By SHELLY WILKISON
In a stunning reversal of fortune, Mayor Jamie Williamson and Council member Vicki Brewer are no longer managing the daily business of the City of Liberty Hill.
They say they became the political targets of businessmen who were looking out for their own interests when they influenced other council members in recent weeks to diminish their role in city government.
The Mayor and Mrs. Brewer reflected on their first year in office during an interview with The Independent one day after the Mayor was directed by the majority of the Council to vacate City Hall.
“We chose to stay above the fray and not air everything in public,” said Mrs. Brewer. “I chose not to defend myself until now.”
For the past six weeks, the division on the Council has widened pitting the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer on one side and in the minority. With the Mayor unable to vote except to break a tie, the majority of council members were easily able to strip away her authority, hire a city manager and then remove the Mayor from the office space she occupied at City Hall.
Mrs. Williamson, who was visibly angered by the Council’s decisions, said the fight has been brewing for some time. In fact, she said it started almost immediately after she won the election in May 2012. She blamed local business owners whom she said took issue with her independent decision-making early on because they believed they had put her in office and she was accountable to them.
“The breakdown started when I told Frank Spinosa a year ago that I wasn’t going to fire the whole staff,” Mrs. Williamson said. “I didn’t accept their (campaign) contributions. He (Spinosa) didn’t get me elected. He didn’t vote. I’m not their puppet.”
She added that Clyde Davis, a local real estate broker, had sent her an email just after her election directing her attention to problems he believed needed to be corrected right away.
While she admitted that she ran for office on a “pro-business” platform and agreed with some of their views, including the need to rewrite the city’s Unified Development Code and revise a sign ordinance, the Mayor said the City had an obligation to follow the appropriate process and respect the rules for accomplishing those goals. Mid-way through her two-year term, however, neither project has been completed.
Them against us?
In a small town where voters appear to be disinterested in city government as evidenced by poor voter turnout and few candidates willing to seek public office, those with business interests have taken a more active role in recent years. Those who the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer accuse of attempting to strong arm the Council for their own personal gain, say there are no hidden motives — they simply want to grow the business community and strengthen the local economy.
“Everybody wins when the city wins,” said Spinosa. “If the city loses, we all lose.”
Spinosa, who owns a local strip center and currently serves as president of the City’s Economic Development Corp., said his interest in local business growth is not driven by personal gain.
“I don’t have anything personally to gain. I’m not building or selling anything. And they (Davis and real estate broker Randy O’Dell) sold real estate here long before there was a city. If they’re not selling property, they’re not making a living.”
“If we have sewer and water, and businesses are not overtaxed or over-regulated, we can have more businesses in town. It’s all part of city growth. But if they resist, if they make it hard to get permits, then we have a no-growth city,” said O’Dell. “Seems like it’s been them (city government) against us (business owners), and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Mrs. Brewer, who accepted campaign contributions from Spinosa, Davis, O’Dell and others, said when she was asked by the business owners to run for office, she told them she was “pro-business,” but the term was used loosely and never defined.
“Everyone wants to grow businesses and bring in more business to the community,” she said, explaining that was her interpretation of “pro-business.”
But soon after the election, it became apparent to her that the business owners wanted less regulation and more control of city government, she said.
“The biggest rift started when the Highway 29 businessmen requested to assign every council member with a business representative,” said Mrs. Brewer. “They wanted to give every city council member an advisor from the business community so they could have more of a say in city government. We all argue about politicians being in the pockets of special interest groups. I will not – whether it’s a business or a church – (let them) try to influence what I do.
“We all need to consider the people whispering in our ears and ask ourselves what their motive is for us,” she said.
When asked to explain the emails, Davis, who is also chairman of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission, said he simply offered the assistance of business owners in the community who were experts on issues that were sure to be addressed by the newly-elected officials.
He said that just after the May 2012 election, the Mayor spoke at a meeting of the Christian Business Leaders Association and encouraged attendees to send her ideas about ways to improve city government. Davis said his list was provided in response to her request.
He provided a copy of the email to The Independent, and the first item on his list of suggestions was to encourage city staff to be more welcoming.
“There needs to be some ‘scripts’ that everyone at city hall follows. For example…answering the phone: ‘It is a great day in Liberty Hill…how can we help you’. And the answer needs to be ‘yes’ and then let’s figure out how to make it happen,” Davis wrote in the email to the Mayor.
In order to expedite progress on some issues, he suggested the creation of some committees that could assist the Council and city staff and listed topics they could research.
Davis said his email never received a response from the Mayor.
“It’s never been our position to try to take control (of city government),” Davis said. “We were just trying to help our city grow.”
Spinosa said business growth should be regulated, but the rules should be reasonable and consistent.
“The idea is to get people here and have them stay for years and years,” Davis added.
Spinosa said the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer didn’t keep the promises they made during the campaign. He said even though Mrs. Williamson had turned away offers of financial contributions, she spent a great deal of time with Spinosa, Davis and O’Dell seeking their advice. He said she led them to believe that she would be an ally to the business community.
