Copperas Cove city council candidates connect with voters once more at VFW forum
By BRITTANY FHOLER
Three of the four candidates for Copperas Cove City Council Place 6 participated in the City Council Candidate Forum hosted by the VFW Post #8577 Friday evening.
Incumbent Marc Payne was joined by candidates Vonya Hart and Terri Deans in answering several questions. The fourth candidate, Gary Kent, was absent.
Each candidate had a brief period to introduce themselves and why they are running for city council. Payne said that when he first ran more than three years ago, he didn’t have it in mind to run originally.
“I was just trying to run my businesses and be a citizen like everybody else, and the town had gotten so at each other’s throats,” Payne said.
Payne mentioned a joint effort for the different entities to have the same five hills logo that resulted in the school district, the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation and the County dropping out of the effort.
“I made it a personal goal to try to fix what we’ve spent so many years trying to achieve was to get everybody on the same page, and the first year, year and a half, we did a real good job of getting everybody back together again,” Payne said.
Vonya Hart shared how she became a single mother to her three children after her husband Retired Sgt. 1st Class James Hart passed away from cardiovascular disease.
“During that healing and growth process for me, the community was very, very integral in that process of me healing,” Hart said. “It was the neighbors. It was the friends. It was the person next door. It was actually even [the VFW] that offers really great karaoke. All of that is part of healing. Those relationships are important. The communication is important. When you have that support, it’s very important for you to be able to empower yourself and live the life that you’re meant to. Once my two kids graduated, I was left with the decision of what do I do now, and I felt this was time for me to give back to the community.”
Deans also moved to Copperas Cove with her husband and three children in 2003. She said that when she and her family crossed into Copperas Cove, she felt like they had arrived home.
“My vision for our community is that we have a city with a very big heart,” Deans said. “We want the world to know how big of a heart we have, but we need to grow with each other before we can grow for other people. I want to be the voice for those who cannot speak and the ears for those who cannot hear and the courage for those who cannot stand up and voice and hear what needs to be said and what needs to be heard.”
City response to COVID-19
The first question posed to the candidates asked about their thoughts on the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether the candidates would have voted differently had they been on the council.
Gov. Greg Abbott first declared a state of disaster on March 13, 2020 for all counties due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in cases across the state. The city of Copperas Cove issued a proclamation declaring a local state of disaster and public health emergency on March 20, 2020.
The council voted to extend the declaration in April and again in May, however the mayor had to act as tiebreaker during the special meeting on May 15, 2020 as the council, which was missing Councilmember Dan Yancey, voted 3-3. Mayor Bradi Diaz voted in favor of extending the declaration.
Hart said that when something like COVID-19 hits one’s city and nation, it is about coming together.
“You try to do the best that you can with something that just suddenly hits your city, and you’re trying to figure out the answers of how are we going to be able to be prepared for this, what should we do, how are we going to be able to do this,” Hart said.
Hart compared it to sitting at home watching football and seeing calls that should have been made.
“It’s so, so easy for us to look and say it should have been played this way or that way,” Hart said. “We aren’t on the field having to make those decisions, so for us to even have a thought that maybe we should have handled it this way, sure you’re entitled to all of that, but can you show some grace for how it was handled?”
Hart said that she supported any decision made during that time at the height of the pandemic.
Deans was also in support.
“Before this pandemic hit, I don’t think anybody had any idea how devastating it would be. There were no cities that were more prepared than others. There was no state or governor that had all the answers,” Deans said. “We didn’t know diddly-squat because the information coming to us was not as forthcoming as it probably should have been. I’ve always felt like I want to err to the side of caution. If I don’t know all the facts, until we do know, let’s mask up. Let’s see where that takes us, let’s see how that works out, and if we get the information later that states it’s not beneficial, then let each person make up their mind whether he or she wants to wear a mask.”
Deans said people need to “stop squabbling, stop the backstabbing, and quit judging each other for the decisions that we made to take care of ourselves and our family.”
“I wasn’t part of the city council when they made a decision,” Deans added. “I think they did the best that they could with what they had at the time. There were no right answers; there were no wrong answers. There was either let’s work together or let’s fight it out. I think we all chose to work together.”
Payne voted in favor of extending the disaster declaration, with Councilmembers Fred Chavez and Joann Courtland, during the meeting that required Mayor Bradi Diaz to break the tie.
“It’s not easy, but it’s always easier to talk about something after it’s happened, but that was not an easy time,” Payne said. “Our council has been very careful about how they consider our votes, and we do get along very well, but that was a time where we were very split, and it was difficult and personal split for each of us.
