Wimberley residents question officials’ openness

Wastewater issues spur protests

Minimal communication with citizenry had led some residents to allege a lack of transparency on the part of Wimberley city leaders; despite protests, the city Tuesday night chose to forego plans for a city-owned wastewater system.

UPDATE

While the city did not specifically choose Aqua Texas to manage its wastewater plant,  the option of Wimberley running its own system was put on a back burner.

Claims regarding lack of transparency on the issue came as the result of a canceled Aug. 16 Wimberley City Council special meeting to discuss and consider action to modify the scope of the city’s downtown wastewater plans.

Some Wimberley residents feared city leaders were  more interested in third-party provider Aqua Texas, which those residents believe could be detrimental to the environment, as opposed to an in-house system.

Wimberley property owner Rebecca Minnick opposed the Aqua Texas plan, citing the potential for a pipeline to be constructed under Cypress Creek.

“We don’t want to repeat what happened in Kyle at Plum Creek where Aqua Texas was responsible for the 100,000-gallon sewage spill,” Minnick said.

Minnick also believed the city is not communicating with its citizens and that lack of transparency is a growing issue. Minnick said at several meetings, the city council had cut off Woodcreek residents from speaking during public comment period, citing they were not Wimberley residents. She also said residents have had trouble scheduling meetings with Wimberley Mayor Susan Jaggers, as well as with city staff members.

Residents were concerned about the lack of a public hearing during the proposed Aug. 16 meeting, leading some to organize a protest.

On Aug. 11, four former Wimberley mayors – Bob Flocke, Mac McCullogh, Steve Klepfer and Steve Thurber – voiced their collective opposition to the direction the city and town are taking with the plant.

The Hays Free Press reported that Jaggers and other city officials  had eyed the possibility of using Aqua Texas to manage its wastewater treatment plant. The decision came as Wimberley projected the city would be nearly $400,000 in debt by 2020, should it move forward with a city-owned wastewater system.

Peter Way, whose family bought property along Cypress Creek close to the downtown Square in the 1940s, told Jaggers in a letter about his concern about a lack of progress being made in regard to the sewage system.

Given the delay with the project, Way told the mayor his $1 million grant for the project will only be available if the city decides to opt with a city-owned system.

“Therefore, given the lack of concrete progress on an alternative plan and my concerns for our city, I want to now make it clear that I will no longer consider modifying my grant for use for an alternative plan. This is off the table,” Way said. “I respect that you have been working hard searching for an alternative. But at this stage, we don’t have a viable alternative, and I do not see a path forward in any realistic time frame.”

But Klepfer believes the city’s transparency woes go beyond just the recently canceled meeting.

Klepfer believes the city set the stage for transparency problems after they fired former City Administrator Don Ferguson and the city’s former attorney “in the middle of one of the most disive issues in the city’s history. “

With less than five years of experience on the dais, the current council may not have been prepared for the public’s concern, Klepfer said.

“Not having a town hall (meeting), no public comment periods at meetings and restrictions on who can speak to the council at meetings is not good, transparent government,” Klepfer said. “I sat up there for six years and listened to speakers for hours on end. It’s hard to do, but you have to do it. It’s the people’s government. It’s their city.”

Klepfer and Minnick also cited a document obtained by the Hays Free Press in which Scott Johnson, a donor to Jaggers’ campaign, emailed current and soon-to-be city leaders the day after the May 5 election with a demand to “stop sewer project immediately,” and amend collection system to connect to Aqua Texas.

His email to the current council and mayor requested that the city compare costs between an Aqua Texas-run plant and a city-run plant, including debt- payback.

Johnson writes in his email that city leaders should “move forward decisively with the expected savings (affordability) as your guide.”

“When you get sued, that will be the delay, not the actions you are taking to get our Village back on an appropriate financial footing,” Johnson said.

In addition, Jaggers also sought to amend the city’s $1 million grant with the Economic Development Administration (EDA) to pay for an Aqua Texas system, which was denied.

In a letter sent to Jaggers, Jorge Ayala, Director of the EDA Austin Regional office, said changing to include Aqua Texas would require new legal, environmental and engineering analyses beyond a “simple grant agreement.”

The EDA’s grant was based on Wimberley’s original plan, as well as a subsequent amendment, which dictated city ownership of the facility.

Ayala said the only two options for Wimberley are to continue with its city owned plan, or pursue Aqua Texas without the EDA’s grant.

“Taken together, these significant changes to the approved EDA project are so substantial from EDA’s legal perspective that it’s an entirely new project that cannot be approved as a grant amendment,” Ayala wrote in his letter.

The Hays Free Press has reached out to Wimberley officials multiple times over the past few weeks for comment on this and other wastewater related stories. The Hays Free Press also reached out to members of the Wimberley City Council for comment.

City officials and leaders have not responded to requests for comment as of press time.

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