Council reverses course on Mayor’s role



As easily as the Liberty Hill City Council adopted the approach that the Mayor should take on a direct role in the day-to-day operations of the City and management of its staff, it has reversed course with new Mayor Liz Branigan at the helm.

Council members Kathy Canady and Liz Rundzieher placed an item on the Nov. 23 Council agenda to consider repealing a pair of ordinances – 19-0-36 and 19-0-37 – passed in June 2019 that addressed the issue of the Mayor’s authority of direct supervision of municipal officers.

“I wanted this to be a part of housekeeping because it went along with the changing of the Mayor’s duties,” said Council member Kathy Canady during the meeting. “And it doesn’t matter if it is Mayor (Rick) Hall or now Mayor (Liz) Branigan, for me it was just cleaning up going back to the city administrator-type role. These were two ordinances specifically done that dealt with the change in power of who reported to who.”

While nothing changed following the initial discussions at the meeting due to confusion over how to alter the current situation regarding the Mayor’s powers, a number of Council members were adamant that change needed to come quickly.

“This is something that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later because to me it is one of the most important things,” Canady said. “Our employees count on us to know.”

That sentiment was echoed by Council member Steve McIntosh.

“I think the staff has been confused about where to go and who to go to,” McIntosh said. “If we’re going to keep running in that manner it is best to get it cleaned up. There doesn’t need to be any uncertainty, there doesn’t need to be a long protracted discussion. I think the way to fix it is to start at the beginning with these two ordinances and then we can make our changes later. What it does is it allows us to start from scratch and it allows the people who are working under City Hall to know who they’re reporting to so that we don’t go six months without this conflict being resolved.”

The problem, explained to the Council by City Attorney Tad Cleaves, is that an ordinance can’t simply be repealed without a new ordinance.

“I don’t think it has the affect of clearing this up,” said Cleaves. “What these ordinances did was they modified the Code of Ordinances and made amendments adding some language. To rescind them I guess we have to actually adopt new language, which requires another ordinance.”

He also went on to explain that there were a number of places such as the employee handbook and other ordinances where conflicts could be found that must also be addressed.

“In removing these two ordinances there’s still confusion,” Cleaves said. “To me, what would be helpful is knowing actually what the Council wants it to be.”

The aim for Canady in placing the item on the agenda was to clear up confusion on who staff reported to and return to the City Administrator-led situation that was in place previously.

“This is just about going back to clearing up our mess and moving forward,” Canady said.

Branigan campaigned on the idea that a City Administrator was needed to supervise staff and run the day-to-day operations of the City.

“I want to move away from the situation where the Mayor micromanages the staff,” Branigan said. “I think that’s been done in the recent past and it was unproductive. In many ways, all of them are answerable to me.”

While she sees the end result of the push the Council is now making as something similar to what she envisions, Branigan finds it odd that this is suddenly an emergency issue.

“This is the same Council that put these ordinances into place,” she said. “Now they want to take them back.”

How did it get this way?
The two ordinances in question were passed in June 2019 — a month after Council members McIntosh and Gram Lankford were first elected and Rundzieher was reelected. It was about six weeks after Tony DeYoung had been appointed. Both ordinances passed 4-1 with then-Council member Ron Rhea voting against.

McIntosh and Rundzieher – both supportive of the effort to repeal the ordinances Nov. 23 – had fully supported the initial passage of the ordinances 17 months prior. The pair, along with Canady, also supported an October 2019 measure giving Hall temporary City Administrator duties during the search for a new administrator. But by February, the position still had not been filled and the Council chose instead to hire a Chief Operating Officer, which left Hall in his supervisory capacity over the city staff.

The Council as a whole stood behind Hall in decisions that led to the termination of four staff members and the non-renewal of the contract for another, never once indicating that a return to having a City Administrator was needed or planned.

Where’s the fire?
At the Nov. 23 meeting, Canady and McIntosh in particular remained adamant that changes needed to be made, but the Council voted to hold a workshop on the issue at its Dec. 14 Council meeting to further discuss the necessary changes and future of leadership in the City.

But Tuesday – despite the plan in place for a workshop on the issue – Canady and Rundzieher called a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, with the only agenda item being the powers of the Mayor.

The agenda packet includes a newly-drafted ordinance meant to replace the two in question. The draft ordinance focuses on the powers enumerated in Section 1.03.002 of the Liberty Hill Code of Ordinances. These are the same powers of the Mayor in place when Hall was elected in May 2018.

Branigan said she was unaware the meeting had been called prior to the notice being sent out. A special meeting can be called by the Mayor or by any two Council members.

Surprise addition?
Not only was Branigan unaware the Friday special meeting was called, she said the initial effort to address the issue Nov. 23 was a surprise addition to that agenda.

When Branigan saw the initial copy of the Nov. 23 agenda she says the discussion of these two ordinances was not on it.

“The copy of the agenda sent to me for approval did not have that on it,” she said. “This was my first agenda to approve so maybe I didn’t do everything right, but no, I was not aware of that being placed on the agenda.”

She understood the issue might come up as it has with all previous mayors, but she did not get the opportunity to address it that evening.

“I had already prepared my speech because I was thinking they’d want to express my powers as has been done with every mayor,” Branigan said. “What I wanted to tell them was I won by a landslide because the citizens wanted a change to a better, more transparent city government and an effort to curtail my powers was an effort to curtail the voice of the citizens. I didn’t get to say that because it played out differently.”

Status quo, until now
At no time since June 2019 when the two ordinances were passed did any member of the current Council question the authority of Hall in his expanded role from the Mayor’s seat.

Hall continuously argued that the Mayor’s powers given to him through the new ordinances were what state law had always intended, but the new ordinance on the agenda for consideration seeks to curtail that role today based the powers outlined prior to Hall’s term.