Council rejects Mayor’s pick to fill open seat

By SHELLY WILKISON

A position on the Liberty Hill City Council vacated last month by Mike Crane remains vacant after an attempt to make an appointment failed by a 3-1 vote Monday.

Mayor Jamie Williamson recommended the Council appoint Liz Branigan, a member of the Parks & Recreation Board.

“I recommend we appoint the runner up,” said Councilman Byron Tippie, who voted against the motion by Council member Vicki Brewer to appoint Ms. Branigan. Tippie clarified that his vote was not “against” Ms. Branigan, but he believed the previous Council was correct when it appointed the second highest vote getter to fill an opening in 2011. “Appointing the second highest vote getter is the most beneficial.”

Ms. Branigan received 26 votes in May as a candidate for the Place 5 seat that was won by Sammy Pruett. Ms. Branigan received the fewest number of votes among all candidates next to former Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy’s nine votes.

Councilman Pruett said he opposed the appointment because he believes elected officials should not appoint someone to fill an elected position — that job should be left to the voters.

When Mayor Williamson asked the City’s attorney to address that issue, Pruett responded that he was sharing his opinion and did not need to hear from the attorney on the matter.

Tippie, Pruett and Councilman Wendell McLeod voted no, leaving Mrs. Brewer as the lone yes vote.

Mayor Williamson, who first recommended the Council appoint Ms. Branigan Nov. 12, said at that time that she “did a quick search of persons I felt had history with Liberty Hill, had been here quite some time, had been involved with various boards and was fairly knowledgeable of government goings-on right now.”

Among the candidates who were not elected in May, Carrie Van Meetern was the highest vote getter with 54 votes. She sought the Place 4 seat that McLeod won with 100 votes.

Jack Harkrider, who sought the Mayor’s position, earned 52 votes; Della Hodgson earned 32 votes for Place 2, which was carried by Mrs. Brewer; Jim Wofford earned 30 votes and Liz Rundzieher earned 27 for Place 5.

Crane, who was elected to the Council in 2010, wrote in his letter of resignation last month that he had “full confidence in the leadership of the City of Liberty Hill” and said he made the decision to resign because of a “personal position on my part.”

After the proposed appointment failed, the Mayor added to the evening’s executive session agenda consultation with the attorney regarding legal options for filling the vacancy. The agenda did not allow for the consideration of another individual.

The Mayor and Mrs. Brewer also failed to get the votes needed to not renew the appointment of Frank Spinosa as President of the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors.

“I still recommend not renewing Frank Spinosa’s term,” said Mayor Williamson, adding that there are currently two vacancies on the EDC Board.

“I’ve spoken with committee members and they have reported that the working climate (on the committee) has become contentious and that’s based on the person leading it,” Mrs. Brewer said. “The committee has not moved forward with any work for the City and I fault him (Spinosa) for that.”

After Mrs. Brewer’s motion not to renew Spinosa’s term failed for lack of a second, McLeod moved to renew the term and the motion passed 3-1 with support from Pruett and Tippie. Mrs. Brewer voted no.

“The EDC needs someone with a business background,” McLeod said, citing some of Spinosa’s experience. “He can be a little rough talking, but he has the expertise.”

In November, Spinosa presented a budget for EDC that the Board recommended the Council adopt as an amendment to the city budget for the current fiscal year. It was tabled in November, but rejected on Monday after the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer expressed concerns over a proposed $9,000 allocation for a septic system for the restroom at City Park.

The  budget adopted by the Council in September includes $60,000 to connect the park restroom to the city’s wastewater system. Funds for the connection are to be taken from the EDC and the restroom will be built in 2013 with a grant the City has already received from Williamson County.

The proposed EDC-backed budget, which was rejected Monday in a tie that was broken by Mayor Williamson’s no vote, also included $80,000 for the salary of an EDC Director whose job would be to attract new businesses and spur economic growth.

The EDC is funded with revenue generated from a percentage of the city sales tax.

