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Hays County Commissioners Court sued again over Open Meetings Act

Friday, May 26, 2000 by

Hays County Water Planning Partnership claims illegal change to roadway plan

The Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP) for the second time has sued the Hays County Commissioners Court over allegations the court has violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit filed yesterday in Hays County District Court alleges that the 2025 Transportation Plan approved with changes by the Commissioners Court on May 16 was modified afterwards and the modified plan was then filed with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO).

Hays County Judge Jim Powers, reached late last night, said he had heard the lawsuit was filed but had not seen it and could not comment before reading it. "I don't necessarily agree with that accusation, but I want to see the lawsuit and talk to legal counsel," he said.

A 2025 Transportation Plan was originally drafted by consultant Prime Strategies Inc. of Austin. The Commissioners Court last November appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to review the plan and recommend changes. Starting in mid-January the committee met weekly except during spring break and reported its recommendations to the Commissioners Court May 16. The minutes of the May 16 meeting state the Commissioners Court adopted the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Committee with two changes. The lawsuit alleges that other changes–not authorized by the Commissioners Court in open session–were subsequently inserted into the plan and that the map of the roadway plan submitted to CAMPO reflects those unauthorized changes.

HCWPP Chair Erin Foster says changes to the map depicting the roadways were ordered by Precinct 3 Commissioner William "Bill" Burnett and made by Steve Floyd of the Environmental Health Department. Floyd went home sick from work yesterday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. Burnett did not return several phone messages left at his office and home yesterday and last night.

Foster says the alleged actions violate the Open Meetings Act "because Burnett made changes not open to public scrutiny. If they're going to make changes they need to bring it back to Commissioners Court and let the public look at it." Foster adds, "The voters of Hays County will get it, that this was not just some little mistake and was done behind closed doors."

Precinct 2 Commissioner H.S. "Susie" Carter tells In Fact Daily that she has examined the modified map submitted to CAMPO. "It did not appear to me to be consistent with the action of the Commissioners Court of May 16," she says. Carter says the modified map shows that:

(1) A road labeled Possible Corridor #1 was moved to the west compared to the location of the roadway recommended by the Blue Ribbon Committee and approved by the Commissioners Court May 16. A copy of the maps obtained by In Fact Daily shows that Possible Corridor #1 is an extension of Escarpment Boulevard that runs from Circle C Ranch into Hays County to connect to FM 967. On the map recommended by the Blue Ribbon Committee and approved by the Commissioners Court, the extension runs southwest across the Hays County line and after crossing Bear Creek veers southeast to leave the recharge zone of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer and connect to FM 967 east of the recharge zone. The map submitted to CAMPO shows the extension running in a more or less straight line to extend Escarpment southwest from Circle C Ranch and connect to FM 967 within the recharge zone.

(2) Ruby Ranch Road is a major arterial. The minutes of the May 16 meeting state that Burnett's motion–seconded by Carter, and unanimously approved–was to adopt the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Committee with two exceptions, one of which was "that the Ruby Ranch Road be eliminated as a major arterial status and be returned back to the original status, if development occurs in that area, as a county collector."

David Baker is executive director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve water quality and quantity, protect habitat, and develop conservation policies. He was a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee and, like Carter, says the map submitted to CAMPO does not appear to be what the Commissioners Court approved May 16. Baker says he is not a member of the HCWPP. "When I heard the motion (in Commissioners Court), in my mind that returned Ruby Ranch Road to a collector road," Baker says. And, he says, "I didn't hear anything about returning Proposed Corridor #1 to its original route."

Baker says there was a third change to the map submitted to CAMPO (one not mentioned in the lawsuit). He says the Blue Ribbon Committee listened to experts who said the recharge zone of the aquifer was the most critical and most sensitive to pollution. The committee submitted a map that showed the recharge zone crosshatched, and the committee recommended in writing that "new roads serving the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer should…not be major arterial highways, but rather provide primary access to new development within this sensitive area." Bakers says the crosshatched area does not appear on the map submitted to CAMPO, and this has the effect of nullifying the committee's recommendations for roadways in this sensitive area. "After four or five months of work we would like our work to be in front of whoever makes decisions," Baker says. "Where roads go, growth goes, so if we can preserve the aquifer and groundwater quality and quantity, that's vital."

Burnett is a member of CAMPO's executive committee. Michael Aulick, CAMPO executive director, tells In Fact Daily that the executive committee met Wednesday and discussed the Hays County plan along with some 20 pages of roadway plans, about 100 roadways in all. Aulick says CAMPO's plan is designed to be a long-range solution. It serves as a consolidated plan for the area that encompasses the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Austin and other member cities. "Our plan is one place to go to see everything that's adopted," he says.

The 2025 plan also may be thought of as a wish list. Before projects can go into the shorter range Transportation Improvement Plan for funding consideration, they must first appear in the 2025 plan. CAMPO controls only federal funding. "Our power under federal law is to approve funds for state highways," he says. Roadways that are not part of the state roadway system may qualify for a portion of STP-4C federal funding, which has been about $12 million a year, Aulick says. He says that federal funding for the extension of Escarpment Boulevard is "not likely but it could happen. It would have to compete."

CAMPO is scheduled to adopt the 2025 Transportation Plan June 12.

