EDITORIAL: The new, old way

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Thank you, but this is nothing new.

The Liberty Hill City staff and Council finally wanted to talk about the budget at its meeting April 26.

After a glossed-over update on the status of the current budget, the conversation turned to one that resembled an “aha” moment, followed by excitement over the upcoming budget process.

For a Council that for the past seven months has steadfastly refused to even repeat the word “budget”, the reaction to Finance Director Becky Wilkins’ announcement on how the 2021 budget process would play out was almost comical in its irony.

She told the Council that this year’s budget process would begin in May, and include a series of workshops, where City Department heads would present their budgetary needs – and justifications for them – to the Council publicly.

Council members Tony DeYoung, Gram Lankford and Kathy Canady applauded the staff for the “new” approach and idea – almost reacting as though it was an original one.

But this Council said the new way was the way they wanted it to happen, the way it needed to happen. They said it was important, and it was good for the Council. They said it created a situation where everyone could participate.

The question is, where have they been for three years? The Independent has been asking on nearly a weekly basis for two years the questions about how the budget is formulated, managed and why that changed from the old way.

This may be exactly how the budget process should proceed, but it is not new. It is not innovative and not out-of-the-box thinking. Ask any of the terminated – or forced to resign – employees how the budget was once handled in Liberty Hill. Department heads presented their budgetary needs to the Council in public, justifying their requests, and giving the Council and the public a better understanding of how tax money needed to be spent.

In fact, it’s the same process that was in place years ago — even when Canady’s late husband served on the council.

This is actually what was done in the summer of 2018, when former Mayor Rick Hall agonized through the very public process shortly after his election, and later said it would be very different the next year.

He was right, and the council members who now look at the old way as something new and different is the one that empowered all they seem to now conveniently think was not done right the last two years.

In 2019 and 2020, the budget process was only public in that the Council approved it with a public vote as required by law. There were no public questions, there was no dissent, no debate and each Council member repeatedly – for two years – expressed support for Hall’s methods and faith in his decisions.

Hall had the full support of this Council, and feigning ignorance of the value of a more public process now seems very hollow and reactive. If the five on Council over the past two years didn’t know the situation could be different, and problems were festering, they were not paying attention or chose to look the other way.

We should thank the Council for making this turn and approaching the process the right way, but the celebration is a bit of an embarrassment. Everyone needs to stop pretending they don’t see the big mess in the rearview mirror by pointing ahead to something that may appear new and shiny.

The City may have grown over the last two years, but it has also stalled in many ways and regressed in others. There are problems to correct, and it’s past time for everyone involved to accept ownership. The City can move on, but it’s important we don’t reframe the narrative and history of what’s happened in recent years to escape the poor decisions that led us back to reinventing what once was.

Perhaps a Council that will now be truly engaged in the financial future and well-being of the City, not leaving control and decision-making to one person, will at least restart the public processes the way they were meant to be.

No one is elected to follow someone else, and hopefully going forward, the Council will embrace the new old way and see its role as one of truly engaging in the setting of priorities and money management. The expectations will always continue to be higher.

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