Georgetown Recalls -- and Recollects
The latest salvos in the Georgetown Smackdown
On Tuesday, the Georgetown City Council set a date -- Feb. 2, 2002 -- for a recall election that seeks to oust Mayor MaryEllen Kersch and four other council members, including Mayor Pro Tem Clark Lyda. The mayor and council members have been on one side of a political range-war that has overrun the city of Georgetown for most of this year and exploded in the aftermath of the July "emergency" passage of a set of development regulations that opponents say make Georgetown a "no-growth" city. Recall organizers said they are happy the council isn't standing in the way of the public will -- even if scheduling the election for February means that any ousted officials will likely be able to serve until the next general election, in May.
On the other hand, the beleaguered officials are frustrated, says Lyda, because they believe their attempts to get "the truth" before the public have been thwarted. Specifically, Lyda said, members of the Citizens for Georgetown political action committee -- a small group of vocal council critics -- failed to show up at a council-led public forum on Nov. 1, where Lyda said council members hoped to "set the record straight." "It was a waste of time," Lyda said. "The folks who've been critical of us didn't show up." Indeed, Lyda says the fact that none of the PAC members -- or other vocal critics, including recall organizer Mike Henry -- showed up at the forum strengthens his belief that the council opponents have been spreading lies about the mayor and council members in an effort to further their own political agendas. (Several opponents told the Chronicle they saw little point in appearing at the forum, effectively to volunteer for public abuse.)
But what's been reported in the Chronicle and elsewhere, Lyda says, is a one-sided view of the town's political battles. Lyda insists Georgetown's troubles are due to the efforts of a few citizens -- mostly developers and their lawyer friends -- angry because the current City Council no longer favors their agenda: commercial development that would cost Georgetown's citizens their quality of life while lining developers' pockets.
Lyda traces the current political strife to a 1999 plan to build a Schlitterbahn-like water park along I-35, and the proposed use of state and city money for the park's infrastructure (see Georgetown Smackdown, Aug. 17). "They used a private corporation that is publicly funded," Lyda said, "with no accountability to the city, and with no public input." Eventually Lyda and Kersch rode the wave of public opposition against the park into office. "We unseated the incumbents by articulating a consistent vision of what needs to be done," said Lyda, retooling the city's development ordinances and ending the city's affinity for offering subsidies to attract business. "But there were people displaced as a result."
Lyda contends that water park developer Greg Hall and some members of the Citizens for Georgetown PAC -- Bruce Barton, the former head of the Georgetown Industrial Foundation, and West Short, who came to Georgetown as a lawyer for Power Computing -- are attempting to revenge themselves on the council because they no longer control city development policy. Prior to Lyda and Kersch's May 1999 election, Lyda said, Hall, Barton, and Short were able to curry favor with former City Manager Bob Hart to get funding and approval for whatever projects they wanted, including the water park.
"You see these names resurfacing now in very personal attacks that are factually incorrect," Lyda said. He adds that even though Hart is now city manager of Huntsville, the relationship continues among Hart, Hall, and Barton. "They're doing the same thing there," he said. "Using their [version of] the industrial foundation to secure Texas Capital Fund grants to build out for an affordable housing project where all the [infrastructure] work will be done by Omni Projects -- Greg Hall and Bruce Barton."
Barton confirms that he and Hall -- with whom he works at Hall's development company, Omni Projects -- have a deal in the works for a housing development in Huntsville, but says the two have several other development deals around the state and in other parts of the country. Barton admits he's been Hart's friend since 1985, but denies there has ever been any improper relationship. All three men reject Lyda's accusations. "I've heard these theories several times from both [Lyda] and Kersch, but they are absolutely false," said Short. "I have no idea what favor I curried with the former council, so I just don't know what to say about that."
Short confirms that he did come to town as counsel for Power Computing, and that the company's facility was going to be located on property Hall owned, but he says that when that deal fell through (because Apple bought back their licensing agreements) the city of Georgetown still benefited, gaining 65 acres of parkland that are now the site of a municipal hike-and-bike trail, Frisbee golf course, and other public amenities. More importantly, he said, it was land the city didn't have before -- land that former manager Hart made Hall donate to the city. "[Hall] had so much influence that Bob Hart made him give the 65 acres to the city when the Power Computing deal fell through," Barton said. "The whole thing about all this 'influence' is -- what influence?"
Tongue in cheek, Hall said he's flattered that Lyda would grant him so much influence over city affairs. "To suggest 'Greg' is behind all of this is to give 'Greg' way more credit than anyone else would give him," Hall said. And Short says, either way, none of Lyda's theories have anything to do with the recall election -- which was spearheaded by Mike Henry, who has no connections to city development deals or the Citizens for Georgetown PAC. "The thing about his contentions, it demonstrates how little he knows about why these petitions were signed and turned in to the city," Short said. "And it has nothing to do with Greg Hall."
Lyda remains unconvinced. "All these facts are independently verifiable," he said. "Everything that we've done, in terms of development regulations, we've done [for the benefit] of economic development. I try to act as sincerely as I can. I am not a politician, and I never have had that interest," he said. "I don't care what happens in the recall election, but I do care what happens to Georgetown."