Council meeting erupts into shouting match over proposed billboard

By SHELLY WILKISON

An accusation that a city committee failed to properly scrutinize a proposed electronic billboard before recommending council approval resulted in a public shouting match  between the Mayor and the committee chairman disrupting Monday’s regular council meeting.

“This is just a stonewall,” said P&Z Chairman Clyde Davis, talking over Mayor Jamie Williamson as she asked him repeatedly to identify the “extraordinary circumstances” for the sign variance. “Why are you trying to  stop this? It’s no wonder nothing ever happens here.”

Mayor Jamie Williamson asked Davis if his committee, which is appointed by the council, followed “any process to approve it or did you just rubber stamp it?”

Mayor Williamson provided two memos to the Commission at its meeting Dec. 12, 2012, addressing the concerns of the City Attorney and the Administrative Consultant. Despite those concerns, the Commission approved the variance request by a 3-2 vote.

Seemingly angered by the Mayor’s suggestion that the Commission did not act properly in recommending the variance, Davis continued to loudly defend the panel’s actions.

“Mr. Davis, you are out of order. You need to control yourself here,” the Mayor said. As both Davis and the Mayor become increasingly angry, she called on the Chief of Police but never gave him a directive to take action.

“Chief my foot,” Davis said as he made his way back to his seat in the audience.

“I ask you to sit down with no more conversation, sir,” the Mayor said to Davis.

The Williamson County Cowboy Church billboard at State Highway 29 and US Highway 183 has been the subject of much discussion during the past year. A request to raise and digitize the sign was brought to the Council by Council member Vicki Brewer in November 2012 after it was tabled two months earlier. Mrs. Brewer is an active member of the Cowboy Church. Council member Byron Tippie, former youth minister at the Cowboy Church, brought the issue to the council earlier in 2012.

In November, after hearing a presentation on the sign by a representative of Media Choice, the Council supported the change contingent upon the approval of the Planning & Zoning Commission.

The Commission, which met Dec. 12, 2012, approved the variance over the written concerns of City Attorney Cathy Riedel and City Administrative Consultant Peter McKinney. Riedel and McKinney said changes proposed for the billboard did not meet the criteria contained in the City’s Unified Development Code (UDC) for granting a variance of the sign ordinance.

Riedel said Monday that granting a variance could put the city at risk of a possible lawsuit if in the future a similar variance request is made and rejected. She said the criteria is stated so that the city can defend possible accusations of “favoritism.”

“Your legal department is not making a policy recommendation, just telling you what your ordinances say,” Ms. Riedel added.

“I was at that meeting (Dec. 12 P&Z meeting) and they didn’t do their homework,” Mayor Williamson told the Council after Davis took his seat. “They failed to do their job. When we sent this to them, our expectation was they would do that.”

When asked by one council member why the issue was being addressed this week, Mrs. Williamson said the Commission’s recommendation from December “just got back to us in time for this meeting. Mr. Davis didn’t send the recommendation to the Council until now.”

She said that even though the Council previously voted to approve the billboard pending P&Z review, the Council had to vote on the P&Z recommendation.

Council member Wendell McLeod interjected that it was being discussed again “because Jamie (Williamson) doesn’t want it (the electronic billboard). That’s the reason.”

Council member Connie Fuller said that McKinney promised the P&Z Commission at a workshop with the council in September

2012 that he would review the UDC, which includes the sign ordinance, and present his suggestions for change within 30 days. McKinney’s revisions have not yet been shared with P&Z or the Council.

Following the heated discussion, a motion by Mrs. Fuller to accept the P&Z recommendation for a sign variance passed unanimously. The Mayor cannot vote except to break a tie. Tippie did not attend Monday’s council meeting.

In 2010, a previous council and Planning & Zoning Commission said no to a similar request on the billboard citing concerns about driver safety and sign blight.

Also Monday, the Council remained divided on the issue of providing sewer to City Park restrooms. The restrooms and pavilion, a building nearing completion at the park on CR 200, was constructed with funds from a Williamson County grant.

About $60,000 is budgeted from Economic Development Corp. funds to connect the restrooms to the City’s wastewater system. The decision to connect the facility to city sewer was made by a previous council, but the matter has resurfaced as a result of objections from some current Council members and EDC Board members to the expenditure of EDC funds for that purpose. Those opposed say a septic system will cost less and will adequately serve the visitors to the park.

Mayor Williamson, who has repeatedly stated her objections to installing a septic system, said Monday that the city is running out of time.

Two weeks ago, the Council voted to authorize McLeod to collect bids on a septic system. He said Monday that he is still waiting on three to be returned.

“We’ve got an $84,000 pavilion and restrooms about to be finished that will do us no good,” she said. “This Council has been playing around with this for six months.”

Mrs. Williamson said since the last council meeting, she spoke to a Williamson County engineer who said a septic system would have to be built to peek flow. The County must give final approval to plans for a septic system at a park. She said she also contacted Jarrell City Manager Mel Yantis (a former city administrator in Liberty Hill) who said that city’s park septic system has cost the community a lot of money in installation, repairs and maintenance.

