Questions remain on ethics issue

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

A week after being questioned by Mayor Rick Hall over his business dealings and their connections to City projects, local developer Chris Pezold didn’t see his opportunity to address the City Council on the May 28 agenda.

Instead, he addressed Council members during the public comments portion of the meeting, using the time to resign his post as Chair of the Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Commission and share his disappointment over the accusations.

“Nothing I have done has been illegal or unethical,” Pezold said. “I am deeply saddened by how my hard work in Old Town was used to promote divisiveness and ultimately get this ruling majority on the Council. They do not respect others’ opinions nor do they value the truth. I have no faith in the new leadership.”

Pezold asked that, going forward, all accusations against him be put in writing and be signed by the person making the accusation to be forwarded to his attorney.

“Where do you go from here?” Pezold asked the Council. “After running on a campaign of false allegations against your opponents and City staff, how do you unite this town? Those people were respected and appreciated by many.”

At the center of the allegations is land Pezold owns in the proposed path of the Stubblefield Lane extension project and the land he sold to the City for a roundabout. Those issues were the topic of discussion at a May 20 meeting between Pezold and Hall, where City Administrator Greg Boatright was also present.

Following the meeting, Pezold said he was told he would be on the May 28 agenda to discuss the issue further in executive session directly with Council members.

No explanation was given as to why Pezold was not on the agenda.

When asked after the meeting why Pezold was not listed on the agenda and what the next step in the process would be, Hall told The Independent he was unsure where it would go next.

“I was going to set it up, but according to public comments tonight he is going to resign, so I’m not for sure that there’s any reason to venture back down that road at all,” Hall said. “I’ll talk with him and find out what the change is from when he told me he wasn’t going to resign to today.

“I really don’t know what the future of that issue is. I will have to speak with our legal counsel now, especially with the comment he made tonight that he’s resigning and any other questions or comments we have to sign and give to him to go straight to his lawyer. I need to make sure that the City stays whole in this and it isn’t creating any undue issues for the City.”

Pezold said he was not contacted by Hall following their May 20 meeting, and added that he had reached out to Hall on the issue but got no response prior to the May 28 meeting, leading to his decision to address the Council during public comments.

Hall said his objections to the roundabout project and Stubblefield extension were not about alleged ethics violations, but about project priorities.

“I personally don’t feel like there was an ethics issue with the roundabout,” Hall said. “I’m not bringing up an ethics issue to try and stop it, I’m bringing up a prioritization issue to try and stop it and I think that’s my goal in that. If something happens and there is an ethics issue I think at some point in time the City will have to handle that.”

Prior to Hall’s conversation with Pezold on May 20, none of the three candidates elected May 4, or Hall himself, attached a name or project specifically to the rumors swirling on social media about unethical activity.

Following the election, all three elected Council members – Liz Rundzieher, Steve McIntosh and Gram Lankford – said the ethics question would be pursued, but after the conversation between Hall and Pezold it was unclear when or how that would be handled.

“I think it resolved itself to some degree,” McIntosh told The Independent in an interview May 29, citing Pezold’s resignation.

McIntosh called it ironic that the issue came up on the same night McIntosh signed a disclosure form and recused himself from discussion of an agenda item involving Liberty Parke, where he owns a home.

“He’s talking about proof and those kind of things,” McIntosh said of Pezold’s comments. “Why are we talking about proof? He said last night he had projects in the City. He is on Planning and Zoning, there is no ethics conflict advisement form that he filled out during those projects. I’m confused on what the confusion is.

“The ethics rules as I understand them, require that you advise the Council of any conflict of interest. If you are part of the group that’s organizing and directing and planning projects, hence Planning and Zoning, that means you have the ability to plan and direct projects toward your personal property ownership,” McIntosh said.

While Hall and McIntosh implied the matter might not be pursued due to Pezold’s resignation from the P&Z Commission, McIntosh later added that he believed the issue would be investigated further.

“As far as I’m concerned, it will be looked at,” McIntosh said. “I don’t have the answers as to what it’s going to entail. I don’t have any other information for you. This will evolve into whatever it evolves into. If it evolves into nothing it evolves into nothing. If it evolves into something, it evolves into something.”

The P&Z is an advisory board that makes recommendations to the City Council on development. According to Pezold, at no time during his tenure on P&Z was the board asked to consider or make any recommendation on either the roundabout or Stubblefield projects.

A search of P&Z Board meeting agendas dating back to the beginning of 2017 did not show either issue being brought before the board.

Related issue?
While the alleged ethics violation rumors were non-specific in social media circles throughout the City Council campaign, there was one complaint filed with the state a week before the election that could be connected.

The Independent obtained partial records from an information request submitted to the City of Liberty Hill by Gary Spivey, which included a complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission against a number of current and former City officials.

The complaint alleged unethical behavior by then-Mayor Connie Fuller and her brother, then-P&Z Chair Clyde Davis. The complaint, filed with the Texas Ethics Commission April 26 also added “other parties and names involved in potentially unethical behavior include and are not limited to: Chris Pezold; Jon Branigan and other members of the UDC; other members of the Planning & Zoning Board appointed by the previous Mayor; Frank Spenoza{sic}, head of the Economic Development Corporation; Sally McFeron, Director of Planning; Becky Wilkins, Director of Finance (and all previous persons in this position); Barbara Zwernemann, City Secretary; Greg Boatwright{sic}, City Administrator”.

The complaint cited violation of Chapter 171 of the Local Government Code, but it was dismissed by the Ethics Commission because the organization does not enforce Chapter 171.

According to the Liberty Hill Ethics Ordinance, adopted in October 2018, “Chapter 171 of the Local Government Code requires a City Official to file an affidavit disclosing substantial interest in a business or property that would be beneficially affected by a decision of the governing body or of any other board or commission upon which the member serves and thereafter abstain from participation in discussion and voting of the matter.”

While Pezold’s name is mentioned in the complaint submitted by Spivey, there are no specific allegations explained in the complaint.

According to the City’s Ethics Ordinance, there are procedures outlining how complaints should be handled. To initiate a formal review, the complainant must submit a written complaint including his or her name; the name of the party against whom the complaint is being filed; the specific sections of the Code allegedly violated; specific dates, approximate times of day, locations and other facts evidencing the alleged violations; and any documentation evidencing that a violation has occurred.

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