Tensions boil after Parks Board meeting

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

What was intended to be a planning and information session for the Liberty Hill Parks Board turned into a post-meeting reprimand of two longtime members by Council member and new board appointee Steve McIntosh.

Tensions rose Tuesday during testy exchanges between McIntosh and Board member Liz Branigan.

As soon as the meeting adjourned, McIntosh – accompanied by Senior Director of Planning David Stallworth asked to serve as a witness – called Branigan into the room used by the Council for closed session.

“I was in there with Mr. McIntosh and (Stallworth) and they locked the door and proceeded to threaten me, and I don’t threaten easily,” Branigan said. “(McIntosh) told me he would not tolerate any criticism and at that point I told them that was my job to critique and debate.”

She said the closed door discussion was very hostile, adding that when she was accused of being hostile she stepped out to call in a witness of her own. City Events Coordinator Katie Amsler was then called in to serve as a second witness to the conversation, which continued behind closed doors.

“They told me I was being hostile and negative so I got up, walked to the door and called in anybody who would come in to be a witness,” Branigan said. “Following that, he (McIntosh) calmed down. The decibel level was much lower. I called for anyone to come in because they were yelling at me.

“I think what they’re trying to do is run the City, instead of from the ground up – from the populace up – they’re trying to run it from the top down. He kept saying, ‘I won’t tolerate any disagreement’.”

Branigan reiterated a number of times in an interview Wednesday morning that she believes McIntosh was placed on the Parks Board “to control it from the top.”

“What concerns me is that the board exists partly so that the public can see that their money is being spent or policies are being made after a discussion with a board of citizens and it’s not happening these days,” Branigan said. “What this administration wants to do is dictate.”

She added that the approach to his concerns about what was said during the meeting could have been handled differently.

“I think he could have furthered his point simply by treating me with respect instead of calling me in and yelling at me,” Branigan said of the incident. “I felt very disrespected and threatened.”

After Branigan emerged from the closed meeting, McIntosh then called in Parks Board President MaryLyn Jones, this time with City Council member Kathy Canady present as the only witness.

While Jones declined to comment on the specifics of what was said, she also characterized it as hostile and wished it had been discussed in open meeting.

“I was disappointed in how the meeting ended,” she said. “We had a good meeting talking about the future plans of the park. We went over the master parks plan and the projects you can see we’ve been planning for years are now being completed. I was disappointed in the fact we could not discuss our differences in open session.

“I think that’s part of our job as a board to ask questions. We can agree to disagree and I think there are some things that we do need to ask questions about. I also know it is not appropriate to have outbursts during open session, so as the President I think I am responsible and I’m going to work on that to try and help alleviate the outbursts so that we can have input from everyone in a professional manner.”

Canady – who only witnessed the discussion between McIntosh and Jones, arriving at the Council Chamber about 30 minutes after the meeting adjourned – said in an interview Wednesday that she intended to attend the Parks meeting but arrived late, where she was immediately asked to join McIntosh in the private discussion with Jones.

“I should have come, but we all forget things,” Canady said. “I meant to come. By the time I got there everyone was in timeout, I guess. I wish I would have been there from the beginning.”

Canady would not comment on exactly what was said in the meeting, but characterized it as a personality conflict.

“It was just personalities more than anything, maybe one person feels unhappy about how things are going and they’ve got a lot on their end with feelings,” she said. “Then another person takes it the same way.”

As far as why the discussion was in private, Canady said she didn’t know because it started before her arrival.

“I would rather it have been out in the front and not in the back office. It is about the growing pains in the boards maybe. I wish I could have been there from the beginning.”

When asked if she considered the meeting hostile, she said, “I don’t know if hostile is the right word. I think everyone should have stepped back and gone home, but that didn’t happen. We have to work on this. It’s a responsibility for all of us to get maybe a little thicker skin because we have too much stuff to do to have this going on.”

McIntosh did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

What led to the tension?
During the meeting, McIntosh was providing an update to the Board on area parks projects at the request of Mayor Rick Hall. He opened his update talking about Wetzel Park and the new splash pad, but then moved into more of an update on alternate future plans that differed from previous plans discussed by the Parks Board and shared with the Council. Some of the ideas mentioned and comments made drew a response from Board member and former City Council member Branigan.

“While he was running the meeting he made several factual errors, which I tried to gently correct,” Branigan said. “He could have avoided that by simply reading the past minutes or talking to any one of the board members and bringing himself up to speed before coming in. Several of those things we had already discussed.”

The suggestion was made that the park property in the Larkspur subdivision might be a good site for new baseball fields, but City staff and the Parks Board had previously discussed that property, determining it was not suited for that purpose.

“We have been in discussions with various organizations on specifically making it a sports complex,” McIntosh said of the acreage in Larkspur. “We’re still trying to do that, but we really haven’t made any progress on it yet. I know we’ve had two different groups come in offering to do something there but I don’t know the status on those.”

When pressed on the question of how suited the property was for sports fields, McIntosh asked about the shape of the tract of land, indicating he was not familiar with it.

McIntosh also discussed potential turf plans for existing fields, saying the price was very high.

“The cost is just too prohibitive,” he said on the question of turf. “It is more expensive than we realized and I don’t have the exact figure.”

At that point Branigan interjected, asking McIntosh if he had conferred with Board member Mike Wilson on the turf issue. He responded that he had not.

“Is there a reason why not?” Branigan asked, pointedly. “He’s an expert.”

Moments later, McIntosh indicated to Jones he wanted to speak to her and Branigan following the meeting.

McIntosh also spoke critically of the City’s progress on parks in his remarks during the meeting.

“We really are behind the 8 Ball as far as parks go,” McIntosh said. “I think we probably need to get moving on some of these ideas. Some of them seem to be floundering.”

But Board President Jones said much has been accomplished through the creation of the parks master plan, the Wetzel Park project and the planned swim center at City Park.

“We’ve been a busy board and we are proud of the things we have accomplished and we want to just continue doing that,” Jones said.

Less information?
Last Fall, Branigan raised a number of questions about the Parks Board budget with City Finance Director Becky Wilkins, which led to a tense exchange at that point. The comprehensive Parks Board budget or financial information has not been available since that meeting and was not presented at all Tuesday. Traditionally, the Parks Board and Economic Development Corporation receive a financial update at each meeting.

“In the prior meeting I asked how much had been spent out of our budget on events – not that I’m against events – but I think if we’re approving these things we need to at least be in the loop on how much is being spent,” Branigan said. “She (Wilkins) said she didn’t have access to that information.”

Branigan said she has many unanswered questions about the Parks Board budget.

“The budget is so choppy and the pages don’t follow right,” she said. “All we got for the budget was one page and it was not complete.”

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