The City of Jarrell spent about $100,000 to install its septic system for the park and an additional $40,000 on repairs, Mayor Williamson said.

“If you put a septic system there, you eliminate the capability of growth unless you build another septic,” said the Mayor.

Liberty Hill Parks & Recreation Board Member Michael Wilson, who also serves as president of Liberty Hill Youth Football & Cheer, said his concern is not the septic functionality, but giving up at least one acre of land at the park. With space for parking  already short on game days, he said a septic system would take up space that may currently be used for parking.

Much of the argument on septic vs sewer has centered on the number of people who use the park. The estimates from both the football organization and Liberty Hill Youth Soccer Association are based on the number of children enrolled in those programs and guesses about the number of people who accompany them to the park. Wilson said as many as 1,000 people use the football portion of the park on game days in the fall.

He said while many do not like to use portable restrooms, if a permanent facility is there, it will be used.

Mrs. Fuller said the $60,000 estimate to connect the restroom to sewer was done more than a year ago and the price is likely much higher now. She said the money would be better spent on other things.

“We need that money. We need a city manager,” she said.

With assurance from McLeod that the remaining bids would be in prior to the March council meeting, the item was tabled.

Another divisive item on Monday’s agenda was a question of scheduling executive sessions on regular meeting nights. In recent months, the Mayor has scheduled executive or closed sessions at the beginning of council meetings. During the past year, the Council’s closed sessions have typically been one to two hours long.

On Monday, the Council was behind closed doors for two and one-half hours. After reconvening in public, the meeting lasted an additional two hours with adjournment at 10:35 p.m. Regular council meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

McLeod, who placed the item on the regular meeting agenda this week, said closing the meeting to the public early before the Council hears public comments and addresses regular items of business is “rude.”

“It’s rude to our local people, and these executive sessions are way too long,” McLeod said.

Mayor Williamson, who controls the council meeting agendas, said she made the decision to place executive sessions early in the meeting in an attempt to save the City money. She explained that city attorneys and engineers are paid by the hour to attend the meetings, and placing closed sessions at the end keeps them present longer as they are often asked to go behind closed doors with the council.

“We need to respect people’s time,” said Council member Sammy Pruett.

Mayor Williamson, who was elected in May 2012, said while it has not been possible yet to conduct a council meeting without an attorney present, having closed sessions early would make it feasible. Two attorneys were present for Monday’s meeting — one of whom left at 9:15 p.m.

Ms. Riedel told the Mayor that she has the authority to move some items on the agenda to make it more convenient for  presenters.

A motion by Mrs. Fuller to move the executive sessions to later in the meeting, following the regular agenda items, passed by a 2-1 vote. McLeod and Mrs. Fuller voted yes and Mrs. Brewer cast the no vote.  When Pruett abstained from voting because he did not “know how he felt about it,” Mayor Williamson told him he had no reason to abstain.

“To abstain you have to have a conflict of interest or another reason,” she said.

The Attorney corrected the Mayor saying in fact that a council member could abstain for any reason.

When the Mayor then cast a no vote, McLeod reminded her that there was no tie and she was not eligible to vote.

In other business Monday, the Council voted unanimously to:

* Authorize Utility Superintendent Brian Kirk to seek bids on repairs to Carl Ship, Bryson Bend and Snyder Trail.

* Continue city employee insurance coverage through Texas Municipal League. Rates will increase $5 per month per employee.

* Approve a $13,755 purchase of seven electronic ticket writers for police. The new equipment will replace equipment that is no longer functional or is outdated. The purchase will be made from the Municipal Court’s Technology Fund — monies the state says may only be used to improve technology.

* Approve a resolution designating the President of the EDC Board, Frank Spinosa, as a signer on EDC bank accounts along with either the City Secretary or Receptionist, the Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem Brewer.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, the Council heard from Spinosa who informed members of the upcoming EDC meeting at 7 p.m. March 4.

The Council also heard from Jim Dillon who repeated a previous request that Council member Tippie be asked to resign in light of criminal charges pending against him.

“Not that he’s guilty, because we’re all sinners,” Dillon said. “Voters deserve to know that the people responsible to them have been thoroughly vetted and are performing as they are expected to.”

On the closed session agenda Monday was an item related to the “conduct of Councilmember Tippie.” However, no action was taken in public meeting.

Actions taken following the two and one-half hour closed session included:

* A unanimous vote to approve a Wastewater Collectoin System Capacity Reservation Agreement. There was no explanation or discussion on this issue in public prior to the vote.

* A unanimous vote to accept an Interlocal Ageement concerning sewer service to Williamson County MUD #12, MUD #19 and MUD #19A. There was no explanation or discussion on this issue in public prior to the vote.

* A unanimous vote to accept a proposed order from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. There was no explanation or discussion on this issue in public prior to the vote.

* A unanimous vote to approve a dye test submitted by Kirk and authorize attorney to enter into negotiations with two homeowners near Well #1. There was no explanation or discussion on this issue is public prior to the vote.