The city of Waco’s consideration of an eastern McLennan County site for a new landfill has added fuel to the hotly-contested Precinct 2 race for county commissioner and raised new questions about representation for the mostly unincorporated area.
Democratic Commissioner Lester Gibson, a 28-year veteran of the court, former Waco city council member and recognized civil rights advocate, opposes the landfill plans, according to his administrative assistant Pat Chisolm-Miller.
Chisolm-Miller, who has worked for Gibson for 22 years, is running for the seat in the November election, in light of Gibson’s retirement.
Her opponent in the November election is Republican D.L. Wilson, a former Texas Department of Public Safety sergeant, Texas Department of Transportation worker and private surveyor.
Both oppose the landfill and say the issue is above partisan politics. They also value being seen as advocates for people who do not vote for the city council representatives who will be making the final decisions.
County officials have said there is nothing commissioners can do to stop the plan if the city decides to move forward, but that has not stopped the Precinct 2 candidates from speaking out.
Signals from March
The March primary election showed an unexpected shift in turnout among Precinct 2 voters, who live in portions of downtown and East Waco, Bellmead and the eastern parts of the county encompassing Riesel, Mart, Hallsburg and Axtell.
For the first time in at least a generation, more Precinct 2 voters cast Republican primary ballots than Democratic primary ballots, 1,734 to 1,433. Chisolm-Miller and Wilson won their primaries by fairly comfortable margins, grabbing 79 percent and 64 percent of the vote, respectively.
An analysis of that election shows strong support for Wilson in Axtell, Mart and the unincorporated areas. Chisolm-Miller took voters in East Waco and Bellmead.
While the county uses vote centers, which allows residents to cast their ballot at any location, each resident is assigned to a voting precinct within the county. The voting precincts vary in size based on population density.
In voting precincts 69 and 70, which include Axtell and Elk, 480 of 2,008 voters cast Republican ballots, and 32 cast Democratic ballots.
And in precincts 10, 12 and 14, which include part of North Waco and the Waco area east of the Brazos River, 703 of 6,937 voters cast Democratic ballots, and 41 cast Republican ballots.
Chisolm-Miller’s base voters live in the most populated areas of the precinct.
Voters in downtown Waco and the slivers of Precinct 2 closest to Lake Waco — where turnout was extremely low but about evenly split between both primaries — could swing the election for the candidates reliant on their bases.
Gibson’s lack of regular attendance at commissioners’ bimonthly meetings clouded the Democratic primary this year. He attended an April meeting after 22 consecutive absences and has sporadically attended since then.
Gibson said in April that health problems have hindered his attendance. City leaders in Mart have said his absence has slowed progress on road and water projects, prompting other commissioners to step in. He did not return a voicemail from the Tribune-Herald for this story.
Chisolm-Miller said Gibson has been fulfilling his role, as did county Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Duty.
“When we go to church, we sit there for an hour and that’s where we get all charged up to get out and do good in the world and be a good person,” Duty said. “The work of the commissioner is not so much that hour they sit in that seat, but what they do behind the scenes, the phone calls, the agreements that are made. I contend probably things have been going along, as far as I can tell.”
On a Friday afternoon late last month, the city of Waco announced it was considering placing a landfill near the intersection of State Highway 31 and TK Parkway.
Axtell-area residents immediately mobilized against the plan. Two days later, more than 400 people met at the Axtell High School gym and voiced their many concerns: the possibilities of environmental damage, decreased property values, wildlife endangerment, a treacherous intersection and cemetery disruption. They also accused Waco leaders of making their plans in secret.
The complaints seemed to echo those of Wacoans living near an originally-proposed site at Old Lorena Road. Waco council members late last year opted to explore alternative sites amid organized backlash from nearby residents. A lawsuit in state district court also claims the city is trying to violate a 1992 settlement prohibiting expansion of the current landfill.
At the Sunday night meeting in Axtell, Wilson took a leading role in the movement against the plan. While voicing his own concerns, he asked the crowd if their county commissioner was in attendance, and nervous laughter overtook the gym.
“Our future one is,” one attendee yelled, prompting applause.
This week, Wilson said residents of rural, eastern McLennan County are unhappy with their leadership at the county level.
“As far as the landfill issue, we have to have a voice for Axtell,” Wilson said. “It’s not incorporated. Not taking anything away from the current commissioner, but he seems like he’s out of the picture.”
Wilson accepted a role on a committee of people dedicated to fighting the city of Waco’s plan. He vowed to step away from the committee Jan. 1, the date the next commissioner will start his or her term.
Two days later, the Waco City Council unanimously approved the purchase of the 502-acre tract. Before the vote, more than 60 people urged them to oppose, or at least postpone, the purchase. More than 200 people wearing red, representing Axtell High School, filled the Waco Convention Center’s Bosque Theater, and hundreds more watched in an overflow room.
Wilson spoke out against the landfill that night, and Chisolm-Miller read a statement on Gibson’s behalf.
“I think the issue is too important and too serious to be minimized in a political race,” Chisolm-Miller said this week. “I’m elated Commissioner Gibson has taken that position. I agree on that position, and as the county commissioner, we’re going to fight for the citizens in Axtell against the landfill in eastern McLennan County.”
She said politicizing the issue would hinder the opposition, which is expected to last several years amid environmental studies and permitting processes. Some Axtell residents believe Waco leaders chose the area because there is no city government to oppose the move more formally.
“(Waco leaders) are putting this issue on a community that cannot answer back through the democratic process,” Chisolm-Miller said. “That stands out, and that’s pretty egregious.”
Even so, the only action a county commissioner could take against a landfill is largely symbolic.
McLennan County has no regulatory authority over the landfill decision, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said. Merely adding support to a protest of the city’s permit to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would be the most effective course of action.
Chisolm-Miller said Gibson will introduce a resolution opposing the landfill at the court’s next regularly-scheduled meeting on Aug. 21.
The Limestone County Commissioners Court will take action on a resolution against the landfill at its meeting Tuesday. Much of the proposed site is in Limestone County.
Bellmead Mayor William B. Ridings also opposes the idea. Loose trash and road damage on Bellmead Drive and Highway 31 worry him and his constituents, Ridings said. He declined to say who he supports in the Precinct 2 race.
With the November election less than three months away and varying talk of a “blue wave” or of GOP victories against Democratic energy, the campaign feels like a localized race as the landfill discussions and pivotal county decisions are made as Waco grows.
“My whole goal in this campaign is to unite Precinct 2, not divide it like we all feel it’s been divided for the last 28 years by special groups,” Wilson said. “… We need a county commissioner that’s going to be there for the whole of McLennan County Precinct 2.”
McLennan County Republican Party Chairman Jon Ker expects a higher turnout in November than in the primary and said Wilson is vying for votes inside and outside of Waco.
“(Wilson) has very good name recognition, very popular,” Ker said. “He’s been out working very hard, and I think there’s a very good chance he will win. I do think it’s going to be a hard race. Precinct 2 has been held by Lester for many, many years, and that carries some weight.”
Duty said Chisolm-Miller’s campaign has a forceful ground game throughout the precinct and embraces “good, hearty conversation” on issues urban and rural.
“I look forward to D.L. and Pat being in the same room with Precinct 2 voters and talking about the priorities of the precinct,” she said. “That’d be wonderful as we approach the election.”
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