EDITORIAL: Secrecy, exclusion new mantra for some on Council

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Determining the intentions of people who do not make their intentions clear is never easy.

It often requires a lot of connecting the dots by looking at a number of actions – or perhaps a lack of action – to create a clearer picture.

The elected representatives of Liberty Hill have provided three very clear, telling dots to connect that when connected, send the message that decisions on what is good or bad for the City begin and end with a select few people.

Those three dots are a lack of transparency, a lack of inclusion, and most disturbing, a culture of intolerance to keep others in line.

Transparency
The current elected representatives at City Hall have shown little interest in turning over records or data requested by The Independent. This data has been requested because of a lack of information available during meetings. It has been requested to either verify claims made by the Council and Mayor Rick Hall or to fill in gaps that no one will.

Seven different requests for information were sent to the City Jan. 2. Only four of those requests have garnered any response, and three of those did not fully address the specific requests. When The Independent asks why that information has not been made available there is no response. This information is not private. It is not something to be held tightly as though the public has no right to know.

As a result, the newspaper has made the decision to file an official complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office to compel a response to the requests.

The City was similarly unresponsive to requests made last September, with the Mayor eventually meeting with The Independent to discuss the issue and ultimately saying it would not be a problem in the future. But it remains a problem today.

In addition to the stonewalling on information, the lack of discussion in public on plans and projects has left many questions unanswered. The current Council, since it was sworn in last May, has posted 18 meetings. While the time spent in executive session during one of those meetings was not annotated in the minutes, among the 17 other meetings the Council has gone into closed session 22 times, for a total of 19 hours and 11 minutes. The Council has met for 38 hours and 17 minutes in those 17 meetings, meaning half of their time in session has been kept private. A number of the subjects discussed in private have also raised suspicion regarding how those sessions are being used.

Inclusion
Liberty Hill is growing. The Mayor likes to remind people when he speaks that the city population is nearing at least 2,500. But when looking at the makeup of City boards and commissions, one might think Liberty Hill had no one else to seek ideas or input from.

The Mayor has moved to place a Council member on each of the City boards. Council member Liz Rundzieher went from being essentially an observer of Economic Development Corp. meetings to a voting member. Council member Kathy Canady was placed on an expanded Planning & Zoning Commission. Then, the Council went so far as to remove a volunteer Parks Board member so Council member Steve McIntosh could fill that place.

McIntosh attended his second Parks Board meeting Tuesday and essentially took over, telling the longtime board members in attendance what the City was planning to do with future park plans.

At the City Council retreat in late January, Mayor Hall shared a list of community members he wanted to appoint to write a City charter for Liberty Hill in preparation for one day becoming a home rule city.

The seven included five people known to be close supporters of Hall, and two Council members. The names were Bill Chapman, John Johnston, Larry Allman, Kim Sanders, Daniel Duckworth and Council members Rundzieher and Canady. The Council will have to vote on appointees to a charter committee, but there was no suggestion or effort made to seek volunteers for the committee. There was no call for inclusion or involvement. There was just more tightening the circle to include a handful of people who so far, have simply been counted on to agree with the Mayor’s plan.

Pressure
Stories have circulated since Hall was elected of a “my way or the highway” mentality at City Hall, but complainants to date have not been willing to speak on the record.

The Independent has heard rumors of Hall dressing down those who question him.

Tuesday evening, the community got its first semi-public glimpse of that pressure tactic to keep people in line with the program as it is being presented. At best, the incident was McIntosh reacting negatively to being challenged during a Parks Board meeting. At worst, it was a strong-arm tactic to intimidate community volunteers.

Following a mildly tense exchange during the Tuesday Parks Board meeting, after the meeting had adjourned, McIntosh summoned Board member Liz Branigan behind closed doors. When she returned she expressed to The Independent that she felt threatened and disrespected by his actions, relaying that she was told her “questioning would not be tolerated.”

Board President MaryLyn Jones was next to be called behind closed doors and told The Independent Wednesday that it was a hostile discussion, but declined to say more about the exchange.

Only McIntosh, Branigan, Jones and the witnesses called into the room know exactly what was said, but the claim made by Branigan fits the alleged pattern. If it was intended to be a cordial, constructive discussion why was it done after the meeting adjourned and why in secret?

It shouldn’t be assumed this approach is endorsed wholeheartedly by all five Council members, but the reality is it is happening, and no elected official is speaking out against it. Until someone questions these three issues it can be assumed the Council has tacitly endorsed what has become business as usual and a select few will continue to tighten the circle with these tactics.

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