Monday’s Page One story about newly sworn District 4 Waco City Council member and businessman Dillon Meek’s diligent efforts to get up to speed on city challenges should hearten all constituents, regardless of whether they voted for him in the lively May 9 city election or longtime community leader Ashley Bean Thornton. Typical of her civic spirit, Thornton has magnanimously praised her former opponent’s energy and commitment.
But Wacoans should pause amid this political shift to bid thanks to longtime Waco City Councilwoman Toni Herbert, 66, who represented North Waco on the council for a dozen years total. While she made enemies for what some saw as a liberal streak — in other words, championing affordable housing and quality-of-life issues in poor neighborhoods — Herbert set a dynamic example for other city leaders to emulate, whatever their political stripe.
Herbert was all about greater transparency, popular sovereignty (the kind that rests with real people, not state government) and a far better-educated public — the latter more and more difficult to come by these days. City Hall officials over the years squirmed at her politely put but probing questions — always aired in public, she told us, so the public watching on the city’s TV channel or in the audience could better grasp complicated issues.
“We never questioned your dedication,” Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said when Herbert stepped down from the council last month. “Sometimes we questioned your methods, but we never questioned your dedication or your commitment. You’ve been so helpful in so many ways to many people who never would have had a voice. If you’ve done anything, you’ve brought the voice of the people of District 4 to the forefront.”
A City Hall employee from 1985 through 1994 who helped lay down the framework for creation of neighborhood associations throughout Waco, Herbert was first elected to the council in 1997, serving till 2003. She returned in 2009. When the Trib editorial board asked about her legacy in 2013 when she ran her final campaign (against a candidate who never actually materialized), she cited the formation of neighborhood associations to boldly empower communities.
“I think we had some opportunities to pull them into planning and allocation processes that we didn’t do,” she lamented. “But the potential is there. Like in any other city, people often wake up only when something happens that they don’t like. But we put into place a structural process for that to happen, and I think we changed people’s perceptions about their own power — maybe not enough, but some.”
More recently, Herbert voiced pride in efforts to reconfigure and expand North Waco’s Dewey Community Center at 925 N. Ninth St. The project, which should neatly complement new housing projects nearby, is one she has advocated since the 1990s.
While Meek wasn’t Herbert’s choice for successor, his effort to meet with city, school, nonprofit and church leaders suggests he realizes the importance of making contact with constituents of strikingly different backgrounds. Good for him. District 4 is in many ways more diverse than others and always changing in terms of demographics, which challenges the entire council. As Herbert remarked, “It’s sort of the lab of the city.”
Herbert made it clear, too, that her success as a leader always rested with her understanding of constituents: “They’ve been my family for 30 years. We (she and husband John) moved here at the end of 1984, we bought a house at the corner of 23rd and Bosque, and we’ve stayed there for 30 years. Those folks in the district — we went through the neighborhood development phase, we went through all kinds of things with the city, and a lot of them are still there.”