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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why David Wampler lost

The following isn't written as a political statement: it's neither pro-Wampler or pro-Pratt.  It's just an attempt to analyze what happened in Saturday's municipal election, where the incumbent Kerrville mayor, David Wampler, lost his bid for reelection by a mere 25 votes.
Honestly, the following isn't written to antagonize those who voted for Wampler -- or inflate those who voted for Pratt.  It's just an attempt by this old Kerrville observer to understand what happened.
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By most measures, David Wampler should have won the race for mayor of Kerrville.  He was the incumbent, which is a huge advantage.  People know his name, and he's been in office for two years, so people know what kind of mayor he is.  He's young, has an attractive family, financially successful, and he's smart.  He did many things right: he reduced the size of the city's budget and worked hard to be forward-thinking.  Despite having a sometimes contentious council to work with, he got things done.
In his public appearances Mayor Wampler was kind and considerate, sharing the spotlight with others.  You could tell he felt honored to serve his community.
Yet in one of the closest elections in recent memory, the voters of Kerrville chose another person for the job.
Why?
Here are some of the reasons in my opinion:
1. Voters continually say they want leaders "who get things done."  Wampler and the councils he lead were not shy about making big decisions.  Unfortunately you can lead too far ahead of the parade, and the band stops following you.
Under his watch the decision to build a new city hall was made, as well as the decision to build a river trail.  The library underwent renovations (though mostly funded by private donations), and the mayor presided over the grand reopening.
However there was a general feeling that the new city hall decision was made without citizen input, that the river trail would wash away in a flood, and the library faced a storm of criticism as it struggled to move to new technologies (less books, more digital items).
Take the construction of the new city hall.  There is little doubt the new city hall will benefit Kerrville.  It brings city government back to the center of town, where it belongs.
However, in a very fiscally conservative community, spending money during a recession on what will likely be a fancy building is an easy thing to question.
Little or nothing was done to 'sell' the idea of a new city hall.  Low interest rates, the fact that the city had set aside money for a new city hall, the fact that the land was a gift, a genuine argument why more space was needed for city hall -- these arguments were not made in public by the mayor.
Instead it seemed all along as if the decision to build a new city hall on that spot was a "done deal."  Again, seemed.  Perception is a big part of small town politics.
And there were strings attached to the gift of the land: it's my understanding the city will not own the land beneath the new city hall, and that it will revert back to the donor should the site cease to serve its municipal function.
The proposed river trail, an idea which has been around since I was a child, was another example of this lack of 'selling.'  It seemed the council made the decision despite genuine concerns about the project's viability in the event of a flood.  The Guadalupe can produce a harsh forces during flooding, and we will have another flood again, just no one knows when.
Despite the favorable financing obtained for the project, and despite the aesthetic appeal this project has, many questioned the use of public monies in this way.  And those questions were never adequately answered by the city government.
Then there was the library.  The city council had little to do with that project, though they were first in line to have their photos taken at the grand opening.  When the public complained about the decision to place fewer books on the shelves, they blamed the council.  At least some of that blame stuck to David Wampler.
Casting decisions down from "on high," without regard to those "below" seldom works in small town politics.
2. Then there were the City/County spats. Though Mr. Wampler's positions in negotiating with the Kerr County commissioners court are clear and consistent, and though he represented his constituency well (the citizens of the City of Kerrville), the negotiations seemed to be yet another case of the two governments not getting along.  Each of the two bodies has different goals and objectives, and always will.  But the episode left the perception the city, under Wampler, could not cooperate with the county.
3. On a personal level Mr. Wampler can seem arrogant or self-important.  I think deep down he's probably not.
I know something of this from my own experience being mayor; my shyness can be construed as aloofness, arrogance, or worse.  The truth is I'm more comfortable talking to 500 people than I am to one or two.  And I prefer to write about things rather than talk about them, because it gives me time to think.  Even then I usually think incorrectly.
At the candidate's forum sponsored by the Kerrville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kerrville Board of Realtors, David Wampler came across as someone showing the entire room how smart he was.  I remember him saying, "and I studied political science in college" to emphasize a point he was making.   More than a few of us found his demeanor off-putting.
Even in articles about his election loss, Mr. Wampler continues to say the voters were not judging his performance or the direction of the city's management.   A slight majority of Kerrville voters might disagree.
Always being right, never needing the input of others, demonstrating your obvious gifts -- well, those don't play well in small town politics, at least in my experience.
But let's give Wampler the benefit of the doubt.  I'm happy to agree he was probably misunderstood on these matters.  I know from my own experience how easy it is to be misunderstood.
4. Then there's "Herring's First Law of Small Town Politics," which states "the elite are by definition a minority."  Mr. Wampler enjoyed wide support from the crowd here who think they run the place, the big wigs and opinion leaders.  Even if everyone of those "important" people voted, they aren't the majority.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the "important" people are often too busy to vote, though they'll often write a check for a campaign. Because they're so busy they're seldom a reliable constituency. Without appealing to "regular folks" you cannot win an election in most small towns, though you can win an election by only appealing to them and ignoring the "elite."  "Regular folks" are the majority.  And they vote.
5. Lastly, Mr. Wampler faced a qualified, capable opponent.  Mr. Pratt's diverse management experience will prove useful in the coming months, and I think some voters saw his background as a definite plus. I anticipate some bumps in the road for Mr. Pratt, and I hope his experience helps him over them.
Had Wampler drawn a less-experienced opponent the results might have been different.
* * *
I'm thankful to David Wampler for his honorable service to our community.  I think he did a good job in an office that's difficult in which to do a good job. I think his heart was in the right place.  Frankly, I'm surprised he lost the election, at least on the first count.  The odds were definitely in his favor.
I wish Jack Pratt the best of luck in the coming two years.  In that job, it's easy to be misunderstood by more people than one knows.  Hopefully his term will be a blessing to our community, and to him and his family.
* * *
I'm sure some of you will have opinions which differ from mine.  There's a comment section below.  I'll publish any comment, whether I agree with it or not, provided it's not demeaning of either candidate or defamatory.   Plain mean comments will not be published.  But those which differ from my opinions above are welcome.
Feel free to share this post with anyone; feel free to email it on to others who might find it interesting.

