Pages

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HaysCAN alleges open meetings violations in county park deal



“The Open Meetings Act permits the Commissioners to go into closed session under what’s known as the real estate exception, but the exception isn’t supposed to be used to cut a deal of some kind in secret and behind closed doors.”


Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com, to Mr. O'Dell at codell@austin.rr.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

September 28, 2010
Press Release from HaysCAN
Contact: Dr. Charles O’Dell, 512-288-4817


HaysCAN, a local government watchdog organization, earlier in the week issued the following statement of information regarding recent actions on the part of Hays County Commissioners.

Charles O’Dell, spokesperson for HaysCAN, said, “we believe the Commissioners Court committed numerous violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act between late April and August 10, 2010. All the violations are tied to a decision by the Commissioners to spend $1.7 million dollars to purchase just over 50 acres near the Jacobs Well Natural Area near Wimberley."

“This case is a little complicated by the number of parties involved,” O’Dell said, “but I think the public can get the picture. The bottom line is a couple of behind closed doors sweetheart deals — one with The Nature Conservancy and the other with The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association.”

During a January meeting, the Hays County Commissioners Court hired The Nature Conservancy to act as a real estate consultant to identify conservation-appropriate land for purchase by the County. Then, according to HaysCAN findings, O'Dell said, “August 10th came around and we learned that The Nature Conservancy was going to act as a financier for Hays County.

“The Nature Conservancy is making a loan to Hays County for half of the $1.7 million purchase price, but it’s an above market rate loan. That may be good for the Nature Conservancy’s balance sheet, but it’s bad for the tax payers. Besides that, The Nature Conservancy took part in at least one closed session of the Commissioners Court.”

“What was going on was a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act for more than one reason,” O’Dell said. “The Open Meetings Act permits the Commissioners to go into closed session under what’s known as the real estate exception, but the exception isn’t supposed to be used to cut a deal of some kind in secret and behind closed doors.”

O’Dell also pointed to another case of third-parties taking part in a closed session of the Hays County Commissioners’ Court in April. According to O’Dell, three Board members of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association participated in a closed session of the Commissioners Court on April 27th — David Baker, Jack Hollon, and Malcolm Harris.

“What should concern the public is that there’s no record of this on the Court agenda and no record in the minutes of the meeting. The only way anyone would know about this violation is if they downloaded the four hour video tape of the April 27th Court session.” According to O’Dell, “that’s when the information comes out about the three Watershed Association Board Members going into the behind closed doors session with the Commissioners.”

“We still don’t know what the final figure will be in the annual management agreement between the County and the Watershed Association, but it could be as much as $250,000 a year for five years. That’s a pretty sweet management contract,” O’Dell said. “It’s a really sweet deal for the Watershed Association, but the taxpayer never had a say and is getting the short end of the stick.”

Joel White, an attorney with Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said this in his discussions with HaysCAN:

"The Open Meetings Act permits the Commissioners Court to meet in private to discuss purchases of real estate, provided the private meeting is posted on a public agenda of a public meeting. The Court cannot simply decide to meet in private without notifying the public, nor can the Court invite third parties into the private meeting. The Court also cannot take votes or make any final decision in a private meeting. Doing any of those things would be violations of the Open Meetings Act and would subject the county to civil lawsuits, including payment of each sides' attorneys' fees, for which the taxpayers of Hays County would be responsible."

Hays Community Action Network (HaysCAN) is a 501(c) (3) tax exempt non-profit organization dedicated to open government and promoting citizen participation in public affairs. Established in 2003, HaysCAN has become a major source for investigative reporting on the major public issues in Hays County, Texas. Visit our website at www.hayscan.org.

Pedernales co-op may open meeting after criticism


Send your comments to roundup.editor@gmail.com, to Mr. George at
pgeorge@statesman.com, to Mr. Landaker at larry.landaker@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

By Patrick George

American-Statesman Staff
Published Monday, Sept. 27, 2010


Read the whole story and add your comments at this link:
http://www.statesman.com/news/local/pedernales-co-op-may-open-meeting-after-criticism-941191.html

A newly elected member of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative board has sharply criticized the board's move to close an upcoming strategic planning meeting to the public.

Fischer and Landaker/Statesman
In response, co-op board President Larry Landaker (of Wimberley) said Monday that he is willing to compromise with concerns raised by director Ross Fischer and allow at least part of that special meeting to be public.

At Landaker's initiative last week, the board voted 4-3 to meet behind closed doors Oct. 13 to develop a strategic plan to guide the co-op's future.


Items for discussion could include personnel, real estate, legal and competitive matters — the types of subjects usually discussed in closed session under the co-op's policies.


Board members would not receive compensation for the special meeting.


Landaker said the board needed to have "candid discussions" without causing "angst and consternation" among co-op employees and members.


But Fischer, the former head of the Texas Ethics Commission who was elected to the board in June, said candid discussions could take place in public. He contended that co-op policy does not allow "big picture" issues to be taken up in closed session.

Surprise! Commissioners pass budget with no tax rate increase or pay raise


Hold on to your hats, taxpayers. 2012 may yet be the budget year for a steep increase in the tax rate. All the more reason to closely examine the current crop of candidates for County Judge and County Precincts 2 and 4


Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

Hays County Commissioners late yesterday unanimously passed (4-0) a 2011 budget in the neighborhood of $240 million that includes about $150 million in construction, mostly road bond projects, and voted to leave the county's tax rate at its current level, 46.92 cents per $100 valuation on property.

So, there will be no increase in the tax rate in the new budget. Also, surprisingly and against much pressure from county elected officials, commissioners rejected a proposed 2% pay raise. Seems the pressure from voters and taxpayers, especially in an election season, was too much to bear for commissioners court members.

Commissioners went late into the day yesterday adjusting the budget, making cuts, and putting things off for the next budget. Some are saying (who are very knowledgeable about county revenues and budgeting) it will be a wingdinger. The 2012 budget is now expected to become the budget that will play catchup to expenditures not included in the 2011 budget and the ever-mounting county road bond and construction debt. It will be almost impossible for the next budget to afford everything without a big pick up in the local economy and property values plus an upswing in sales tax rebates from the state.

