Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"The sad part of this is there are so many other pressing projects that could be addressed with this money they're wasting."

Williamson County's hiring of PR firm for controversial road project upsets some

County may pay as much as $1 million to firm helping with Texas 29 expansion.


By Melissa Mixon
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

The hiring of a public relations firm by Williamson County commissioners has drawn the ire of some residents and a political hopeful, who say that the contract is a waste of taxpayer money and that the timing is suspicious in light of controversial plans for expanding Texas 29.

County officials contend otherwise, saying Martin & Salinas Public Affairs Inc. was hired in late March to create more openness and to get more information to residents about the county's $228 million road bond package, approved by voters in 2006.

The commissioners voted to pay up to $1 million to the firm to handle seven or eight projects left over from the bond. The proposed expansion of Texas 29, a major east-west thoroughfare between Georgetown and Liberty Hill, was not explicitly part of the bond proposal approved by voters because the county was still studying the project. Texas 29 has since been added to the firm's responsibilities, which angered the project's critics.

Commissioners say the $1 million price tag is a ceiling amount and that the county probably won't spend that much on the firm, which is expected to finish its work in the next 18 months. County Judge Dan A. Gattis said the county's attempt at more openness may have backfired with the public, mainly because of the backlash over the $1 million cap.

"I don't know what a good amount would be, but $1 million set off a lot of light bulbs or rockets in people's minds," Gattis said.

That was the case for J.T. Cox, who owns land south of Liberty Hill. Commissioners announced Sept. 3 that the Texas 29 expansion will run south of the city and current road, probably going through Cox's land.

The proposed 19-mile expansion, though not final, would convert the four-lane road into 12 lanes. County officials said they hope to avoid congestion on Texas 29 similar to what's already bogged down other roads in the county, such as RM 620 in Round Rock.

Cox and other residents say the expansion is not needed, and some fear it is part of a bigger effort to push a major toll road corridor through the western part of the county.

"If they can't sell something on their own, why do they need to hire someone to do it for them?" Cox said about the firm and fears of a possible corridor. "Something is going on, and no one is being honest and truthful with us."

Commissioners, engineers working for the county and officials with Austin-based Martin & Salinas say there are no plans to turn the expansion into a toll corridor. And last week, Commissioner Cynthia Long said construction on the expansion is still 20 to 25 years away.

"There's a lot of anxiety, but I can tell you we're not doing anything with regards to pushing toll roads. ... We've not been asked by anybody" to push them, said Jed Buie, president of Martin & Salinas.

Since the firm was hired in March, it — along with other subcontractors hired by Martin & Salinas — has been paid almost $50,000 by the county.

Invoices obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act show that Buie was paid $150 an hour to call residents concerned about the Texas 29 expansion, review a Web site that was created in opposition to the expansion and "discuss strategy" with engineers about an article that an American-Statesman reporter was writing on Texas 29.

Commissioners say the hiring was necessary because the job of issuing public notices, hosting town hall meetings about roads, developing Web sites and returning phone calls and e-mail from residents — among other things — is too much for the county's one public information officer, Connie Watson, who earns $55,971 annually.

In Travis County, public outreach on road projects is done in-house with its 12 road staff workers, often with residents talking directly to the road engineer or project manager. Hays County has historically left public outreach on roads to the four commissioners and county judge. This year, however, it is using a consulting firm to distribute information about a $207 million road bond package that the county is putting before voters in November. The firm's costs are estimated to be $65,000, said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter.

In Travis and Hays most of the projects have been county roads, not state roads as in Williamson County. State roads come with federal rules and more formal proceedings, which can increase the need for outside help, said Mike Weaver, a transportation consultant of Prime Strategies, who heads the county's road bond projects.

"That's an entirely different ball of wax," said Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Travis County's transportation and natural resources department. "It's probably a good reason to (hire outside help), to make sure you do it right."

Connie Watson, a spokeswoman for Williamson County, said that the county's road department has 17 employees but that those employees do little work on bond projects. That work would require hiring more engineers, she said.

Gattis said having a single firm keeps residents from having to go to multiple places for information. He said the county considered hiring additional people to help Watson. But he said it didn't make economic sense to pay three to four additional salaries (at roughly $50,000 and up) that would not be needed after the bond projects are complete.

"Then you've got to lay people off," he said.

At the time the commissioners approved the $1 million cap, Gattis said the transaction seemed normal.

"I don't remember keying on the $1 million," he said.

Hiring a public relations firm to do outreach for county road projects is not unethical, said University of Texas law professor Daniel Rodriguez. He could not speak specifically on Williamson County's situation, but he said in general any hired outside counsel — especially that of public relations firms — can raise red flags with constituents. Often the perception is that the firms are hired to push an agenda or plan that's already been derived by municipalities or counties, he said.

"They sort of have this whiff of publicity and Madison Avenue and even spin control that we'd like to think our local officials de-emphasize" Rodriguez said. "When you're in PR, you're in the business of getting things past the public."

Some of the Williamson County critics point to campaign donations from developers and engineers who have ties to toll roads as one of the reasons to worry. The county has had some controversial experiences with consultants, who were also political contributors.

For example, in 2002, a previous commissioners court hired a public relations consultant for a massive road bond project who had once worked pro bono on the campaigns of three commissioners and the county judge. The consultant, Amos "Pete" Peters, earned about $4,000 a month from the county's bond budget and had previously helped lead a political action committee that promoted the same bond package.

It was later alleged in news reports based on a review of public records that Peters billed the county for meetings that never occurred. The Texas attorney general's office investigated him, but a Williamson County grand jury did not indict him on charges of submitting false bills to the county.

County officials said at the time that his hiring was fair and that Peters was qualified for the work and did the work.

Peters said he is working for private public relations and graphic design clients in Texas and four other states.

Commissioners say contributions don't sway their votes, nor did they influence the hiring of Martin & Salinas, which did public outreach in 2004 for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, an independent government agency that builds toll roads. (Don Martin, a partner at Martin & Salinas, donated $100 each to Gattis and Commissioner Ron Morrison.)

The situation is common in local politics, where groups that do business with the county are often the ones who donate to campaigns. Even so, some residents are worried.

Greg Windham, a Democrat running for county commissioner in November, has opposed the expansion of Texas 29 and the county's hiring of Martin & Salinas, calling it a "propaganda initiative" and part of "backroom" deals.

"When you're running a campaign, the scope of services are eerily similar to the scope of services being provided by Martin & Salinas," he said. "The sad part of this is there are so many other pressing projects that could be addressed with this money they're wasting."

mmixon@statesman; 246-0043

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