The HCWPP previously filed a lawsuit against the Hays County Commissioners Court alleging that the attendance by Judge Powers and Commissioners Burnett and Russ Molenaar at a private meeting sponsored by Newhall Land and Farming Co. constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Act (In Fact Daily Aug. 19, 1999). The court subsequently ruled that no violation of the Open Meetings Act had occurred.

Foster says if HCWPP had not filed the latest lawsuit, she believes the Commissioners Court would act on Tuesday to "cover up" the alleged violation. Foster concedes that the lawsuit may be perceived as a political attack. "But if we don't do this, they'll just keep doing this stuff thinking they won't get caught."

Absentee voting for Place 2 runoff election shows sparse interest

June 3 runoff to decide who succeeds Gus Garcia on City Council

Deputy City Clerk Betty Brown said 3,300 Austin citizens had voted in the runoff election as of Wednesday. During the general election, she said, 9,300 people voted absentee. "We're 6,000 under," she said. It is unlikely there will be a huge rush to the polls now, she said, noting that today and next Tuesday are the last two days to vote absentee.

Assistant City Clerk Candy Parham said Thursday she has received about 300 requests for mail ballots since voting for the runoff started. She said she had only 140 such requests during the general election. Parham said she needs to receive mail applications for a ballot by Tuesday in order to respond in time to receive the ballots back by the June 3 election. Any ballots received after that day cannot be counted, she said. Parham said anyone who requests a mail ballot will be shown on the city records as having voted and will not be able to cast a ballot at a polling place on Election Day. Parham said the Raul Alvarez campaign has been actively encouraging people to vote by mail. In order to do so, she said, the voter must swear he is 65 years old or older, handicapped, in jail, or will be out of the county during the entire period of absentee voting and on Election Day.

Sign of the times…How much is that sign in the window? An observant supporter of Place 2 City Council candidate Raul Alvarez noticed that the window of the City Employment Office at 206 E. 9th St. bore a sign for Rafael Quintanilla, Alvarez' opponent. When In Fact Daily checked the window, we saw not only the Quintanilla sign but also one for Dan McClendon, a candidate for the Austin Community College Board of Trustees, and a distance marker indicating that campaigning could not take place any closer to the polling place that's inside the building. Deputy City Clerk Betty Brown said as long as the sign was the correct distance from the temporary polling place inside, the city could do nothing. She suggested we call Tarantino Properties Inc., manager of the Two Commodore Building, to see if management had authorized the signs. A spokesperson for Tarantino Properties said no one had permission to place campaign signs on the property. Later, the signs had been removed… Rutherford Ranch sold…Reliable sources tell In Fact Daily that a 2,700 acre middle portion the Rutherford Ranch in Hays County sold last Friday for $11 million to Cypress Development, a Houston-based builder of master planned communities. As reported by In Fact Daily last Sept. 16, California-based Newhall Land and Farming Co. pulled the plug on its 6,000 acre option to develop part of the Rutherford Ranch, which in total covers a huge swath of Hays County. The City of Austin bought 1,739 acres from Rutherford Ranch Ltd. for preservation, announced at the time of the Bradley Settlement (In Fact Daily March 24)… New chamber official…The Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce has hired Hopeton Hay as its new executive director. Hay was previously employed by the NAACP Community Development Resource Center. Chamber Chair Tony Gilliard and his wife, Phyllis, are hosting a reception to introduce Hay Wednesday, June 7. For more info, call 459-1181… Break a trail…June 3 is National Trails Day and the South Austin Greenway Alliance will host Breaking Trail Together to celebrate and dedicate Austin's newest hike-and-bike trail, the Williamson Creek Interpretive Science Trail. Council Member Beverly Griffith, a longtime leader in the open space movement, will speak at the dedication ceremony at 10:30 a.m. at the Dove Springs Recreation Center, 5801 Ainex St. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with kids events and prize drawings hourly. For more info, call Julie Wade at 482-8537 or send e-mail to julie@toast.net… Hot as hades…The heat spell has triggered yet another new peak load record at Austin Energy. The electric utility surpassed 2,000 megawatts of power use Wednesday, a level the utility says is not typically reached until August during the hottest part of the summer. The peak hit 2029 megawatts (MW), eclipsing the previous record for May of 1774 MW set in 1998. All-time records have been hit every month this year except February, a reflection of growing population, booming construction and increasing temperatures. While you will sweat outdoors, Austin Energy says you won't sweat indoors as sufficient power is projected to be available to meet demand for the utility's 365,000 customers. For more info call Ed Clark at 322-6514… We got soul…The 10th Anniversary SOS Soul of the City Celebration is slated for Sunday, June 11, 6 p.m. to midnight at La Zona Rosa. The party features six hours of music by Jerry Jeff Walker & Band, Marcia Ball & Band, Kinky Friedman, The Damnations, Texas, and The Gourds. Tickets are $20. You can avoid the rush and order tickets by e-mail, fax, phone or snail mail. For details call 477-2320. The event is keyed to the infamous all-night City Council meeting of June 7, 1990, when 800 people signed up to speak against construction proposed over the Edwards Aquifer… No newsletter Monday…Monday, May 29, is Memorial Day, a City of Austin holiday and therefore a day without In Fact Daily. Check the voluminous schedule of activities over the weekend at the Austin City Connection, www.ci.austin.tx.us.

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