By SHELLY WILKISON
Looking for professionalism in city government and an improved image for Liberty Hill, more than 150 business owners and city residents have signed petitions and will place signs on their property this week supporting Greg Boatright as City Manager.
Boatright, a business owner and former county commissioner, was hired in May to serve as interim city manager and director of the Economic Development Corp. His contract expires at the end of September and Mayor Jamie Williamson and some members of the City Council are opposed to his continued employment. Boatright was hired over the strong objections of the Mayor and Councilmember Vicki Brewer, who together were running the day-to-day operations of the city prior to his employment. At the same time Boatright was hired, the Council voted to strip the Mayor of most of her power and later directed her to move out of her office at City Hall.
At a standing-room-only meeting of the Christian Business Leaders Association Tuesday, attendees appeared to be supportive of Boatright. Many had already signed the petition, part of which was presented to the City Council Monday by Jon Branigan, who also serves as president of the CBLA. Branigan’s mother, Elizabeth Branigan, is a member of the City Council.
As the keynote speaker Tuesday, Boatright informed business leaders of efforts to grow the local economy, annex property for residential developments, bring much-needed water to the community and improve city revenues by becoming a wastewater retailer to area municipal utilitiy districts.
He said Liberty Hill’s success when it comes to water and wastewater projects lies in its ability to maintain good relationships with neighboring communities — a trust he says he has developed with them over the years.
“Having relationships and having them mean something for the City is important,” he said. “They carry the big stick at the table and all we have is our power of persuasion. I have a good relationship with Leander and Georgetown. They trust me, they know my track record.”
However, at the forefront of Tuesday’s discussion was the controversy surrounding his continued employment with the City.
Boatright fielded questions about the ongoing differences between council members, between the Mayor and Boatright, the growing rift between elected officials and the business community, and the impact that the public fight is having on the image of Liberty Hill.
“I’m trying to repair some of the ill feelings between the (elected) leadership and our community,” he said. “There’s been a lot of ill will between the Council and the business community and I want to correct that.
“Let’s end the era of disagreement and get on with the business of the city. That’s what I’m about,” he said.
Tension between business leaders and the City Council has increased in recent years, but escalated this summer as elected officials considered a tax increase that business leaders say will impact them more than homeowners.
Branigan says business property owners pay a large portion of city property taxes yet they don’t reside in the city limits and have no vote in council elections. However, as taxpayers, they should still have a voice in city government.
“We’re the ones who are going to pay the taxes,” said Frank Spinosa, a local business owner who also chairs the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors. “For the third year in a row, taxes are going up. It’s time the CBLA spoke up and let our voices be heard in the community. We’ve been too silent.”
“You guys (business owners) are paying the bills and we need to listen to you,” Boatright added.
When asked to identify the root of the conflict between the Mayor, Mrs. Brewer and himself, Boatright said it was a “power struggle.”
“I think the Mayor is in disagreement with what the Council directed (removing her power and hiring Boatright). She sees it as her responsibility to operate the City and be the CEO of the City,” he said. “That disagreement has caused division on the Council and caused a lot of tension between the Mayor and myself. There is a disagreement of roles currently between staff and council, and I can’t fulfill my role without cooperation of the Council.
“My experience has been that when you have disagreement, you find yourself being more atune to what’s going on with the governing body than the business at hand. We need to get off that track,” he said.
Boatright said the relationship between the Council and staff “could be repaired to where it’s a workable situation, but it will take compromise on every side. It is paramount that we get on the same page. It’s evident that the Mayor has disagreements and I’m the focal point of that. There are aspects (of city government) that are working, but everyone needs to buy in and that’s a difficult equation to reach right now.”
Boatright said having a professional staff will be the key to moving Liberty Hill forward.
“We have to be committed in the way we deal with people. Answer questions in a professional, courteous manner. We need professional staff. Moving forwward, staff is the key component to improving the perception, the way we conduct ourselves with our business community,” he said.
When asked why some council members are reluctant to accept that the city manager should be the day-to-day administrator as opposed to an elected official, Boatright said “sometimes it’s difficult to separate issues and personalities. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate yourself from the issue and the people who brought the issue at hand to the table.
“I want there to come a day when you look at the dais and don’t see personalities, but only honest discussions of what we’re doing for the city,” he said.
“When you kick Janet Oliver out of a meeting, that’s something,” Spinosa said, referring to the Mayor’s action Monday to eject Mrs. Oliver and two other citizens who applauded a statement made by another Council member against the Mayor. “It may sound funny, but it’s not. It’s a serious issue.”
Boatright said he did not go “looking for the job” of city manager. He said the reason he is here is that he is trying to improve the community. Regardless of how long the Council continues to employ him, he said his goal is to “get the house in order” for the person coming behind him.
“We need to set a process whereby the ones (council members and staff) coming behind us can move forward with no interruption,” he said.
Chamber of Commerce Director Valerie Zapien challenged Boatright to assert himself more with the Council and staff.
“You have tremendous knowledge and you have to assert yourself because you represent us (business community) more than the Council does,” she said.
Boatright responded that he has to understand his role and not go beyond that because he wants all elected officials and staff to fulfill their roles and work together for the good of the city.