“This is not a control issue for us. We just wanted her (the Mayor) to do what she said she would do during the campaign,” said O’Dell. “I don’t know how someone can change that much in such a short period of time.”
O’Dell said the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer said during the campaign that they would not support a tax increase, did not believe the City should take over Loop 332 from the State, yet soon after the election they had proposed a tax increase and advocated for the takeover of the roadway.
O’Dell, who was one of five people who helped pay for a land survey marking the city boundaries when Liberty Hill was incorporated in 1999, said he believes he has a vested interest in the city’s success. The community has struggled in recent years to make its way back from bad economic times, and now is the time for the city to do more to grow its commercial tax base, he said.
“We’re in a much better position now, and the ‘we can’t do that’ days are over. We need to be more aggressive,” he said. If the City is not pro-active and “if nothing happens, then it’s just the same place it’s always been. We’ll grow despite ourselves and it will take longer. But if you’re pro-business, why would you do that (not be pro-active)?”
A matter of leadership
The Mayor and Mrs. Brewer say as the rift widened on the council during the past year, they attempted to find common ground and tried to compromise with the other side on issues where there were stark differences. However, the inability to pull divergent interests together has led to the latest rounds of controversy, public displays of animosity and gridlock on the council.
Now in the minority, the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer say the majority, whom they believe to be under the influence of the business owners, prefer a loose interpretation and enforcement of the rules.
“They change their definition of the rules daily,” the Mayor said. “They want no rules.
“They tied my hands and there’s nothing I can do,” Mrs. Williamson said. “I will just show up to (council) meetings every other Monday.”
Clearly still bitter about the decision, she added that she would not assist the new city manager should he reach out for help.
“I’ll just refer him to the three (council members) who put him there,” she said.
Mrs. Brewer, who for the most part defended the Mayor’s position, said Mrs. Williamson is often misunderstood.
“She (the Mayor) is not a respecter of persons,” she said, adding that the Mayor is instead a strict observer of the rules. “If my kid were to be arrested, she (Mrs. Williamson as publisher of her own newspaper) would put her on the front page just like she would anyone else.”
Mrs. Brewer said she has had “frank discussions with the Mayor about some of my thoughts about behaviors manifested by her. Having a strong personality can be both a blessing and a curse,” Mrs. Brewer said of Mrs. Williamson. “Since that time, she (the Mayor) has diligently attempted to present a different demeanor at city council meetings. And up until the most recent tumultuous times, things were moving along well.”
The majority on the Council disagreed.
They claim the Mayor was ignoring the majority view by not implementing the directives with which she disagreed. On several occasions, the Mayor sent memos to council members saying she planned to use her authority to reconsider previous votes and take up matters again that had passed despite her opposition.
They also criticized her for what they viewed as an unwillingness to work with the new city manager.
Protecting turf or looking out for good of city?
The Mayor and Mrs. Brewer say the recent decision to employ Greg Boatright as interim city manager and director of the city’s Economic Development Corp. is a step backward.
Mrs. Brewer, who said she was reluctant to point fingers at anyone, said that “Highway 29 businessmen” had used their influence on the Council to place Boatright in the job — someone she and Mrs. Williamson suggest will heed to their wishes as opposed to what’s best for the city.
Mrs. Brewer said although she and the Mayor were opposed to Boatright’s employment, they did not deliberately delay implementation of council directives, nor did the Mayor stand in the way of Boatright starting his job as manager.
Mayor Williamson said tax dollars would have been better spent to find a new source of water. Boatright’s monthly salary of $5,000 is being paid from EDC funds – money the Mayor believes should have been designated to help the city connect to Leander water infrastructure to obtain the city’s reserved water in Lake Travis.
“The Mayor had stated that once we got the water issues handled, we needed a city manager and an EDC director. We felt since we had been in City Hall on a daily basis, we felt we had a clear perspective of the needs of the city,” Mrs. Brewer said. “Since they (Council members Connie Fuller, Liz Rundzieher and Wendell McLeod) have not spent time in City Hall, they were not qualified to hire someone” without considering other applicants and interviewing for the position.
“I’ve been there (City Hall) a year. I chose to roll up my sleeves to learn what the day to day was all about,” said Mayor Williamson, adding that other council members had jobs or chose not to become so involved. “My job is to oversee the subordinates, which includes Greg Boatright.
“I was on the city council prior to this and have been watching them since 2000. So I know a little about government. Now, am I qualified to be city manager? I don’t know. Am I qualified to be Mayor? Yes, absolutely,” she said.
Mrs. Brewer said following the news of Boatright’s employment three weeks ago, City Hall received “six to eight calls per day” from people opposed to the decision. “That’s substantial when most of the calls are about water bills.”
She said city staff was directed to refer callers to the council members who voted for Boatright’s employment.
Within the first three weeks of his employment, Mrs. Brewer said Boatright has been at City Hall a limited amount of time.
“When he’s at City Hall, he’s there 30-40 minutes and leaves without telling anyone,” Mrs. Brewer said. “He’s not reporting to anyone. He’s not being given directives by the City Council as a whole. An administrator should be reporting to the Mayor. We can only hope that he is representing the City in a favorable way, but we don’t know.”
