The Williamson County Public Policy Coalition (WCPPC) showed up to Precinct 4 Commissioner Ron Morrison’s open house this week. The TDP has the story, T. Don Hutto, landfill spurs activist group.
An open house Thursday afternoon for Precinct 4 Commissioner Ron Morrison’s office was intended to build some good will and interconnection between East Williamson County’s constituents and their county representation.
What it turned into was a coming out party for a new coalition uniting those disgusted with the Williamson County Landfill and the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility. Members of the newly formed Williamson County Public Policy Commission waved signs and passed out fliers on the sidewalk of Exchange Boulevard outside Morrison’s office, while well-wishers enjoyed the meet-and-greet event inside.
The coalition is largely made up of members of the Hutto Citizens Group, a watchdog non-profit group of mostly Hutto residents with a keen eye on the landfill near Hutto and other local issues, and the Family Justice Alliance, vigilant critics of T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor.
The newly formed group hopes to fold opposition to Highway 29’s expansion into their ranks as well. These issues are all related, member Jeff Maurice said, because they all have very public opposition that they feel is being ignored by county commissioners.
“It’s a list that goes on and on. They (the commissioners) have become an embarrassment to local constituents,” Maurice said.
Morrison, whose event was attended by several Taylor officials, said he had no qualms with the Williamson County Public Policy Commission organizing during his event.
“That’s the beauty of America,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in good taste, but it’s their right.”
Obviously Morrison wasn’t pleased to have citizens, who aren’t pleased with his job performance, show up at his open house. He and the rest of the court members should get used to it. Holding elected officials accountable is part of a democracy, and as long as it’s legal, it doesn’t matter whether the elected official thinks it’s tasteful or not.
Received via Email:
Reading today’s [Wednesday December 9, 2008 issue] Sun, the County commissioners sound like Perry with lowered standards for ozone.
Covey, “I’m wondering how we got here…..” DUH, uncontrolled growth and the added traffic, additional roads. Now she’s worried about the new limits hampering development and road construction…….
Get a clue lady!
That’s in relation to the recent move by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to designate Williamson County, along with Travis, as being in “nonattainment“. Nonattainment areas are defined as:
..areas that have failed to meet federal standards for ambient air quality.
The Austin-San Marcos Nonattainment area includes Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Hays and Caldwell counties. From what can be discerned from the TCEQ Williamson County is not being placed in nonattainment because of it’s ambient air quality, but because of their determination that Williamson contributes to Travis County’s poor air quality. From the TCEQ’s recommendation [.pdf].
Overview. The Air Quality Division (AQD) reviewed all ozone monitor data to determine which
monitors and counties show violations of the revised ozone standard. For counties with monitors that violate the standard (a design value that is greater than 0.075 parts per million), the AQD reviewed the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) boundaries. The design values reviewed apply data from calendar years 2005 through 2007; 2008 data (not yet complete) was also reviewed. The AQD also considered whether the county was previously designated nonattainment for the 1997 eight-hour ozone standard (0.08 parts per million or, with allowed rounding, 85 parts per billion). The AQD analyzed historical wind patterns covering calendar years 2000 through 2007, concentrating on days with ozone measurements greater than 0.075 parts per million, as well as 2005 emissions inventory data, and population density and county-to-county commuting patterns from the 2000 Census. (EPA March 28, 2000, guidance memorandum recommends the default boundary be the MSA for areas with violating
monitors, and provides criteria states can look at to make different recommendations.)
Austin. Travis County contains the area’s federal regulatory design-value monitor with a reading of 80 parts per billion for 2005 through 2007. Mobile sources make up 78 percent of 2005 NOx emissions from the five-county MSA. More than 12 percent of the Travis County workforce commutes from Williamson County. Historical wind patterns indicate that ozone was transported from Williamson County to Travis County on more than five days with high ozone during the seven year period. Mobile and stationary emissions and commuting from the three remaining MSA counties (Bastrop, Caldwell, and Hays) are relatively insignificant. Recommendation: Travis and Williamson. (Emphasis added).
Just another thing to add to the warm feelings between Williamson and Travis counties. As the title of this post, and the email both point out, this should not be a shocker to those in our county government. The tremendous growth of Williamson County is not news. Especially to those who have done so much to promote the sprawling growth and road/highway construction all across our county. The added pollution just comes with the territory.
I will agree that it seems like a raw deal since Williamson’s air isn’t bad (yet), but we do have to share the air with the rest of the planet, and actions have consequences. If we are going to clean up our environment, God’s creation, we have to start now. From this week’s TDP article on this issue, Air quality status could slow road construction, we can see what is worrying our county elected officials.
