By SHELLY WILKISON
Immediately after the Liberty Hill City Council voted 3-2 Monday to keep doing business with an Austin law firm, elected officials questioned then disregarded the City Attorney’s legal advice.
In June, the Council met in closed session to discuss the performance of the Bojorquez Law Firm, which was retained last year to handle the city’s legal issues. While some officials have complained about costly legal fees charged by the firm, Council members including Mayor Jamie Williamson have also expressed concerns about advice offered by the firm.
When the firm’s contract for services was up for renewal this summer, the Council also considered a proposal by Russell & Rodriguez, a Georgetown firm that previously served as the city’s attorney firm.
“The last time we went to executive session on the evaluation of the Bojorquez firm and I brought up some concerns. We took no action, so it’s back on the agenda,” said Mayor Williamson.
“I think now is a terrible time to change things,” said Councilman Wendell McLeod, who in previous council meetings has complained about the firm’s high legal bills. “We’ve got to get the water thing going and the comprehensive plan. (Changing firms now) would stall all that.”
McLeod’s motion to keep the firm on retainer was approved by a 3-2 vote. Voting with McLeod were Council members Connie Fuller and Elizabeth Branigan. Opposed were Council members Liz Rundzieher and Vicki Brewer. The Mayor may not vote except to break a tie.
The current firm “needs to come to conclusion of the projects (water and wastewater) and then we can make the change,” added Ms. Branigan.
“I’m not sure what you (Ms. Branigan) and Wendell’s conversation was, but if you want to change attorneys in the future, you will need to bring it back to Council,” said Mayor Williamson.
After the meeting, the Mayor said legal work conducted in May that was billed to the City by Bojorquez would have been almost $500 less if it had been conducted by Russell & Rodriguez. She said her estimate was based on proposals submitted by both firms.
The Independent’s Open Records Request to the City for both legal proposals was not provided by press time Wednesday.
Immediately following the vote to keep Bojorquez on retainer, the Council voted to approve the purchase of patrol car camera systems using the Municipal Court Technology Fund — a decision that went against the advice of Attorney Cathy Riedel.
Chief Randy Williams, who in June requested to use Technology funds to pay a portion of the $23,000 camera systems, has taken issue with Ms. Riedel’s position that such a purchase is not an acceptable use of the funds. In June, the Council delayed a vote on the purchase for two meetings because Ms. Riedel said Technology Funds may only be used to improve court security or the functions of the court — the money should not benefit law enforcement.
Chief Williams said the department’s current camera systems are failing and outdated audio equipment commonly cuts out making the video of traffic stops unreliable. He said the portable microphones can not be repaired, and new camera systems are needed.
Interim City Manager Greg Boatright said he had contacted the Texas Municipal League, an association that represents member city governments, about the issue. He said TML would not speak to the question of whether the purchase was legal or not. Instead they advised that the Council should heed the advice of its attorney.
To defend his position that Technology Fund could be used for this purchase, Chief Williams provided the Council with documents he obtained from the website of the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center showing approved technology including a photograph of the in-car camera system he is trying to purchase. Ms. Riedel is a former employee of the TMCEC.
“We had pictures of Mayberry RFD up there (on the TMCEC website) to illustrate points,” Ms. Riedel said. “I don’t think hell will open up and swallow you up for that purchase. I have nothing else to say on this and you can decide what you want.” She added that her legal opinion was based on 35 years of legal practice.
Mayor Williamson said she had twice sent email to TMCEC inquiring about use of the Technology Fund for the purchase, but received no response.
“They responded to me and Lolly (Chevera, Municipal Court administrator) two weeks ago. Their response was the same as my legal opinion that this is not an acceptable use of those funds,” Ms. Riedel said.
Mrs. Chevara said use of the equipment helps with the prosecution of cases, which benefits the court.
McLeod’s motion to follow the Attorney’s advice and not authorize the purchase was seconded by Mrs. Fuller, but failed 2-3.
