The Cedar Park City Council, a traditionally sleepy and nonpartisan organization, has steadily descended into frequent partisan battles and seemingly unending, harshly worded protests. The trend began when two Democratic candidates unseated two long-time incumbent council members in the 2018 and intensified in the recent elections held in May.
Thursday's meeting encapsulated this growing divide when controversy over Council member Rodney Robinson’s board nominees spiraled into disruptive shouting by council members and audience members alike, which led Cedar Park police to eject at least one attendee.
The council interviewed seven board nominees Thursday and plans to hold the formal vote on their seats at the Sept. 26 meeting.
Robinson's nomination of three individual who campaigned with him for three seats sparked the debate. He nominated Michael Sanguiliano for the Planning and Zoning Commission, Hulyne Christopher for Economic Development Sales Tax (Type A) Corporation Board and her husband Sean for the Tourism Advisory Board.
Cedar Park resident Neitha Engert criticized Sanguiliano's nominations over what she called "bigoted and offensive memes" he shared on his Facebook page, which recently surfaced in online discussions. The since-deleted posts included one stating “Liberal Rape Tips – Urinate on yourself to ruin the rapist’s mood. Conservative Rape Tips – Pull out a Glock – and make him piss himself!” and another one claiming modern immigrant come seeking handouts and to impose Sharia Law.
Robinson withdrew Sanguiliano's nomination prior to meeting after learning about the posts.
“He’s a good man...But, one thing I do take very seriously is rape. That's just something men shouldn't joke about. For me, I'm just not going to take that lightly. Whoever I select for this position will be representing me," Robinson said.
Midway through Engert's comments, an unidentified man stood up and began shouting his displeasure of criticism three council members have received for attendance at a June protest in Leander against an LGBTQ festival.
Engert and the man began shouting at each other until Mayor Corbin Van Arsdale convinced him to sit down and wait for his turn to address the council.
Robinson, Kelly and Chavez joined those protesting against the event. Robinson has since apologized for attending the protest while Chavez and Kelly have defended their appearance, which has attracted protests against them at every subsequent council meeting.
The Thursday meeting was interrupted again later in the public comments section and police had to remove an different unidentified man from the premises after he shouted “F--- You!” and accused the three council members of lying.
Texas House District 47 candidate, former Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman, who attended to support Kelly, and former Cedar Park Mayor Bob Antle both followed him out because they were curious why he had disrupted the meeting.
Antle told Zimmerman he wasn't being helpful and the two held their own shouting match.
“Cedar Park doesn’t need you coming here from Austin to stir things up,” Antle shouted.
Zimmerman accused Antle of not being a real Christian nor a Republican and called him a hypocrite, a liar and a bigot. They finally separated when Cedar Park Police Chief Sean Mannix stepped in.
The audience calmed down as the meeting progressed but the council members behind the dais continued the shouting.
Robinson's most controversial remaining nominee was Hulyne Christopher, who campaigned with Robinson and lost to Council member Anne Duffy in the May elections.
Van Arsdale and Duffy pressed Christopher about inaccurate statements she made during a radio interview during the campaign.
Christopher, who declined to comment for this story, defended herself by saying she didn't mean to disparage city staff and was only highlighting areas she thought could be improved.
They questioned whether she could be trusted, particularly given the Type A board dealt with executive sessions and building trust with major companies the city was trying to attract.
Robinson interrupted Van Arsdale's questioning and accused him of "interrogating her." Van Arsdale argued council members have the right to question appointees.
Chavez and Kelly accused him of trying to dredge back up the election, arguing he needed to "let the past be in the past."
“It hurt our standing in the region,” Van Arsdale said. “I think when you have 80,000 people you can find someone that’s not a concern or a worry.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Robinson asked later in the meeting. “[Hulyne Christpher] is a good person. She’s loyal. She walked her butt off for me to help me campaign. I want people that represent me. People voted for me for a reason, so I want to put people that represent me and my beliefs and my values.”
Despite the divisions among the members, Duffy and Robinson each raised the same idea for improving the city commission process - having the city advertise when seats are up for appointment so local residents will be encourage to voice their interests. Both said appointments often come down to the people the council member knows because so few people realize when seats are available, resulting in council members having limited options for the seat.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified a public speaker as Michelle Thompson. The speaker was Neitha Engert.