Mayor Williamson went a step further, calling the change in power from the mayor to the city manager “illegal.” Liberty Hill is organized as a Type A General Law City with an aldermanic form of government. She said when the Council placed all of the power in the hands of Boatright, they effectively changed the city to a city manager form of government – a change that state law says requires an election of the voters.
The Mayor said she didn’t raise the legal question during previous council meetings because “you have three veterans on the council and an attorney who has written for TML (Texas Municipal League).”
An unplanned coalition
Mrs. Brewer said her close political alignment with the Mayor during the past year is one that developed naturally as they spent untold hours trying to learn the business of city government. She said she did not know Mrs. Williamson before the two of them wound up running together as a part of a slate of “pro-business” candidates.
Within weeks after their election in May 2012, the City’s financial officer resigned and the council voted to eliminate the position of city administrator. As chief executive officer, the Mayor moved into the private office at City Hall that was previously occupied by the former city administrator. She and Mrs. Brewer immersed themselves in the city’s recordkeeping and financial history, combed through ordinances and policies, and became familiar with state laws regulating municipal government.
“We were the only two who had the availability, so we rolled up our sleeves for the daily administration of the city,” Mrs. Brewer said. “We set out on a quest to find out whether the city was financially stable.”
After sifting through financial reports and contracting with a local bookkeeper to help, the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer reported to the public and the council that the city’s financial debt had been under-reported and that some documents could not be found. Together, they blamed previous councils for decisions they said were not in the city’s best interest. As a result, they said a tax increase was necessary.
“We just happened to be on the same page on issues we saw in the city,” Mrs. Brewer said.
After spending so much time together at City Hall, a friendship also developed between the two colleagues, Mrs. Brewer said. She said she tries to separate that “after 5 (p.m.) friendship” from city business, adding that the two often disagree on city issues.
When asked to provide an example, she said the two differed on whether the city should permit a digital sign at the intersection of US Highway 183 and State Highway 29. The Mayor was opposed to it and Mrs. Brewer voted favorably with the majority of the council.
“I vote no sometimes because I’ve done my research and found that something is not in the best interest of Liberty Hill,” she said, referencing the many times she has voted against the majority and on the side of the Mayor. “To those who feel I am her puppet, they are sadly mistaken. I am not anyone’s puppet.”
Mrs. Brewer said while some have perceived the time she spent at City Hall as improper, she was simply trying to help.
“If they choose not to (volunteer at City Hall), I don’t criticize them,” Mrs. Brewer said. “But they aren’t there to offer any other solutions.”
Running the City like a business
Mrs. Brewer said some council members have accused her and the Mayor of “stonewalling things.” But in reality, the implementation of some policies and directives requires time for legal review.
“We’re going to do it right, legal and ethical,” she said. “Many of the people on the city council don’t seem to be able to accept the fact that the city is a business.”
Mrs. Brewer, who was replaced last Monday by Mrs. Fuller as Mayor Pro Tem, said the Council “tied the hands of the City” when it limited the Mayor’s authority.
“I don’t see the two ends of the rope coming together because of wording in his (Boatright’s employment) contract. They don’t want the Mayor having any part in day-to-day activities. Yet, I don’t see Greg having the opportunity to do that because of the business community’s expectations of him.”
Mrs. Brewer said in the past year, the morale of city employees has increased dramatically.
“We worked hard in a year to empower people, and up until six weeks ago, morale was good. When we were moving out (of City Hall) yesterday (May 28), there were a lot of red-brimmed eyes,” she said, tearfully. “Contrary to the belief of some city council members, we have a dynamite staff. They have been directed by the Mayor to do things professionally, legally and to have pride and dignity in what they do. They were not real happy with us leaving.”
Mrs. Brewer, who moved to Liberty Hill several years ago, said she is the only person currently serving on the council who has no familial ties to the community and no longevity in Liberty Hill. She sees those qualities as attributes.
“I’m not one to be pining back to the days of what used to be because I don’t know what that was,” she said.
“Being on the city council has changed my personality,” she said. “Do I second guess myself? Yes. But, I feel I have honestly made the best decisions I could, given the information I had.
“Someone recently told me that sometimes the voice of reason is quiet and soft-spoken, and sometimes the quiet voice of reason shouts louder than the person grandstanding,” Mrs. Brewer said.
Finding center ground
“The nature of government is adversarial to begin with,” said Mrs. Brewer. “As a whole, we have to figure out the direction the city is going to take. We have six people (on the City Council) pulling in different directions and not really doing anything.”
Mrs. Brewer said she thought the Council should hold a workshop retreat in another town and “sequester ourselves with the appropriate advisors” to develop a vision for the city.
“I don’t think the leaders of the city know what they want to accomplish. Leadership without vision is not leadership,” she said.
Mrs. Brewer said she is willing to work with Boatright, but added that it is the Mayor and Boatright who must work together in order for the city to move forward.
“They don’t have to get along, but they need to find middle ground. It needs to be Mr. Boatright who makes more of an overt effort. We are the elected officials,” Mrs. Brewer said.