By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
On May 7, residents of the River Place Municipal Utility District will have the opportunity to vote in the first contested MUD Board election since 1996 and the issue that everyone is talking about is annexation. River Place is scheduled to be fully annexed by the City of Austin in December 2017.
Four candidates are running for two open board positions. Longtime incumbent board members Art Jistel and Ken Bartlett are running along with River Place Homeowners Association President Scott Crosby and newcomer Scott Agthe, an attorney who says his sole reason for running is disannexation.
Agthe’s campaign is being supported by a political action committee known as the River Place Disannexation PAC that was founded by Place 6 city council member Don Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s PAC hosted a legal forum Apr. 6 at the River Place Country Club. The forum featured a legal panel with attorneys including Frank Reilly, who served as the Canyon Creek MUD attorney from 2002 to 2010.
Zimmerman — who is a resident of the Canyon Creek neighborhood and served as president of the Canyon Creek MUD from 2002 until it was dissolved in 2010 — wants to educate residents on their rights when it comes to disannexation.
“For nearly a decade, the taxpayers of River Place have heard one perspective on legal options River Place has,” he said. “That perspective is typical for MUDs facing hostile annexation: a. You really have no legal options, b. you can’t fight city hall, c. there’s nothing you can do to stop annexation, d. you should accept the Strategic Partnership Agreement negotiated with the city and it’s the best you can do and it’s what most everybody else does.”
Zimmerman and Agthe started a River Place Disannexation PAC Facebook page, which had 94 likes as of Monday.
“I don’t want the City of Austin’s higher water rates, higher electricity rates, higher property taxes, more regulations over our homes, and inaccurate water bills and bad customer service,” Agthe posted on the page. “The first step is for River Place citizens to register their vote in favor of disannexation and in favor of going back to having just our locally run MUD. Right now, the only way you register that vote is to vote for me, as that is the sole purpose for my running.”
River Place MUD President Pat Reilly said some of the claims made by Agthe on a campaign flyer are not accurate, such as the claim that the city is doing a unilateral annexation. He said that in 1984, the city of Austin, along with the developer of River Place and the MUD district approved a consent agreement that allowed the developer to move forward with putting in a water and wastewater system.
“Part of that agreement was an agreement that the city of Austin would at some point annex the MUD,” Reilly said.
Agthe also made the claim that residents haven’t had a chance to vote for a MUD board member since 1999.
“The truth is that the MUD district holds elections every two years,” Reilly said. “We haven’t had a contested election since 1996.”
Reilly said he was surprised to hear about the PAC’s forum because he recently met with Agthe and Crosby to discuss the annexation issue and thought they were all on the same page.
“At the end of the meeting, I thought we agreed that the HOA would look into the cost of hiring an attorney to look into the issue and have the attorney come back and see if the case was worth pursuing, how much it would cost, how long it would take and the odds of winning,” Reilly said.
He said the HOA had just started this process when the disannexation PAC announced this week’s forum.
“We agreed to do it one way and then all the sudden they’re doing (the forum) to get the people of River Place all riled all up about it,” Reilly said. “It plays very well from a political standpoint but you need to know the whole story.”
Agthe isn’t the only MUD candidate who opposes annexation. As president of the HOA, Crosby said he has had numerous conversations about annexation for well over a year. While it is a complicated issue, he said if the community can avoid annexation or at least delay it until it can get some possible legislative relief, the cost savings could be worth it.
“For me, it is easy to say that I’m against annexation,” Crosby said on the neighborhood site Nextdoor. “Likewise, I’m for pursuing disannexation or delaying annexation if we can combine both a political and legal effort and assuming we are convinced there is a viable legal basis for the challenge… I, along with the HOA, remain committed to determine if we have a viable cause of action against the City of Austin (COA) to avoid or delay annexation.”
The positions on the MUD board are all at large, so the two highest vote getters will win the election. Election Day is May 7, with early voting from April 25 through May 3. Registered voters can vote at any Travis County polling location.
See next week’s Four Points News for more coverage on River Place’s pending annexation.