Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional information and responses from Round Rock representatives.

A political campaign framed around public safety is seeking to bring several new billboards along Round Rock's highways, an issue that could end up on the city's spring election ballot.

While it remains to be seen how Round Rock residents respond, several area businesses have backed the initiative so far, although some city officials said the effort is deceptive and unrelated to local public safety needs.

What's happening

The ongoing petition drive to amend Round Rock's city charter is aimed at allowing up to a dozen new electronic message centers, or EMCs, off I-35 and SH 45. City policy generally prohibits any new billboards from going up around town.

The proposal also calls for any new EMCs to be regulated only by state highway signage rules, rather than local standards.

The petition is backed by a political action committee called Keep Round Rock Safe. The PAC says it represents businesses in favor of updating Round Rock's EMC rules.

The campaign is aimed at installing privately owned and -operated signage that could feature local advertising. However, it's also being billed as a public safety initiative since EMCs can display messaging such as Amber Alerts and local emergency notices. If the group's petition earns enough support, the question of whether to permit the new electronic billboards will head to city voters.

Petitions explained

Texans can petition their local governments on various issues, such as enacting new policies, recalling elected officials or updating a city's charter. Keep Round Rock Safe's petition calls for a charter amendment.

Registered voters can support a petition by providing their signature with some general identifying information. Anyone seeking to remove their name would either have to contact the PAC to delete their signature from the petition or submit a withdrawal affidavit to the city clerk before the petition is formally filed with the city.

For a charter amendment to land on the ballot, a petition must be signed by either 20,000 registered city voters or 5% of the city's voter pool—whichever is smaller.

Round Rock is home to 72,746 registered voters, according to Travis and Williamson county election officials, meaning about 3,638 signatures are needed to call an election.

Craig Holmes, a spokesperson for Keep Round Rock Safe, said the petition drive will surpass the city's threshold for an election.

Depending on the timing of the ongoing petition drive, a potential ballot measure could be decided in next May's general election.

The background

The petition effort follows unsuccessful attempts by Austin-based advertising company MediaChoice to lobby City Council members to change Round Rock's sign ordinances.

Holmes said the petition was created to allow voters to weigh in on the local issue. Following past signage updates along Hwy. 79, he said the coalition hopes to help smaller operations with advertising as the rest of Round Rock's highway system "isn’t being used to its full potential to benefit the small-business community."

"Elected officials and city staff in Round Rock have made it clear that they are unwilling to consider permitting EMC signs in the city for small-business use. However, they were willing to cut special deals with Kalahari Resorts for three on-site EMCs when it was developed and also spent $550,000 of taxpayer money for EMCs on city-owned property near the Dell Diamond last year," Holmes said in an email. "The city obviously knows EMCs are effective, but is refusing to allow its small-business community to use them for some reason."

In an email, city spokesperson Sara Bustilloz said there is a regulatory difference between on-premise signage like those at Kalahari—which are owned and operated by the business onsite—and the off-premise signage targeted by the petition and currently prohibited under city rules. A business's on-premise signage is only allowed to promote its operations, not other organizations, while off-premise billboards sell advertising to third parties.

She also noted that Dell Diamond's signage was funded through tourism via the hotel occupancy tax-supported Dell Diamond Capital Improvement Fund, not local property taxes.

Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan said council members had previously "overwhelmingly" signaled to MediaChoice they didn't intend to take on any signage regulation updates. Then in recent months, campaign messaging and petition drive canvassers appeared in the community to promote the effort.

The city has since released a formal response to the PAC and continues to post messaging about the process on social media. Bustilloz said Round Rock is actively sharing its own information to educate residents about the issue.

“What was concerning to us about this, and then when the petitions started being distributed during the November election cycle, was again the language being used we did not feel was as transparent as it could have been for residents. And so that’s where we felt the need to clarify what this means for our community," she said.

Morgan said he thinks the situation has ended up confusing residents, and adding EMCs will not end up benefiting the community.

"They’re using them as a vehicle to try to get advertising. The only winners that will be out of this thing will be MediaChoice," Morgan told Community Impact. "Their pockets will be lined with money for people that want to advertise. And look, it’s going to go to the highest bidder. And small businesses have smaller budgets for this kind of stuff."

Holmes said it was "disappointing" to hear city officials push back on the campaign.

"Private businesses do benefit the public. Advertising is an important part of the economic ecosystem of any city," he said. "Businesses advertise; attract new customers; generate income; grow their businesses; employ more people; remit more sales tax revenue to the city, county and state. Small business is the backbone of a city’s economic vitality."

If the change is approved, there'd be no requirement that the new EMCs promote only small Round Rock businesses.

Diving in deeper

Keep Round Rock Safe states its proposed EMC update could help generate an additional $225 million in local economic activity every year. That figure is based on a proprietary study by The Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic analysis firm.

President Ray Perryman confirmed that estimate and said he believes the new EMCs would boost local business activity; support hundreds of jobs; and generate hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars through added sales for the city, county, school districts and state.

