Weathering Storms

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Three new Stephenville city council members were elected on May 4, and an incumbent was re-elected as well.  They’ll all be sworn in on Tuesday, May 14.

As I noted in last week’s column, our most recent election was quite peaceful.  Only one of the four seats up for grabs was contested, and that one only barely, as one of the candidates did no campaigning.  Voter turnout was only about 5%.

Despite the current tranquility of Stephenville politics, one must wonder—is this the calm before the storm?  And if so, how can the new members, as well as their more experienced colleagues, best weather the conditions they may have to cope with?

Of course, there may be no storm.  The summer’s meetings, work sessions, and deliberation over taxes, spending, and budgeting may go smoothly.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.  But whatever the case, I’d like to offer some free advice to city council members.  This won’t guarantee longevity in office—in fact, the new charter provisions on term limits, added last fall, end the possibility of accumulating continuous years of service and guarantee new faces and fresh blood in practically every city council election hereon in.  But I think following this advice will increase the productivity of the city council and the satisfaction one will get from serving on it.  

First, do your homework.  Most of the information on which you’ll base your decisions will come from the city bureaucracy.  It will normally be reliable, since Stephenville city employees are honest, competent, and trustworthy.  Nevertheless, you should read, study, and analyze the information which you’ll be given on which to base your decisions.  You should use your general knowledge and common sense to help you do so.  To do otherwise is to abdicate your responsibilities to the voters who elected you and the citizens you serve.

Second, always listen to what citizens have to say, whether at chance encounters on the street or in grocery stores, or when you’re telephoned at home at night, or whether citizens are coming to meetings and work sessions where they can comment.  Everyone has a perfect right to voice his or her opinion, and if you listen closely enough and long enough, you’ll no doubt here facts and opinions which you didn’t think of yourself, but which nonetheless have a great deal of merit.  Take everything you’re told seriously.  Otherwise, you might miss something important.

Third, but don’t assume that what others tell you is public opinion.  About 95% of the public chose not to vote in the most recent election.  An even greater percentage will never come to a city council meeting or say anything to you under any circumstances.  There’s no reliable way to know what the public is thinking—even elections, which are legally binding and whose results must be complied with, are poor indicators since most of the public doesn’t vote. Those who do talk with you are typically rational, knowledgeable, and well-meaning, but they will not be representative of the public.  Evaluate what they have to say on the merits, and take action accordingly, weighing their comments against your own knowledge, common sense, and belief in what’s best for the city.  

Fourth, despite the imperfection of elections as expressions of public opinion, respect their outcome anyway, since to do otherwise may be considered disrespectful of the citizens who are active in public affairs.  For example, I initially supported the proposed Proctor Pipeline, since the best data available in 2000 indicated that as Stephenville grew, it should acquire more diverse sources of water in addition to the groundwater produced by our network of pumps and wells.  But when 87% of the voting public rejected a bond issue to raise money for the pipeline, I told the council I could no longer support it unless and until the voting public changed its mind.  I therefore voted against the 2004 decision to finance and build the pipeline anyway, not because I had concluded that we didn’t need Lake Proctor water, but because to acquire it over the objection of the voters showed disrespect for their decision and would increase public distrust of the government.

Fourth, always take responsibility for what you must do and how you must do it; don’t shove off your responsibilities onto others.  For example, many upset home and business property owners are seeing their property values go up, and think this means the County Appraisal District is raising their taxes.  But the CAD has no such authority.  Only the democratically elected local governing boards—the city council, the county commissioners court, the ISD board of trustees, the governing board of the water conservation district—have the authority to raise and lower tax rates.  All elected governing board members should, in the name of basic honesty, acknowledge that they—and not the CAD—set the tax rates, and that they can cut tax rates if values become too high, and thereby relieve the property owners of the increased tax burden they must otherwise bear (of course, cutting tax rates also cuts revenue, which leads to service cuts; whether that’s good or bad is in the eye of the beholder).

Fifth, and finally, always be civil.  An almost universally held principle among American legislative bodies is that basic civility is necessary, if not sufficient, to promote the efficient and effective discharge of legislative duties, and the declining effectiveness of our Congress is due in part to the growing animosity between Democrats and Republicans therein.  Nothing wrecks a city council meeting more quickly, or diminishes its overall effectiveness, than the conduct of the council member who takes decisions too personally, who assumes those who disagrees with him to be his enemies, and who puts his need to protect himself against the enemies of his imagination over the need of the city council to get things done.  Be civil, and don’t tolerate those who aren’t.

My two cents’ worth.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

2 Comments

  1. If every student had had a teacher like Malcolm Cross for civics and/or history our country would be so much better off. Read his column on “Weathering the Storm” and see if you do not agree.

    • Thank you so much for your most generous remark. I trust all is well with you, and remember your success when you taught at Tarleton.

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