12 comments:

  1. Joe, I really enjoyed your comments and they truly "hit the nail on the head". I hope others will stop and think about what you wrote because your words were insightful and honest. Sometimes folks "cannot see the forest for the trees" and in politics this is especially true. Also, perception is reality. Again, thank you for your comments and insight.

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  2. Spot on Joe and it is really sad that we can barely get anyone to turn out to vote.

    There have been battles over virtually every quality of life improvement that Kerrville has ever done. Around 1989 the city announced that the Methodist Encampment Park was going to be developed. Letters to the editor flooded in. It will destroy property values! We dont have the money! Fix the road in front of my house before you spend it on a park! Teenagers will drink, do drugs and play lound music there etc...
    It turned out to be just the opposite. People of all ages use it. Property values improved because of their proximity to the park and I have never experienced any misbehaving teenagers there. I believe we will look back some day and say the same thing about the River Trail.

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    1. I'm glad you like the park on Methodist Encampment; that fight occurred during my watch. :-)

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  3. Joe I place my bet on #4. Some feel that the City is owned and directed solely by the certain group of benefactors that none of us can spell or pronounce. Maybe this vote was a message that we the people want that to change.

    Thank you for the park on Methodist Encampment!

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  4. Very insightful article.

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  5. Joe you have indeed "grown"! Insightful and to the point! There must be something where I can disagree with you but not in this article. Well done!

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    Replies
    1. I've had your good influence and example all these years!

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  6. This should be one of those "it's not you, it's me" moments for City government. I believe what you have is continuing dissatisfaction with the City dating back to the UDC fight.

    In every contested City election for the past five years, a majority of voters have voted against the incumbent when given the chance in a contested race (Hamilton v. Keeble; Motheral v. Smith v. Nicholson; Gross v. Keeble v. Modisett; Motheral v. Conklin; Wampler v. Pratt). Yet, after every election, those at City Hall decide "the voters are wrong" and continue pursuing their agenda, which is not supported by the electorate. Look at the fierce opposition by city government there was to a public referendum on the river trail project. City Hall knows that, if given a chance, the Kerrville voters would have voted down that project.

    I believe a majority of those that vote (and if you didn't vote, don't complain) believe that City Hall is working for itself and not the public. Somehow, city staff seems to be trying to "win" in its interactions with the public and other governmental entities - and nobody else knows what the contest is. City government is top heavy; while executive staff salaries have dramatically increased over the past 5 years, services have been reduced and support staff cut.

    It's scary that only 2 commercial building permits were sought last year; economic growth has been despite and not because of City government. Why did the City decline the economic development packages proposed and recommended by KEDC for Culligan's and LeMeilleur's? Many builders / developers still will not build inside the city limits.

    This is a small-business, working class community - not a Norman Rockwell painting. I think the voters continue to tell City Hall they want a government that will focus on "brick and mortar" traditional government services (think infrastructure: wastewater, roads, etc) and not pretty things to look at that nobody will really use.

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  7. I believe anyone who is willing to lead a local government should be praised for his or her efforts. The results of those efforts will never please everyone, but the mere fact that the individual is willing to stand before the people and say, "I want to be your leader," says a great deal about that person.

    I say, "Be thankful for people who are willing to provide leadership to our communities." They all deserve a pat on the back.

    By the way, if JM (listed above) is John Mosty, let me say that I remember John and Annie and their very cute little children.

    I haven't seen John and Annie in forty or fifty years. I hope that they are both doing well.

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  8. Very good thoughts on the election we just witnessed. I believe David made a mistake in taking the job a mayor with an agenda that he was intent on carrying out. He wanted to negoiate all of the interlocal agreements during his watch and cram it down the county's throat. While he may have made a deal that furthered the interest of the city, he did damage to the relationship between the two parties that will last for years. He allowed the Cailloux foundation to force the city into building on the hospital site and not look at any other downtown options. We now have an additional 30K square feet of unleased space in our downtown with BOA moving. He moved forward on the river trail not because it made economic sense but because it was a project that had been on the back burner for many years and he wanted to move it off center and build it. Both of these decisions were made without selling the ideas to the citizens. The financing of the river trail was made possible by stacking EIC with his friends that would approve of the debt package. He and the Council used EIC as a slush fund for city projects that could not be funded from there budget. David accomplished some good things for the city but the citizens of Kerrville want to be included in the decisions made for spending their funds. Being included is not 3 minutes of speaking time at a council meeting. I hope Mr. Pratt learns from Mr. Wampler.

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  9. To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing - Aristotle
    I would like to thank those that serve Kerrville and give of their time. We may not always agree with them but at least they step forth and do something!

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    Replies
    1. I certainly agree. I hope I was clear in thanking David Wampler for his honorable service. I understand what he's been through, having held that office many years ago.

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