Hold on to your hats, taxpayers. 2012 may yet be the budget year for a steep increase in the tax rate. All the more reason to closely examine the current crop of candidates for County Judge and County Commissioner Precincts 2 and 4.

Note: County Judge Liz Sumter was present for most of yesterday's budget session but was called away on an emergency around five o'clock. She was unable to vote on the budget. Her grandmother in Indiana needs family close by. We wish them well. Also, Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley's $150,000 grant proposal to the San Marcos Economic Development Corporation was discussed but authorization to cut the check has not been received by the county auditor's office, as of this morning.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Updates – Commissioners Court, state rep race heats up, and Statesman endorsement



Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley reportedly is fuming over the fact that County Judge Liz Sumter is holding back on signing the check precisely because the grant includes no accountability for or from San Marcos

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


The political tea kettle

is warming up fast

Commissioners Court is conducting a public hearing today (around 1:30 pm) followed by a final vote on the County's 2011 budget, tax rate and salary raises for elected officials. We expect another demonstration
will take place on the courthouse lawn. Taxpayers are riled up and not liking what they see in the proposed budget, tax rate increase and a slap in the face pay raise while ordinary citizens are not fairing well in this down economy.

We recommend that taxpayers take a close look at one particularly irksome item in which commissioners want to hand over a $150,000 grant – no strings attached – to the City of San Marcos Economic Development Corporation. Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley reportedly is fuming over the fact that County Judge Liz Sumter, so far, has held back on signing the check precisely because the grant has no real accountability for or from San Marcos. We smell a special interest payoff here that is not in the best interests of county taxpayers.
Conley, by the way, sits on the board of the San Marcos EDC as vice chair. Inserting conditions for the grant will be discussed in today's commissioners court session, after which the grant may be released. In the end, we expect Conley will once again resort to grandstanding, and will vote NO on the final budget and tax rate hike package, even though he's a sponsor of many expenditures in the budget, along with the proposed giveaway to San Marcos.

In the state rep race, Republican challenger Jason Isaac (Dripping Springs) is firing back at incumbent Patrick Rose's latest tv ad campaign.

Here's what Isaac is telling voters in a recent e-mail: "Patrick Rose is desperate because he knows he is about to lose his job, so he is resorting to what he knows best: lies. Why else would he spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of Austin special interest money to air a TV commercial attacking me in September?

"Below are the facts that my campaign sent to the media when they questioned the ad. This morning's Austin American-Statesman said of the ad: "Way to raise the tone of the campaign, Patrick. Hey, see if your ad guys can make it look like Isaac was at the grassy knoll."

"Let me be clear: I will never vote to raise your taxes. In fact, I am the only candidate in this race who has signed the Taxpayer's Protection Pledge. You can see the pledge here on my website. This pledge will hang in my office as a reminder of my commitment to you.

"Here is a link to Rose's TV ad . . . decide for yourself."

We are informed that the Austin American-Statesman is holding interviews this week with candidates for Hays County Judge, Jeff Barton (D-Buda/Kyle) and Dr. Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos). Some members of the Stateman's Editorial Board go back a long way with the Barton gang, and so we expect – beyond all good sense and reasoning – that the Statesman will endorse Barton. From our own perspective, Barton carries too many negatives (his employment with an engineering firm, a huge conflict of interest, being among the worst) that are too big to be ignored by the Statesman. Ethics and character are the central issues for voters in this race and they should be the central questions on which the Statesman bases its endorsement. More than ever, Hays County is in need of an honest County Judge free of ties to developers and special interests and an office that is open to all.

Note: Yesterday it was announced that the local Fraternal Order of Police, Number 23 (which has been endorsing local candidates for a number of years following a candidates forum they sponsor), is sidestepping endorsements
in this year's election cycle for the offices of Hays County Sheriff and County Judge. They did issue endorsements for Mark Jones (R) for County Commissioner, Precinct 2; Ray Whisenant (R) for County Commissioner, Precinct 4; Anna Martinez Boling (D) for County Court at Law, Place 1; and Bill Henry (R) for 48th District Court Judge.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

200 attend 2nd Annual Hill Country Water Celebration


Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

About 200 people attended the 2nd Annual Hill Country Water Celebration Sunday evening at the Salt Lick Pavilion on the banks of Onion Creek. Popular singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson of Austin entertained guests. She gave a brief interview to the RoundUp about why the event was important to her and to the community. Jack Hollon, president of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, which hosted the Celebration, explains in the video how the fundraiser is helping local water conservation efforts.

A lot of notable notables were in attendance. Congressman Lloyd Doggett stopped by and addressed the crowd. We were happy also to see Jimmy Skipton, president of the board of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, enjoying the company and good barbecue and of course Eliza's super fine music and vibes. A great time was had by all. It was good to see so many people out to support our natural water ecology in western Hays and the Hill Country.

If you don't have high speed internet, don't sweat it. Let the video load all the way to the end and then replay it without interruption.

Video by Bob Ochoa

Friday, September 24, 2010

Water Board refuses Wimberley wastewater loan; it's back to the drawing board


"You mentioned the four or five important water features in the area, so I'm puzzled why all would not be willing to back this up given the fact that the whole reason for doing this is to protect that asset you guys are so worried about."

– Jack Hunt, Vice Chair, TWDB

Note: The RoundUp did not attend yesterday's meeting of the TWDB but did view the entire proceeding on video on the agency's website. Once again, the city finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with its wastewater problem, ongoing pollution of Cypress Creek and the river and its inability to finance a new wastewater treatment plant. Some subtle and not-so-subtle hints were dropped at Thursday's meeting of the need, perhaps, to resort to a city property tax barring any other outside the box solution.

