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Saturday, 22 January 2005

Frisco Enterprise
Charter meeting gets passionate
Passions grew as frustrations rose among the participants in the meeting - the Take Back Your Rights group, the City Council and residents in attendance. The meeting was an attempt to iron out issues regarding TBYR's efforts to create legislation designed to protect homebuyers from faulty construction of new homes in Frisco.

Charter meeting gets passionate
By: MIKE RAYE, Staff writer

The special City Council workshop to discuss proposed city charter amendments Wednesday night wasn't an opera. But it would have made a good one.

Passions grew as frustrations rose among the participants in the meeting - the Take Back Your Rights group, the City Council and residents in attendance. The meeting was an attempt to iron out issues regarding TBYR's efforts to create legislation designed to protect homebuyers from faulty construction of new homes in Frisco.

The stated goal at the beginning of the meeting, which convened at 6:30 p.m., was to divine answers about how two city charter amendments proposed by Take Back Your Rights would affect the city and how they could be enforced if they became law. The mayor, council and city attorney clearly expressed concerns about becoming the middleman in disputes between dissatisfied homebuyers and the homebuilders from whom they seek reparation. There were no decisions to be made on this night, but plenty of people got the chance to passionately present their thoughts.

"One of the purposes of this meeting is to provide additional information and education and to gain perspective on these charter amendments," said Mayor Mike Simpson at the convening of the session.

When the meeting was adjourned, more than three hours later, many questions remained unanswered.

Discussed were two proposed amendments to Frisco's Home Rule Charter, written by TBYR lawyers. One, a potential Section 15 of the amended charter, called the "Surety Bond Charter Amendment" would require homebuilders to put up a "bond of performance or assurance," held by the city to correct "covered defects" such as poor workmanship and material employed in new home construction. The homebuilder would put up bonds between $250,000 and $2 million to correct problems and resolve disputes, with the "Head City Engineer" the final arbiter in disputes. No building permits would be granted until this provision was met.

The second proposal, called the "Homebuilder Full Disclosure with Informed Consent" amendment would become Section 16 of a reworked charter. The article is designed to "protect citizens of Frisco from entering uninformed into new home construction contracts."

Despite the myriad of components of the proposals discussed, one fact was undeniable - there will be a city-wide election to decide the fate of them. Another key point: If the city is going to put the issue on a May 7 ballot, it only has until March 7 to do so, because the law requires a ballot be ready for inspection by the voters 60 days prior to an election.

Frisco is a "Home Rule" city and voters adopted its initial Charter in 1987. In May 2002, Frisco residents voted to revise the Charter and approved 19 propositions.

The Charter states that every six years the City Council must appoint a review board to determine if any refinements should be made. TBYR fulfilled a requirement for getting amendments on a city ballot by gathering the required number of signatures - the lesser of 5 percent of qualified Frisco voters or 20,000 signers. TBYR presented a total of 9,300 signatures on Nov. 8, and the city secretary certified a total of 3,673 in December. The certification process was halted at that point because TBYR met the minimum requirement, City Secretary Nan Parker reported.

"(TBYR) has been waiting for this open discussion about our two critically important charter amendments that promise Frisco the opportunity to become the model of consumer homebuyer protection, and a model of quality new home construction," Dr. David Becka said in opening remarks. "We hope that you, our elected officials and everyone here this evening will open his or her mind to what the citizens of Frisco have asked us to do for them.

"We represent over 4,600 Frisco resident voters that see a need for change in the way the residential construction industry conducts business with consumers and insures the quality of their product. They believe, as we do, that the residential construction industry has lost sight of its responsibility to do the right thing for the consumer."

Becka said the homebuilding industry has become more occupied by building walls between themselves and consumers than building quality homes. He said TBYR supports "homebuilders that are accountable," but wants to reign in those they say are not.

Fred Lewis, an Austin attorney and president of a group called "Campaign for People," said he was one of the authors of the charter amendments, and said TBYR's complaints are not unique - there are problems with homebuilders all over the state, he asserted. He said the amendments were really benign. Lewis said his services were pro bono.

"In my opinion, these are very modest, very common provisions to help correct the imbalance of information and the imbalance of relationships between homebuyers and homebuilders," he said. "What is happening in Frisco is not unusual. There are people unhappy all over the suburbs in Texas."

City Council Member Dr. Jim Joyner asked what basis the $2 million surety bond was set, and whether it was based on other cities and other similar "common" situations. He said he conducted his own research, searching "nationally," without success to find other cities with Frisco-like issues.

