After a lengthy discussion, two unrecognized motions and one council member abstaining from the vote, the Stephenville City Council agreed Tuesday to honor a request to abandon and close portions of certain city streets.
The decision came in a 5-3 split with council members Alan Nix, Russ McDanel and Scott Evans voting against the proposition and Alan Nash abstaining.
The decision to sell parts of Lillian Avenue, all of N. Rome Avenue and parts of W. Tarleton and Vanderbilt streets to Tarleton State University came before a packed audience consisting largely of university officials, long-time university supporters, alumni and several professors and students.
While a public hearing was not held on the topic, a number of audience members, including former council member Perry Elliot, Tarleton President Dr. F. Dominic Dottavio, Tarleton Police Chief Justin Williams and a few of the university’s No. 1 supporters spoke their minds.
Elliot said when he was on the council, he voted against a similar request by the university, but if he was still seated, he would issue a favorable vote since the Ollie Street extension now provides a north/south thoroughfare.
“Lillian is now at the center of Tarleton,” Elliot added. “There are not many campuses with streets running through them.”
Dottavio said recent projects at the university, including the the construction of new student housing, the new science building and the relocation of the dining hall shifted the heart of the campus.
Dottavio said Tarleton is a huge part of the local economy, employing approximately 1,000 people and contributing about $200 million in revenue.
“Tarleton is on the grow and this proposition fits with our long-term strategy,” Dottavio said.
He also said the university is “committed to being a good partner with the community,” and that the plan is not necessarily to close streets to traffic through campus, but to address safety and parking issues.
Col. William Tate, who attended the university when it was a junior college, said Tarleton and Stephenville are “one.”
“They are inseparable,” Tate said. “What is good for one is good for the other.”
Tate also spoke of safety concerns and said the once small institution is now crawling with a student body that has increased 10-fold.
“The students are like ants,” Tate said. “They are everywhere.”
Only two audience members spoke against the topic, local mail carrier Mike Stephens and life-long resident Frances Nix.
Stephens said he was opposed due to safety concerns since the move would mean less accessibility to through traffic and would put a burden on already stressed intersections.
“The Ollie intersections are already horrendous,” Stephens said. “Unless (traffic) lights are installed, accidents will increase.”
Nix said although she has strong ties to the university, with 12 family members who have attended Tarleton since 1919, she has also paid taxes in the city for decades. She said the rights of the taxpayers and citizens should be a primary concern.
“I have paid taxes for over 60 years,” Nix said. “I have a right to drive the streets, they belong to city taxpayers. They belong to all of us and they don’t have to be closed for safety. There are alternatives.”
Following the comments city officials offered their views.
Mayor Nancy Hunter said it was “no secret” she was in support of the proposition.
“I would like to continue to foster a good working relationship with the university,” Hunter said. “I am concerned with the safety of all of the people of Stephenville, including students.”
Council member Martha Cashon immediately moved to accept the ordinance to vacate the streets and Joe Cude seconded. The move led to a lengthy discussion among council members.
Nash said he was abstaining from the vote, citing his adjunct professor status with the university and the moral implications of voting on Tarleton affairs. He also mentioned a precedent set by former council members and university employees who previously abstained from voting on deeding streets to the university.
Nash read from a statute which stated that if a council member derives more than 10 percent of their income from a business they must abstain from votes relevant to that business.
Nash noted the council had been presented a more than two decades old attorney general’s opinion that universities should not be considered business.
“But is it proper?” Nash asked, adding that “the appearance of impropriety is sometimes as deadly as impropriety itself.”
Other council members employed at the university, including Dr. Malcom Cross, Dr. Don Zelman and Joe Cude said they have never been pressured by their employer on any topic before the council and would vote for the request, mainly due to safety concerns.
Alan Nix brought to the table a number of questions he felt had not been addressed by city administration, questions he said would impact his decision to support or oppose the sale.
“Has there been a traffic count? What will the impact on other streets and intersections be?” he asked, adding that he had heard no mention of traffic control measures.
Alan Nix questioned the ticket price, of $.80 per square foot, less $.20 per sq.ft. for poor street conditions and retaining easements, which he said he was seeing for the first time at Tuesday’s meeting.
He also asked about alternative measures of closing the north/south thoroughfare, including overhead crosswalks.
“There are a number of unanswered questions we as a council have not discussed,” Alan Nix said calling the questions the “nuts and bolts” of the issue.
He made a motion to table the discussion for further examination. McDanel seconded the motion and Zelman agreed that the questions needed to be answered, but Hunter refused to recognize the motion and instead asked City Administrator Mark Kaiser to address Nix’s concerns.
Kaiser said a traffic study was conducted in 2003, which concluded undue streets would not be put on other roadways and reminded the council that the study was completed “before Ollie was put into play.”
Regarding the amount, Kaiser said the price was based on the 2006 sale of portions of Jones, Shirley and Garfield streets to Tarleton, but said the final price would fall within the letter of the law and would be discussed at a later time.
Kaiser also said the idea of overhead crosswalks had been considered in the past but were simply “too costly” and also said installing traffic signals at Ollie’s intersection with Washington Street and Lingleville Road are not a decision available to the council since the roadways are maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation.
In another attempt to better discuss the street closures and the impact on citizens, McDanel made a second motion to table the issue and hold a public hearing in January to invite citizens to offer their opinions.
Hunter again refused to recognize the motion.
After being prompted by Hunter’s call for a motion to vote on the ordinance, Cashon moved with a second from Cude.
The city will now begin the six to nine month process of vacating N. Lillian Avenue from W. Washington Street to W. Shirley Street; W. Vanderbilt Street from Cain Avenue to Rome Avenue; W. Tarleton Street from N. Lillian to St. Peter Avenue and Rome Avenue from W. Vanderbilt to W. Frey streets - a total approximate distance of more than 259,000 square feet.