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com, call city hall at 512.847.0025, or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story



By Bob Ochoa

Editor


The Texas Water Development Board Thursday refused to approve an $8.5 million loan to the City of Wimberley to construct a central wastewater system, even while the city is facing an environmental "crisis" from failing septic systems along Cypress Creek and the Blanco River.

After lengthy discussion about the city's loan application before the Board, including testimony from City Administrator Don Ferguson and General Manager Bill West of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority, the city's partner in the proposed project which would own and operate the system, the Board said it would not approve a loan without sufficient pledged revenues as backing from both the city and the GBRA.

TWDB Executive Administrator Kevin Ward said to Ferguson and West, "we'd like to see the GBRA and the city come back with a more adequate pledge to ensure that this project can transition through development and construction without having the risk that there would not be repayment of the loan . . . I think the staff has looked at every way we could to structure a pad where we would give part of the money up front but in the final analysis we struggled with meeting the statutory requirement of making a finding that there was adequate security."
Don Ferguson/TWDB video
City Administrator Don Ferguson, in an emotional appeal to the Board, said, "We have a crisis that we're dealing with right now that we're trying to bring to a head. We have a creek that is full of septic and is growing more full every day as we proceed. When you think about a 4th of July sitting on the creek and smelling septic watching the 4th of July Parade go through, it's not an attractive situation."

"We've closed down one business in the past," Ferguson added, "and we have a fear that we are going to continue to do that. The solution is centralized wastewater and I think the solution is also recognizing the fact that it's not going to be cheap any way you look at it."

GBRA's General Manager West (at right) told the Board that the GBRA "has been trying to assist the Wimberley Valley for years regarding water and wastewater . . . the immediate concern is that of wastewater . . . Wimberley is built on failing septic tanks and that portion that is served by the (proposed) package plant is a result of an enforcement order by TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality)."

A Water Development Board staff summary of the project proposal and loan application points out that prospective residential and commercial customers of the wastewater system would be charged a combined water and sewage monthly fee of $242.50 on top of an estimated $10,000 connection fee which could be paid over five years, in addition to a "hook-up" cost to connect to the system. Additional rate increases would be necessary before 2019 to meet the loan's debt service obligations.

The little red dot at top right is the site of the proposed
wastewater plant. The black lines are the sewer lines.

The service area includes mostly businesses on the Square and residences inside the Cypress Creek loop from where it meanders from Blue Hole and meets the Blanco River, and a short distance along the north bank of the river (red, blue and beige colored areas in the graphic). The proposed project would provide service to 211 commercial, 74 residential and 48 future LUEs (living unity equivalents) associated with the 199 total potential customers.

The city has agreed to a "non-standard" condition that it would require 60% of the potential customers to formally request service from the wastewater system and pay a deposit before final approval of a loan from the Water Development Board. The city would have to provide evidence documenting that 60% have signed. Additionally, customers would have to make a minimum payment of 50% of the connection fee.

"My (city) council has stepped up to the plate. They've adopted a mandatory connection ordinance in advance of this application," Ferguson said. "My council has taken a position that it's not going to get any cheaper."

Final approval of the loan also hinges to a large degree on whether the GBRA is willing to guarantee its payment. But West informed the Board that his board took no action at its meeting last week on the question. "What we do not agree with is Water Development Board's required pledge by GBRA from other GBRA revenue sources for the remaining 40% of the project, for basically backing the whole thing up . . . If GBRA agreed to that pledge every future project within our basin would want the same deal. We simply can't afford to do that."

West and Ferguson thanked Board members and said they would take the Board's decision back to their respective parties for further consideration.

Outtakes . . . The agency's summary of the proposed wastewater project notes that Wimberley's population (inside the city limits) for 2010 is 2,851, a 25% decrease from the 2000 census. The project's utility service cost as a percentage of median household income ($46,042) "is high (6%) when compared to the benchmark routinely used to analyze the overall cost to the customer of these types of systems (2%)." The City of Wimberley has adopted a "mandatory hook up ordinance" requiring "all property owners" inside the city limits and in its ETJ to connect to the system once it becomes operational. The system's initial capacity would be 115,000 gallons to serve approximately 199 customers in the downtown area. An $8 million loan to serve 199 customers comes to about $42,000 per customer, a Water Development Board member pointed out. It has also been pointed out that some septic tanks on the Square are being pumped as frequently as once a month. (Where's all that stuff being dumped?)

Mr. Hunt
(dated photo)

TWDB Vice Chairman Jack Hunt asked if the potential customers included people from Houston. "Everybody I know in Houston has a home in Wimberley," he said. "Obviously this is not a financeable deal. I think even our lawyers failed to sign off on it. The problem you have is not what's happening in Wimberley, it's what's happening all around Wimberley and the threat. You mentioned the four or five important water features in the area, so I'm puzzled why all would not be willing to back this up given the fact that the whole reason for doing this is to protect that asset you guys are so worried about."

GBRA Gen. Mgr. West: "There's no tax base (property tax) there in Wimberley. That's one of the problems."

Vice Chairman Hunt: "Well it is a problem particularly in an area where I know there's tremendous wealth that would benefit from this, from having the river polluted. It kind of reminds me of the Frio River case where you have a small area creating a problem where it really doesn't have the resources to the solve the problem but it's creating a problem for a bigger area which does have the resources . . . I have been here 13 years and seen a lot of deals I scratched my head about, but this is one where my hair came out when I started scratching on it."

According to the TWDB profiles of members of the Board, Mr. Hunt
is president, CEO, and director of King Ranch, Inc., a land-based multi-business resource company. Mr. Hunt also serves as director of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. He was appointed to the Board in 1998 by Gov. George W. Bush and reappointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2004.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Tea Party Rave: Much Ado About Nothing?



And it was Lenin who offered the classic definition of a vanguard party as involving "people who make revolutionary activity their profession" in organizations that "must perforce not be very extensive."