County Commissioner Ron Morrison said those changes could have a dramatic affect.
“If it takes a year now to get started, it’s going to take three to five years (under the proposed guidelines),” Morrison said.
It’s all about building roads, and from this past election we know who funds the WCGOP’s campaigns in Williamson County. While EOW has issues with certain toll roads, and with the SH 29 expansion, the issue here is not about roads or no roads. Of course some new roads must, and will, be built. What this is about about is looking at what we’re doing, and planning for the future, how we get back-and-forth, and how we might be able to do that with the least amount of pollution.
The SH 29 expansion, as an example, is just setting the county up for more sprawling growth. With large subsivisions, strip malls, and a long highway for commuters – inside and outside of Williamson County. While the WCGOP commissioners courts reaction is predictable, (see item #21 on 12.09.08 agenda), it would be much better if they acknowledged that they understand the larger environmental issue. A head-in-the-sand, roads only approach, that favors developers, road contradiction, design, engineering and consulting firms, isn’t going to cut it anymore.
[UPDATE]: Finally found a report from the meeting on Tuesday, Construction could halt in Wilco if air quality status is poor. It states Williamson County was left off the list.
TCEQ did decide to leave Williamson County off that list, but the county’s not in the clear just yet.
Gov. Rick Perry could decide to put the county back on that list, or the EPA has the final word when it submits its decision by March 2010.
It’s extremely unlikely that Perry would put any county back on this list. Looks like Williamson is in the clear for now.
EOW, Like Getting The Paper Early
The AAS has an article on Williamson County hiring a PR firm for $1million. Seems like there may have been story about this earlier in the year? Oh that’s right, County Nears $1 Million Deal With PR/Lobby Firm. According to the AAS the county’s hiring of the PR firm, which works on toll road projects, has caused suspicion among those in the path of the proposed SH 29 expansion, aka the “Nutty Road to Nowhere”. And rightfully so:
“I don’t know what a good amount would be, but $1 million set off a lot of light bulbs or rockets in people’s minds,” [Count Judge Dan Gattis, Sr.] said.
That was the case for J.T. Cox, who owns land south of Liberty Hill. Commissioners announced Sept. 3 that the Texas 29 expansion will run south of the city and current road, probably going through Cox’s land.
The proposed 19-mile expansion, though not final, would convert the four-lane road into 12 lanes. County officials said they hope to avoid congestion on Texas 29 similar to what’s already bogged down other roads in the county, such as RM 620 in Round Rock.
Cox and other residents say the expansion is not needed, and some fear it is part of a bigger effort to push a major toll road corridor through the western part of the county.
“If they can’t sell something on their own, why do they need to hire someone to do it for them?” Cox said about the firm and fears of a possible corridor. “Something is going on, and no one is being honest and truthful with us.”
While Martin & Salinas say they’re not pushing toll roads here’s what they’ve been doing with our money so far.
Invoices obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act show that Buie was paid $150 an hour to call residents concerned about the Texas 29 expansion, review a Web site that was created in opposition to the expansion and “discuss strategy” with engineers about an article that an American-Statesman reporter was writing on Texas 29.
Commissioners say the hiring was necessary because the job of issuing public notices, hosting town hall meetings about roads, developing Web sites and returning phone calls and e-mail from residents — among other things — is too much for the county’s one public information officer, Connie Watson, who earns $55,971 annually.
While hiring PR consultants, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and not necessarily unethical, it’s how the whole deal gets done that causes taxpayers to start thinking something’s being put over on them. Several factors, in this deal, went into bringing about suspicion. First, the secrecy, if EOW wouldn’t have posted on this months ago when would the taxpayers have found out about this deal? Second, the intermingling between the consultants and their campaign donations to our county elected officials, which could point to a conflict of interest in a deal like this. And third, the spin that PR firms use in an attempt to put things over on the public.
Hiring a public relations firm to do outreach for county road projects is not unethical, said University of Texas law professor Daniel Rodriguez. He could not speak specifically on Williamson County’s situation, but he said in general any hired outside counsel — especially that of public relations firms — can raise red flags with constituents. Often the perception is that the firms are hired to push an agenda or plan that’s already been derived by municipalities or counties, he said.
“They sort of have this whiff of publicity and Madison Avenue and even spin control that we’d like to think our local officials de-emphasize” Rodriguez said. “When you’re in PR, you’re in the business of getting things past the public.”
