Branigan topples Hall

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor
Only six candidates since the incorporation of Liberty Hill had surpassed the 100 vote mark in an election, but Tuesday, Mayor Rick Hall and challenger Liz Branigan each shattered that mark.

Despite the heavy voter turnout, it was Branigan’s record haul – finishing with 609 – that carried her into the Mayor’s seat. Hall finished with 506. The previous high mark was 125 for Mike Crane in 2011.

“It was an exciting night,” Branigan said of her victory. “The last Mayor’s race there were only 120-something votes and the previous mayor (Connie Fuller) lost by that tiny margin. This race had 10 times the turnout and people went to vote because they wanted change. I’m very impressed with the level of turnout and I’m going to claim a mandate for positive change in the City.”

Branigan lost her reelection bid to the Council in May 2019 to Gram Lankford 72-44, and Hall won the 2018 Mayor’s race over Connie Fuller 72-57. The high levels of support in this election were not lost on Branigan.

“I want to thank voters for their confidence,” she said. “I want to assure them I am going to work toward keeping Liberty Hill the best hometown it can possibly be and I will be citizen-focused.”
She also said moving forward that more community involvement would be needed to make the changes she envisions.

“The most important thing is I can’t do it alone,” Branigan said. “I’m going to need help from the citizenry. We’re going to need at least three candidates for the new City Council for May and we’re going to need people here interested in the boards and commissions.”

In his term, Hall spearheaded an effort that resulted in the expansion of the Mayor’s role and supervisory authority over City staff, ultimately moving on from former City Administrator Greg Boatright and not replacing him for nearly 18 months, despite promising in August 2018 that a new administrator would be hired.

Instead, Hall assumed the duties of administrator, which ultimately led to the termination or non-renewal of contracts for five more City employees. In March, the City hired Lacie Hale as Chief Operating Officer in lieu of hiring an administrator, but on Oct. 13 Hale was elevated to City Administrator.

During Hall’s time as Mayor, the City has spent liberally on capital projects, often seeing them expand beyond their original budget. The City currently faces a pair of lawsuits, one from former Police Chief Maverick Campbell and another over the effluent released by the wastewater plant.

Hall has also been dogged during his term with allegations of inappropriate behavior and intoxication at City events, and angry outbursts in the office from a number of former City employees.

The City Council also approved salaries for the Mayor – $40,000 per year – and Council members at $12,000 per year. The salaries do not take effect until each position is up for reelection, meaning Council members Tony DeYoung and Kathy Canady will each receive the salary first as both were unopposed on the ballot Tuesday. Branigan has stated she will not accept the budgeted salary for the Mayor’s position.

The budget, and capital project spending were tops on Branigan’s list of things to dive into immediately.

“It’s possible I will request a spending freeze so we can straighten out what happened to the budget,” she said. “Also, we need to get a group together to comb through the budget to find where it went wrong. The second thing will be that we will stop the current construction projects and reevaluate those because I’m seeing almost a million dollars in debt service being added to our budget and there’s no wiggle room in our current budget that I can see, certainly not a million dollars in debt service.”

What will also likely change fairly quickly is the supervisory structure for City employees, where Hall played a key day-to-day role, something Branigan has no plans to do as Mayor.

“It is going to have to evolve over time,” Branigan said of the transition. “Of course we have a City Administrator but she’s very new. It is possible we will have to engage some consultants to find the best way forward with this. I don’t intend to sit in City Hall and micromanage people, that’s not what I am about.”

The race was not only characterized by the highest ever turnout for the City, but it proved the most costly as Hall raised $19,300 in his reelection bid to Branigan’s $1,380.

The City Council must now determine how to implement new three-year terms, which passed as a proposition Tuesday with 62.5 percent of the vote, 735-441. The first positions to have the new three-year terms will be those on the May 2021 ballot that includes Place 1 (Steve McIntosh), Place 3 (Gram Lankford), and Place 5 (Liz Rundzieher).

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