Note:
Is the Tea Party phenomenon that has captured the public's attention and unnerved many in both the national Democratic and Republican hierarchies a true movement with lasting effect or a flash in the pan that will fade from the scene because it has nothing, fundamentally, to offer the country? Is it nothing more than a loosely organized "national temper tantrum," fed and directed by right wing media zealots and wealthy business interests who are out, at all costs, first and foremost, to ensure the Obama Administration and its policies fail? We've taken two recent commentaries, below, that examine these questions
from E. J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post, and Steven Stark of The Boston Phoenix, (that's Boston, MA, home of the original Tea Party). So far, there's not been a highly visible or vocal Tea Party presence here in Hays County, and some politicians on the Republican side are making no claim to the movement, which is an interesting statement in itself. Your constructive comments and insights are welcome.

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


The Tea Party: Tempest in a very small teapot

By
E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Washinton Post Online Edition

Is the Tea Party one of the most successful scams in American political history?

Before you dismiss the question, note that word "successful." Judge the Tea Party purely on the grounds of effectiveness and you have to admire how a very small group has shaken American political life and seized the microphone offered by the media, including the so-called liberal media.

But it's equally important to recognize that the Tea Party constitutes a sliver of opinion on the extreme end of politics receiving attention out of all proportion with its numbers.

Yes, there is a lot of discontent in America. But that discontent is better represented by the moderate voters who expressed quiet disillusionment to President Obama at the CNBC town hall meeting on Monday than by Tea Party ideologues who proclaim the unconstitutionality of the New Deal and everything since.

The Tea Party drowns out such voices because it has money – some of it from un-populist corporate sources, as Jane Mayer documented last month in the New Yorker – and has used modest numbers strategically in small states to magnify its impact.

[snip]

Last April, a New York Times-CBS News poll found that 18 percent of Americans identified as supporters of the Tea Party movement, but slightly less than a fifth of these sympathizers said they had attended a Tea Party rally or meeting. That means just over 3 percent of Americans can be characterized as Tea Party activists. A more recent poll by Democracy Corps, just before Labor Day, found that 6 percent of voters said they had attended a Tea Party rally or meeting.

The Tea Party is not the only small group in history to wield more power than you'd expect from its numbers. In 2008, Barack Obama did very well in party caucuses, which draw far fewer voters than primaries. And it was Lenin who offered the classic definition of a vanguard party as involving "people who make revolutionary activity their profession" in organizations that "must perforce not be very extensive."

But something is haywire in our media and our politics. Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose new book is "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History," observed in an interview that there is a "hall of mirrors" effect created by the rise of "niche" opinion media. They magnify small movements into powerhouses, while old-fashioned journalism, which is supposed to put such movements in perspective, reacts to the same niche incentives.

There is also the decline of alternative forces in politics. The Republican establishment, such as it is, has long depended far more on big money than on troops in the field. In search of new battalions, GOP leaders stoked the Tea Party, stood largely mute in the face of its more outrageous untruths about Obama – and now has to defend candidates such as O'Donnell and Angle.

And where are the progressives? Sulking is not an alternative to organizing, and weary resignation is the first step toward capitulation. The Tea Party may be pulling a fast one on the country and the media. But if it has more audacity than everyone else, it will, I am sorry to say, deserve to get away with it.


The American Idol Party

By STEVEN STARK
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The Boston Phoenix

Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell might not turn out to be good candidates, but they make great television

In their attempts to understand the Tea Party movement, analysts have looked to the Populists of the 1890s, the followers of Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s, and, of course, the original Boston tea partiers themselves. But in a nation whose pop culture is its politics and vice versa, the real antecedent for this political happening is a relatively recent phenomenon — reality television.


This is not to denigrate the movement. After all, popular culture is a primary outlet for political expression — a source of both candidates and mass sentiment, as Ronald Reagan well knew. And, while the roots of reality television derive from many sources, the principal one is the notion that "the people" can do a better job than the elites. Reality television is democratic to a fault, premised as it is on the idea that we no longer need "stars" because average men and women on the street are the real sources of talent and energy in the land.

[snip]

It's a very American sentiment, of course — the product of a nation that, beginning with its first tea party, defined itself as a place in which "the people" ruled. And that concept always has political resonance in eras in which elites on places such as Wall Street have appeared to prosper at the expense of Main Street.

But what has given that old idea a new cast this time around is television. Beginning, really, with America's Funniest Home Videos in the early 1990s, and continuing on through Survivor, American Idol, The Apprentice, and Dancing with the Stars, the television programming that has appealed the most in the modern era has been that which made "the folks," as Fox News host Bill O'Reilly calls them, the stars.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TWDB to Wimberley's wastewater project: 'Where's the money, honey?'


"I'm opening a lot of the old doors," McCullough said, "(including a possible deal for sewage service through Aqua Texas), but that's such an incendiary name . . ."

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

By Bob Ochoa
Editor

The City of Wimberley's wastewater treatment project application
pending before the Texas Water Development Board may be in deep doo-doo if the city, and its partner, the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority, can't come up with a viable plan to back an $8.5 million loan from the state for the project's construction.

City officials will be in Austin Thursday for a meeting to discuss their application with the TWDB's Finance Committee, according to the city's website. The meeting will take place at the Stephen F. Austin Building, 1700 N. Congress Ave. in Austin, Rm 170, beginning at 9:30 a.m.

Two pledges made by the city and the GBRA to the Water Development Board apparently are not cutting the mustard with the Board, not enough anyway to approve the loan conditionally without further inspection. The city had pledged to have at least 60 percent of the wastewater system's projected customer base (of 300) signed up within 60 days of the loan's approval – at a cost of $10,000 per customer (paid over 5 years). The GBRA staff had pledged to go before its board to seek approval of a loan guarantee, also within 60 days after a conditional approval of the TWDB's loan.

"The original plan was to go to the (TWDB) Board itself and consider (approval of the loan)," said City Administrator Don Ferguson. "They thought it would be more appropriate to take it to the Finance Committee first . . . it's just another step." Ferguson said the city's/GBRA's loan application could go before the full Board at its October meeting, depending on the outcome of Thursday's meeting with the Finance Committee.

