The Kyle Report

The Kyle Report

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I ain’t part of no one-sided love (legal) affair

In my professional career I have had many opportunities to interact with a number of police chiefs, assistant chiefs, station commanders and rank-and-file police officers and one thing I’ve learned to be true and you can take this to the bank: As a general rule, police officers don’t like their police chiefs and the head of any police association/union feels it’s his or her mission in life to get rid of his/her chief.

This is true here and the proof of that fact is in a story that appeared today on the front page of the Austin-American Statesman involving Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett. I can vouch for the fact that this story is part of a campaign within the Kyle Police Department to get Chief Barnett fired and the reasons certain people want him fired has nothing to do, whatsoever, with any of the information contained in that story.

Rank-and-file police officers generally mistrust those in higher authority because, they feel with some justification, that those higher-ups put obstacles in the way of their being able to fight the bad guys. I don’t know if it started with Miranda — probably not — but that 1966 Supreme Court decision certainly exasperated the feelings. Then authorities began instituting such law-enforcement barriers as deadly force polices, rules against high-speed pursuits, outlawing choke-holds and police became convinced they were the ones being handcuffed.

Here in Kyle the contention is why is the city, with the chief’s endorsement and encouragement, spending all this money on buying SUVs and handguns for the police when they should be spending it on hiring more police officers. By gum, what we need is a new police chief.

I was approached by an individual within the Kyle Police Department (I don’t want to divulge just who right now) with the same information contained in today’s American-Statesman story. This individual also gave my e-mail address to one of the principals in the story, Dr. Glen Hurlston. I know this because Dr. Hurlston e-mailed me saying he desperately wanted to talk with me at any time and in any place. I poked around and because, apparently like the American-Statesman, I could not obtain privately held legal documents that told the other side of the story, I chose not to pursue it at the time because it would be, like the American-Statesman’s account, completely one-sided. (As an aside, I formally was a partner in a media consulting firm that was called on by governments, companies, sports teams, individuals, etc., facing a crisis and my job was to tell them how to respond to media inquiries. In that capacity, I will say Kyle city officials were correct in saying they could not respond to issues that currently are in litigation, but they could have said a lot more that would have made the newspaper’s account somewhat less one-sided.)

In a nutshell, here’s the issue as outlined by at least one member of the Kyle Police Department and Austin-American reporter Tom Plohetski. Prior to being hired as Kyle’s police chief in April 2011, Barnett was the chief of police in the Collin County town of Princeton, a relatively small, but growing, burg located on the eastern edge of McKinney. Apparently while there he met and twice engaged in a romantic relationship with Suzanne Hurlston, the second time after she became the wife of Dr. Hurlston. No one is able to say, precisely, when the affair ended, but it seems to have run its course when Barnett accepted the police chief’s job here.

On Jan. 1, 2012, Dr. Hurlston was arrested by Princeton police on charges he assaulted his wife. According to legal documents filed by Dr. Hurlston, he was arrested because Barnett used his influence as the former Princeton police chief to coerce Princeton police to make the arrest. Plohetski writes that in an interview with Mrs. Hurlston, she maintained "under no circumstances did the chief orchestrate anything."

Unfortunately, that has become the hub of the story: that Kyle has, as its police chief, someone who engaged in an affair with a married woman and then abused his position to unduly, if not illegally, influence a governmental institution outside the chief’s jurisdiction. To put it simply, he asked his old buds from his former hometown to protect his girlfriend. Ipso facto, Barnett should be fired, if not on legal, than at least on moral grounds.

Hogwash. First on the moral issue, I am firmly in the "Glass House" camp here. Now let’s address the issue of influence. If using a position of authority to influence former employers was illegal, I’d be serving a life sentence. I used my position as the president of a chamber of commerce to influence several Dallas city council members to hire my former boss at the city as the city’s new city manager when there was a great hue and cry to hire someone from outside the city. (My former boss was hired and she proved to be a superb city manager.). I used that same influence on an area police commander, who is now the city’s police chief, to arrest a panhandler that was using excessive force to extract money from shoppers in a certain area of the city. I used that same influence on that police commanders successor to bust up a section of an apartment complex I learned was being used as a meth lab. As a writer, I used my friendships I developed with other city employees to learn about issues happening within city government. Get over it. It’s a way of life.

