West Lake Follies: Attraction and repulsion
Mayors, guns, and money ... a lot of money
Sewage, guns, and allegations of corruption aren't necessarily what most people expect a modern Central Texas election to be about, yet the race to become the next mayor of West Lake Hills has all three. The fight is between three candidates, but only two actually want to win. Current Mayor Mark Urdahl is on the ballot, but only because he failed to get his name removed. His predecessor, Dwight Thompson, who served as mayor from 1996 to 2006, is back and says he wants one last term. And Dave Claunch, chairman of the West Lake Hills Wastewater Commission, wants to keep Thompson from getting his old job back.
The city is perhaps the most affluent in Travis County: According to Travis Central Appraisal District figures, in 2007 the average homestead in the Eanes Independent School District that surrounds West Lake Hills was worth almost three times the average in Austin ($747,201 to $287,079). But the community lacks a sewage system. Until 2001, the city's roughly 1,000 homes and 200 businesses depended upon septic tanks. In 2001, the council under Thompson created a Wastewater Project, which Claunch says has become the subject of "divisive bickering."
The problems began with Phase 1, providing sewers to 319 houses and estimated at $6 million. The bill finally ran to $11 million, and, with debt service, Claunch estimates it will eventually cost taxpayers $25 million. "Mayor Thompson expanded the scope of the project on the fly," said Claunch, blaming a lack of oversight and public accountability. But if Phase 1 was expensive, Phase 2 has stalled. Thompson blames the delay and the resultant $500,000 price hike thus far on the current council. But Claunch argues that the problem was a deal the city had attempted to foist on businesses, requiring them to donate easements on their land and pay higher rates than residents. "The commercial-property owners feel like they're a giant ATM that the city can go to and drain," said Claunch. He points to a new deal approved by council on April 24, charging businesses 10-15% above residential rates and acquiring the donated easements, as a sign that he is a consensus-builder – unlike Thompson. "I want to create an environment where the people are not repulsed by city government but rather attracted to it," he said.
Thompson blames the current divisiveness on Urdahl and says that his experience makes him better qualified to bridge differences and guide the next phase of sewer construction. "It still has to be implemented and completed in an efficient way," he said. He has committed himself to serving only one term, "to pave the way for new leadership," adding, "My term limit is voluntary."
So where is Urdahl? On the campaign trail, backing Claunch. Urdahl became the giant killer in 2006 when he beat Thompson 55%-45% and intended to stand down after one term, but when he heard that Thompson was running again, he filed to take him on. Later, he reconsidered his decision and tried to withdraw, but because he e-mailed the paperwork to the city administrator and did not submit a notarized withdrawal request in time, he stays on the ballot. But he's sticking with the second half of William Tecumseh Sherman's declaration, "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve." In an April 15 letter to residents, he asked voters to respect his wishes and, without naming names, wrote, "A vote for me will be more effectively spent electing someone else." He is now going door-to-door, boosting Claunch.
There's also a homegrown war of negative campaigning and proxies. On July 1, 2006, Thompson was arrested at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for trying to take a loaded handgun through security; the offense was initially filed as a felony, but the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office refiled it as a misdemeanor. Thompson, who said he is "like everyone else that's made a mistake," is fighting the charge, and on April 24, his lawyers obtained a continuance pushing the hearing back to June – well after the election.
However, as Thompson opponents (like the Texas Toll Party's Sal Costello, who claims some credit for removing the former Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization vice chair from office) have pointed out, this is the second time Thompson made this "mistake" – he was earlier caught trying to take a gun onto a plane in St. Louis. In the anti-Urdahl camp is the West Lake Hills Spectator website, run by former Thompson-era Council Member Kit Webster (who, even though he served on the council for 12 years, calls himself "a reluctant politician, or actually no politician at all"). Webster has savaged Urdahl over a criminal complaint that Urdahl allegedly tried to intervene in the investigation of a September auto accident involving Council Member Cindy Probst. Although he does not attack Claunch directly, on the Spectator he calls him "an Urdahlian."
Claunch, however, takes this in stride. "It's always a good time in West Lake Hills," he said.