In other matters Monday, the Council reviewed a comparison of costs associated with operation of a Public Works Department. The information, which was compiled by Mrs. Brewer, showed the costs of using Severn Trent to manage the water and wastewater systems compared to those that might be anticipated if the City were to hire an appropriately licensed employee to serve as operator and a “laborer” to assist.

Currently, the City has a contract with Severn Trent, which serves as the licensed operator of the water and wastewater systems. Brian Kirk is a city employee who has the title of Utility Superintendent, but does not hold the appropriate license to be able to manage the systems. On Monday, Kirk was presented with a certificate indicating he had recently completed the work necessary to earn a Class D Water Operator License. A Class C license is required for water and for sewer operations.

Mrs. Brewer said in fiscal 2011, the City spent $203,938 with Severn Trent, which included a $50,200 retainer, $35,656 in labor costs billed at $18 per hour for routine operations and leak repair, $105,037 for materials and $13,045 for use of heavy equipment.

She estimated that if the City were to hire a Class C operator as an employee, it would spend about $54,000 on a salary, $22,418 to rent (or $36,655 to purchase) heavy equipment, $26,000 for a full-time laborer to assist the operator, and $63,368 on materials. Because much of the work has already been completed on the water wells, she said the City would have fewer costs associated with materials. Her total estimate for the City to provide the services currently provided by Severn Trent was $165,786.

“We could see a potential savings of $23,000-$38,000 the first year,” she said. “The second year, there would be potential for greater savings.”

Mrs. Brewer said she plans to put the item on the Council’s meeting agenda for Jan. 14, 2013, in hopes that some action can be taken at that time.

Although there was some discussion, no action was taken on two agenda items requested by McLeod that appeared to be an attempt to provide council members with increased access to information about city finances and water usage.

McLeod requested that elected officials be provided with documents showing invoices and expenditures made by the City.

“Wendell, are you kidding me?” exclaimed Mayor Williamson in response to McLeod’s item on the agenda. “You want us to print between 600-1,200 copies every month? I sign about 100 checks a month.”

“I just want a list, one page, showing all the checks that are signed,” McLeod said. “We have no idea how much (money) is in the bank.”

“He wants to see where the money is going,” added Tippie.

The Mayor said a document similar to that described by McLeod was given to Council at the time the budget was adopted in September. An update will be provided in January and subsequently on a quarterly basis.

McLeod also asked to see daily reports of water usage, information the Mayor explained is accessible to the Utility Superintendent but could be provided to McLeod on a monthly basis.

In other business, the Council heard a report from Kirk that water levels of the wells serving city customers have remained virtually unchanged over the past month. He estimated that two new wells that have been under construction for some time will be functional before the end of the month.

The last part of the current phase of sewer construction is expected to be complete in the coming weeks and will be ready for city wastewater customers to connect, he said.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, Jim Dillon said the Council was wrong to allocate public funds to the Ministerial Alliance for a Christmas Festival.

Also Monday, the Council:

• Voted unanimously to appoint Mrs. Brewer as Mayor Pro Tem. Crane served in the position until he resigned last month.

• Approved a change order for engineer Steger Bizzell in the amount of $4,434 to upsize the wastewater pipe needed to serve the new high school facility. Under a contract between the city and the school district, the city agreed to pay the costs of the larger pipe and the district will reimburse the costs.

• Authorized the attorney to draft a resolution to remove Crane from the signatories of city bank accounts and add Karen Smith, a city clerk. Also eligible to sign on the accounts are Mayor Williamson, Mrs. Brewer and City Secretary Tammy Kirk.

• Appointed former city councilman Jack Harkrider to serve as the city’s General Assembly Representative on the Capitol Area Council of Governments. Pruett abstained from the vote.

The Council met two hours in executive session with the attorney to discuss policies and procedures related to compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act; legal options for amending the Unified Development Code; the scope and authority of the mayor and council members; legal options for filling the vacancy on the Council; and a job description for a city manager’s position. No action was taken on any of the items when the panel reconvened.