City Councilman Mac McCullough, fresh off his re-election in Saturday's special election, said he plans to refocus his attention on the wastewater project. McCullough said the re-election campaign and the lawsuit brought by his opponent, Gary "Catfish" Pigg, caused a "two month setback" in his efforts to promote the benefits of the wastewater project. (Mr. Pigg takes a dim view of the project, questioning if it isn't special interest driven.)

"We're not closing the door on any prospects of getting adequate sewer service to the community," said McCullough. "We've got several possibilities. If GBRA will step up and guarantee the loan then certainly (the TWDB) will not have a problem with it." The process, McCullough explained, "took a big setback because I couldn't promote it to the council and citizens."

Outside of whatever the city and council might be thinking, McCullough said he has always had a concern about the cost of the project. The current proposed plan before the TWDB would greatly expand the small wastewater treatment plant that sits on city property adjacent to the Deer Creek Nursing Center. McCullough believes a new plant will save Cypress Creek from further pollution coming from failing septic systems on the Square and other locations.

"I'm opening a lot of the old doors," McCullough said, "(including a possible deal for sewage service through Aqua Texas), but that's such an incendiary name . . . this is just preliminary thinking, not something we're ready to act on; maybe put it out for bid and see what kind of offer we get back."

Perry, and the amazing state budget deficit disappearing act


Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com, to the White campaign at http://billwhitefortexas.com/, to the Rick Perry campaign at
http://www.rickperry.org/), the governor's office at http://www.governor.state.tx.us/contact/, or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

Note: The video from the Bill White campaign makes for good political theater and entertainment. We'll gladly post anything from Perry's campaign that explains what Gov. Perry knows – if anything – about the conditon of our state budget and a looming deficit reportedly in the range of $18 billion to $21 billion. If the deficit figures are true and Perry cannot fess up to it, the voters, taxpayers and citizens of Texas, sooner or later, are facing one helluva balloon payment.




Monday, September 20, 2010

Good job Governor Rick Perry!


Send your comments and news tips to online.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


Update, Sept. 21 – The Houston Chronicle endorses Bill White for Governor: "Texas faces an unprecedented budget deficit estimated at $21 billion, faltering health care and public education systems, and demands for new energy sources and transportation funding. For nearly a decade, Rick Perry — the longest-serving governor in Lone Star history — has been at the helm of an increasingly wayward ship.

Texas can't afford four more years of Perry's leadership.

The governor has shown a distaste for dealing with budget details, fobbing them off on the Legislature and even suggesting in a recent news conference that Comptroller Susan Combs had better uses of her time than issuing deficit projections."

Texas' unemployment rate has edged up to 8.3%, the poverty rate last year climbed to 11% with 4.3 million Texans now living in poverty, and the state faces a projected budget deficit of at least $18 billion. See the stories in the Dallas Morning News online edition: Unemployment, Poverty Rate, Deficit.

A report from Texas Watchdog says, "
A study of 50 companies awarded $368 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund showed that 33, or two-thirds of them, failed to create the jobs they promised in 2009."

A story from the Sydney Morning Herald says Texas-based Dell computer maker plans to spend $100 million in ten years to expand its operations in China and hire 500 workers.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

McCullough scores convincing win in Wimberley special election



Video and story by Bob Ochoa

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story

The final unofficial tally in Saturday's election for Place 2 on the Wimberley City Council was 415 votes for Mac McCullough and 245 votes for Gary "Catfish" Pigg. City Administrator Don Ferguson announced the results minutes after the polls closed at 7 p.m. today. He said the results will be canvassed (made official) at city hall on Monday Sept. 27.

Mac and Catfish are well known personalities in town. McCullough edged out Pigg by only 2 votes in the initial local election in May. Pigg sued to overturn the election after discovering serious voter registration discrepancies and won a judge's order for a new election. It looks like the voters, in big numbers in the second round, decided to stick with McCullough. We've got a feeling it's going to take a while for things to smooth over between the two sides.

Statement from Mr. Pigg:

"I want to thank everybody for coming out and voting. Congratulations to my opponent. And I would say good luck to the City of Wimberley. The sanctity of the vote is very important, not only on the local level but also on the national level."

Had he won, Pigg said he would have rolled up his sleeves and worked on getting the "Las Flores thing straightened out." He added that he would have looked at city budget items "that don't include everything that are all inclusive (not just for the Square) and make sure it's widespread throughout our whole city."

Small Town Water Utility, Big Time Politics




Over the past twelve months two DSWSC board trustees have exceeded their authority as they engaged in a virtual takeover of the water operations, culminating in a plan to fire en mass DSWSC employees



Note: One has to wonder, what are these guys on the board up to? Why are they trying to force the general manager, Cones, and staff out the door after many years of apparent competent management of the water system? In this day and age with water such a valuable commodity, is their aim to dissolve the customer owned corporation, sell out to a private entity and engage in some profit taking of their own? Mr. O'Dell's excellent report raises many questions that DSWSC customers should be asking the board directly.

Send your comments and news tips to online.editor@gmail.com, to Mr. O'Dell at codell@austin.rr.com, call DS Water Supply at 512.858.7897, or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

~Thomas Jefferson

By Charles O'Dell
Contributing Editor

A rogue board president may soon accomplish what several hostile outside interests failed to accomplish – a takeover of the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp (DSWSC).

DSWSC water rates are among the lowest in Texas and the public water system has never received less than a Superior rating from state regulators. Over the years, several unsuccessful attempts to purchase the member owned public water supply have been made by outside interests, including a group of secret investors led by then County Judge Jim Powers. Just last year, Dripping Springs City officials sought help from State Representative Patrick Rose in an unsuccessful bid to gain control of the local water system.


Now, the member owned water supply is under siege from its own board of trustees. Over the past twelve months two DSWSC board trustees have exceeded their authority as they engaged in a virtual takeover of the water operations, culminating in a plan to fire en mass DSWSC employees, including the General Manager and his administrative staff. There is also concern that the corporation’s outside attorney may have failed to provide adequate counsel against the de facto takeover by two board members in what appears to involve numerous and repeated violations of the Open Meetings Act, and against board actions taken to conceal from the public and from DSWSC members those board actions that place the corporation at great financial and operational risk.


