ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — The city of Round Rock issued a warning to voters ahead of Tuesday’s general election to be aware of a “misleading” petition circulating outside of polling sites that is calling for a charter amendment to add up to 12 billboards along I-35 within city limits.

The petition is being pushed by a group called Keep Round Rock Safe. Its website says it is a coalition of local Round Rock businesses that are advocating for the installment of Electronic Message Centers (EMC). The website claims EMCs are an effective tool for “economic growth, heightened public safety, and emergency responsiveness.”

City does not agree with petition

A city spokesperson said there are claims on the website that are not true. The site says, “Round Rock city leaders agree with us,” but that is not what Round Rock leaders are saying.

“From what we have been told by city council, this is not something that they are interested in revisiting in terms of our sign ordinance,” Sara Bustilloz, the city’s communications director, explained.

Bustilloz explained the city has been approached recently to talk about changing the sign ordinances in the city. Currently, the law in Round Rock says billboards are prohibited signs within city limits. There is only one billboard in southern Round Rock because it was grandfathered in before city council prohibited their existence in the city.

Bustilloz said in 2022 city leaders met with people who identified themselves as representatives of MediaChoice, an Austin-based billboard advertising company. The company’s website says it handles static and digital billboards in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia.

Bustilloz explained city council and staff told the MediaChoice representatives they did not want to change the sign ordinances.

This past summer, community members in Round Rock started receiving text messages and phone calls about a “public safety survey.” The city said it was a months-long campaign to lobby people into expressing their desires for EMCs.

The messages were first identified as coming from “WAB Research,” but have recently been coming from the Keep Round Rock Safe PAC, according to the city. In a recent statement, the city says it believes MediaChoice is behind the campaign.

Who is behind Keep Round Rock Safe PAC?

It is hard to determine who started the PAC. The only information you can obtain about the PAC from the Texas Ethics Commission is an address and the name of a treasurer. The address listed under the Keep Round Rock Safe PAC is for a mailing center.

The treasurer is listed as Bonner Fowles and it says he started in that role on August 14. According to Fowles’ LinkedIn page, he is a current employee of MediaChoice and has been there for 11 months. It also says he is a government affairs analyst in his bio.

KXAN called MediaChoice and spoke with a woman who identified herself as an accountant. She said she was not aware of any PAC started by the company, but did say that Fowles worked there. When asked if we could speak with him, she said he was not in the office and did not work regular hours.

The website for Keep Round Rock Safe lists an email as its only form of contact. KXAN received a response from someone named Craig Holmes. He said that Keep Round Rock Safe is a coalition of 30 local businesses, including MediaChoice.

What does the petition say?

The city of Round Rock provided a picture of the petition that was circulating at early voting poll sites. The headline of the petition, written in bold and all caps, says, “Petition to keep Round Rock safe and economically prosperous by authorizing electronic message centers at no cost to taxpayers.”

A picture of the petition at early voting poll sites in Round Rock (Photo courtesy: City of Round Rock).

The petition says the signs would make Round Rock safer because they can display alert messages such as Silver Alerts, Amber Alerts, and weather alerts, in a matter of seconds.

Bustilloz said the city already has multiple mechanisms to alert and warn its residents during emergencies and weather events such as Warn Central Texas. She added that that these alerts are used rarely throughout the year.

“If we got a dozen of those types of messages in a year, then what is put on those billboards throughout the rest of the year?” Bustilloz asked.

The billboards would also offer advertising for local businesses. That advertising is how the billboards would be paid for, according to the petition. The PAC’s website says the Perryman Group, a think-tank that provides economic analysis studies, forecasts that the EMC signs will “generate $225 million of economic activity each year due to increased reach and awareness of our local business community.”

In his email to KXAN, Holmes said, “The city has allowed variances for large enterprises like Kalahari, Dell, IKEA and the Round Rock Express to install their own EMCs, but small business has not been afforded equal treatment.”

Bustilloz explained that the signs that Kalahari and IKEA have are different than the proposed EMCs in the petition. She said the signs mentioned above are known as on-premise signs, meaning the company owns and operates the sign on its property. The sign is also only allowed to advertise upcoming events or content that promotes the individual business. Those on-premise signs are not allowed to promote any other organization or business.

Kalahari has an on-premise sign, which is permitted under city law (Photo courtesy: KXAN).

The signs proposed in the petition are off-premise signs, Bustilloz said. They would promote third-party companies and would essentially be a regular billboard, which is something the city council has made clear it does not want.

EMC installed in Smithville

The Keep Round Rock Safe website has a testimonial from Robert Tamble, the city manager of Smithville, Texas. That city installed an EMC in 2020 along Highway 71. In the testimonial video, Tamble said EMCs are a great way to get the message out to its citizens.

What does it take to be put on the ballot?

This is a petition that voters will not vote on in this election. If the petition garners enough support and signatures, it will be placed on the ballot in the next available election.

City law says the petition needs to obtain signatures from 5% of the registered voters.

Bustilloz wants people to know the full story if they are approached by someone asking them to sign this petition. She said it is simply asking to place 12 billboards along I-35 in their community.

“Ultimately what’s important to us as a city is that people know what they’re signing — what they’re voting for,” Bustilloz said.