But now let’s get to the real issue here and it’s illustrated by what I said about the panhandler and the meth lab. Both of these activities are illegal. And so is domestic violence. That’s the issue. Not whether Barnett used his influence to get someone arrested or whether he committed some heinous moral activity by having an affair. It’s whether, as someone sworn to uphold the law, he reported someone breaking the law. I don’t know whether Dr. Hurlston beat his wife. I do know he pleaded no contest to the resulting assault charges filed against him. I have my opinion based on that, but I’ll leave the facts of the case for others to decide.

I also know, largely due to all the publicity surrounding the Ray Rice incident from earlier this year, domestic violence is much more in the public’s eye than it ever has. Just look at the campaign that my former employer, the City of Dallas, has undertaken.

Domestic violence, and especially whether those who really do have the power to stop it, is one of the real issues here. But the other, and most important thing to realize is that, no matter what, those within the department are going to look for some way, any way, to get rid of their chief, especially when if that chief endorses SUVs and handguns over additional officers.

The subject of this argument needs to be changed to reflect that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kyle’s wacky way with roads

Normally, when someone buys a house, they will pick the home they want and then try to secure a loan to obtain the money to pay for the home. Sometimes they will get pre-clearance for a loan before they buy a house. But I’ve never heard of a case in which someone borrows $300,000 or so from a loan company and then goes out in search of a house to buy.

The same is true of municipalities when it comes to capital projects, usually defined as the construction or the major repair of one or more things that will last at least 20 years. Municipalities will undertake all the required studies — land costs, engineering, etc — to determine as closely as possible the cost of the project, and then they will ask voters for permission to take out a loan, in the form of bonds they sell and then repay with interest, to cover the cost of the projects. That way, after the bonds are sold, the city can immediately ask for companies to bid on the construction projects and get right to work on them without much delay. The reason voters need to give permission for the sale of bonds is because they are repaid by taxes the city collects and if the taxes being collected at the time the bonds are issued aren’t enough to cover their costs, the city must collect more money, usually by increasing property tax rates.

From what I’m piecing together, that’s not the way it’s been done around here. In May 2013 Kyle voters gave the city their approval to borrow $36 million to pay for road repairs, expansions and/or extensions of five roadways: Bunton Creek Road, North Burleson Street, Goforth Road, Lehman Road and Marketplace Avenue. That last project — extending Marketplace from its current terminus southward to Burleson — wasn’t part of the original proposition and, from what I’ve learned, a number of influential individuals didn’t want it to be part of the original proposition. However, of the four other projects, all but Burleson were located on the east side of Interstate 35 and city officials wanted more voter participation in the bond election from the voter-rich east side. So they added the Marketplace extension, a project extremely popular with those who live in the Burleson Road/Center Street area of town who now, in order to shop at the H-E-B which, for all practical purposes, is the only grocery story in town and is located north of where they live, must drive south before they can eventually head north to get to that store (as well, of course, to the Target right across the street from the H-E-B). I said this project was "extremely popular" and Mayor Todd Webster supports this. He told me last night he receives, by a whopping 4-1 margin, more people demanding the Marketplace extension be completed than the other four projects combined.

I’ll get back on the subject of Marketplace in a second, but it’s important to note that when the city asked voters to approve this bond package, virtually nothing had been done to determine exactly how much these projects would actually cost. Now voters are getting a little peeved because it’s more than a year and a half since they approved these bonds and they still can’t see with their own eyes any actual work starting on any of these road projects. The reason they aren’t seeing any is because all the engineering, to cite just one example, that should have been completed before the bond proposal was sent to the voters, wasn’t even sent out for bids until after the proposal passed.

As far as the Marketplace Project is concerned, there was still that small handful of folks who, for reasons other than NIMBY seem difficult to decipher, don’t want it to happen. But after the bond proposal passed, stopping the project outright would be breaking the law and result in sharing a room with Big Ugly Mike in some minimum security detention unit. So they did the next best thing: they managed to put so many unrealistic obstacles in the path of its construction that it amounted to the same thing.

