Hewitt chamber

Hewitt City Council candidate Mike Field: “Most of the people I’ve talked to are anxious for us to return to normalcy as soon as possible. You know, Hewitt is a wonderful place.”

Hewitt residents can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by today’s Hewitt City Council election. It’s thrown some familiar personalities and controversial characters back into the churning civic mix, including a few that one might have reasonably assumed a few months ago were out of the running. For instance, strapping actor and Republican activist Kurt Krakowian, whose appointment to an at-large council seat in March 2018 preceded the outbreak of controversy and bad feelings on the council and who resigned in July after the council was fully consumed in uproar, wants to regain the seat he gave up.

Krakowian apologized in January before council and community for an outburst last spring — and then took a parting shot at the news media, including the Waco Tribune-Herald, for allegedly not fact-checking city press releases. In doing so, Krakowian conveniently ignored the fact the Trib not only covered Hewitt City Council meetings gavel-to-gavel last year and pressed for elusive facts through time-consuming open-records requests to surmount city roadblocks placed in the paper’s path but even published a column by Krakowian himself detailing his grievances with a city administration that he quickly vilified.

Krakowian, 54, appears to be offering Hewitt more of the same. In a Wednesday Facebook video, he assumed credit for igniting all the fireworks last year when, after his appointment to the council, “I brought to the attention to the city manager, Adam Miles, that we needed to cut back on the budget.” Krakowian couldn’t remember the last name of rival candidate Michael Bancale, 56, but nonetheless accused him of hiding the fact he works for the Trib, “the most liberal newspaper in Central Texas.” (Bancale, actually employed as an insurance company analyst, shoots photos by contract in his spare time at football games, proms and such but isn’t actually employed by the Trib.) Krakowian on his Facebook video also accuses Miles of “cheating on his wife, folks” — a charge Miles dismisses as “just Kurt making up stuff.” Krakowian also questions the residency of another opponent, veteran attorney Mike Field, who has “only been here a year.” Field tells me that he’s lived in Hewitt since 1992.

Field, 74, former executive counsel for the Brazos River Authority and assistant general manager for part of that time, acknowledges astonishment at such misbehavior by any candidate: “I tell you, one of the things that has sort of poured gasoline on the problem in Hewitt is social media and people who don’t have the discipline and maturity to use social media in an appropriate way. I’d never even visited a Facebook page till I ran for office and was told I needed a website or a Facebook page, so my daughter helped me get together a Facebook page so I could put my resume out. But the last thing I’m going to do is go on Facebook and insult my opponents or any sitting council member. It’s just inappropriate.”

More intriguing than Kurt Krakowian’s effort to mimic President Trump (tip: Trump is lots better at it) is former city manager Miles, who in November left his job after getting swept up in this political maelstrom, including formal complaints by staff and city management against burly Mayor Ed Passalugo (who at one point lamented he was feeling the slings and arrows that Trump experiences from the public and press) and his council allies regarding less-than-professional treatment of the staff — something even newly hired city attorney Mike Dixon acknowledged in his scathing review of City Hall problems and practices. Miles himself filed complaints against Passalugo and Krakowian. None of this was exactly aided by Katie Allgood, the city’s managing director of administration and Miles’ romantic interest, filing a complaint against Passalugo. (Krakowian and two women who allege he harassed, intimidated and placed them in fear of injury settled a separate lawsuit last month.)

The truth is out there

Now Miles, 46, also seeks this at-large Hewitt council seat, and against four others including Krakowian and former city secretary Betty Orton, 81, similarly running on City Hall experience. Miles vows healing, reconciliation and course correction. However, given what Miles says he’s heard on the campaign trail, he fears voters may well be sick of all the scandal and upheaval, no matter which side of the fight they cheered last year. Besides that, the hometown imbroglio is far too complicated to easily digest — kind of like the Mueller report.

“Most of the conversations I’ve had are about what is the truth,” Miles said of the Election Day mood after months of squabbling between warring Mayor Passalugo and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry and their loyal backers. “Who can you trust? I’ll use Michael Bancale as an example. He’s earnestly tried to get to the bottom of what’s going on. And, you know, I’ve seen certain people online just blasting him. I mean, somebody’s saying he’s lying about working for the Waco Trib.”

In short, Miles tells me, the campaign — involving three contested seats on the seven-member council (including toxicologist and incumbent Erica Bruce’s repeat race against professional non-candidate A.C. “Tony” Martinez, this time for the Ward 3 seat) — offers disturbing parallels with national politics.

One doesn’t speak long with Miles before realizing he’s still smarting from city attorney Mike Dixon’s damning January report on charges and counter-charges dotting the Hewitt City Hall narrative through 2018, plus borrowings from an earlier investigation by a Fort Worth attorney specially commissioned by the council last year to investigate complaints. By the time Dixon detailed the report’s findings, however, council members and community folks were voicing weariness after months of combat and skullduggery.

Miles, however, still believes that certain accounts must be set straight, including any portrayal suggesting that he enabled staff complaints and conspired against a duly elected if blustery mayor.