"EMCs lead to notable economic and fiscal benefits by increased sales for the firms who utilize them in their promotional activity. They also increase overall business activity and, therefore, tax receipts," Perryman told Community Impact in an email. "In comparison with other areas and adjusting for relevant structural differences, Round Rock is not retaining the degree of activity in sectors that typically use EMCs as that observed in other areas with similar economic characteristics."

More information on Keep Round Rock Safe's support is limited as the PAC will not be required to release a financial report until early 2024. Bonner Fowles, whose LinkedIn profile lists his job as MediaChoice's government affairs analyst, was appointed as the PAC's treasurer mid-August.

The PAC has also received regional political support. Both the Travis County Republican Party and its chair Matt Mackowiak—a political consultant and co-founder of the Save Austin Now political group that successfully ran recent petition drives in Austin—have promoted Keep Round Rock Safe and its canvassing efforts. Mackowiak didn't respond to a request for comment as of press time.

What they're saying

Keep Round Rock Safe's website and mailers display many local businesses listed as supporters of the PAC's coalition. While most are located around Round Rock and Williamson County, Austin-based MediaChoice is also included.

One backer is Round Rock Leasing. Owner Nelson Nagle said he's strongly in favor of the proposal and believes the new EMCs will end up helping local businesses.

"I think it offers a unique opportunity for Round Rock to enhance communication along [I-35 and SH 45]," he said. "I also think that new and modern signage not only will enhance public service and our community messaging, it can be a game-changer for the local businesses—from small to medium businesses that would never have an opportunity for billboard signage to advertise their messaging to the millions of people that travel these thoroughfares on a monthly basis.”

Nagle added that displays, such as those now in place near Dell Diamond and Kalahari Resorts & Conventions, draw more attention from motorists, and there's "no doubt" he'd like to advertise on the potential new highway signs.

Liberty Barbecue Owner Joe Perez said he didn't recall formally joining the Keep Round Rock Safe coalition, but is supportive of its goals.

“I’m all for it. ... I know that they’re not going to allow [signage] close to downtown because it doesn’t fit in the motif, but along [I-]35 and along [SH] 45, I think that’s great because I don’t think there’s enough signage as it is," Perez said. "If you’re not from town, anything that’s going to help you funnel traffic towards the business ... is a good thing."

Most other businesses contacted by Community Impact about their support for the campaign did not return requests for comment as of press time. However, some said their names and imagery had been added to campaign materials without their knowledge or consent. City representatives also said Round Rock's logo was included in Keep Round Rock Safe materials without permission.

In December, the Round Rock Chamber's board of directors unanimously voted to oppose changes to the city charter allowing for new EMCs.

Put in perspective

If the EMC update is approved in an election, Holmes said companies could then apply for permits to privately build the new signage.

"One local advertising company and a member of the Keep Round Rock Safe coalition, Media Choice, has said they will prioritize urgent public safety messages, offer affordable plans for businesses of any size to advertise, and will offer discounts to local businesses and chamber of commerce members," he said.

With the campaign's focus on public safety, city representatives said they want to keep residents in the loop about Round Rock's current practices.

Bustilloz said the city already has notification systems in place that don't require a network of new billboards to operate and were used through recent events, including winter storms and tornadoes.

“Especially when it comes to the public safety messaging, it’s important for our community to know Round Rock already has a robust system in place for emergency alerts," she said. "Especially with Amber Alerts, the mechanism to reach out to folks already exists, and it’s not something that we view as absolutely necessary to where we would need to add electronic billboards for that purpose.”

Morgan said he believes Round Rock officials already keep up with their residents' demands and support for public safety, especially as the city's fiscal year 2023-24 budget includes a record of more than $80 million for police and fires services.

"To hold the City Council’s feet to the fire to continue to invest in our public safety is what’s going to make us the safest. Technology, more police officers—and we’ve added police officers. And that’s what’s going to make us safe," he said. "The billboards aren’t going to make us any safer. We’ve got to be committed to our public safety officials and give them all the tools they need to continue to do the good job they do."

What's next

More details about Keep Round Rock Safe's financial support will likely be disclosed in January campaign reports.

If the group ends up meeting the local petition threshold, then the city will review the submitted signatures. If enough are validated, a ballot proposition will eventually be finalized by City Council.

For now, city representatives said they intend to continue making information about the petition campaign available to Round Rock residents.

“I’m even more adamantly opposed to this now because of some of the techniques that have been used, and we will fight this. We will let our citizens know, and we will be very factual with our citizens on this," Morgan said.

Holmes said the group hopes to see the update through to encourage more stops in Round Rock by the millions of motorists passing through on I-35 and SH 45 every month.

"We aim to create an opportunity for local business to capitalize on this traffic for the benefit of the local economy. It is surprising and disappointing that Round Rock leadership can't see the same benefits," he said.