That was the situation facing Mayor Webster and the current city council, four of whom assumed their seats a year after the passage of the bonds. Obviously, a new sheriff was needed so the council summoned Wyatt … I’m sorry, James … Earp, who, at the time, was the assistant city manager and during the process became the city’s acting city manager. He was assigned to be city’s designated negotiator whose assignment was to somehow, someway find a way around these obstacles. (To give you some idea of how ludicrous some of these barriers were, one required that in order for the road to go forward, the landowners along the route had to surrender their land for the right-of-way without receiving any compensation — not one red cent — for the land the city needed to build the extension. Another one gave the developer the right to build the road and then be repaid by the city; anyone who agreed to a deal like that would also wind up sharing a room with Big Ugly Mike.)

Last night, Earp, in his last appearance as the acting city manager, briefed the city council on the status of the negotiations and, to the astonishment of many and the chagrin of a few, let it be known that he achieved something that possibly his more famous namesake never could — a deal that is close to being finalized with all parties directly involved to complete the extension. Even so, there is still a lot of misinformation about the process. The developer paid (he claims close to $270,000) for a lot of the engineering that is required before construction can begin. The city could initiate its own engineering studies from scratch, but Earp thought it would be wiser simply to purchase the studies that have already been completed and agreed to reimburse the developer for any and all payments he made for those studies up to $270,000. However, some reported that what was happening is that the city is paying $270,000 for buying land which it is supposed to be getting for free.

Item No. 14 on last night’s council agenda read: "Discuss and take possible action to execute an agreement by and between the city and Plum Creek Developers, L.L.C., for the extension of Marketplace Avenue." As noted above, the item was discussed but no action was taken, even though a tentative agreement is in place, because of some technical changes and "typographical errors" that need to be fixed before the agreement is signed. One of those "technical changes" concerns exactly where Marketplace will intersect with Burleson — close to Spring Branch or should Marketplace take a sharp dogleg to the left and intersect with Burlerson further north, a less desirable alternative but one that’s still in the discussion.

But, folks, these are details that are supposed to be all decided upon before a bond package goes to voter approval, so that voters really have a clear idea what their tax money is going to accomplish. It’s as if that person considering buying a house takes out a loan on the idea, not the actuality, of purchasing a new home.

As I mentioned somewhat offhandedly earlier, we have a mayor and four council members who have assumed their current positions a year after this road bond proposal was approved. I get the sense that they want Kyle to quit its wacky road ways and do these things the way they are supposed to be done. Time will tell. Watch this space.

UPDATE: One other thing worth mentioning is that, what Mayor Webster is describing as a "significant development that will create a lot of new jobs and could include the construction of office space," was put in motion to be located in an area in an area west of I-35, north of Kyle Crossing, west of the quarry and touching the southern edge of Buda’s city limits. The matter was discussed by the council as part of an hour-long executive session and when council members reconvened they voted 4-0 (council members Shane Arabie, who is on a cruise; Samantha Bellows-LeMense, who was ill; and Tammy Swaton did not attend last night’s meeting) "to offer a financial or other incentive to a business prospect that the city council seeks to have locate … in or near the territory of the city council." Mayor Webster assured me after the meeting the incentives were not all that much, but could not be elaborated on further until after the developer agreed to the city’s proposal.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tech in Northwest Kyle could increase pollution

Tony Spano, project manager for Plum Creek Development Partners, Ltd., appeared before Kyle’s Planning and Zoning Commission this evening to outline his plans for creating an area of Northwest Kyle that could be set aside as a "data center park." The area he has in mind is on the east side of Highway 1626 and north of Kohlers Crossing. The baseball/softball fields would be just north of the proposed area. (It's designated as Area 10 on this map.)

What Spano envisions for this area is at least one data center to be built on the site and, he hopes, "secondary and tertiary businesses" that would follow in the wake of the centers. It’s these businesses that would provide new jobs to the area because the centers themselves are simply nothing more than large warehouses that house computer systems and associated components that basically run by themselves.