“If you go back and look at my record, what do my press releases say?” Miles said in self-defense. “These are issues we’re trying to deal with, we’re trying to do it responsibly. What else did I say publicly? I can’t investigate [this or that allegation of wrongdoing]. I’m asking you to bring in a third party. What else did my press releases say? There are some serious things. I have a city council member who has complained [about violations of state Open Meetings Law involving illicit discussions regarding city business]. I don’t control the city council complaining about the city council.”

Miles acknowledges struggles with Passalugo and his council cronies grew intense: “When you have elected officials who are violating the law, who are asking you to do things illegally, who are wanting to post things on agendas that you just can’t do, yeah, it becomes personal. And when they retaliate against you and yell at you in a meeting behind closed doors, it becomes emotional and personal. There are very specific individuals who acted absolutely unprofessionally, but go back and look at the record. Was I making claims about these people? No, I was saying, ‘Let’s investigate this. Let’s get the facts.’ ”

And there’s the Feb. 18 lawsuit Allgood filed claiming she faced an environment of harassment on a continuous and routine basis during employment, primarily from Passalugo and Krakowian. To quote Miles now: “Whatever it takes to get that done, it needs to be reconciled. The citizens need for it to be reconciled. The city won’t heal. That is a source of a lot of division and I think there are some factors that are going to have to be rectified in order for the city to move forward.”

Plenty of blame

“I think there was a lot of confusion in the firing of the city manager,” candidate Mike Field told me, offering his take on the allegations and complaints. “You know, when I first became involved based on newspaper reports, I thought that the council was probably running roughshod over city staff, and I think there are examples of where staff was not treated respectfully and in a polite manner. But after I got into it, I realized there was a totally inappropriate relationship between the city manager and the No. 2 person there. And they’re both fine people. But it’s a flawed management structure when you’re giving raises and promotions to someone who’s living in your household, at least indirectly enriching yourself or your household. I don’t really want to go public with a lot of that, but I do think there was a lot of misunderstanding and there’s plenty of blame to go around on both sides. And that’s why I think we need a new slate of people in there to turn the page, because the council didn’t act appropriately and the city manager didn’t act appropriately.”

Michael Bancale concurs: “There’s two main lessons. The first lesson is the council is the boss of the city manager and the people are the boss of the council. If the council sees something — and in this instance, it’s a relationship between a superior and their direct subordinate — if the council sees something, which they all knew about at the latest in February 2018, they should immediately take action and say: ‘No, we don’t agree with this, we don’t support this, this needs to be changed.’ The council should have given an ultimatum no later than March 2018 and said to Adam Miles, ‘Your relationship with a subordinate is not proper for the city and one of you has to make a change.’ And the council did not do that. Instead, they took care of business outside council chambers. And, of course, the city manager is not bound to any sort of secrecy there. They should have taken care of personnel matters and discussions in executive session where they’re meant to take place for a reason, because then they’re confidential.”

If the Hewitt City Council race hasn’t aroused as much excitement as we saw in the sole eight-way race to fill Krakowian’s seat last autumn — a contest in which Krakowian’s wife competed and Bruce triumphed after a runoff with Orton — it may be because two of the most provocative personalities in the saga decided they’d had enough. Mayor Passalugo and his closest ally, Councilman and former policeman James Vidrine, opted not to run for re-election. Another of their faction, retired McLennan County constable Travis Bailey, seeks another term representing Ward 1 against Charlie Turner, a past council member. And only political newcomer Matthew Mevis, an environmental analyst for the city of Waco Water Quality Laboratory, filed for the Ward 2 seat.

Meanwhile, in Austin

The Hewitt City Council race might also have emerged as a lively, even edifying community forum echoing the furious debate now consuming the Texas Legislature. State leaders are trying to cap yearly property-tax revenue growth for all Texas cities and counties in the name of property-tax relief; city and county officials across Texas warn constituents this will harm local law enforcement, first responders and pressing infrastructure needs — the very crux of the initial fighting at Hewitt City Hall last spring before matters spiraled out of control. However, given all the scuttlebutt about who’s sleeping with whom and who said what to whom and who works where and who lives in Hewitt for however long, it’s quite possible many constituents aren’t up to the stupefying complexities of property-tax reform, including property valuations and what drives them, or the conflicting legislation to address such pocketbook matters.

“One of the misconceptions is that, and this is kind of silly, but many people think [Hewitt] council people get paid,” Bancale told me. “They feel if the council people weren’t paid, then their taxes wouldn’t be so high. They think we’re like the county commissioners. The county commissioners are paid but, of course, the city council people aren’t. And they keep talking about how, if you cut the council members’ pay, the tax bills in Hewitt will go down. I told one person, ‘I’m not so sure you can cut zero any further. I mean, zero is zero.’ That has been the biggest misconception from people I’ve talked to and seen online.”

Adam Miles, whose campaign slogan is “Miles of Experience,” laments that the city of Hewitt, population 14,000, is not more in the focus: “This community is so great. We’ve built some outstanding things. You know, while I was here as city manager, U.S. News & World Report said Hewitt was one of the best places to live in the nation, top 50. It’s not an accident we had that title. We worked hard for that. And that’s what’s frustrating — all these great things we’ve done. People use that library and go to our parks and we have a great group of folks in our public safety department and I think that gets lost in the mix of these foolish politics. How about we all fess up to what we did? Adam Miles sure did.”

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Bill Whitaker is Trib opinion editor.

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