Some of the Williamson County critics point to campaign donations from developers and engineers who have ties to toll roads as one of the reasons to worry. The county has had some controversial experiences with consultants, who were also political contributors.
That’s putting it mildly. It would be best if we didn’t have commissioners taking money form those that do business with the county.
Commissioners say contributions don’t sway their votes, nor did they influence the hiring of Martin & Salinas, which did public outreach in 2004 for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, an independent government agency that builds toll roads. (Don Martin, a partner at Martin & Salinas, donated $100 each to Gattis and Commissioner Ron Morrison.)
The situation is common in local politics, where groups that do business with the county are often the ones who donate to campaigns. Even so, some residents are worried.
Greg Windham, a Democrat running for county commissioner in November, has opposed the expansion of Texas 29 and the county’s hiring of Martin & Salinas, calling it a “propaganda initiative” and part of “backroom” deals.
“When you’re running a campaign, the scope of services are eerily similar to the scope of services being provided by Martin & Salinas,” he said. “The sad part of this is there are so many other pressing projects that could be addressed with this money they’re wasting.”
It sure is eerie Greg, and we have many more “pressing projects” in this county. It’s a good article, even if it is a few months late.
While from the standpoint of displacing homeowners and ultimately, for them – cheaper start-up costs (buying land) – the south was probably their preference from the beginning. Here’s a link to the text of the email Commissioner’s Valerie Covey and Cynthia Long sent out announcing their decision. After going through, again, an attempt to justify the need for this action now we get to the meat of the announcement.
After much study, we have also concluded that Highway 29 cannot be expanded on the existing road through the Liberty Hill area due to engineering and environmental issues and the exorbitant increase in the cost of the project. As a result, we have selected the southern bypass alignment from the Burnet County Line to Ronald Reagan Blvd. The selection of the southern alignment is also intended to minimize the amount of residential and business displacement in the area.
This SH 29 expansion will NOT be built until it is needed; construction would take place only when overall traffic volumes significantly increase, resulting in traffic congestion at both peak and non-peak periods. We estimate that the road would not be built for at least 15 years, depending on traffic counts and safety issues along the highway.
By working to preserve options for SH 29 today, we are able to focus on the purchase of land, rather than the purchase of land and buildings in an effort to reduce the cost to our taxpayers. We also believe that by informing people today about where the road will go in the future — at least 15 years into the future — everyone can plan better.
Notice there is no “need” for this road for at least 15 years. In the AAS Commissioner Long is saying something a little different.
Construction of Texas 29 is not expected to begin for 20 to 25 years, Long said, but the county wants to have a plan in place and land in hand before the need arises.
“We’d rather be buying dirt than buying dirt and buildings,” Long said. “Every day we wait will have an impact on more people and the bottom line.”
15, 20, 25, whatever it takes. But the AAS at least gave some time to those who live south of Liberty Hill.
The plans to expand Texas 29 through the mostly rural area has upset some residents, who don’t want a major highway through the area.
J.T. Cox, who owns land where the bypass would connect back to the current roadway, said he is “in total, 100 percent opposition” to having the highway bypass Liberty Hill and to the chosen route south of town because he thinks future growth in Liberty Hill will be to the north. He said the county would have to buy a little less than an acre of his land, and “I ain’t no willing seller.”
Cox also had this to say about the response he’s gotten from elected officials in Williamson County:
Judge Gattis: no return calls or emails
Sonny Gattis: no return calls or emails, especially when I did as instructed.
Valerie Covey: history
Cynthia Long: I’m thinking about running for her job
John Carter: can’t talk to me
State Sen. Ogden: pretty good talk from his secretary, don’t count
It’s doubtful that will surprise anyone. When faced with a tough issue most of these folks just hide and hope it goes away. That’s what happens when elected officials believe they can’t be voted out. While this deal is moving forward, it’s not done yet, and this key sentence from the AAS story shows out the only option left.
County commissioners are expected to vote on the transportation plan at the beginning of the year.
If this is to be stopped, the two incumbent commissioners on the ballot in November, (Covey and Lisa Birkman), can’t be reelected. If they’re no longer in office in January 2009 they can’t vote for it. Removing those two will show the three remaining on the court that citizens are serious, and will vote them out. So vote for Greg Windham, Mike Grimes, and Jaime Lynn in November to bring accountability back to government in Williamson County.
