Permitting process draws sparks from July 4th picnic organizers

By SHELLY WILKISON

Organizers of a community picnic say they are disappointed in the way the City of Liberty Hill handled an application for an event permit, but are pleased that the final hurdle was resolved clearing the way for a public Independence Day celebration.

The Liberty Hill Community Picnic, promoted to the public as a free event benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project, will be held Thursday, July 4 on privately-owned land located at Loop 332 and Hillcrest. From 2-9 p.m., free barbecue will be served and entertainment will include live music, games and activities for all ages, promotional posters state. While organizers say they will not sell or provide alcohol at the event, guests are not prohibited from bringing their own beverages.

Event organizer J.T. Cox said the idea for the picnic came about on Memorial Day as local veterans and current service members brainstormed about an event that would bring the community together to celebrate freedom. He said since June 11, area businesses and individuals have contributed about $2,000 in donations along with food items and silent auction items.

“All of this happened in less than 30 days,” Cox said, attributing the success to the community’s cooperative spirit.

However, the event almost came unwound last Friday when Cox and other organizers were informed by a city contractor that the event would be “shut down” if they did not provide an insurance policy showing the City of Liberty Hill as a second insured.

Cox said organizers were approached Friday at the Liberty Hill Barber Shop by Pete McKinney, who claimed he had the authority to refuse an event permit.

McKinney, a former city employee who was fired in 2011 by a previous city council and re-hired last year as a contractor to handle building permits, code enforcement and some administrative functions, told organizers that they needed to provide a copy of the insurance policy in order to proceed with the event.

Cox said he had already obtained and submitted to City Hall the signatures of approval from the Police Chief, the Fire Chief of Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 and the City Manager authorizing the permit.

Although the permit application clearly states that the City requires “proof of general liability insurance coverage for the event, naming the City of Liberty Hill as an additional insured,” Cox said he did not provide the information at first, although it has since been provided. He said the three required signers approved the application without it and Cox believed the policy addition would cost the property owner more money.

“Pete said if we continued with what we were doing, we’d be shut down,” Cox said. “He said the consequences wouldn’t be pretty.”

City Manager Greg Boatright told The Independent this week that McKinney “overstepped his bounds in the role the City contracted with him” to perform. Boatright said McKinney’s only involvement with the event should have been related to “signage and city streets.” He said he did not understand why McKinney went down to the barber shop to address the organizers.

McKinney’s employment contract includes a condtion that only the City may provide information to the media regarding the work he performs.

Angered by the treatment organizers received from McKinney, Cox told the City Council during the public comments portion of Monday’s regular meeting that “the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing.

“We have been threatened, insulted and told how to run a non-city sponsored, all volunteer organized event,” he said. “We have been pulled this way and that. It is my wish and prayer that you as a City Council would get your act together when it comes to people providing an event such as this for the community.”

Cox said Stan Buchhorn, a Vietnam Veteran who is helping with the event and serving as the liaison with the Wounded Warrior Project, was insulted by McKinney.

“It is very disturbing to witness a cruel way of talking to a twice Purple Heart recipient in our community,” he told the Council. “This Council needs to do some soul searching of itself in order to get this town and community on the right track.”

Boatright said the City requires  events held within the city limits and advertised to the public to obtain a permit. However, he said he has not seen a clear definition in writing as to what qualifies as an event requiring a permit.

He said the current controversy over the community picnic permit brought to light an issue that may require some clarification.

Boatright said that in the past, permit requests had been channelled through city employees, the Mayor or even the law firm, creating the possibility for inconsistencies. In the future, he said the process would be streamlined and one person would be responsible.

“I don’t believe in the permitting process and all the requirements we have to do,” Cox  told The Independent. “Some of this permitting stuff is ridiculous for a one-time thing.”

According to the City, a permit application form must be submitted 90 days prior to the scheduled event or the application is subject to a $100 late fee in addition to the application fee. Cox said the application fee was waived because it is a charitable community event. He said he was not charged a late fee.

Information requested by the City on its event permit application that was provided by Cox included a sketch of the four-acre event area that showed placement of barbecue smokers, portable toilets and a designated parking area on the property. Cox said no city streets would be blocked. The application also showed that yard signs would be used to help promote the event.