Allegations of a cover-up flew in this morning's City Council meeting as members discussed the West Texas Water Partnership between San Angelo, Abilene and Midland for long-term water solutions.
The allegations follow a public notice made by San Angelo City Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer on September 11 concerning the cities the city staff for exceeding council-authorized payments to the Water Partnership and the changing of City Council Meeting minutes.
"We said that we would deal with this today...this was a consensus of the council. But Charlotte Farmer was not satisfied with waiting until today to handle this. And Charlotte Farmer wrote a memorandum and she made this public on September 11," Mayor Morrison said.
Farmer also starred in a pair of YouTube videos last Thursday and yesterday where in over an hour of content, she accused city staff of running roughshod over the directions given them by the council.
Here is Thursday's 40-minute video starring Councilwoman Farmer. And here is yesterday's video.
The initial agreement was given the go-ahead in the City Council meeting on March 22, 2011, and included a stipulation that the total cost of the contract not exceed $100,000.
This cost ceiling was to be discussed at the following city council meeting, however not only did the discussion not take place, the provision of a cost ceiling was completely left out of the contract's final draft.
When the City Manager was asked to negotiate the contract on May 20, 2011, it was signed by the managers of all three participating cities, agreeing to split the expenses three ways. Farmer’s allegations are that the city manager at the time did not have that authority from council.
"But one thing that was missing from the agreement was the $100,000 threshold that the city of San Angelo put in place," City manager Valenzuela said. "One signature was missing, and that was the signature of the City Attorney."
Valenzuela explained that such contracts are usually reviewed and drawn up by the City Attorney, however in this case the contract was drafted by an attorney representing all three cities, and that the $100,000 stipulation was never caught, and so was executed without limitation.
Farmer had noticed in May 2012 that the expenditures had exceeded the stipulation by over $85,000, and began investigating the matter subsequently.
After having consensually agreed to address the issue at this morning's City Council meeting, Farmer went public on September 11, exposing her concerns to the public.
Mayor Morrison addressed her disclosure at this morning's meeting as a cause of embarrassment for the city, the Council and for the citizens of San Angelo. What's more, he stated the possible consequences of not dealing with the concerns formally and at the appointed date.
"Let me tell you where it gets serious," Mayor Morrison began after having addressed that Farmer's disclosure had not only reached San Angelo's media. "It also went out to the Attorney General of the state of Texas. It also went to the Texas Municipal League of which we are a member. This also went to the county attorney in the county of Tom Green,” he said.
"This opens up not only something that is embarrassing to us, but this puts you as a citizen of San Angelo in a very serious situation, because this opens every citizen in this county up to litigation from state lawsuits that could tie us up for months and months and years and could cost you untold amounts of money to defend ourselves. This has gone past embarrassment," Mayor Morrison said.
The meeting continued with a hefty round of character assassination and playing the blame-game. No conclusion was met on the alleged intent to falsify documents, cover-up a scandal, or who is to blame for the allegations made by Farmer.
“We have promised honesty, openness and full transparency,” Mayor Morrison said. I had this put on the agenda for full discussion because we do not shove things under the rug. This happened with the previous city manager, the previous Mayor and the previous Water Director. All of those have now changed, as have four of the members of this council.”
So far, none of the meeting minutes have been checked for changes against the originals. Farmer noted four that were changed within the past few days, and changes allegedly took place between midnight and 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday.
The minutes issue, as well as disputes about dates and knowledge of events are currently under investigation.
Returning to the issue of cost, council members could agree that if the initial projected cost of the partnership had been higher, they would have unanimously consented.
“Had we known from the start that there would be many more dollars involved. Had this been brought back to the council, I would have voted to approve,” Mayor Morrison said, turning the question to Councilman Johnny Silvas (District 3).
“I know I would’ve, because I know the dire straights that we’re in,” Silvas responded. “We’re begging for water…we can’t just depend on the Hickory [Aquifer] that’s taking close to 40 years to get here. I have no problem with moving forward.”
When the meeting moved to public comment, concerns were voiced over the source of water, the Council’s ability to work as a team, and checks and balances.
ConchoInfo.org Blogger Jim Turner addressed the issue of trust that citizens have in City Hall.
“We seem to have a series of systemic problems that don’t have crosschecks, checks and balances,” Turner said. “We have a system of the way things are supposed to go, but we don’t have an additional outside way of looking at things to make sure that happens. That needs to change.”
Turner continued by stating, “At the same time we have a cultural problem with City Hall, where it seems to be acceptable to have mistakes like this. It is a cultural of not doing everything that should be done, and then saying, ‘that’s OK.’ There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of consequences.”
He also noted that surface water has a very high loss and high rate of evaporation that is extremely limited, and that future efforts should look beyond surface water as a solution.
By the meeting's first break this morning, a motion passed six to one to pay the current expenditures incurred through the West Texas Water Partnership to date.
A decision on the future of the Partnership has been tabled tentatively for a meeting this afternoon.