Harbin Drive’s Lessons in Democratic Government

Dr. Malcolm Cross

On Tuesday, 5/28 at 5:30, the Stephenville City Council will meet to reconsider its decision to change Harbin Drive’s name to University Drive.  One can expect that given the widespread opposition to the name change, as expressed in an online petition and on social media platforms, the Council will reverse its decision.  But no matter how the immediate issue is resolved, both council members and the general public should understand some lessons to be derived from the incident.

One lesson is the power of symbolism.  People take symbols seriously and find symbols in objects, actions, and names, some of which are more obvious and meaningful than others.  Flags are probably among the most obvious symbols; people burn flags or fight to protect flags from being burned or otherwise defiled, depending on their opinions of the nation or state which a particular flag represents.  To raise or lower a tax rate may symbolize the growth or shrinkage of government, or the degree to which decision makers are devoted to fiscal prudence or public opinion.  The Harbin Drive name symbolized the efforts of an able and dedicated public servant to better serve Erath County, and who died way too young.  To some, the University Drive name symbolizes Tarleton’s past, present, and future contributions to Stephenville’s growth and evolution; to others it symbolizes an unwelcome growth and encroachment on a community in which its influence is considered already outsized.

A second lesson is that an actively engaged citizenry, an aroused public opinion, can sometimes affect and effect changes in public policies.    To change public policy is frequently difficult, so many may feel resigned to accept whatever a government decides to do as not necessarily good, but inevitable and therefore not worth fighting over.  That attitude is understandable in this era of big and ever-growing government at all levels.  But resistance can sometimes pay off.  It’s highly unlikely that the city council would consider changing its mind were it not for the outcry over the original name change and how it came about.

A third lesson is the need both for more transparency in the decision-making process and for more citizen participation in the process as well. On Facebook, at least,  citizens are complaining that the 5/7 name change decision was made without sufficient notice and warning.  I personally can’t say whether the charge is fair or unfair.  The proposal should have first been introduced at a public hearing conducted by the relevant city council committee, where members of the public could not only observe but also participate in discussions.  From there the proposal could have gone to the full city council for decision, again with members of the public being able to help debate the matter.  From news reports it’s not clear that these procedures were followed. If they weren’t, they should have been, and the council deserves blame for not allowing sufficient public input before its 5/7 decision.  If they were, then critics of the city council should understand that to criticize the council under these circumstances is not fair, and that more public attention in the future is required.

A fourth lesson, which members of the city council should especially be concerned with, is that public opinion can sometimes be strong, and public memories can sometimes be long, especially if enough members of the public think their opinions are being ignored.  I remember that in a bond election held in 2000, 87% of the voters rejected a city council proposal to borrow money to finance the construction of a pipeline to add Lake Proctor water to Stephenville’s water supply.  But in 2004 the city council borrowed money anyway by means not requiring voter approval, and thereby built the pipeline.  Ten years later, the pipeline and how it was financed were still issues.  Several council members who had retired following their support of the 2004 decision and who were attempting to make a comeback were defeated in the 2014 city council elections after being accused of disrespecting public opinion concerning pipeline financing  (incidentally, even though I voted against the 2004 measure to finance the Proctor pipeline, I likewise lost my re-election bid since my support for a small tax increase and small spending cuts proved to be out of step with prevailing public opinion at the time).  At any rate, no matter how certain a city council member may be that his decisions, whatever they are, are correct, those decisions can always come back to haunt him if the public disapproves.  In fact, given that some critics of the name change are discussing on social media the desirability of recall elections, reckonings with public opinion may come sooner rather than later.

All in all, whatever one thinks of the Harbin Drive name change, the incident has been healthy for local government and politics.  The city council took an action which has attracted widespread condemnation from the public.  The decision’s opponents have exercised their constitutional right to oppose the decision.  The city council is showing responsibility and respect for the public by agreeing, as of this writing, to at least reconsider this decision (and, one hopes, reverse it).  No matter how the matter is resolved, one can hope that all concerned will learn lessons that will augment democratic and responsible governing practices in the future.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville since 1987 and taught politics and government at Tarleton for 36 years, retiring in 2023. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990-2024).  He was Mayor pro-tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He has served on the Board of Directors of the Stephenville
Economic Development Authority since 2018 and as chair of the Erath County Appraisal District’s Appraisal Review Board since 2015.  He is also a member of the Stephenville Rotary Club, the Board of Vestry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and the Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts’ Pecan Valley District.  Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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