"It seems to me, and I did not come up with that $2 million figure that for a big subdivision developer, that is a reasonable amount," Lewis replied.

Lewis said that 15 percent of all houses have major defects - a statement met with measurable animosity from the large group of homebuilders assembled for the meeting.

It set the stage for impassioned speeches, sharp retorts and a near loss of decorum. The meeting might have devolved into a shouting match were it not for the firm hand of Mayor Mike Simpson, who was equally impassioned, but kept order. He took exception to TBYR's assertion that scores of Frisco residents were living in problem homes.

"It has been stated there is a major problem with homebuilding in Frisco," Simpson said. "We have a very outspoken group of people in Frisco and they will speak out when they have a problem. They spoke out on (SH) 121, they spoke out on the alcohol election, they are speaking out on extended hours. When we received the (TBYR) presentation in January and February (2004), and this was on the news media and article after article was written, the council did not receive e-mails by unhappy citizens anywhere near the degree - if at all - like we have received on other items. And they are a very vocal community. I'm trying to understand where it's coming from that Frisco -- (a city) that has the highest quality of building standards of any city -- that there are mountains of people that are unhappy with their homes."

Mayor Pro Tem Maher Maso said his problem was with a city issue that was growing from its grass roots into a state-wide issue.

"This was originally presented to the City Council as a grass-roots effort in Frisco," he said. "I didn't want state politics brought into our city. I wanted our citizens to drive the process."

Lewis said the "full disclosure" proposal was "critical to this process" and would lessen the number of disputes, explaining the more educated the consumer is, the better off both sides will be. From that point, the concept of disclosure became a hot topic - especially when conversation shifted to the petitions and how people were solicited to sign it.

"You are going to have to write the underlying ordinances (to the amendments)," said Troy Miller. "Home buyers don't realize that when they sign documents they wave their rights under binding arbitration. They need to understand what binding arbitration is. It needs to be put into plain language. Full disclosure is pure consumer protection. There is nothing controversial about it."

"I was asked to sign the petition on July 4 at Freedom Fest," said former Frisco mayor Kathy Seei. "I did not know what it was all about, but I would not have signed it if I knew it was to call an election for amending our charter. I do not believe that this is the manner in which the situation should be resolved." She took personal responsibility for not "reading the fine print" and asking more questions before she signed.

"This is not about winning or losing a prize," she said. "It's about moving the community forward. Well-intentioned people are on all sides that want to resolve this issue. I will vote no on a charter revision."

Another former Frisco mayor, Bob Warren, said he didn't understand what he was signing, either, and has had second thoughts as well.

"I was on the City Council when the Charter was written," he said. "A change to the City Charter is a very serious thing. It's not frivolous. I didn't know the full story (when I signed). I want to learn more so I can vote intelligently. I want to see what's fair for the builders and what's fair for the citizens."

Carol Becka said the group did not intend to deceive anyone when they presented the petition to potential signers.

"At the top of the petition it says exactly what it was for," she said. "We did nothing to deceive anyone."

"What we are trying to determine is if people understood there would be a charter review," Simpson said. "Did they know when they signed this there could be a price increase on their house?"

"We asked for your assistance several times," Becka said, "and we got nowhere. We went to the people instead. We have been upfront and we've been honest. We did not mislead anyone.

When pressed by Maso, Becka admitted that some of the signature-gatherers were from out of town and were paid for their time.

"So somebody from your immediate group was not always with every one of these individuals?" he asked.

Becka said she could not attest to exactly what each signature gatherer's pitch was.

The meeting adjourned at almost 10 p.m. with many questions to be answered. Simpson asked the council to draft their own by Monday, so they could be addressed in future work sessions before the March deadline.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Matt Lafata said Thursday a hard look should be taken before undertaking a serious matter like a charter amendment.

"I admire anybody who takes the initiative to get something done that they truly believe in," he said. "On the surface, what they are proposing would appear to be a good idea. But once you start getting deeper into it you discover holes, potential pitfalls, and lots of concerns and questions that remain unanswered. While TBYR is looking at one side of the issue - their side - it is our duty to look at all sides with an open mind and do what is in the best interest of the citizens and the City of Frisco. The best way to do that will be to make sure we have all the facts for citizens to make an informed decision when it is time for this to come up to a vote as to what this will mean to them, future citizens an

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