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Letter to the Editor
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 • Posted February 14, 2013

Dear Editor,

City of Llano Elections

Applications for mayor and three city council member openings are due by March 1. Early voting is from April 29 to May 7 and Election Day is May 11. With a bit over two weeks remaining to file, only the incumbent mayor has submitted an application. Of those currently in office, four of the five were either appointed or ran unopposed.

It is understandable why Llano citizens don’t run. It isn’t necessarily apathy or lack of time, as some suggest. I believe it is because people sense that the job is structured for failure. No one takes on an important assignment in which they know they can’t succeed.

On the Friday night before a Monday city council vote, packets averaging 100 pages are distributed to council members and posted for citizens. Monday is a work day, which leaves just a two-day weekend to study and research the issues. The discussions at the council meetings are necessarily superficial because of time and council procedures. Citizen input is discouraged and curtailed by process, time, and attitude. For example, the golf course contract wasn’t available to citizens until at the meeting of the actual council vote.

Difficult issues may get “workshops,” but these are disorganized and often have diverse hidden agendas. Staff input is primarily opinion, or the work of a longtime, city-hired consulting firm. Decisions are made before citizen opinion has even a chance of coalescing.

Llano’s problems aren’t unique or unsolvable – but they are large, aging, and growing. Currently on the table are: A $7M water supply solution, and a $3M sewer system upgrade with a TCEQ mandated deadline - this after a $3M upgrade just 5 years ago. The city budget is about $11M, and rates and taxes are continually voted for to pay for overruns. The city has a $12M bond debt.

Insufficient information, insufficient time, insufficient money, and poor process and support all lead to poorly informed citizens who, nevertheless, want results. What busy citizen would take this on, and why should we be asking this of them with stakes so high?

The City’s decision-making process is flawed and the cause of our failures. Take the waste water plant as an example. Since at least 2001, Llano’s citizens have been seeking a remedy to this 60-year-old albatross. In 2005, fines and TCEQ mandates finally forced a solution. In a 3 to 2 vote in 2007, the city chose to update an old design instead of purchasing a modern GE MBR plant of similar cost. Just five years later, we are back in the same position, looking at loss of permit, fines and yet another $3M project, led by the same engineers who got us here.

Another unresolved issue is water supply. That is all you have to say to spark a conversation full of solutions and frustration. A Town Hall meeting at the Lantex last year was well-received but lacked detailed information. Citizens are still waiting for more detail and solutions.

A low-water crossing down river from the bridge is a popular choice that has many additional benefits and has been studied and recommended for well over a decade. “It will take 10 years for the permits” is the current reason for not doing it. Well, it won’t take 10 years and it would be done by now had the decision been made.

A pipeline for a well near Lake Buchanan had a design and leases, but couldn’t pass, so we are now starting over with a similar solution involving a pipeline from the Hickory Aquifer.

When an organization is ineffective, it is rarely the fault of individuals. Rather, the failures are caused by a flawed decision-making process and management system.

We need a revised system of management in Llano that is better organized to solve our problems. Llano has many talented citizens with in-depth experience. We need a management system where we inspire, support, and encourage that resource and give them the conditions under which they can succeed.

One common approach is the task force model. This has had sporadic success in Llano, but to be effective, dependable, and trusted, it must be institutionalized in ordinance, funded, and led by the city council.

These task forces must have time and funding for research. Instead of paying directly for studies from the same engineering firm, fund citizen task forces to obtain consultant opinions. Also, give them the authority to have discussions with suppliers and manufacturers. GE, for example, made a significant investment in a proposal for a sewer plant.

On a subject like water supply, where there are several supported solutions, have a task force for each solution. Each would present their findings to council and citizens through websites and Town Hall Meetings. Once all solutions are properly studied with detailed business cases, citizens and council would decide. Basic project management would keep these task forces on track and on a schedule.

Citizen task forces led and funded by council, a longer preparation period for council votes, citizen participation at council meetings, and proper project management would significantly reduce the burden on our elected officials and lead to better, long-term solutions to Llano’s challenges.

Marc Sewell

Llano, TX

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