Not much actual “news” in this article, The future of Hwy. 29, for those that have been paying attention. There are some pretty maps. It also doesn’t present an alternative view, nor is there any mention of the uprising that’s occurred in Liberty Hill because of the “Nutty Road To Nowhere”. Here are excerpts:
â€œWe felt that we really should have done this 10 years ago, but we canâ€™t start it 10 years ago; we can only start it today,â€ [Precinct e Commissioner Cynthia] Long said.
â€œFrom a purely planning perspective, we are looking at the widest scenario, but that is not to say that is what it will ultimately be in every area,â€ she said. â€œRight now it is a planning study. Until you get to the actual design â€” once we get to a preferred alignment, based on all the input and the constraints â€” then you do a more detailed schematic. At that point in time, we would know more about what that footprint will look like.â€
The commissioners announced a plan to remove 13 possible routes July 17, but do not plan to announce the preferred path until September. Once the route is chosen, the engineers will design a schematic, and the court will begin land purchase options with interested sellers.
Several landowners in Georgetown declined to comment on the corridor study, saying they were concerned it could affect their negotiations with the county
Others agree that if the county is going to designate the roadâ€™s route, now is the time to buy the right-of-way.
â€œThe positive side of buying right-of-way now is it will be way cheaper today than it will be in the future,â€ state Rep. Dan Gattis said. â€œThe negative side of it is that if you say, â€˜This is where our corridor is going,â€™ and donâ€™t actually purchase that property, then really youâ€™ve harmed those property owners. Then they canâ€™t ever sell their property. You canâ€™t do that to people.â€
â€œTxDOT should be out here designating and buying right-of-way and everything else,â€ Gattis said. â€œThe county shouldnâ€™t have to do it, but the county canâ€™t wait for TxDOT to get its business in order.â€
The commissioners agree that TxDOT should be in charge of this project, but even with the cutbacks, this project was not on the agencyâ€™s list, Long said.
â€œThis is not one [of the projects] they had planned, but northern Williamson County has been largely underestimated in terms of population growth,â€ she said. â€œWe live it and see it every day, and that is why we took the lead on this â€” so that we could do this study and identify where the road alignment needs to be in the future.â€
Landowners don’t want to talk, I wonder why that is? This may be the first time Dan Gattis, Jr. has commented on SH 29 in the press. He does an excellent job of showing how this plan benefits the county and harms the current property owners. But beyond that, and blaming/scapegoating TxDOT, he offers nothing constructive. It would have been nice to find out what he thinks about the plan, if he agrees with the corridor plan and how the county if proceeding so far. Maybe next time.
(Anonymous comment received via email).
I left the house at 5:30 pm. Plenty of time, I thought, to find a seat. Pulling into the high school parking lot, there were so many cars, I thought there must be football practice tonight. Walking up to the entrance, I was met by the Keep29Local group handing out flyers and red ribbons. The hall walls of the school had huge maps of the routes on them. Tables were setup where everyone was asked to sign in and handed information sheets that dated back to July 3rd’s “Frequently-Asked-Questions” from the county. My thought, we already know this stuff – what a waste of paper.
Upon entering the cafeteria, it was apparent I had left the house too late to get a seat. It was warm and I wondered if the air conditioner needed a boost or if it was just anger in the air? While waiting, Greg Windham, candidate for Pct 3 Commissioner, introduced himself to me and a friend of mine. Soon after that, candidate for County Attorney Jaime Lynn came up and introduced himself. As he stood talking current County Attorney, and candidate for re-election Jana Duty, passed by and smiled at Lynn asking “how are you?”. Shortly after that some lady with flaming red hair came up to Lynn stating he couldn’t hand out his campaign push cards. When asked why, she became irritated and told him “it was a county funded event and it was illegal”. Lynn responded by saying “this is an open house”. I think her hair went another shade of red with anger. She pointed behind us and stated “or do you need a cop to tell you” and she walked off to take a seat. Those of us within ear shot of this, just stood looking at each other in disbelief. Lynn politely put his push cards away and remained standing with us.
The meeting, or should I say lecture, started around 6:30. The panel introduced themselves with a mike which was turned down too low and most couldn’t hear what was being said. Cynthia Long was met with a low rumble of boos from the crowd. The slide show of questions appeared on the screen and they were off with their pre-scripted answers. Over in a corner close to the stage, Jim Dillon stood with a large dry erase board writing one liners. Getting laughter from writing “Thou Shalt Not Lie” when a consultant was giving an answer, and “Bertram Population 1,000,000” when another commented on future growth expectancy. The crowd had the biggest laugh of the evening when the answer to “is this going to be a toll road” was “we don’t know”. The laughter didn’t last long as those around me including myself started growing frustrated that this stuff we were forced to watch and listen to, was not answering what we really wanted to know.
