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2013-05-23

City's 'sign flap' continues unabated, salient question: 'Is this finally over?'

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

The subject of a proposed executive session, slated for the Thursday, May 16, meeting of Bandera City Council, rapidly became the worst kept secret in the municipality.

The agenda item was phrased: "Duties, conduct and responsibilities of the City Council Members with regard to City Marshal and Deputies." However, as Councilman Maggie Schumacher noted, "This was all about how I supposedly 'exceeded my authority' after I allegedly 'ordered' the city marshal to do something."

"The Great Sign Flap" took place during the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District election. The incident was covered extensively in the May 9 edition of the Bandera County Courier in the article "Elections in Bandera County - signs o' the times."

Back story redux

In an email sent Sunday, May 5, Councilman Jim Hannah, who apparently assisted candidate Robert Skinner install the sign on vacant property along Main Street, informed interested parties: "As of yesterday, all of Robert Skinner's campaign signs...were stolen in Medina and along Highway 16 North, along with two out of four in Bandera." Skinner, who spoke with Bandera County Courier publisher and owner Gail Joiner the morning of Tuesday, May 7, was unaware of the email Hannah sent on his behalf.

Two of Skinner's signs had been removed from a vacant lot in the city after it was ascertained that one of the developers had not been contacted about the signs' installation. As it turned out, however, another partner, Al Rajabi, of San Antonio, had given permission to post the sign without informing Gene Hartman, of Bulverde. After resolving the miscommunication, Rajabi and Hartman allowed all candidates - the other being incumbent Jerry Sides, who won the election in Precinct 3 - to pound campaign signs into their property with impunity.

In an email to the Courier, Skinner wrote, "As far as I am concerned, this is a nonissue about the signs as a lot of this was due to miscommunication."

That should have been the end of that - and in any other city, it would have been. However, this incident occurred in Bandera where the politics of personal destruction seems to be never ending.

Closed session is opened

Before Mayor Don Clark could convene the closed executive session at Thursday's city council session, Schumacher took a proactive stance, saying, "Since this concerns me, I want this [discussion] to be held in public."

Appearing disconcerted, Clark looked for guidance from municipal attorney Monte Akers. Akers said the person who is the subject of the executive session has the right to have the discussion take place in an open council meeting.

City Administrator Mike Cardenas began the public discussion by informing council he had been asked to put this item on the agenda, describing it as "a specific incident that involved Maggie."

Taking up the narrative, Hannah, who requested the agenda item, explained that political signs in a countywide race had been removed from property within the city and that Skinner, the candidate who owned the signs, had not been contacted for two days about the removal. Hannah implied that Schumacher had ordered the signs removal. Then, after a bit of backpedaling, he eventually attributed the incident to a "series of miscommunications," noting that perhaps a revision of "police procedures" regarding such matters would be in order.

For his part, Cardenas offered a different perspective. "Maggie tried to contact me but I was in Leakey and my cell phone didn't work. I did get her message about the problem. Since then, I've met with the city marshal and determined that no 'orders' were given. Charlie also stated he wouldn't have been able to remove the sign except by request of the property owner. When [Deputy Marshal Scott MacNaughton] contacted Gene Hartman, he asked MacNaughton to remove the sign," Cardenas explained. "I believe that's the way it happened." Cardenas added that since the marshal reports to the city administrator, in his opinion, Schumacher had followed the correct chain of command.

In turn, Schumacher called Hartman after being unable to reach Cardenas. "I just wanted to ask him if other candidates could now post their political signs on the property," she said in an interview.

Developers weigh in

Property owners Hartman and Rajabi substantiated Cardenas' version. According to Hartman, as a matter of course, their development corporation maintains a policy of neutrality in political races. "We don't allow campaign signs," he said. "When Scott called to see if I had authorized the signs, I said, 'No,' and they were removed." Unknown to Hartman, however, Rajabi had given Hannah permission to install the signs.

"Mr. Hannah called Al to complain that the signs had been removed," Hartman continued. "It was simply a lack of communication on our parts. That's what transpired. We didn't mean to cause community strife."
"If anyone is to blame it's me," Rajabi added. "Company policy is that we allow no signage on the property, but this shouldn't be an issue. We're glad to be in Bandera."