Payne said that he leaned towards the recommendations of the medical professionals regarding COVID-19 precautions.
He added that he would vote the same way again.
“I think if we attack these things early on, we have a much shorter, painful time,” Payne said. “If we wait, things will be more difficult.”
Utility billing issues and errors
The next question asked candidates their opinion on the water and utility billing issues and errors people have been reporting.
Deans mentioned the times she would come to every council meeting and speak against Fathom and how she wished the city would get rid of Fathom- a wish that ended up abruptly coming true.
“Under the circumstances, the city did the best they could at that time,” Deans said. “This decision for them to take back the utilities did not come overnight. It was thrown at us overnight, literally.”
For those with higher bills, Deans encouraged people to remember when they water their lawn or filled a pool or spa.
“We have to pay for that water. It’s not free,” Deans said. “The charges that came to Copperas Cove were also given to Killeen and everyone else who is serviced by the same water system. They raise the rates, and we have to pay for them.”
Deans encouraged residents with higher than normal bills to check that their water meter is running properly and to check for a leak. She explained how she didn’t think her house had a plumbing leak, but they did, and it ended up having a slow drip out of the water heater.
Payne said that Deans speaking up at council meetings made the council identify and address the actual problems with Fathom.
City streets and sidewalks
The candidates were asked about the city’s streets and sidewalks projects. Regarding the roads and sidewalk projects, including the Pecan Cove Reconstruction which was anticipated to begin construction during Summer 2020, Payne said this project needed to address the drainage problem beforehand.
Regarding sidewalks, Payne said many neighborhoods that had been on the outskirts of town were built without sidewalks.
“We have started to address this,” Payne said. “We’ve started putting sidewalks in the major street areas like 116 South, 190 and several others. I know there’s interior ones like Hill Street that don’t have sidewalks yet, but all of that is in the works.”
Hart mentioned the 1/8-cent sales tax allocation that will be on the ballot for approval this election and encouraged people to vote in favor of the allocation if they want the street maintenance projects to continue.
Hart said people should contact the city to see about a proposal like the street maintenance but for sidewalks instead.
Hart said she felt the issues like streets and sidewalks were being addressed and progressing, albeit slowly.
“It’s going slowly, but I want it to go slowly because when you go slow, it’s patient,” Hart said. “It takes time, and you want to make sure you get the right people doing the job, that you’ve looked at everything because that’s what we do when we order a service for our home.”
Deans said she would surround herself with people who would know the answers to any questions. .
“I’m very happy to see that these roads are getting the attention that they need, and they need to continue on that path,” Deans said.
For sidewalks, Deans said she noticed some subdivisions, like the one she lives in, have sidewalks on only one side, if at all.
“How would I feel as a homeowner if the city came in and said, ‘We are going to take three feet of your front property line and we’re putting in a sidewalk’?” Deans asked.
Deans said she felt having some sidewalks is better than none. Neighborhoods with children where there are no sidewalks should have priority, with input from the homeowners, she added.
Regarding transparency with citizens and residents, Payne said he is always open to citizens contacting him to discuss any concerns they have and regarding decisions by council and gave out his cell phone number 254-681-0205.
He added that there are some pieces of information not released to citizens because it would violate state law to do so or because the city attorney has advised against it so as not to interfere with any pending negotiations the city is involved in.
Hart said she would encourage people to evaluate their person definitions of transparency. The city’s website has a wealth of information available to citizens from the meeting agendas, minutes and videos from recent back to 2011 and more, Hart said.
“I think what we need to do is come out of the mind frame and the thoughts of the past and get where we are today, and that maybe there wasn’t transparency stuff happening before,” Hart said. “Well, there is evidence that is happening right now, and we need to trust the process.”
Deans said she discussed transparency with City Manager Ryan Haverlah about a year ago.
Deans said there is a difference between people feeling confused by what’s going on and under-the-table dealings actually going on.
“I would implore you to please come forward if you feel something isn’t fair, something isn’t right, you don’t understand it, you can’t see all the aspects of it, maybe we don’t know either,” Deans said. “But I don’t believe for one minute that anybody on the city council or on the city leadership is hiding anything from anybody.”
Early voting begins today and runs through October 30, 2020. The locations are the Copperas Cove Civic Center, 1206 W. Avenue B, Copperas Cove, and the Gatesville Civic Center, 301 Veteran’s Memorial Drive, Gatesville.