Q&A with Waco Mayor candidate Malcolm Duncan Jr.: Candidate changes view on City Hall

Malcolm Duncan Jr.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Waco City Council member and longtime businessman Malcolm Duncan Jr., 59, running to succeed Jim Bush as mayor, sat down with the Tribune-Herald editorial board last week to discuss troubled operations at the city’s animal shelter and the Humane Society of Central Texas, which oversees it; his strong advocacy of the Waco Downtown Farmers Market that began late last year; the question of political clout in Washington, D.C., and Austin (and whether Waco has any or needs any); and his vow to steer clear of ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonial duties if he prevails in the May 12 city election.


Q   Why are you running?

A   I just feel I have this sense of responsibility to the community. Once I got involved with city government and saw the work we were doing from the ground up, I became committed to it. I told the council when I applied for this job I didn’t really have an agenda. I didn’t, except to do the work of the council and the work of the citizens. Once you’ve spent some time doing this and see what we are involved in and what we are doing, it’s hard not to be committed to it.


Q   After a couple of years on the city council, how have your perceptions changed about this city, how it’s operated and its goals?

A   I was on the outside looking in, and very critically. But after being on the inside, I’m not nearly as critical of management. I think we have some of the best management teams of any cities our size or anywhere in the state of Texas. That doesn’t mean there’s not work to do, but I feel like they listen and they listen very well. We have made very subtle comments and they turn into action. That’s very rewarding to me.


Q   What were your perceptions previously?

A   I just thought there was a lot of bloat, a lot of waste and a lot of inefficiencies. And I wasn’t sure the service level was what I would expect that we could do.


Q   In short, you thought like most people probably think.

A   Yeah. I wasn’t happy. But, you know, if you try to run against things, it’s really not very good. It’s better to work from the inside and try to effect change there, rather than just being an agitator. That’s kind of how I grew up.


Q   What? As an agitator?

A   I come by it naturally. (Chuckling in the room.)


Q   What is your view of the grand vision for a dynamic downtown in the coming decades? Are there course corrections we should make?

A   I think we’re proceeding. It’s just a lot slower than I thought. I was really excited when we got the Downtown Development Corp. started in about nine months. Well, we’ve been at it six months now and we’re still retreading the same water.


Q   What’s wrong? Is the holdup because of organizational matters within the group itself?

A   We succeeded beyond our wildest belief in creating a diverse board that brings a lot of different constituencies together that aren’t used to working together. You got business people accustomed to dictating how things are going to get done and when they’re going to get done — and it doesn’t work like that in the public arena. And then you’ve got the nonprofits and the people who — I wouldn’t say they’re disenfranchised but they’re not accustomed to other groups and they ask a lot of questions and it takes longer to come to agreement. But we’re making headway.


Q   Assuming you become the city’s next mayor, what do you think will be the biggest headache for you in the next couple of years?

A   All the ceremonies. I’m not doing it. I’ve watched what it did to Jim Bush and it just eats you up. Once you get on that route, you don’t ever stop.


Q   Isn’t that supposed to be a fringe benefit — cutting the ribbons and pressing the flesh?

A   My wife has put me on notice that it’s going to be a solo practice if I do that. But I think one real big issue that we haven’t talked about as a community is health care. We’ve convened a group of providers and payers and we’re in the early stages, but we met at the jail a week ago and heard just what the burden is regarding mental health care on the jail. And we’re seeing it from the city perspective, too, because DePaul Center (Waco’s psychiatric hospital) is full. Our police pick up somebody who has mental health issues and they say, “Well, you’re going to have to take them to (a state hospital in) Austin.”


Q   Or maybe El Paso.

A   Or maybe El Paso (because of dwindling state-funded beds). And that’s just part of it. We’re reviewing our budget right now. We’re going to have to deal with all this without any more money. That’s the hard fact.


Q   How do you do that?

A   Well, Providence Heathcare Network right now feels very burdened because they operate the emergency room attached to DePaul so everybody brings all the mental health cases to Providence. Hillcrest Health System is not participating in that, so that might not seem exactly fair to Providence but then Hillcrest handles a lot of other things. But there’s got to be some balance. We must get a lot more collaboration between providers here in the face of not having any more money. I just think health care is a huge issue. But I think we’re also going to have to address the cost structure of local government and our ability to cut taxes.


Q   Aren’t you talking about conflicting themes there? You’re talking about being cash-strapped and then you’re talking of tax cuts.

A   It’s like a discussion we started the other day (during a city council meeting) on garbage. It’s not equitable for people in District 5 to fill up their blue bins with recyclables and make everybody in town pay for it. We’re losing $750,000 a year on recycling and it’s basically my district taking advantage of it. That’s not fair to everybody else. I asked for the number of households and what the cost would be. Now it’s about $75 a household, and everybody I’ve talked to says they’re happy to pay that. It’s just an equity issue as it is a cost burden on the city.


Q   So what are you suggesting on recycling?

