By Daniel C. Houston
Two candidates running to represent District 4 in the Waco City Council elections discussed economic development and education Monday in a forum hosted at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce building.
The forum, which was moderated by Karla Leeper, President Ken Starr’s chief of staff, gave audience members the opportunity to ask questions of Toni Herbert, the sitting council member running for re-election, and Jonya Williams, her challenger for the position.
In one of the more heated exchanges of the evening, Herbert fielded a question from Evelyn Cowart, a Waco resident whose city council district does not include the downtown area. Cowart asked whether the two candidates planned to focus more resources on economic development away from downtown.
“There’s a motto that I’ve had for a long time now,” Herbert said. “I’ve been trying to sell other people on it and it hasn’t really caught on, and that is ‘downtown is everybody’s neighborhood.’”
“No, it’s not,” Cowart interjected.
“Well, it is in the sense that it is the heart of our city,” Herbert continued. “We would be representing District 4 so my interests and the District 4 interests I think are coincidental. But I’ve got residential neighborhoods around the downtown area here and what we need to do is start focusing on some neighborhood-scale economic development that is outside the very central part of downtown.
Williams stressed her family’s connection with public safety and health organizations, saying she would work to improve the safety of residents in her district.
“I am a former paramedic and my husband right now is a firefighter,” Williams said, “so public safety is something that I do know a lot about and I will work with our public safety officials to listen with them, see what they need as a person on the city council.”
Williams, when asked about her 10-year vision for the city, also said she would focus on economic development both downtown and in surrounding residential areas.
“I would really like to see this river [the Brazos] just happening,” Williams said. “Also I would like to see, 10 years from now, the poverty rate going down. It has to, and that will help us bring in more businesses. But I think that revitalizing this downtown and getting that riverwalk going, that would be great.”
After the forum came to a close, Cowart said she “quite honestly expected more” from Herbert, while Williams lacked the background for Cowart to expect a well-informed answer from her.
“Everything I hear is about downtown, downtown, downtown,” Cowart said. “They never talk about Valley Mills Drive. They never talk about out on 18th Street. They don’t talk about anything but downtown and there’s a lot of people that won’t come downtown because all the activity down here is beyond them; they can’t afford this stuff, or else it’s not their nature to go to the clubs and things like that.”
Herbert highlighted voter turnout in her district as a major concern heading into this year’s election.
“Our voter turnout is sad to the point of being pathetic,” Herbert said. “Last time it was, I believe, 4 percent of registered voters, not 4 percent of the people in District 4. If you’re campaigning in that district, you can almost have everybody who voted over to your house for dinner. I mean, it’s just — it’s sad.”
The forum was also open to three candidates for the Waco Independent School District’s board of trustees: Cary DuPuy, Tony Abad and Clint Brown. The school board candidates discussed, among other items, better publicizing the district’s accomplishments and working with limited funding from the state of Texas to best serve students and parents.
The election for all positions is scheduled for May 14, with an early-voting period beginning May 2 and ending May 10.