How did we go all the way from a promised political love fest and revolution at City Hall to elected officials walking out of meetings in anger and frustration?
Last Spring, there seemed to be total agreement among local business owners that Liberty Hill needed new leadership. City government would run more efficiently and cost less if only a new mayor and city council could be elected.
Allegations were rampant of secrecy, dictator-style decision making, and a pattern of raising fees and taxes unnecessarily. Arguments were made that the city was moving too fast, that there were decisions being made outside of public meetings, that decisions were being made in a rush and council members weren’t given enough time to deliberate and consider options. Some believed that open debate and discussion were being thwarted. And always, there didn’t seem to be enough information being made available to both taxpayers and council members.
Those who were dissatisfied went out and found a slate of candidates, held a fundraiser and ran a coordinated effort to throw the bums out of office. And the voters responded positively — electing a slate of brand new leaders who claimed to be “pro-business” and campaigned on accountability and open government.
However, the much anticipated and loudly promised revolution down at City Hall hasn’t panned out quite like expected. Now some of those who helped make it happen are scratching their heads, rolling their eyes and wondering what went wrong.
The first sign of trouble seemed to come early in the honeymoon phase when the Council took very complicated and controversial issues into executive session and stayed behind closed doors for hours, only to reconvene and either take no action or vote on a motion with no discussion, and often no clear explanation of the issue — including the costs to taxpayers.
Then, it became apparent that the majority of work product and early stages of decision making — especially on city finances — were being handled by only a few. Then came a narrowing of information and most recently, defensive posturing in response to even the most simple of questions regarding the proposed budget for the City.
The Independent noticed a profound reversal of past policy when we weren’t allowed access to government documents that are not exempted from the Texas Open Records Act.
We were patient and wrote off to inexperience explanations such as “since a decision has not been made by the Council, then it is not a public document” or “since the numbers are changing, we don’t have to release them.” Neither of these excuses are exemptions from state law.
Next, we witnessed documents containing information regarding the Mayor’s proposed budget and tax rate being collected from elected officials and city staff at the end of a public meeting. When we asked for the information so that we could follow the discussion and report the numbers accurately, the request was denied.
Previous councils and other government entities have provided such information at the time of discussion. We like to believe they do that not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in their best interest to do what they can to make sure the public has accurate information.
In this case, it appeared that budget documents were collected in an attempt to keep the newspaper and even elected officials from sharing information with the public.
Once something is written, stated publicly, presented as fact or considered as an option, that information rightly belongs to the public — even in Liberty Hill.
A few bumpy days could be written off as just part of a new city council finding its way. Instead, what we are witnessing seems to be a repeat of the alleged sins of the past by those who told voters this would be a new day. They won the election by promising transparency, accountability, open government and public involvement.
Now that the election is past and the hard task of governing has begun, once again there is secrecy, political power plays and the looming threat of higher taxes.
The difference is this time it’s City Council members who are complaining. Some say they aren’t being given enough information or being allowed to ask questions about the city budget in open meetings.
Every council member was elected by the voters. Each council member needs to be allowed to ask the hard questions, take information home and study it before making a decision that impacts the lives and pocketbooks of Liberty Hill taxpayers.
This past week, the Council was in full-throated revolt against these hard ball tactics. Councilman Byron Tippie finally left the meeting in apparant frustration from not being able to ask questions he felt needed to be answered.
His walkout happended a few minutes after Mayor Jamie Williamson threatened to walk out herself. What hapened to the promised civility, the mutual respect? Where’s the open government?
Are your elected officials being unreasonable when they want to ask questions in public? The Independent believes all deliberations should be held in public. The back and forth of public discussion, counter reccomendations and ultimate compromise is a part of the rich tradition of democracy.
Elected officials attempting to hide information behind the cloak of executive sessions and unreleased documents is not new. Guarding information in an attempt to avoid a political backlash is also as old as time. However, the citizens possess the right to know everything about their government and the money it takes to run it. After all, that’s what they were promised.