A Revolt Brews Among the Circle C Masses

New residents at Circle C Ranch question the control Gary Bradley's allies still have over the homeowners' association.

Since its creation two decades ago, Circle C Ranch -- one of Austin's most visionary and most controversial developments -- has operated under what has come to be known by both observers and residents as the "Bradley oligarchy." That is, the people who served as developer Gary Bradley's allies and business associates in Circle C's early days are the same people who run things today (see chart). But that may be about to change.

Until recently, most residents in this 2,700-home community seldom questioned the day-to-day business operations of Circle C, which survived the controversial bankruptcy of Bradley's development company in the mid-Nineties. Though successful as a residential community, Circle C has long been a bane of environmentalists because of its location on top of the Edwards Aquifer. Even so, Circle C residents have typically been a complacent bunch that dutifully paid their dues and cast their votes in line with the political endorsements of the powerful Circle C PAC.

Moreover, most of them never gave much heed to a popular rumor -- routinely denied -- that Bradley still calls the shots for the Circle C Homeowners Association. Now, a growing number of residents -- many who moved to the community in the last five years -- are starting to question why the same secretive people still control the Circle C HOA and its $1 million budget.

Last October, one homeowner created a community Web site for residents to raise these questions in an open forum. While many dissenters decline to be identified either in the press or on the Web site (they've expressed fears of retribution), they've discovered that they share common concerns. Many question the amount of their annual HOA fees -- which run as high as $400, depending on the home's assessed value -- and wonder who profits the most from those fees, which last year totaled nearly $1 million.

"All this time I thought I was the only one with questions," said one resident who asked that she be identified only as Lisa. "Then I saw a flier (about the Web site) at the mailbox station, and I discovered that other people feel the same way I do." Lisa says she began asking questions about two years ago, suspicious that the HOA board was overcharging homeowners. She and other residents say their calls and e-mails to the HOA go unanswered more often than not. (The Circle C Information Center, where callers are directed for assistance, did not respond to voice mail messages left by the Chronicle.)

But persistence did pay off for a few residents who were able to review some of the HOA records. They made some interesting discoveries -- for example, that in 2002, the board paid nearly half a million dollars to a landscape company owned by Susan Hoover, a former HOA board member who bought the company from Gary Bradley in 2001. Hoover owns another company, Full Circle Management, which also draws income from Circle C HOA, and she is paid individually for "inspection and review services." Moreover, in an independent examination of Circle C's financial statements in 2000, auditor and CPA Thomas P. Donovan noted that two board members, Hoover and Steve Bartlett, were listed as employees of two companies (Alien Inc. and Phoenix Holdings, both formerly owned by Bradley) that billed the HOA for more than $500,000.

Neither Hoover nor Bartlett responded to our phone calls, but Ken Rigsbee, who serves as the HOA board's secretary and treasurer, responded by e-mail. He said the board currently pays Hoover's landscape company a fraction of what other companies would charge. "The board went through a formal bidding process once and learned that," he said.

Rigsbee regards the rank-and-file dissension this way: "We have newcomers who don't understand either the history of the [HOA] organization or of the neighborhood, and they jump to incorrect assumptions and conclusions." But he says they can be "educated" over time. Before the community grew to its current size, he continued, the homeowners knew and trusted the actions of the board. "Now we've become larger, and homeowners, particularly new ones, legitimately need more documentation and education."

But the board doesn't seem so willing to educate or share information, say residents. As one of the more outspoken homeowners, Austin attorney Bill Gammon, explains, "This whole thing began with a simple search for information. In the process of trying to find this information ... I have discovered that a number of other people have tried to get information from the [HOA], and their response is always the same." The response, he says, is along the lines of, "You're the only person who's ever asked for this. Why are you asking? This is a beautiful place, and you should be happy to live here."

Gammon says his search took him, along with a cameraman, to 1111 West 11th St., home to a number of businesses affiliated with Bradley and Circle C. Gammon walked away empty-handed, save for a video showing an angry Bradley ordering him and the cameraman off the property. Gammon has since met with two HOA officers -- Rigsbee and Jim O'Reilly -- and he says the pair agreed to establish a financial oversight committee with Gammon in charge.

There could be other changes in store for the old guard. While no Circle C HOA board member has ever faced serious election opposition, Vice-President Steve Bartlett may have competition when his term expires next month. Resident Carl Kernodle (the "K" partner in KPG Architects) has mounted a campaign against Bartlett, a former Bradley business partner and an HOA director since the board's inception in 1988. Bartlett will be tough to beat because of his institutional knowledge, Kernodle acknowledged. "We do need people with past experience, but we also need people who can move our community forward," he said. If elected, Kernodle says he will push to expand the board, implement a conflict-of-interest policy for board members, and rethink the HOA's fee assessments and bookkeeping methods.

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Circle C Ranch, Circle C Homeowners Association, Gary Bradley, Susan Hoover, Bill Gammon, Steve Bartlett, KPG Architects, Carl Kernodle, Ken Rigsbee, Brad Beutel, Jim O'Reilly

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