Council increases Mayor’s supervisory authority

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The extended Council debate about who should have supervisory authority over municipal officers in Liberty Hill, and exactly how that is defined on a daily basis, made it through a vote Monday but didn’t leave everyone satisfied with what it all means for the future.

By a 3-2 margin, with Council members Liz Rundzieher, Steve McIntosh and Gram Lankford voting for and Ron Rhea and Tony DeYoung voting against, the Liberty Hill Employee Handbook and related ordinances were changed to provide Mayor Rick Hall more supervisory authority.

According to the change in the Handbook, the “City Administrator, City Secretary, Municipal Court Administrator, Finance Director, Chief of Police and Code Enforcement Officer shall be directly supervised by the Mayor.”

Council member Rhea argued to the Council that information from his inquiry with Texas Municipal League pointed to a conflict of interest and potential legal issues faced by the City with the change.

“We have a City Administrator we have appointed to rule the City from day-to-day operations,” Rhea said. “This is going to be a conflict of interest and it is going to be incompatible with the Mayor having everybody directly under him.”

Rhea, and former Planning and Zoning Board Chairman Chris Pezold, both alleged at the meeting the change was an effort to consolidate authority over staff under Hall, with Pezold suggesting during the public comments portion of the meeting that it was an effort by Hall to take a salaried position within the City.

“Liberty Hill has always had a volunteer Council and Mayor, with people who came from here who volunteered for the love of community,” Pezold said. “Now we have a Mayor that is attempting to get complete control over all the departments in the City. Make no mistake, he’ll be asking for a salary next.”

Following the May 27 Council meeting, Hall was asked about his intent regarding the agenda item and whether it was a goal of the Council or his goal as mayor to remove City Administrator Greg Boatright.

While he did not respond to the question directly, he said at the time the change was about his own past management experience.

Rhea continued to focus in the debate Monday on the legal ramifications he believed the City would face under the change.

“There needs to be the separation of powers, that’s what’s going to protect the citizens of Liberty Hill,” Rhea said. “No one should have a dual office in this City. You can vote for it, but I want to go on the record that I am totally against this. I’m telling you, we are going to step on a landmine as a City. I believe this is a reckless piece of agenda item that is going to cause a lot of pain for Liberty Hill if this is passed.”

Citing the example of a Council disregarding the Second Amendment within the city limits, Rhea said the City would be opening itself to legal challenges by making the change.

“The City Council can ignore legal opinion,” he said. “You can pass it and we can do that. It’s kind of extreme, but the principle is the same. We’re going to have something that is going to have a lot of legal issues with it, in my opinion, if we adopt this. I don’t want to have any part of it.”

The legal opinion cited by Rhea was from the Texas Attorney General’s Office in 2001, Opinion JC-0371, which found it was incompatible for a school board trustee to also serve as a volunteer teacher in the school district.

The opinion states, “Incompatibility is an aspect of dual office holding. The doctrine prohibits a person from holding two positions simultaneously where one position might impose its policies on the other or subject it to control in some other way. Three branches of incompatibility have been recognized by the courts and this office: self- appointment, self-employment, and conflicting loyalties.”

Rundzieher took issue with Rhea’s conclusion, saying that the City’s own legal counsel told members there was no legal issue with the change.

“When you e-mailed Dottie (Palumbo) and asked her about this and she sent you back the e-mail that she sent to all of us, there is nothing illegal, wrong, or anything else about what we are doing right here,” Rundzieher said. “She stated that. You didn’t mention the fact that you had talked with our legal counsel and our legal counsel said that it was correct.”

Another point of contention was whether the change was simply an effort to change the handbook and ordinance wording back to what it had been previously, before Hall was elected.

“There’s a rumor going around that with the previous Mayor it used to be that way,” Rhea said. “That is untrue. That’s a lie. It is disinformation. If it is true, show me the facts.”

Hall disagreed.

“That was changed after I came on, so we are just trying to put everything back to the way it used to be,” he said. “The actual ordinances state that all of these officers report to the Council, the Mayor and the Council, with the Mayor having the direct day-to-day conversations, like it is with any other City.”

The question of separation of powers pertains only to the supervision of the Municipal Court Judge, according to Hall.

“As the Mayor of the City, I can’t direct the Municipal Court Judge in doing his job when he is supposed to be upholding the laws that the City Council here decides,” Hall said. “That’s a separation of powers that Liz (Rundzieher), Dottie (Palumbo) and I talked about. It has nothing to do with the other officers.”

DeYoung asked for more clarification on the definition of day-to-day supervision.

“No one can be fired unless the City Council approves it, nobody can be hired unless the City Council approves it,” Hall said. “The day-to-day, is in case something happens, because right now, with Greg (Boatright) having all these officers report to him, if there is a question that has to come up and he needs an answer for it, right now the City Council is who he reports to and not having a day-to-day supervisor he might have to wait two weeks to get an answer.”

Wastewater expansion
The Council awarded the bid for the City’s wastewater plant expansion to Cunningham Constructors & Associates, Inc., of Georgetown.

The expansion will add 1.2 million gallons per day in treatment capacity and will cost the City $9.8 million to construct.

The new plant, brought online last spring, can treat 800,000 gallons per day. This spring, the City was forced to bring the original Sequential Batch Reactor (SBR) plant purchased from LCRA back online because capacity at the new plant was nearing maximum capacity.

Public Works Director Wayne Bonnet reported at Monday’s meeting that the plant treated an average of 756,000 gallons per day in May, with a peak of 941,000 gallons in a single 24-hour period during the month.

The expansion, which is part of the original plan to increase capacity with the new Membrane Bioreactor (MBR) plant, will bring the total treatment capacity to 2 million gallons per day.

The City received four bids, ranging from Cunningham’s low bid to $14.8 million. The project is anticipated to be completed within 450-480 days from the start of construction.

The Council also approved a professional services agreement with Microdyn MBR for a maximum amount of $130,000 to provide additional training and technical support to City staff for the operation and maintenance of the wastewater plant and expansion.

The Council met for more than an hour with legal counsel in closed session, in part to discuss “continuation of legal services, including city council evaluation of legal team’s performance, review of duties, and discussion of preferred attorney-client communication.” No action was taken and there was no discussion of the issue in open meeting.

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