Council goes after EDC Executive Director
(UPDATED 12:11pm Jan 8, 2022 with info from Mayor Liz Branigan)
By Rachel Madison
Tensions were high at Wednesday’s City Council meeting as members discussed the possibility of holding a special election to allow voters to decide if they want to keep or dissolve the City’s Economic Development Corporation.
The discussion was raised by Council member Chris Pezold, who said when the EDC was initially voted into existence in 2003, it had more of a community focus.
“It was very specific about community-based service —- let’s say building baseball fields -— so that it would create economic impact through having tournaments, and then that would also benefit the community,” he said.
“I have been asking for this for three years,” added Council member Kathy Canady. “The EDC is supposed to be working for us, and we should be telling y’all what we want to see. We don’t need an eighth of a cent going to the EDC. I think we can decide on our own where we want that eighth of a cent to go, whether that’s infrastructure or parks or transportation. We need y’all to understand that we are your boss, you’re not our boss. I think some of it is council’s fault, but if you don’t like it, we can let every one of the board members go and start over.”
Pezold added that current EDC Director Matt Powell, who is paid $124,000 annually, isn’t “operating above the perception of impropriety.”
His main concerns were that Levi Slayer, an employee of Powell’s company, Powell Strategic, has also been working on graphic design projects for the City for the last couple of years.
“Is that not some sort of conflict there, if you are going and pressuring for the City of Liberty Hill to use Levi without disclosing that Levi works for Powell Strategic?” asked Council member Crystal Mancilla. “That was brought to our attention by someone in another city. Why did you not disclose that?”
Powell’s response was that the City of Liberty Hill employed both him and Slayer through his company on a consulting basis for two years, until he was hired as an official employee.
“When I was hired to be your full-time director, that business was closed,” Powell said. “Levi created his own LLC. This company has been defunct since I took this job [as EDC director] a year ago last week.”
Mancilla asked Powell why Powell Strategic still had an active website as of a few days ago if the business was closed. However, as of Wednesday’s meeting, the site was no longer live. Powell argued that he was not aware the site was still live until just a few days ago, and asked his admin to take it down once he learned it was.
Council member Angela Jones said while she’s not in favor of dissolving the EDC, she believes Powell has not done his due diligence in his role.
“In June, you came before us with incentive programs, and we asked you to take the document back and make it less vague because of the problems that we’re having in our community,” she said. “It was three months later that you brought it back before us — and this is a big deal because we have business owners in our community waiting on these programs — and you brought back the exact same document.”
Pezold added that he doesn’t believe the City is “getting its money worth” with Powell, and also accused him of being lazy, untrustworthy, and treating the Council “like we’re morons” by bringing back the same incentive program document months later. Powell argued that none of the council members have made time to meet with him to discuss the incentive programs.
“Whenever we took that trip to Houston [for a conference], I made time for you,” Mancilla retorted. “Don’t treat me as if I’ve never spoken to you. I sat down and I talked with you for a good hour and a half about development that was happening and things that were going on.”
Powell spoke up occasionally during the discussion to make clarifications, but ultimately let several other meeting attendees speak for him, including EDC President John Clark; Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Duckworth, Chamber of Commerce board member Jeff Mayes; and Downtown Beautification Committee President Lonnie Wendling.
Clark spoke about the incentive deals Powell has brought into Liberty Hill during his tenure, including Golf Cart King, Tex-Mix and Heritage Ridge, where Starbucks is located, adding that he also vouches for Powell’s character.
“We can sit there and continue to point the finger, and there’s been a ton of miscommunication, and I’ll accept that, but it’s time to stop pointing the finger and work together,” Clark said. “Rather than point, why don’t we reach a hand down and help? That’s what our citizens are asking us to do, and that’s what I’m asking all of us to do.”
While the Council ultimately decided not to pursue a special election for now, a workshop will be held later this month between the City Council and the EDC Board to work on the issues that were brought to light during the meeting.
Calls and texts to Powell by The Independent were not returned by press time Thursday.
Mayor Liz Branigan told The Independent on Friday that she is concerned Wednesday night’s discussion is going to run Powell off, which she doesn’t want to happen.
“In the past I felt the EDC was a very negative force in our previous administrations, and I believe it’s begun to turn around and become much more of a constructive and positive organization under [Powell’s] guidance,” she said. “I really don’t want to run him off.”
On the other hand, Branigan said, the type of discussion that occurred is exactly what the City has been needing in order to move forward.
“There are so many hard feelings that have festered around here, and it’s really held us back,” she said. “I’m guilty of that myself. I have hard feelings that have their roots in things that happened many years ago, but it’s time to get over it. That discussion was what we have been needing. It was time to get it all out in the open.”