Some started shouting out questions and statements in anger. A gentleman, I believe to be JT Cox, stood up and addressed the crowd requesting we let the panel speak and when they had finished we would get our turn. I didn’t keep count of the questions, but I was thinking we were going to be there all night by the time they get to questions we had submitted. Then I was jarred back to reality when it was stated that “we are going to let everyone get a drink of water and then you can go to one of the selected areas with the hands that are raised and get your questions answered”. What? People started looking around in disbelief and some stood up and walked out. It was clear we weren’t going to “get our turn”. JT Cox jumped up from his seat and with a commanding tone asked Covey and Long to answer the question, “are you going to go North, South or listen to the Keep29Local proposal?”. No answer. With that, he turned to the crowd and asked for those of us that supported the county’s plans to stand up. Realizing we were standing, we hit the floor. Then he responded by requesting that those of us supporting the Keeping29Local plan to please stand and clap your hands. It sounded like the Liberty Hill State Champs had just scored a touch down in a game. At that point, Covey took the mike in her hands and in a demeaning and condescending tone gave us the last words to be spoken on the matter. She thanked us for coming out and showing support, but all in all, what hit me the hardest was when she said, “in the future, you people will be coming to us and begging us to help you out”. I was just about to lose it when some lady in front of me decided to speak up and shouted a question to Covey who quickly told her, “let me finish and then you can yell at me all you want”. The lady tuned to me and said, “I’m not going to get that chance, just watch”. She was right. Covey put the mike up and the meeting was over. People started filing out mumbling among themselves. Some stood around shaking their heads. That was that, so I left.
I cannot speak for everyone there, but to me it seemed we did not get the same respect and chance to speak that was given to Covey and Long. As one citizen pointed out, “you, the county, hired those on the panel. They work for you, but you work for us”. Oh, yes they do and as of November 4th, you will be giving noticed that your last day is December 31,2008.
From all reports, so far, the Republican county commissioners, Valerie Covey and Cynthia Long and their $1 million PR firm, are giving the people two choices. North or South. They still refuse to discuss with the people of Williamson County why this Perry-like corridor needs to be built in the first place. There’s a great crowd picture at Liberty Hill River, as well as this take on last night’s “forum”.
The Wear Red campaign was a huge success in one respect: there is no doubt that County Commissioners Cynthia Long and Valerie Covey saw the number of people wearing red and vocally opposing both remaining Highway 29 bypass options. Hundreds of people showed up at the meeting to hear county’s consultants and engineers answer questions sent in advance. But when Linda Rife tried to adjourn the meeting, JT Cox stood up and asked politely but firmly how many people in the audience opposed both options. The huge crowd of Liberty Hill citizens stood as one and applauded.
The citizens of a united Libery Hill made it clear they don’t want an Interstate 29.
Unfortunately the county wanted to make tonight a multiple choice quiz:
* Go North
* Go South
* None of the above, not on the test
The county is happy to listen to us and wants our input, but the only question left is to choose the Northern Route or the Southern Route.
To be fair, the county commissioners make a pretty clear cut case:
* The county can’t stop growth
* People will continue to move to Williamson County
* Highway 29 will someday be overwhelmed with traffic jams
* The road has to either go through Liberty Hill or around it
* It’s better to plan early than later
How can you reconcile the will of the people with the harsh realities of demographics?
I have one idea to propose, but it will probably take a change to Texas law to implement, and it won’t make everyone happy.
And also this comment from K29L:
I wanted to hear for myself last night what the commissioners had to say at the open house. At about 2 am it hit me. I heard the benevolent politicians tell me, a member of the uneducated masses, what is best for me. After all â€œtheyâ€ have the right numbers and insights because â€œtheyâ€ have been working on this project and similar projects for years. I had the privilege of going to Beijing in March. Everywhere there were pictures of Mao. That is the picture that woke me up at 2 am. The benevolent politician who knows more than I do and who of course is doing it all for my good. I am a politicianâ€™s worst nightmare because I cross party lines when I vote. I vote based on the issues that the individual politician puts forth. I would not vote for Covey or Long even if they were the only two people on the ballot. I would write my name in first. Sign me not an uneducated member of the masses.
It appears it was nothing more than an attempt, and a bad one at that, by GOP commissioner Covey and Long, and their $1 million PR firm, to tell the people what a glorious plan they’ve concocted. Instead of allowing the people to question their elected officials and voice their concerns. Accountability comes in November.