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Friday, July 8, 2016 by Jack Craver

Recall petition launched against Bastrop mayor

A political action committee run by a longtime Austin-area activist is launching a petition to recall Bastrop Mayor Ken Kesselus.

The petition, which was released by the Linda Curtis-led Independent Texans PAC, takes Kesselus to task for a number of instances of political maneuvering, some of which it alleges were illegal and all of which it argues are shady and detrimental to the city and its resources.

The PAC is sending out the petition to all of Bastrop’s nearly 5,000 registered voters. To prompt the recall election, 25 percent of that total number must sign the petition.

The group is also circulating a second petition that seeks to change city law so that it is easier for citizens to get initiatives, including recalls, on the ballot. If approved, the signature threshold would drop from 25 percent to 5 percent, which Curtis contends is a fairer expectation.

Many of the allegations in the recall petition center on Bastrop’s water supply. The petition accuses Kesselus of complicity in what it says is a scheme by former Bastrop City Council Member Joe Beal “to peddle Bastrop’s water for export.”

Beal stirred controversy last year by suggesting in testimony before Austin City Council that Austin might seek water from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Lee and Bastrop counties if its current water sources prove insufficient in the future.

Some, including Mayor Steve Adler, later said they were surprised to learn after his testimony that Beal worked for a firm seeking to build water infrastructure to do precisely that. At the time, both Beal and Kesselus responded that their first priority was making sure the city of Bastrop had access to water in the long term.

Six months after Beal left City Council, the petition notes, “Kesselus appointed Beal to the Bastrop Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) board that handles millions of tax dollars for local development, including authority to finance water projects.”

In an interview with the Austin Monitor on Thursday, Kesselus called the notion that he was trying to export Bastrop’s water “unbelievably preposterous.”

“That would be the stupidest thing in the world,” he said. “Bastrop doesn’t have any water to sell.”

“I have never, ever said one single thing about selling our water,” Kesselus added. Instead, he said, “We are still working on securing more water for the city of Bastrop.”

He accused Curtis of “deliberately trying to confuse an issue.”

“Joe was the main proponent for securing water rights for the city of Bastrop,” he said. “We’re a growing city. If we don’t have enough water for our citizens and our businesses, we won’t be able to prosper.”

The petition also claims that Kesselus “brazenly attempted to appoint his own employer, Mark Rose, then General Manager of Bluebonnet Electric Coop, to the Bastrop Economic Development Board in clear violation of the City of Bastrop’s Ethics Ordinance.”

The mayor also called that allegation a lie. Rose applied to the position, said Kesselus, but was not appointed. Kesselus noted that he did nominate Rose’s wife to sit on an arts commission but agreed to withdraw her nomination based on advice from the city’s ethics commission and the city attorney. Their advice, he said, was not based on any “rock solid” provision in city ordinance, but he was happy to follow it nevertheless.

Curtis told the Monitor that she stands by every claim in the petition. “It’s been fact-checked,” she said. “It’s been checked by a bunch of lawyers.”

The petition also accuses Kesselus of violating open meeting laws by holding a closed meeting on June 20. That refers to an executive session that the mayor held with City Council members to determine how the city would proceed after the resignation of its city manager, Mike Talbot, who quit in the wake of complaints about the more than $1 million the city had been paying to outside legal counsel between January 2015 and March 2016.

At that meeting, Glenn Johnson, an attorney hired by current Bastrop city attorney J.C. Brown, accused the mayor of not properly posting the meeting on the city’s website and of instructing the city manager and city attorney not to attend the meeting, contrary to city ordinance. He also alleged that any discussion relating to the city attorney that took place in the executive session would be illegal.

Ultimately, Brown agreed to participate in the executive session after Kesselus assured her that there would be no discussion of her job, only the city manager’s.

“It was a pretty shocking moment when your own attorney has her own attorney to get up and talk to you,” said Kesselus.

Curtis said that the entire issue of legal bills paid to outside counsel had been inaccurately portrayed, including by the Monitor, and that the mayor was trying to evade responsibility for his own role in authorizing the lawsuits that prompted the legal bills by “trying to hang this on the city manager.”

Finally, the recall petition says the mayor “engaged in behavior unbecoming an elected official by publicly berating the City Manager, the city’s attorney and City Secretary as well as Bastrop citizens” who speak before Council.

Kesselus said that he had reached out to Curtis by email after seeing that she had written a “nasty” Facebook post about him, proposing that they sit down and discuss her objections to his leadership.

In an email she shared with the Monitor, Curtis responded, “I don’t have the time for this silliness and I’m not going to sit around mincing words with you.” She also told him he owed apologies to Talbot and Brown.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=609290

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Bastrop: Bastrop is a city and the county seat of Bastrop County. It's located about 30 miles southeast of Austin

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