The trouble begins
Doug Cones
Steve Harris
Steve Harris, a board member for about eleven years and president of the board for the past five years, began intimidating and harassing Corporation employees in early 2009, about the same time Harris negotiated a long-term employment contract with the General Manager, Doug Cones. Cones has been General Manager of the exemplary public water supply for twenty three years.

Our review of board agenda and minutes revealed that one office employee filed a harassment complaint against Harris in January 2009, but the board failed to take any action on the matter for over a year. When the complaint was introduced at the July 12, 2010 board meeting it became part of the draft minutes and subject to public scrutiny. Harris and his accomplice board members are now engaged in an apparent cover up of the matter that could result in costly legal suits.

Larry Brewer
These unwarranted actions taken by board members against employees culminated in an attempted coup d'├ętat this past Monday night when board member Larry Brewer made a motion to fire General Manager Cones for “insubordination to the board,” and to fire the two office employees who handle billing and other critical administrative functions.

Brewer didn’t specify the nature of Cones alleged insubordination, but Brewer’s motion was seconded by Harris who then asked attorney Phil Haag if they should go into closed session to discuss the matter before calling for a vote. Haag advised yes and the board and attorney went into closed session for nearly two hours.


After the board returned to open session the vote failed 2 – 3, when Secretary/Treasurer Gilbert Wolf, who often supports Harris, apparently thought that leaving the Water Corp without a General Manager and two critical administrative staff employees wasn’t a good idea, voted Nay. The mass firing is expected to be back on the October board meeting agenda.


It’s clear that the plan to fire all the employees had been cooked up outside any official board meeting, which constituted a “walking quorum” in violation of the Open Meetings Act. The plan was to have been executed at the September board meeting but Harris ran into an unexpected problem.


The board regularly meets on the first Monday of each month, but because the first Monday in September fell on Labor Day this year, the meeting defaulted to the following Monday (Sept. 13th) as was customary when a meeting date fell on a holiday. Notice of the next board meeting is also routinely included in customer water bills and this was the case for the Sept. 13th meeting. But when Harris was notified that Brewer would be unable to attend the Sept. 13th board meeting, Harris, without board approval, changed the September meeting date to Tuesday (Sept. 7th) so he would have his coconspirator to carry out the plan to fire the GM and his staff, and to make public scrutiny of that and other unsavory board actions more difficult.


When Harris attempted to convene the September 7th board meeting, HaysCAN President, Charles O’Dell, who had spotted the unauthorized change, submitted written notice to the board that because Harris did not have authority to change the meeting date HaysCAN would file an Open Meetings violation suit against the board if the board met and conducted business in an illegal meeting. Upon advice from counsel, the board members did not hold the meeting on September 7th.


At the beginning of the September 13th board meeting, Harris quickly made a motion to prohibit staff from taking any minutes and instead to have attorney Haag take notes, “to save corporation members money.” Haag charges $200.00 an hour for his services. Brewer seconded Harris’ motion and it passed by a 3 – 2 vote.


Harris then made a motion to prohibit the General Manager or staff from making any recordings of the board meeting and to stop including board meeting dates in water bills. Brewer seconded Harris’ motion. Recordings of board meetings were routinely made to ensure accurate board minutes. But Harris and attorney Haag had made statements during previous recorded board meetings they wanted excluded from the official minutes. This explains why board minutes for May, June, July and two August meetings had been tabled month after month until Haag could “clean” the minutes for the board to approve.

Gilbert Wolf
At the August 2, 2010 board meeting, Secretary/Treasurer, Gilbert Wolf made a motion to:

“Have Dripping Springs Water supply Corporation Attorney Phil Haag’s firm, McGinnis, Lochridge & Kilgore, proof read the Dripping Springs Water Supply board of directors meeting minutes for February, 2010 through July 2010 to make any changes, modifications or deletions that are needed.”


According to the DSWSC by-laws, one of the duties of the board Secretary is to take notes and construct minutes for board members to proof read before approving them each month – for free.


Insufficient public notice – more open meetings violations

The employee harassment complaint against Harris was identified on the August 2, 2010 agenda as, “Review of and possible action regarding employee report,” but the board went into closed session to discuss the item. The vagueness of this language is designed to conceal from the general public the real subject to be considered during the meeting and thereby violates the Open Meetings Act.

A transcription of the August 2, 2010 board meeting recording shows that no discussion or action was taken in open session regarding the “employee report.” However, counsel was apparently charged by the board to have the employee complaint investigated and to report findings. There is no reference in any of the board minutes of such action but several parties have acknowledged being interviewed regarding the complaint. Failure of the board to take official action and to make such action available to the public violates the Open Meetings Act.

The Board overreaching its authority

In a February 2, 2010 letter to the board from their outside auditor, the Auditor addresses the board overreaching its authority in day-to-day operations and thereby “subverting and undermining” the internal financial control procedures that were in compliance with the1997 OMB Circular A-133 and implemented for over ten years at DSWSC. The board chose not to cease its interference, causing the Auditor to decline an invitation to perform an audit of financial statements for the year 2009. Then, in a “cover your ass letter” dated April 9, 2010, and addressed to the Auditor, Harris explained that the board had, “decided at its Aril 5, 2010 Board meeting to seek a new auditing firm for this year’s annual audit.” The Auditor had already advised Harris the previous month that his firm would not be conducting an audit for DSWSC and the reasons why. The problem isn’t the accounting firm, it’s the board’s subverting and undermining the internal financial controls, and no certified accounting firm will conduct an audit so long as those conditions exist at DSWSC.


Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the Harris led board harassment of the GM, and the board’s interference in day-to-day operations than the list of twenty seven Manager’s Directives of Operation Goals sponsored by Harris at the April 5, 2010 board meeting. In addition to endless detailed micro management directives, item 25 requires a functioning GPS system be installed in the GM’s truck and monthly reports of 24/7 as to the vehicle location. This is not only another Harris harassment tactic but it also violates the GM’s employment contract.


