Killeen is facing a decided lack of experience on its city council.
Unless a recount of the District 4 votes from the May 1 election overturns those results, three new members will take their seats on the council dais in the coming week.
It’s a significant shift, especially since voters put three other first-timers into office in the COVID-delayed November election — leaving the new council with just one member who has more than six months of experience in elected office.
Only Debbie Nash-King, who was reelected to a third consecutive term on May 1, can be considered a veteran at this point. Unofficially, two-term incumbent Steve Harris lost by two votes to Michael Boyd in his reelection bid, but late Thursday he filed a formal petition for a recount. If Boyd prevails, the council will have novices filling the District 1, 2 and 4 seats.
Three other council newcomers — Mellisa Brown, Ken Wilkerson and Rick Williams — were chosen in last November’s at-large council election.
The scenario that produced such a dramatic council turnover was partly the voters’ choice to go with new faces, but it was also a matter of timing.
Incumbent Shirley Fleming was term-limited by the city charter and ineligible to run again for her District 1 seat. In addition, District 3 incumbent Jim Kilpatrick passed away in December, and the council filled his seat with former Councilman Terry Clark, who did not run again in May.
With the exception of Nash-King, Harris and former Councilman Brockley Moore, who finished third in the District 4 race, no other candidates with council experience were on the May 1 ballot — out of a total of 13 candidates.
The implications of having so many inexperienced and relatively inexperienced lawmakers serving at the same time are significant.
For one thing, it may take some time for the newest members to become familiar with council protocols and procedures, as well as how to interact with their colleagues.
Candidates also may need several months to immerse themselves in the issues that will require council action.
In addition, new council members will have to get comfortable with City Manager Kent Cagle’s management style and to develop a constructive working relationship with him.
However, the biggest adjustment for new members likely will be finding time to tackle the work required by the position.
That means doing their homework on complicated issues, and understanding the context of some of the challenges facing the city.
It also means spending time reading the detailed staff reports that accompany the meeting agenda packet provided each week — not just skimming over the agenda outline and calling it good.
Being prepared — really prepared — for council meetings will go a long way to providing for in-depth, fact-based discussion of the issues.
It will also help the meetings stay on track. When the mayor and city manager don’t have to stop and answer questions that are addressed in the staff reports, that’s a plus for everyone involved.
Being a council member is more than an elected position. It’s a job.
Doing the job well — including collaborating with others, researching issues, learning through experience and listening to the city’s residents — is what the voters should demand and expect.
Granted, this job comes with a steep learning curve, and a single day of Texas Municipal League training in Austin won’t suddenly make new members proficient in their posts. But taking their responsibilities seriously will go a long way toward getting them up to speed.
Killeen is dealing with some consequential issues, and the council will be expected to tackle them sooner, rather than later.
Included in this list is the disposition of the final agreement for the 368-unit, upscale apartment complex that is to be built on the city’s north side. The city is also trying to secure a grocery store for the northeast part of town, and the council may be called on to approve an incentive package to bring that to fruition.
The issue of wastewater impact fees is also hanging in the balance, having been given preliminary approval but a long way from becoming codified in city policy.
Of course, the major city challenge at present is the need for road repairs — a problem that dramatically grew in scope and size after February’s snow and ice storm. The current council has given preliminary approval to $5.8 million in short-term repairs, but a larger, long-term plan must be worked out moving forward.
Most importantly, the new council members are taking office as the city is beginning work on the annual budget, which will take effect in October. Council members will be asked to make hard choices on spending in the coming months, and they should be prepared to offer informed input as the new budget document takes shape.
In addition, the city continues to receive millions of dollars in federal money in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Council members should insist that they be given a role in determining where and how this money is allocated — which hasn’t always been the case of late.
Also, council members should work with the city manager to come up with hiring protocols regarding department heads and other senior administrative staff.
The council’s recent flare-up over Cagle’s promotion of the public works director to assistant city manager was largely a matter of communication.
Cagle was authorized to make the appointment, subject to the council’s final approval, but the fact that the interview and selection process was done without council input became a major sticking point. The previous city manager, Ron Olson, provided the council with the names and biographies of five finalists, whereas Cagle did not.
In the future, if the council — which can hire and fire the city manager — wants to be kept in the loop on the process for such appointments, members must be prepared to provide more direction.
Certainly, being accessible and responsive to the public is key, and most council members excel in this area. However, it’s important that lawmakers stick to their core principles, no matter which way the political winds are blowing on a given issue.
Finally, council members — both new and experienced — should make transparency and accountability the watchwords of their terms in office. Being open, honest and accountable with their constituents, and with the media, will help to earn the community’s trust — and go a long way to building respect for city government.
No doubt, our new council members have a lot to learn. But they also have a lot to offer.
Let’s show them the respect they deserve, offer our support and share our input.
When our elected representatives succeed, our city succeeds – and we’re all better for it.