A   Recyling? Charge.


Q   Charge people to recycle?

A   Yep, to pick it up. If you want to bring it in, we’ll take it. But if we’re going to pick it up on your curb, I don’t think we can continue doing that for free.


Q    Do we have enough political clout in Austin and Washington?

A   Someone was talking the other day about how we’d lost clout and there was some indication that we weren’t getting proper attention. But I have to ask: What does clout do for you? In this environment, are you better off just keeping your head down and trying to protect what you have than being up there trying to argue for things? When we had Chet Edwards (a Waco Democrat who long served in Congress), people attributed a lot of things to his clout because he was there and secured a lot of earmarks. But that’s the old way. That’s not how I see this government operating. There’s not money for that, there’s not the desire for it, and we don’t want it. We don’t need it. What we need is protection from the unfunded mandates more than we need clout.


Q    What about pressing needs such as improvements on Interstate 35?

A   Well, now, that’s a big issue and we’re fighting for that with the Texas Department of Transportation. Our frontage roads and the interstate through our town represent a critical problem. I don’t see that issue going away. But I don’t think anyone in Washington has figured out how to fund all this. I think this transportation bill (that passed the U.S. Senate but stalled in the House) is no long-range solution to our problems.


Q    What is going on at the animal shelter? We have a Humane Society that is hemorrhaging money and seems incapable of truly reinventing itself.

A   We have a management problem. It gets down to Management 101. And we have a responsibility to the community to provide a clean, safe shelter and our contractor — I’m not sure they’re delivering. Once we entered into that contract with the Humane Society to operate the whole shelter, we basically gave them the rights and responsibilities to run that program. There’s a recognition that killing animals is no fun. In fact, by definition, it’s not humane. Till we can effect change with spay-and-neuter and other ordinances to limit animal overpopulation, we’re going to have to euthanize and it’s just very difficult to run a nonprofit volunteer organization that has to do that. So what was recommended (last week) by the Animal Welfare Board was that they split the shelter into two parts, that the Humane Society run a no-kill adoption center. They would have the right to select animals from the impound brought in by citizen surrender or animal control officers or abandonment or whatever. They would take those animals they want and put them up for adoption and have clean animals. And the city would run the other side of the shelter, which is the unpleasant part. Anyway, it was recommended this plan be taken back to the Humane Society and to the city council for further study. It’s just one idea.


Q    The Humane Society obviously is a well intentioned nonprofit that seems to be struggling in terms of mission and management. I mean, if you’re losing like $8,000 a month, there’s quite obviously something ominous about that nonprofit’s long-term viability.

A   Oh, it’s bigger than that. I’ve had a call and the mayor has had two calls this week from people who adopted animals and they died because they were sick when they got them. There’s no way you can run a shelter at 100 percent to 110 percent capacity and have it clean and safe. That’s just a basic concept of shelter management.


Q    Are you saying that they’re not euthanizing enough animals?

A   No. I’m not convinced that the euthanasia numbers will change. At one point they had 50 percent of their capacity in foster care and we have absolutely no control over the safety and health of those animals and then they come in the back door. So I’m not convinced that more animals will be euthanized but I’m convinced we can run a clean, safe shelter and I think that’s our first responsibility.


Q    What’s the management problem with the Humane Society?

A   Well, I think you have to ask about the type of personnel you have running a shelter. Do they have a certain training? They have to have certain disciplines and certain standards. I think it’s a volunteer organization trying to do the very best they can at adopting out animals but it’s a bigger job than that. You know, Jim Bush and I were talking about this last night. We all love animals. This has got to be for the betterment of the community. It’s not about killing more dogs to get to a better place. It’s about taking better care of what we have and a lot of that is the front-end work of reducing the over-population of animals. This is going to take a lot of discussion.


Q    You’ve taken a very keen interest in the success of the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.

A   It’s a tremendously underserved market when you look at non-chain local restaurants serving local food. There’s a real need for this, a real hunger for it. We have a tremendous population of farmers and we’re providing an outlet for them. If we could make it through this winter with no fewer than 15 vendors and people coming out when it was cold and wet — well, we’re going to do real well when we get produce.


Q    Your dad is a longtime civic leader and philanthropist whose influence in this town is immense. He’s known also for having strong opinions. What’s it like on Thanksgiving when you two get together? Is there a lot of arguing?

A   No. But we did have a lot of controversy. I remember the first time my sister brought somebody home from the University of Texas and they got into a discussion about the world being too populated. And my dad said, “Well, you know, they just had a nuclear reactor blow up in India and I think that’s a pretty good way of controlling the population over there.” And we never saw that boy again. Now, I don’t think my dad really meant all that, but it was a good conversation-starter. You could really define somebody’s character by how many times they came back.


Q   Has your father given you any guiding principles?

A   Don’t stop asking questions till you get to the bottom of a matter. Don’t let any stone go unturned. And pay attention to the details, especially on the balance sheet.


Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.


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