To further cement his control over the DSWSC operations, Harris also eliminated the GM’s function of identifying operational items for the board agenda and Harris routinely includes items that are vague, repetitive or misleading to the public but which he uses to harass the GM and staff. The board is responsible for policy and general oversight, but Harris’ agenda items often deal with day to day operations that the GM was hired to manage.


Our review of public documents revealed evidence of other possible improprieties by Harris and inappropriate efforts to tighten his grip on the DSWSC operations. These include spending large sums of DSWSC funds without board approval which could be criminal, and a by-law change that restricts board positions to DSWSC members only.


Employees of the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation deserve the support of its members and of the general community. Call them at 512-858-7897, and let them know that you do not approve of how Steve Harris is harassing employees, interfering with daily operations and putting the member owned water supply at great risk.


HaysCAN is continuing its investigation and will report any new findings to RoundUp readers.

As co-founder of Hays Community Action Network (HaysCAN) in 2003, Mr. O'Dell strives to carry out the mission of ensuring open, accessible and accountable government. He is a long time and close observer of the workings of the Hays County County Commissioners Court. He earned a degree in Agricultural Education and a Masters in Ag Economics at Texas Tech, and, later a Ph.D. at The University of Maryland while employed as a Research Economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. Texas born and raised on a family farm, O'Dell is a Hays County Master Naturalist and is a past president of the board of the Ethical Society of Austin.

Monday, September 13, 2010

For Hays Dems: Party loyalty and the ethics question


When you're asked to cross your personal ethical line, make it easy on the person who is doing the asking. Just tell them that you cannot believe that they would ask you to do such a thing

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story
Dr. Bert Cobb


Jeff Barton


Note: The think piece below was sent by an anonymous "long-time Democrat, someone who has experienced the 'last straw.'" Bert Cobb's and Jeff Barton's campaigns for Hays County Judge are out of the gates, both having recently held big fund-raising events. They have faced each other in at least two candidate forums. The two have a handshake to run a nice campaign without personal slurs or name-calling. We'll see how long that lasts. Cobb's focus is on better management of the county's $80-plus million budget and more accountability to the taxpayers. He's already spotted a 15% shortfall in the county employee retirement plan. Cobb sees four big issues ahead for the county:
Water, growth, transportation and jobs. Barton is campaigning as a "bridge builder" between the different political and business interests in the county. He is stressing more investment in roads and infrastructure while also preserving our quality of life.

These are all fine and dandy positions, but who can the voters really trust? Which of the two has the better sense of integrity and trustworthiness to run a clean and transparent county government for the next four years? The note from our "last straw" Democrat begins to address that question. We hope it is just the opening salvo in the voters' own campaign to demand honesty and openness from our local candidates and government.


Greetings to anyone who might want to read this:

If you've been identified with the Democratic Party anytime in recent history, sometime soon, someone will likely approach you with a simple but unbelievable request. That person will ask you to put aside any ethical consideration and just go ahead and vote for Jeff Barton, in the interest of the Democrat Party. A request like that is worth thinking about for a moment or two.

Think about what it says about you, or rather, what it says about the requestor's view of you. For example, if you object to Barton on ethical grounds – you believe him to be dishonest or given to gross misrepresentation – and someone asks you to put those ethical considerations aside, then the person asking you to do that has little regard for you as a member of this thing we call humanity.

If your objections have to do with the manner in which he portrayed his opponent in the recent primary – if you think that there were unethical aspects to his primary campaign – asking you to put all that aside is the same as in the last example. The person doing the asking has no regard for you as an individual with principles.

If you think that it wasn't OK for Barton's family publication to abandon the Democrat Party and endorse Will Conley (Republican) against Steve Klepfer (Democrat), but that person wants you to put all of that aside, ... well ... you get the point. That, of course, may be the most offensive of all examples. It's OK for him; not OK for anyone else.

When you're asked to cross your personal ethical line, make it easy on the person who is doing the asking. Just tell them that you cannot believe that they would ask you to do such a thing. Just tell them that you cannot believe that they would ask you to betray your personal sense of ethics.

Listen carefully to their arguments. They will talk about the need to keep lines of communication open. Dear god; what arrogance. Barton is going to listen to them?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Open Thread: Discussion Forum


Keep your comments coming. Feel free to use this space as an open forum for discussion. We'll be back later with more local political coverage. There's a lot going on, from questions of religious (in)tolerance in the country to predictions of a Republican takeover in the U. S. Congress and here in Hays County. Why have people become so angry and hyper partisan? Have graciousness, neighborliness and civil discourse become lost social art forms? The ancient Greeks, we know, were famous for their great intellectual debates. Wonder what they would say if they came to visit the 21st Century?

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Off the beat: Remember to support your local farmers market


You'll find Belinda Zent, owner of Busy B's Home Baked Goods, most every Wednesday out at Wimberley's Farmers Market on the Thrift Store parking lot, adjacent to the community center. Hours are 3 pm to 6 pm. There's a great bounty of fresh organic vegetables, fruit, baked goods, goat cheeses, canned banana pickles, sometimes grass fed buffalo meat and beef, and much more. We made off today with a dozen fresh yard eggs from E-I-E-I-O's booth, two of Belinda's lemon bars and one of her last peach breads made with fresh hill country grown peaches. Belinda can be reached at 512.847.9020. Many of her bread recipes were handed down from her ma and grandma. Farmers markets are sprinkled all over the hill country. They are a tradition as old as the hills. Make sure to stop by and support your local growers and producers.



Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Petition seeks to save the aquifer, our creeks, streams and river


The signed petition forms will be presented to the Directors of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District with an appeal to revise aquifer pumping to a rate that is sustainable into the future

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com, to Mr. McMeans at JRMcMeans@msn.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


An open letter from CARD co-founder Jim McMeans

Hello Friends,

The Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development (CARD - www.hayscard.org) is concerned with recent actions taken in Hays County and surrounding counties which will threaten the groundwater supply that most of us depend on for our homes, businesses, farms, and ranches. A decision has been made to allow increased pumping of the Trinity Aquifer that will allow an average 30' decline of the aquifer over time. This decision will cause wells to go dry throughout western Hays County and may affect the groundwater supply of the cities of Wimberley, Woodcreek, Dripping Springs, and others. The groundwater for over 6,000 wells serving area homes will be threatened. Area springs are likely to go dry.


Please carefully read the attached petition, print out page one, circulate it among your friends and associates, and gather as many signatures as possible. Mail the signed petition forms to CARD, PO Box 2905, Wimberley, TX 78676 by October 1st.

The signed petition forms will be presented to the Directors of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District with an appeal to revise aquifer pumping to a rate that is sustainable into the future.


Thanks,

Jim McMeans for the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development


(Click on image to enlarge and print)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Watch your wallet, someone might be scanning you


From Channel 8 News in Dallas –
This story has been making the rounds a lot lately. Here it is, in case you've missed it. Simple electronic scanning devices carried by people who are passing by can read your credit card and passport information. Who'd have thunk?


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Travis County officials eye suspension of development to protect groundwater


“Portions of western Travis County that use the Trinity Group Aquifers are already experiencing issues with water availability – in part due to the demands of development and in part due to droughts.”

Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Transportation and Natural Resources

Update, Sept. 7, from an alert reader & commenter: Good reporting, thank you. There were significant issues with groundwater availability during the most recent drought in SW Travis County, many many wells ran dry primarily because of increased demand for pumping. Springs and creeks are noticeably slower to recover and sustain themselves during dry months. In addition, the water in this area is inter-related to the entire Trinity aquifer system reaching into Hays County. We cannot afford to continue looking the other direction as we deplete this finite resource.

Note:
The story below, edited for length, was published Sept. 3 in In Fact Daily, a subscriber-based news service that covers local government and politics in Travis County. They are an independent subsidiary of the Austin American-Statesman. The story is important because it describes a similar predicament in western Hays County – growth and the demand for more water is overstretching the Trinity Aquifer. The Trinity is the main source of water for many thousands of residents in western Hays and a large swath of the hill country. Hays County officials will tell you that safeguards, including a groundwater conservation district and a water availability ordinance, are in place to protect against overuse of the aquifer. That would be true if officials were willing to apply the safeguards. The trend has not been looking good. Moving forward, we hope that wise management and conservation of this vital resource becomes policy that is exercised, and not just some nice sounding words on paper. There's only so much water to go around in this glass we know as the Trinity.

Go to this link ( http://www.twdb.state.tx.us/GwRD/GMA/gmahome.htm ) for comprehensive information on groundwater management areas from the Texas Water Development Board.

Send your comments and news tips to roundup.editor@gmail.com or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story


By Michelle Jimenez

Travis County officials, with an eye toward future population growth, are looking to address issues of groundwater availability, particularly in the western part of the county.


Toward that end, commissioners are considering suspending, through Oct. 31, 2011, approval of new subdivision applications that cite the Trinity Group Aquifers as their source of water. While the suspension is in place, the county would work to develop a permanent policy regarding groundwater availability.


The suspension, which would affect only subdivision platting that is in western Travis County and that is subject to Chapter 82 of the county’s code, could be extended or shortened.


“This regulation does have some relief valves in it,” Anna Bowlin, division director of Development Services, which is part of the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources department, told In Fact Daily this week.
Bowlin said the county could grant an exception for conservation subdivisions or if the applicant can prove the suspension would create an undue and unique hardship.

Bowlin said a conservation subdivision is a development that includes in its plan elements of environmental preservation, including a design that includes a rural or nature-oriented lifestyle, open space, protection for sensitive areas, reduced impervious cover, and has the potential to reduce the cost of government services.


Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Transportation and Natural Resources, laid out the proposal for county commissioners in a detailed Aug. 26 memo. Commissioners on Tuesday voted to set an Oct. 12 hearing about the proposal after they discussed it. They did not discuss the proposal in open session.


With the suspension, the county would insert a new section in Chapter 82 of the code that relates to water availability. It would prohibit approving subdivisions using groundwater from the Trinity Group Aquifers, unless a groundwater district is in place and gives permission for the additional groundwater withdrawal, according to the memo.


Gieselman goes on to explain that the code modification would also create a plat note requirement as an enforcement mechanism.
“A plat note would be required to ensure the developer would not be able to get a plat approved based on one source of water supply and then change over to the Trinity after the plat is filed,” he wrote.

Gieselman explained in the memo that the county’s population, currently at about 1 million residents, is expected to reach 1.5 million residents by 2040. The Texas Water Plan projects the annual water usage will increase from 187,037 acre-feet in 2000 – one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons – to 374,041 acre-feet in 2040.


Surface water sources account for most of the usage, Gieselman explained, but there is a significant amount of groundwater usage, including water drawn from the Trinity Group Aquifers.


Priority Groundwater Management Area 9
established in 1990. Conservation districts have yet
to be formed in SW Travis and western Comal.

“Portions of western Travis County that use the Trinity Group Aquifers are already experiencing issues with water availability – in part due to the demands of development and in part due to droughts,” Gieselman wrote. “Droughts in the Hill Country are frequent and severe. Since the 1950's, significant droughts occurred in 1964-65, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2000, and 2007-09. Travis County does not have a permanent policy that deals with groundwater availability in areas with groundwater issues.”

Though parts of western Travis County have been designated as part of a “priority groundwater management area,” a groundwater conservation district has not been created for that area to regulate pumping, among other protective measures such districts take in other parts of the state and region.

According to Gieselman’s memo, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality released a report last month that recommends the formation of such a district comprised of the Hill Country priority groundwater management areas of southwest Travis County, western Comal County, and western Hays County. A hearing on that recommendation will be held on Oct. 28, according to the memo. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 22, 2009)