Mrs. Brewer then made a motion to approve the purchase using the Technology Fund and additional sources within the current police budget. The motion was approved 3-2 with Mrs. Rundzieher and Ms. Branigan voting yes and McLeod and Mrs. Fuller opposed.
Also Monday, the Council heard from a developer looking to build 330 single-family homes within the city limits.
If approved, construction could begin as early as this fall on Liberty Parke subdivision, which would be built on State Highway 29 on property near Classic Bank, across the highway from Stonewall Ranch.
The Council did not have all the documentation it needed Monday to approve a preliminary plat, and decided to table the item until its July 22nd meeting. The development has already received the approval of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission.
Will Newton of Capitol Land Resources, the developer of the subdivision, said the plan calls for annexation into the city limits.
“This would meet all city ordinances. We’re not asking for variances. We are not a MUD and would voluntary annex into the city,” he said.
The Council held a brief public hearing on the proposed annexation of 10.3 acres along RR 1869, which is the proposed site of a 100-unit townhome apartment complex — Liberty Trails Townhomes.
Randy Odell of Shin Oak Realty spoke against the annexation. Odell, who owns nine acres just north of the proposed rental development, said the City did not notify him of the hearing as required by law.
The Council will vote on the annexation at a future meeting.
In other business Monday, the Council voted 3-2 to hire Financial Consultant David Kautz of Round Rock to conduct a review of the city’s financial statements and financial position. At the hourly rate of $85, Kautz will spend up to 40 hours on the project for a projected total expense of about $4,000.
Boatright said the work to be conducted is not an audit.
“He will be a financial advisor…bringing some guidance and professionalism to city finances,” Boatright said.
The Mayor questioned where the money would come from to pay the contract and questioned the timing of the review — just before the City begins budget preparations for fiscal 2013. Without providing a specific answer, Boatright said the money would come from the City’s general operating fund.
McLeod said Kautz’ services will be needed during the budget process.
McLeod, Mrs. Fuller and Mrs. Rundzieher voted yes and Mrs. Brewer and Ms. Branigan were opposed.
In business relating to City Park on CR 200, the Council voted 4-1 with Mrs. Brewer the lone no vote to accept the bid of Rick Roberts to build a septic system for the restrooms at the park. Roberts bid $16,800 on the project, which should be complete within four weeks.
“This will get the restrooms operable, and as soon as the sewer is extended to CR 200, we will be able to connect at a minimum expense to the City,” said Boatright. He said it could take up to two years to connect the restrooms to city sewer, depending on what happens with the property adjacent to the park.
“I know the Parks Board is concerned (about a septic system at the park), but the City Council was concerned,” said Mrs. Fuller, addressing members of the Parks Board who attended Monday’s meeting. “We had a bid for $60,000, but it was one and a half years old. We knew it would be more than that. When installers came out and said this would work, I believed them. We did this because we needed to save money. All of these people (engineers and installers) can’t be so wrong that it won’t work.”
The City is still waiting on the installation of electricity and water at the park. The septic system will need both to operate.
The Council approved the language of park rules recommended by the Parks Board, as well as signage for the park and a rental agreement form for use of the pavilion.
The Council also heard a report on progress made on updates to the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Mrs. Fuller suggested the Council hold a two-hour workshop prior to the next regular meeting July 22 to get input from the City’s appointees on boards and commissions. A representative of the law firm will coordinate development of the Comprehensive Plan. Boatright said funds were available from the Economic Development Corp. to pay for the work.
The Council also adopted Boatright’s recommendation to set utility review fees for developers.
Additionally, the panel voted 4-1 to approve a motion by McLeod to change all city limits signs to show its population at 967. Although a final decision has not been made regarding the City’s appeal of the population figure, McLeod said it was time to make the signs consistent.
A previous council appealed the 967 population figure suggesting it was too low. Mayor Williamson said a final decision is expected this summer, which could change the number.
Mrs. Rundzieher, who was a member of the council that appealed the population number, voted no on McLeod’s motion.
“I’m tired of discussing this with you,” the Mayor said to McLeod, who has brought the matter to the Council on numerous occasions. “Let’s change the sign so Councilman McLeod will be happy.”