changed their votes to undo the decision and move forward once again with the original plan to acquire the roadway.

Before the vote was taken this week, Mrs. Williamson said she was concerned that Liberty Hill had lost as many as 20 businesses in the past year. She said lack of parking downtown might have been a problem for some. When asked whether she agreed with a suggestion that some have made that city ordinances and permitting fees are so high that the businesses closed or moved to other communities, Mrs. Williamson responded with a different explanation.

“Old town has been supporting them (Liberty Hill businesses). But if they’re having to pay more taxes and higher water bills, they’re not going to spend money with them (local businesses),” she said. “The City is not business friendly enough to create what they (consumers) want to make them stay here.”

Mrs. Williamson said she would like to see a downtown that is “pedestrian-friendly. A walk-to-lunch, coffee and donuts type of downtown.”

She said the Economic Development Corp. is researching various incentives that can be offered to businesses looking to locate in Liberty Hill.

“They’re out researching what incentives are out there and what kinds of businesses would like to come out here,” she said.

According to the City’s website, the last scheduled meeting of the EDC Board of Directors was July 2 and that meeting was cancelled.

The Mayor said she asked the Planning & Zoning Commission to take a closer look at the City’s zoning map and said she believes the City’s comprehensive plan, which was prepared in 2006, is outdated. While a plan to work with economic development and planning experts from LCRA and Pedernales Electric Co-op had been approved by the previous council, no action had been taken to get the work started. Mrs. Williamson invited representatives from both companies to speak to the new council and P&Z members during Monday’s council meeting.

She said she did not know if P&Z would recommend the Council suspend the existing comprehensive plan and the Unified Development Code, which includes sign and public nuisance ordinances. The items appeared on the July 10 P&Z meeting agenda.

“Not having it (the UDC) pretty much creates a lawless land and that doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “To be business friendly means having the infrastructure to develop. Would we like to encourage business? Yes. Do we have to make the sewer function properly and offer water of quality? Yes. What Liberty Hill has to do is figure out what the citizens want and then find the people (businesses) to connect with.”

Although the future of many city ordinances remains uncertain, Mrs. Williamson said there is a need for someone to consult on building code enforcement and other administrative functions that were previously overseen by the City Manager. The Council voted recently to authorize two Council members to begin employment negotiations with Peter McKinney, the City’s former building inspector. McKinney said in 2011 that he was effectively fired from the position although the council at that time voted instead to eliminate the job.

“Pete is familiar with Liberty Hill and I see advantages to that,” the Mayor said. “His familiarity with the UDC, knowledge of land use. This would be consulting work.”

She said it will take some time for the city and its business community to build a path toward sustainable growth, but for now her plan is to “take care of business.

“I’m  not going to set a timeline or unrealistic goals (for herself),” she said, adding that securing water infrastructure is on her priority list because it is directly related to growth. “They (businesses) want to know what water is going to be here. We’re dealing in the short term, but looking long term. We still have (water from) Chisholm Trail (Special Utility District) and that’s okay for now. But how can we provide enough for whatever business comes in, or even a swimming pool?”

Mrs. Williamson said she does not expect to find the answers on her own.

“I have a great board (council), and this is only a huge deal if you try to carry it all by yourself,” she said, adding that none of the former members of the Council have offered to help their successors. “We have big shoes to fill. I think it will take a little bit of time. I know what we have for infrastructure, now the  house cleaning is here.

“I see things happening already. I have people stop me and they are complimentary,” she said. “They say they like the way you’re thinking or like what you’re doing. They’re glad to see someone who has the answers. Before, no one seemed to know and wouldn’t get back to them.”

Mrs. Williamson has been openly critical of the former city manager and the former mayor, and said she did not learn anything from them except to be very cautious when it comes to entering contracts.

While she would not set  a timeline for what she might accomplish as mayor, Mrs. Williamson said she gave Ms. Murphy 90 days as a grace period to produce results.

“I called her to the house and urged her to call the annual meeting (of the LHWSC members) for a vote (on whether members wanted the system to be turned over to the City),” she said. “When she (Ms. Murphy) didn’t, that was the end (of the grace period).”