It’s hard to tell what’s going on in Georgetown without a scorecard.
In the bustling enclave about an hour north of Austin, city officials have been accused of withholding contracts and other documents from a local newspaper, about the city’s move to all-renewable energy.
The mayor allegedly confronted the editor of the paper and told her he would use his political heft to deny advertising revenue to the paper if it continued to report on residents’ rising electric bills. Some are blaming those bills on poor planning regarding the renewable move.
Those bills are rising because the city raised consumer electricity rates after locking in the prices it agreed to pay for wind and solar energy, which resulted in billings to the city of $11 million over budget in 2016.
Meanwhile, the cost of natural gas had fallen to record lows; if the city were still buying gas-produced energy, electric utility customers — meaning almost everyone in town — would have paid less.
The flap between the city and the Williamson County Sun, a feisty independent that publishes twice a week, is a classic press-versus-politicians case.
A week ago, Sun Editor Lorraine Brady published a first-person story on her encounter with Mayor Dale Ross, who has received fawning press coverage for leading the move to all-renewable energy in the town of about 74,000 people.
According to her story, Ross told Brady that “he would not advertise for his mayoral campaign in the Sun, which he said will impact the newspaper financially.
“He told me the Sun may not be around much longer,” Brady reported, and said he told her to look for another job.
On Saturday, the newspaper ran an editorial by one of its two publishers, contending that the city has told residents that state law prohibits it from releasing information about the city-run electric department.
Publisher Linda Scarbrough wrote that new rules have been proposed that would limit what city council members can say during public meetings and via their personal social media networks.
“Among the rules was one that stated that the mayor was to be the voice of the council,” Scarbrough wrote.
Ross acknowledged telling Brady he would likely not use the Sun in his future ad campaigns. While the Sun is used for the required public announcements and postings for the city, “its circulation makes no sense to use for a political advertisement,” Ross said in an interview with The Texas Monitor.
In the final weeks leading up to his last election in 2017, Ross spent roughly $17,000 on advertising in the three small news outlets that cover the city, with roughly 30 percent going to the Sun. That includes a $4,474 ad purchase two weeks before the May election.
The energy contracts, Ross said, cannot be released because the city signed a non-disclosure agreement with the providers.
“We have gotten word from both our counsel and the attorney general that we cannot release those contracts,” Ross said. “I wish we could, but we run the risk of being sued if we do.”
In cases involving questions about release of public records, the state attorney general’s office typically does not tell government agencies they cannot release records that have been requested. The AG’s office says the agencies are not required to make the release.
As for the alleged crackdown on public statements from the council, Ross said there is no such thing.
The idea is only to ensure there are no opinions voiced between a planning and zoning board decision and the council meeting in cases where an applicant may appeal a P & Z opinion, he said.
“In which case, a public statement would show pre-judging an issue before a final ruling,” Ross said.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].