Councilman Binky Archer noted, "The problem seems to have resolved itself so it's a moot point."
However, Clark attempted to once again cast blame on Schumacher, indicating it was "her call to Hartman" that started the incident in the first place. He said, "Council members shouldn't be involved in other people's politics." Clark failed to note that council member Hannah had reportedly installed Skinner's campaign signs.
However, unwilling to let Schumacher become the mayor's "fall girl," Rajabi again accepted blame for the city's latest tempest in a teapot. Reiterating it was simply company policy not to allow signs on vacant properties, Rajabi said, "Don't blame Maggie or Mike or the marshal. It was my fault. We are not here to monitor the property.

He continued, "This parcel is a very important piece of property and we decided to give a platform to all candidates. It seems no good deed goes unpunished." Rajabi added that he had since "reached out" to both Skinner and Hannah about the sign incident.

MacNaughton speaks - finally!

Schumacher wanted it noted for the record that she did not "order" Hicks to remove the sign - a fact supported by MacNaughton, despite having difficulty being recognized by the mayor to speak. Interestingly, the chief deputy had been told he did not have to attend the meeting even though he was tacitly referred to in the agenda item.

"Ms. Schumacher didn't call and order me to remove the sign - and it would have been illegal if she had," MacNaughton said, adding that Hartman's request had been made on a recorded phone line. Explaining why he did not immediately contact Skinner, MacNaughton continued, "There was no telephone number on the sign and I could not legally (run a background check) on the candidate's name."

Additionally, nonstop calls for service came in after MacNaughton removed the sign, including transporting an intoxicated man to a Kerrville hospital, responding to a reported burglary and investigating a welfare concern that ended with a firearm being pointed at the chief deputy. "Getting the signs returned to the candidate was not one of my high priorities," MacNaughton said.

'Not my wording'

After the meeting, when queried as to why he had placed the item on the agenda, Hannah said it was because the city sign ordinance covering political advertisements should be revised to preclude an incident like this from happening again. When it was pointed out that the agenda item did not cover revision of a sign ordinance, Hannah said the wording used on the agenda was not what he had turned in to Cardenas.

Taking exception to Hannah's statement, Cardenas said in an interview that City Secretary Linda Boshek had transcribed the agenda item "word-for-word," exactly as Hannah wrote it - in the presence of both him and Clark.

"We always send the agenda to Monte for review, but that was how the item was written. If there were any changes, I guess the attorney could have edited it, but the item did not specifically reference political signs in the city."

Cardenas also explained that when an agenda item references an employee or elected official, it is referred to executive session. "In this case, the personnel mentioned were the city marshal and deputy," Cardenas explained. "That's why it was scheduled for executive session."

Hannah did not respond to a Courier enquiry for a dated hard copy of his original agenda item.

State handles pols' signs

Regarding revising ordinances addressing political signage posted within the municipality, Cardenas held out little hope that would happen. "Our hands are tied when it comes to political signs. That comes straight from the state. Even if we put something in a handbook or even an ordinance, as Jim (Hannah) suggested, state laws supersede suggestions in a personnel manual."

To prove his point, Cardenas referenced Chapter 3, Building Regulations, Ordinance 105, Section 7, covering "Unattached Signs," which stated: "Political election signs which are six (6) square feet in area or less are not included in this definition."

"This is all we have to go by," Cardenas said. "Political signs are strictly regulated by the Texas Legislature."

This statement was borne home in last summer's run-off election between former County Attorney John Payne and now County Attorney Janna Lindig. Citizens tried unsuccessfully to have Payne's signs that had been placed in the bed of a pickup truck parked in front of the courthouse on Main Street removed from the city. Payne's signs, which were less than "six square feet in area," were exempt from the "Unattached Sign" ordinance and, therefore, by state law, legal.

For his part, Cardenas expects both city residents and city elected officials to contact him at any time with questions and concerns. "You certainly don't give up your rights as citizens simply because you're an elected official," he said.