Killeen residents came up big winners last week.
Because of decisive, timely action by Killeen City Council members, they saw their voting rights preserved, money for a longtime city tradition restored and funding for sewer line maintenance established.
First, the council voted unanimously to restore funding for traffic control for the annual Martin Luther King Day march. Because of a change in city policy, the march was left off the city budget, requiring organizers to move it to Lions Club Park — after two decades of conducting the event downtown.
Leaders of the NAACP branch discovered they would be charged when they went to City Hall to apply for a parade permit. The loss of city funding did not sit well with many residents, who voiced their displeasure to council members, through newspaper interviews and in social media posts.
Their voices were heard at Tuesday’s council meeting. After a presentation by the NAACP branch president, the five council members who were present for the vote were in agreement that the march should be added to the city’s list of funded events.
Soon after the vote on funding the MLK march, the council stood up for residents again, endorsing a proposal by the regional water district to expand its boundaries to include all the water customers the district serves, but rejecting the district’s plan to move from an elected board of directors to a system of appointments.
The water board last month decided to pursue this proposal — which would have required approval by the state Legislature — and had subsequently gone around to the city councils in the district’s service area soliciting support for the plan, which would have given each entity a seat on an expanded appointed board.
The board’s proposal came seven months after the district had its first election in 24 years — in which voters elected a newcomer who campaigned on transparency and accountability, while turning out an incumbent.
Before the Killeen council’s vote Tuesday, the district — Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 — had secured resolutions of support from city councils in Copperas Cove, Harker Heights, Nolanville and Belton, as well as the Fort Hood garrison commander.
Killeen’s council said yes to expanding the district’s boundaries — a necessary step since the current boundaries coincide with Killeen’s city limits from 1985. The district has since grown to encompass an area stretching from Copperas Cove to Belton.
But the council said no to abandoning elections in favor of an appointed board, preserving residents’ rights to vote for board members who treat their drinking water, set their water rates and have the ability to levy taxes.
Again, it was the outcry from residents that spurred the council to action, including more than 700 people who took part in a social media poll conducted by Councilman Steve Harris — 95 percent of whom said they wanted to preserve the election of board members.
The Killeen council’s rejection of an appointment system turned the tide in the water district’s plan to take its proposal to the Legislature. The morning after the Killeen council’s vote, the water board voted unanimously to keep elections for board members.
Afterward, Mitch Jacobs, a WCID-1 board member, said, “We didn’t take into account the outcry we would have about the right to vote and how important that is.”
Outspoken residents were rewarded again Tuesday as the council voted to change the city’s current practice that gives property owners responsibility for repairs to sewer lines running from the main line to the structure. Residents had complained in recent months that some of these repairs can be expensive — in some cases reaching $25,000.
The solution the council agreed on Tuesday would give the city ownership of the lateral line within the public right of way, but partner with a warranty company to help defray expenses, at a monthly cost of just 50 cents per customer.
It was a solid step that simultaneously takes the burden off of water customers while helping Killeen avoid huge outlays of funds to cover the repairs citywide.
The message that came out of Tuesday’s meeting was clear: When residents get involved in an issue and speak up, they can make a difference.
But just as importantly, when City Council members listen to their constituents, put aside their differences and work together, they better serve the interests of the city and its residents.
None of this is to say that the city government doesn’t have some work to do.
For example, Tuesday’s meeting started at 4 p.m., an hour earlier than normal. As a result, many residents were unable to attend — and considering the first item was the discussion of the MLK march, those who were impacted were not able to hear the discussion or witness the vote.
Further, the early start resulted in the absence of two council members, who also missed the vote on the march funding.
The decision to move the meeting up was made by the city manager without consulting the council — ostensibly to accommodate a long meeting agenda. Yet, though one presentation was tabled, the meeting still ended by 7 p.m., well before the usual time for adjournment.
In the future, meeting times should be set with an eye toward public participation, not just anticipated workload. And those times should be standardized.
Just as importantly, it must be acknowledged that the City Council was ultimately responsible for the MLK march funding issue. While city staff originally proposed the list of funded events last year, a council subcommittee reviewed that list and the full council approved it — with Harris in opposition.
Many just assumed the march was still covered, even though it wasn’t on the list.
That’s just bad oversight — and it shouldn’t be excused in the future.
Also, the policy on funding events should be reviewed to ensure that the criteria are clearly defined — and that the city isn’t arbitrarily picking winners and losers.
All that said, the council is to be commended for standing up last week and doing what is right.
And residents are to be applauded for their willingness to get involved and be heard.
They must continue to speak up, and our local elected leaders must continue to listen and act responsibly and accordingly.
That’s a winning combination for everyone involved.