City, Chamber strike deal on downtown office space

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The Stubblefield Building downtown, which was refurbished by the City and opened to the public last May, is going to be home to the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, and a new place for visitors to learn more about the area.

The Liberty Hill City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve a proposed agreement with the Chamber allowing the organization to office in the building.

In exchange for the space, the Chamber agrees to staff the office with an employee or volunteer to keep it open for visitors from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and four consecutive hours each day Saturday and Sunday.

The Chamber will pay the building’s electricity and $10 per phone line, while the City will cover other utility costs.

The Council supported the agreement, but Council member Kathy Canady said it was not clear the Chamber would also support it.

“This vote is to approve the contract and what we will send to the Chamber,” she said. “They may not like it. We may not have any agreement. This is what we want if they’re agreeable to it.”

Just before noon Tuesday, Chamber Board President Jared King issued a press release to The Independent applauding the proposal, with the release implying the Chamber Board was in favor of the agreement.

“The Fowler/Stubblefield Building has been a cornerstone of our community since 1871,” the release states. “Over its history, the lower level was used as a home for many businesses. It is with love of it and what it represents to the arts, culture and business community that the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce hopes to partner with the City to establish its new office there.”

It was not clear whether the press release was an official endorsement of the proposed agreement, but the implied support raised questions of whether members of the Chamber had seen or been involved in outlining the agreement prior to Monday’s meeting.

King declined an interview on the issue. He did say through an exchange of emails with The Independent that the City brought the idea of the partnership to the Chamber. He confirmed the Chamber Board had not met officially to vote on the agreement and anticipated voting soon.

Mayor Rick Hall refused to answer questions Tuesday on who first suggested the partnership, saying Mayor pro tem Liz Rundzieher was the contact for the issue and that he had “been totally out of the whole conversation.”

Rundzieher could not be reached for comment before this week’s deadline.

Conflict of interest?
Two weeks after the City Council’s initial closed-session discussion of the potential agreement, Hall declared Monday he was recusing himself from further consideration of the agreement.

“I have executed a conflict of interest affidavit and filed it with the City Secretary,” Hall said prior to the Council taking up the item Monday. “I am recusing myself from this discussion, participation and or voting because my spouse has a substantial economic interest in one of the parties of the agreement being considered.”

But two weeks prior, Hall did participate in the closed-session discussion, which led to the Council emerging and voting to move ahead with specifics in drafting the agreement.

Rundzieher made the motion Jan. 13 to move forward.

“I would like to ask the attorney to draw up an agreement between the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Liberty Hill as we discussed in the executive session and have the contract at the next meeting this month,” she motioned.

The Council approved the motion without discussion or explanation of what that agreement was for.

In a telephone interview Jan. 15, Hall declined to provide more details of the agreement the Council intended to present.

“That’s when we’re going to discuss it in open (session),” Hall said. “We are discussing with our legal counsel on how we want the agreement structured. Then we are going to have to vote on it that we want to send this agreement to the Chamber. Then they will have to vote to accept it so this is not a one and done process.”

When asked Tuesday, Hall defended the choice to not recuse himself from earlier discussions on the agreement.

“I recused myself last night because it was on the voting of the contract,” he said. “Still, as the Mayor of the City I’m still responsible for what happens here. I still get say, but again the Council is the ultimate authority so I had input as far as what I would expect and then the Council made the final decision as far as what they wanted and then I recused myself last night from the vote and even the reading of it over the perceived conflict of interest I have with my wife being on the Chamber Board.”

Hall served as Chamber of Commerce President up until shortly after his announcement to run for Mayor in February 2018. Hall’s wife, Jerri Hall, currently serves as the Chamber’s Executive Director.

Council fluctuations
One point of contention on the issue of the Chamber of Commerce having an office in the building is the change of direction over the last three years on how the City intended to use the facility.

Canady made the argument Monday that when the purchase was made, the intent was for the Chamber to operate from the building.

“There’s been some things that need to be clarified I think from the intention of what we did at the last meeting,” she said, reading an excerpt from an article in The Independent from Jan. 13, 2017.

“The City Council voted Monday to purchase the historic Fowler Building downtown for $225,000….following a 25 minute executive session the Council voted unanimously to approve the purchase which will be made with revenue generated by tax notes. Council member Elizabeth Branigan said the City intends to restore the historic building at 1000 Loop 332 to its original state and plans to use it for offices and meeting space with the possibility of a small museum showcasing sketches and artifacts from the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium that was organized by Mel Fowler from his art studio. City Administrator Greg Boatright told The Independent in December that the first floor of the building would house the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce and the City’s Economic Development Corp. The second floor would be home to the symposium museum.”

Canady’s citing of the article was meant to counter the recent report in The Independent that in January 2019, when the possibility of housing the Chamber in the building was proposed to the Council by then Chamber of Commerce President Kim Sanders, the Council unanimously refused to consider the request.

A number of Council members at the time spoke out against the idea, and the Council voted 4-0, including Rundzieher, to deny use of the building to the Chamber.

“When we purchased the Fowler Building, we did that with the understanding we were going to use it as an art museum, then we had the Chamber come, and somebody intimated to them they could use the Fowler House as offices,” then Council member Ron Rhea said. “What we voted on was to use that as an art museum and an archive for the City of Liberty Hill and when we have special events we could use that building. It is not to house the EDC or the Chamber or anybody else. I’d like to reaffirm what we originally voted on, regardless of promises that were made to the Chamber from whomever.”

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