The issue with data centers is that they use a lot — and I mean a whole lot — of electricity and much if not all of this electricity comes from their in-house diesel generators. This is a conservative estimate, but three moderately sized data centers could use as much electricity as the rest of Kyle combined. Thus, if not monitored closely, these data centers could produce significant pollution in the form of diesel exhaust.

The EPA, however, has stepped in to address the problem. Beginning this year, the agency has required that all diesel engines for off-road use meet strict emissions standards and we’re talking about nearly zero levels of emissions. So there’s that. On the other hand, Gov. Rick Perry along with Attorney General and Gov.-elect Gregg Abbott have made it their mission to sue the federal government every time the EPA tries to put restrictions on businesses when it comes to their emissions. So there’s that, too.

The subject of "pollution" didn’t even come up at tonight’s P&Z meeting. All the commissioners could see is "We could have high tech data centers right here in Kyle like they have in Austin and San Antonio." And if Spano has his way, that’s exactly what Kyle will have. When asked by commissioner Lori Huey whether Spano had anyone interested in locating such a facility in his proposed park, he sort of hemmed and hawed, smiled sheepishly and replied "At this time, I’d rather not say." I know how I interpret that.

Iit’s going to be a while before any of this comes to fruition anyway, so I’m hoping between now and then someone on the commission and/or someone on the City Council will demand the EPA’s Tier 4 regulations be followed to the letter when it comes to actually locating one or more of these centers here. P&Z is already discussing surrendering the city’s landscaping integrity; let’s make sure we don’t give away our air quality as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

It’s official: Scott Sellers is Kyle’s new city manager

Scott Sellers, Kilgore’s city manager for the last three years, has officially agreed to assume the top administrative post here. He signed and returned a three-year contract today that calls for a base salary of $165,000 a year, although when other variables are included the total value of the contract comes to $186,284.24 a year, about one thousand dollars a year less than the total compensation package for the city manager of Buda. The base salary is about $40,000 more than his predecessor, Lanny Lambert, received. Lambert resigned in August to become city manager of Converse.

As reported earlier, Sellers will assume the city manager’s job Jan. 1, although I’m doubting he’ll be in the office that day. He will become only Kyle's third fulltime city manager.

I’ve only encountered Sellers once and that was on Nov. 15 when he and four other candidates came to city hall to be interviewed for the city manager’s position. I found him to be the most stand-offish of the five, the only one who wouldn’t even tell me his name or admit why he was in the building. I can imagine the reason for that being he didn’t want his bosses back in Kilgore to learn he was out job hunting, but that didn’t stop the other four candidates, some of whom even talked to me openly about the challenges of the Kyle job and compared our city to their current cities of employment. Mayor Todd Webster, however, has assured me on at least two occasions that Sellers has a reputation for being more open and accessible to the media than your average city administrator.

I must also admit I’m impressed with many of Sellers’ accomplishments, to wit:

  • He recognized the need for more middle-income housing in Kilgore and to meet this need he created something he called the Kilgore 20/20 Vision Committee, created a residential revolving loan fund, co-created with nearby Stephen F. Austin University the Kilgore Livability Study, resurrected the Community Development Corporation and undertook the largest annexation in the city’s history. The result of all this is that, according to a document he presented, "many new homes are under construction."
  • He seems to recognize what tasks performed by a city can be outsourced successfully, thus saving taxpayer money.
  • He comes across as a master innovator in applying high-tech solutions to communications needs.
  • Like many small towns, Kilgore had a once-thriving downtown movie theater that was sitting vacant. In Kilgore’s case, the theater had not seen a single bit of activity in a half of a century. So he had an elaborate haunted house built inside the theater that in six nights of operation generated $18,000 in revenue. He later staged a Christmas-themed event in the building. These two activities attracted the attention of a developer who has contracted with the city to restore the theater.
  • He sees the value in creating Tax Increment Finance Districts which, if administrated properly, can be a valuable tool in converting unused properties into tax-generating ones.
  • He seems to understand how to partner with other governmental entities such as county commissioners, TxDOT as well as private businesses, even the Union Pacific Railroad.
I am looking forward to getting on Sellers’ calendar so I can have a nice chat with him about his vision for Kyle.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

