Stubblefield project a hot topic in city council election
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Since February, area social media pages have been buzzing with debates over the City’s Stubblefield Road project. But the debate has not been one focused on the merits of the project as much as one on regular accusations of someone using the project for personal gain.
The issue took on new life in a more public forum March 11, when area resident Jennifer King addressed the City Council about her frustrations with downtown traffic congestion, cautioning elected officials to focus on their civic duty rather than potential personal gain.
“As you consider revisiting the one-way streets and the congestion at the four-way stop, I want to remind you of your civic duty to do what is best for the community without any personal interest,” she said. “This is just a reminder that the Texas Penal Code, section 36.02 makes it a crime of bribery for a City Council member to accept or agree to a decision in which said officers benefit directly or substantially.”
King told The Independent the following day that her comment was not directed at any particular member of the Council or City project, but did not elaborate on what it meant.
She was not the first to raise the issue indirectly that something illegal may be occurring with a City project, but individuals The Independent inquired with following similar Facebook comments declined to elaborate in the issue.
Two City Council candidates – Steve McIntosh and Gram Lankford – have used social media posts or made comments indicating they believe something is awry.
McIntosh said he only knows what he has been told by others on the issue, but indicated he has heard similar stories from a variety of sources.
“I’ve been told that there are two property owner types on the Stubblefield route,” McIntosh said. “One is personal friends and two is LLCs formed with council friends and family and the council members as silent partners. I don’t know the validity of those claims but, if true, it would explain why they are so insistent on putting a roadway in that will be redundant once the county puts the by-pass in. It also would explain the apparent urgency to get the project moving forward.”
Lankford said on his campaign Facebook page that if elected he planned to “represent the entire City of Liberty Hill not just a single development.”
He said there was a particular issue related to his online comment, but hesitated to identify it.
“I’m not sure I should say,” he said. “I’m not trying to stir up any controversy.”
When pressed on the question, he said he was debating whether to bring the issue forward.
When asked about the Stubblefield project in particular, he said, “I’ve heard people voice, I guess, a negative opinion on the Stubblefield project. I’ve heard some people say that’s not really what we need to be focused on right now. We need to be focused on establishing infrastructure right now. I haven’t necessarily heard somebody just outright saying this is wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this.”
Lankford did indicate that comments from his opponent, incumbent Elizabeth Branigan, raised concerns for him.
“I can’t say that it is necessarily a special interest project,” he said. “The thing that gets me is my opponent, Liz Branigan, always voices that she represents the constituents of the Stubblefield community. She has said it on multiple occasions. It would seem that her loyalty lies heavily with the Stubblefield community and not the City at large.
“The way that Liz (Branigan) words her statements would seem to lead down that path,” he said. “Now I can’t say it is a special interest project, I’ve never heard that. I’ve heard people say it in passing, but there’s no evidence to support that claim.”
Branigan said the reference has been misrepresented. She did say she was representing the Old Town community on the one-way streets debate because she felt those residents were being underrepresented, but that she does represent the residents of the entire city.
The city contracted in August with Sheets and Crossfield P.C., a law firm in Round Rock, to handle right of way acquisition for upcoming projects, including Stubblefield.
To date, no negotiations for the purchase of right of way have taken place, but on the City’s website, a planned path for the project identifies the properties impacted.
“Basically what we have currently is a right of entry agreement with the property owners,” said City Administrator Greg Boatright. “That allows us to get in to survey, do everything we need to do as far as alignment. We’re a long way from negotiating actual transactions for acquiring property. It’s all public information.”
None of the Council members are shown to be connected to any property in question through the right of entry agreements, and Boatright said if anyone was connected in any way to the project, they would have to declare that at the onset of any discussions of the issue.
“They would have to recuse themselves from anything regarding Stubblefield,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about construction, intersection improvements or anything else.”
As the non-specific accusations of wrongdoing have surfaced – with no one specifying any names or direct ties – The Independent asked each Council member the same question.
“Do you own, or are you connected to anyone who owns property on the proposed route, or do you stand to gain financially in any way from the right of way purchase by the City for the road expansion?”
Each member of the Council responded that they did not own property, were not related to those who own property, and did not stand to gain financially from the project.
There are 29 properties currently identified as connected to the planned path for the road. The contacts, according to the right of entry agreements, for the properties are: Louis Rentals, Fellowship Baptist Church, Clark and Rosalind Collins, Chris and Casey Pezold, Barbara Rigby Family Trust, Christopher Torti, P&L Investment Group LP (Kanton Labaj), Jewel Bogan, Margarito and Marisol Banda-Zeledon, Marsha Jane Beiter, Michael and Cathleen Cantrell, Douglas Cantrell, James Mather, Raymond and Pamela Cantrell, James Patrick and Lisa Harlow, Scott Lee Helms, Barbara Forbes, Grady and Amber Daniels, Victoria Lynn Honeycutt, Francis Donahue, Jenna Radtke, Sabrina Barker, Judith and Rickey Hetherland, Brian and Lisa Kirk, Michael and Kimberlee Bartlett, Shayne and Cyndi Kilian, John Cantrell, Fidel Loza, and Murray and Pamela Choate.
Mayor Rick Hall said he has seen no evidence that there is any wrongdoing on the part of anyone on the Council, saying he has heard the same rumors as everyone else.
“All I hear is just what people are saying,” he said. “I really don’t know if there is anything involved with it. I’ve never personally had any involvement myself and I’d hope there wouldn’t be. I honestly can’t tell you if there is anything that I know for a fact anybody is involved with.
“The only thing we can do, is either have the newspaper or somebody look into it,” Hall said. “That’s one of the problems any growing community faces is as small as we are, rumors get started and it doesn’t take long for that rumor to go clear across the community. Then sometimes, if they say it enough it appears to be a reality when it’s really not.”
The project as planned
Some opponents of the project have said it is not needed because Williamson County has a bypass on its long-range transportation plan that would run south around the city from SH 29 west of Liberty Hill to SH 29 one mile east of US Hwy 183.
County Commissioner Cynthia Long said the proposal is for a controlled access roadway to be tolled, adding it would also be a Texas Department of Transportation project.
She said the proposal for the Stubblefield extension and the planned bypass are not repetitive efforts.
“They’re not in conflict,” Long said. “I think those will work in concert with each other.”
After selecting Doucet & Associates in May 2018 to do the engineering work for the Stubblefield realignment, the Council approved the contract in August for $324,960.
As a cost-saving move, the decision was made to have Doucet & Associates do only part of the work now on Phase 2. The Phase 2 plans will only be 30 percent plans initially, but will allow the City to move forward with acquiring right of way before finals plans are completed.
The cost for all of Phase 1 engineering, to include services through the bid and construction phase is $223,520.
The preliminary design work for Phase 2, which includes survey and design, is $101,440.
The plan is to go from Loop 332, across from Liberty Hill Elementary School, southward to eventually intersect with County Road 279. Phase 1 will go from Loop 332 to Fallwell Street, with Phase 2 eventually connecting from there to CR 279. The City estimates the total cost of both phases of the project to be about $6 million, not including the engineering costs to date or right of way acquisition.