Wear: There’s more to that decision keeping Conley on CAMPO board

Jan 12, 2018
Former Hays County Commissioner Will Conley

My first reaction, when I heard that former Hays County Commissioner Will Conley was turning legalistic pirouettes to remain in charge of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, was simple.

Why?

You know the expression, “They couldn’t pay me to (whatever)?” Well, the American-Statesman since 2003 has been paying me to go to CAMPO board meetings, and sometimes I still don’t go. I’d say that the monthly get-togethers on the University of Texas campus, where 20 mostly elected officials hash out the area’s transportation intentions, are like watching paint dry. But I have never stared at freshly applied enamel for two hours, so I’m not sure.

They’re in the same ZIP code, though, certainly.

That “mostly elected officials” part, it turns out, is what this week’s brief CAMPO flap was all about.

Conley, who had been on the Hays County Commissioners Court since 2004, resigned in October so he could run to be on it again. Huh? Well, Conley wants to be the Hays County judge, the person holding the gavel at the county board, and state law says that once he began running for that job (to be decided in November) he had to give up the lesser position.

RELATED: Conley steps down from Hays County board to run for judge

The reasonable assumption might have been that he would simultaneously give up the chairmanship of the CAMPO board and spend that Monday night once a month otherwise engaged, leaving the Commissioners Court to appoint one of their number to the transportation board. Beyond that, anyone pondering such things (a small faction, I’ll admit) might have presumed that some law or rule would mandate that he leave the volunteer CAMPO board.

No, in both cases, as it happens.

Federal law, as the Austin Monitor reported when it scooped the world on the Conley matter, says that the members of metropolitan planning organizations should be local elected officials, state officials or “officials of public agencies that administer or operate major modes of transportation in the metropolitan area.” Seemingly, as of October, Conley would have been none of those things, because that last category is how Capital Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation qualify to name representatives to the board.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself some version of, “Remind me why I should care about the CAMPO board.”

That board once every five years approves a 25-year transportation plan for the region, one with hundreds of projects and a price tag north of $35 billion. Most of it is not CAMPO’s money, by the way, but rather city, county, state, federal and transit money all gathered up into one fat plan.

Any transportation project around here that uses some federal money, as almost all highway and transit work does, can get that cash only if it appears in the CAMPO plan. On an ideological level, that blueprint, which the board also regularly amends in the intervening years, serves as a statement of transportation priorities in how it balances traditional highway spending with other modes such as transit and cycling.

And beyond that — key to what I’m about to tell you — the plan is also crucial to whether new highways or highway expansions get built over what I am journalistically required to tell you is the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. The current plan, crucially, included the Texas 45 Southwest tollway (which is now about halfway through construction) and the proposed expansion of South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) with a couple of toll lanes in each direction.

Both pass over the top of that aquifer.

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, a Democrat and a longtime Conley antagonist who serves on the CAMPO board, has vigorously opposed both of those projects over the years and has had success in delaying an environmental study of the South MoPac project. Now, with toll projects in bad odor with state-level Republicans, her toil there appears to be paying off in a big way.

Conley, as you might suspect, supported those projects. He is a Republican but has not been of the anti-toll sort. In addition, he has been the CAMPO chairman for four years, running a body that has a suburban and exurban majority four-square behind building highways.

RELATED: South MoPac spat has roots in 1990s aquifer wars

Shea, in an open letter early this month, called Conley’s continued service on the board “a questionable deal that twists the rules” to keep him in place. Does it?

Before I go into that particular knot, I’ll end the suspense and tell you that on Jan. 8 the CAMPO board voted 15-1, with two abstentions from Austin City Council Members Alison Alter and Ann Kitchen, to keep Conley on the board as a nonvoting “affiliate” member. And as chairman.

As has been the case with several CAMPO votes over the past few years, Shea was the lone “nay.”

Conley’s supporters argued that he could have continued to be a voting member of CAMPO, saying that Hays County — because it funds and contracts to build roads — is a public agency that operates “major modes of transportation” under that federal definition. But is Conley an “official” of the county? Arguable, at least at the moment.

But CAMPO in 2013 passed its own rules allowing nonvoting affiliate members, something that its overseers at the Federal Highway Administration last week (in an email to a Rollingwood ally of Shea’s) said is fine and dandy. So Conley remains on the board, having accessed that side door. He’ll be chairman because his fellow board members (Shea aside) want him in that position, which even without the power to vote still carries the authority to appoint committees, set the meeting agenda and make rulings during meetings about seemingly arcane procedures.

And sometimes those parliamentary decisions have a very meaningful (if crushingly dull) effect on the final outcome.

All of which helps explain, I suppose, why Conley wanted to continue in that role. Also, as he campaigns for the county judge position through this year, he’ll be able to list himself as running the CAMPO board (rather than having done so in the past). Perhaps that could help him slightly in the election, if only among the most wonkish of Hays Countians.

When I talked to him about all this, Conley said this was “not a political decision for me.” Instead, he said, “I have a disease for public service.” Maybe more than a dash of spin there, but you have to give him credit for colorful phraseology.

As for why some non-Republican, non-suburban members of CAMPO might want him to continue as chairman, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who voted Conley’s way, put it this way at the board meeting: “Frankly, there are rooms (Conley) can get into that we (Democrats) might not be able to get into.”

Meaning rooms open to Republicans only, where the fate of numerous grounded toll projects in the Austin area (such as Interstate 35, U.S. 183 and Texas 130 toll expansions) will be hashed out in the coming weeks and months.

Those discussions, almost certainly, will include South MoPac.