City Manager search: Waiting for the signed piece of paper

I guess there’s still no word yet from Kilgore on the future of Kyle’s new city manager. Here’s where we stand up to this minute. A couple of Saturdays ago, on Nov. 15, the council interviewed five potential candidates for the job. At a city council meeting three days later, it was announced the elected city leaders wanted one of those five, Kilgore City Manager Scott Sellers, to take the job. Then last night the council agreed on the details of a contract to offer to Sellers, which Mayor Todd Webster signed and sent to Sellers immediately. It was expected that Sellers would sign the document and get it back to Kyle sometime today.

If indeed a signed contract has been returned, the city is keeping mum about it so I’m guessing it didn’t happen. The city did send out a news release just before 5 p.m. today about Sellers but all it said was what we already knew, i.e., "The Kyle City Council has finalized a contract with Scott Sellers, currently the Kilgore city manager, to become the next city manager for the City of Kyle." The council, as I said, took that action last night.

I hope I’m not coming across as an alarmist here. I don’t want to infer that Sellers is having second thoughts about coming here or that he’s not that thrilled with the details of the contract. If you were anywhere around downtown Kyle this afternoon (I stood in a line for 90 minutes so I could take a picture of my granddaughter with Santa Claus), you know that the town square was packed with citizens, volunteers and a good number of city employees putting on a very nice tree lighting/holiday party. One could surmise Sellers has his agenda crammed with similar holiday tasks in deep East Texas and that dang contract is still sitting in his email inbox que.

And while I’m on the subject: a salute to those who put together those festivities downtown today. A first-rate job. And the only Santa I’ve ever come across that was more pleasant than the one stuck in the historic city hall was played by Edmund Gwenn.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Burleson Road captures attention of City Council

Nothing much of widespread interest transpired during tonight’s Kyle City Council meeting, unless, that is, you live on or relatively near Burleson road or you often find yourself at the intersection of Burleson and Center Street.

Second things first. The city actually had one or more people stand at the corner of Burleson and Center for a couple of days recently. They were there from approximately 7 to 9 a.m. and then again from around 5 to 7 p.m. to count the number of cars heading south on Burleson that did one of three things when they arrived at Center: whether they turned right, left or went straight ahead. Now you may think this is a terrible waste of time and taxpayers’ money, but stay with me here. What they discovered was that the overwhelming majority of the drivers of those cars – 80 percent of them in the morning and 77 percent of them in the evening – turned left. Based on that information the council unanimously decided (the vote was 6-0 because council member Becky Selbera was an excused absentee from tonight’s session) that constructing a designated right-hand turn lane on Burleson at Center would be a real waste of time and taxpayers’ money.

The council did, however, approve the idea of having Freese and Nichols, Inc., a widely respected Austin-based engineering firm, "perform an additional drainage study for areas contributing runoff to North Burleson road and the City’s open channel in the vicinity of St. Anthony’s Street."

I repeat: I’m new in town. But the way I figure this is the homes in that area between Burleson and the railroad tracks, say between Rodriguez and Moreno streets, are subject to widespread flooding during periods of intense rainfall, most likely due to the runoff from the comparatively newer housing subdivision located just northeast of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.

Now this action by the council doesn’t mean the flooding will come to an end. But it should result in a list of projects, should the city decide to fund them, that will end the water lapping at the front doors of the homes on and between these aforementioned streets. In other words, the end is not yet in sight, but the council has okayed the idea of someone preparing a map to get to that end.

Oh, and the council approved a resolution adopting the city’s updated investment policy although Mayor Todd Webster lamented the fact that the city’s $34 million investment only yielded a return this year of $100,000. It also authorized a contract be sent for city manager designate Scott Sellers to sign and return. If it is, Webster said Sellers will officially assume the office Jan. 1 Other details will become available when and if Sellers signs the deal, which he is expected to do, if not tonight, then sometime early tomorrow.