Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

April 24, 2013

The Great Debate: Mayoral candidate forum engages Jacksonville residents with a mixture of political perspective and humor

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — It was “experience” versus “charisma” versus “ambition” Monday night as Jacksonville mayoral hopefuls verbally sparred at a candidate forum at the Norman Center. It was a combination several in attendance found both refreshing and delightful.

Incumbent Mayor Kenneth Melvin (experience) and challengers Rob Gowin (charisma) and William Igbokwe (ambition) exchanged barbs, jibes and their respective political philosophies for roughly an hour and a half. They offered opinions on issues such as code enforcement, economic development, and the civic center during the event sponsored by the Jacksonville Daily Progress.

The age range of the enthusiastic and warm audience seemed to reflect the steep generational divide between the three candidates. Melvin is 72. Gowin is 44 and Igbokwe is 23.

As Jacksonville Progress Editor Amy Brocato Pearson, moderator of the event, read off the questions one-by-one, each candidate worked hard to stay on-message:

• Melvin was  emphatic about defending his accomplishments on the council and defending the practices of the city under his administration.

• Gowin came out swinging against perceived code enforcement problems, in support of area beautification and for dramatic change in the way certain city departments treat citizens.

• Igbokwe took the opportunity to introduce himself  to a larger voting audience. He reached out to potential ballot casters with a blank-canvas “your issues are my issues” appeal. He said despite his age he has the same political perspective as many other Jacksonville voters.

The audience was full. One person in the back of the room went as far as to yell “We can't hear you!” as Rob Gowin spoke.

All questions asked of the candidates were crafted by Jacksonville residents. There was three minutes provided for their various introductions, two minutes for responses to questions and 30 seconds for rebuttals.

Melvin introduced himself by listing his political pedigree – three, two-year terms in the District 3 City Council slot and a single two-year term as mayor who is running for reelection.

“I am proud of all the actions of all the councils I have served on,” Melvin said. “It is in wonderful, wonderful fiscal condition.”

Gowin –  at times tongue-in-cheek, other times deadly serious during the forum – didn't begrudge Melvin the results of fiscal prudence.

But Gowin did point out that some money is going to have to be spent in the future to raise the city's visual standards in terms of roads and sidewalks and civic appeal.

“I agree … that our tax rate is relatively low,” Gowin said. “You see that in the community. You get yourself a vacant autoplex and you get (an unpaved) trail on the road that leads all the way to Walmart. What does that tell the people driving through Jacksonville?”

Gowin emphasized he perceives a stagnancy in terms of the city's forward momentum. He also believes the city could be more nurturing to businesses.

Igbokwe said he was there to emphasize his passion and vision for the city. As mayor he would work to  connect the city with youth culture.

“There is no place to get along if there is a major disconnect with city government,” Igbok-we said. “We need to work with the city to bring jobs back to the economy … If there is a balanced budget, it's good, but what's the point of a balanced budget if people from the city don't benefit from that?”

Following are some of the questions answered by candidates.



 WHAT ARE THE BEST AND WORST THINGS ABOUT JACKSONVILLE?



Melvin said the people, the citizens, are the best thing about the city. The worst, he said, are people who “don't have the facts and go off half cocked. … I think we are doing a good job of staying connected with the citizens.”

It was unclear if Melvin meant his opponents with the previous remark.

Gowin, meanwhile agreed that citizens deserve the utmost respect from a mayor. The worst thing about Jacksonville, Gowin said, is how some of them are treated.

“I look across the room and see a diverse group of people and  we as a group need to acknowledge minority groups such as our Latin community,” Gowin said. “… Not doing that is one of the worst things I see in our community.”

Igbokwe also agreed the residents are the best part of Jacksonville.

“But the engagement between the citizens and the city could improve,” he said.

“A lot of people feel there is a disconnect between the city and the people.”

During the rebuttal period for that particular question, Melvin insisted he has never neglected any minority group in town.

“Since I have been mayor I have spoken three or four times to churches on the north side of town,” he said.

Gowin passed his chance for rebuttal.

Igbokwe said the mission should be to get all groups from all races and creeds on the same page.

“We can push through together,” he said.

One running gag between Igbokwe and Melvin started with Melvin's response to an incorrect claim by Igbokwe that he had attended the previous two Jacksonville council meetings.

Melvin was quick to correct him in the next round of questions and Igbokwe was quick to apologize – but the two good-naturedly needled one another a few more times before the forum ended.



WHAT WILL YOU DO TO IMPROVE CODE ENFORCEMENT IN THE CITY?

 

Melvin said he personally has no problem with code enforcement.

“A lot of people try to circumvent the rules and regulations that are published and must be met prior to any project being approved,” Melvin said.

Melvin said the city's code enforcement department painstakingly ap-plies the same rules to everyone.

“That tends to ruffle the feathers of some people because they don't think they have to abide by the rules,” he said.

Gowin, in a comment that drew much applause, came out on the exact opposite end of this issue.

“If we could run the campaign against the Code Enforcement De-partment we'd have 10,000 people voting in our election,” he said.

Gowin described Code Enforcement as the “most negative department in the city.”

“There a customer service issue there,” Gowin said. “I'm a customer of the city. Every single solitary person is a customer of the city.”

He described their decisions as arbitrary and, at times, retaliatory with the powers granted by their department.

“There are people … who work for the city (in code enforcement) who target certain businesses unfairly,” Gowin contended.

Igbokwe suggested the city address the issue by looking at the department and get community feedback. He acknowledged that some people take advantage of the system the way Melvin outlined.

Ultimately, Igbokwe said, every city has has a code enforcement but the difference has to be how the city deals with it and how the community re-ceives it.

“People should definitely have a say in what happens with their code enforcement,” Igbokwe said.



IS THERE A DISPARITY IN THE WAY CITIZENS ARE TREATED BY CODE ENFORCEMENT? HOW WOULD YOU RECTIFY THAT AND EDUCATE THE PUBLIC?



Before answering the question Melvin asked his opponents for specific accounts of code enforcement officer causing trouble.

“I would like to get specific examples of code enfacement officers who are picking on them or friends of theirs and explain to me how this happens,” he said. “I do not perceive a disparity in the applications of their rules and regulations.”

Gowin said there is a system in place to oversee code enforcement but it is not enough.

“There has to be a better way to do it than the way we do it today,” he said. “… The procedures are in place. The committees are in place to do that already. I wonder sometimes where they are coming from.”

As an example of what he considers to be exasperating laws and ordinances on the city books, Gowin cited one.

“It is illegal for your bull to mate with your cow within 100 feet of the fence line in the city of Jacksonville, Texas,” Gowin said.

Igbokwe said he would be open to input from any citizens with complaints about code enforcement.

“What I would do is reach out to the community members who are upset,” he said. “… I would find out what the disparities are and with mutual collaboration try to rectify these disparities.”



THE DAM ISSUE



Melvin said the dam is periodically inspected by state authorities – who, unlike city employees, are experts at doing so.

“No one on staff who is a structural engineer,” Melvin said. “We check for cracks and leaks but the state agency does that also and they tell us what to do. … There has been a group of people down at the lake that have been raising cain about the dam and the state agency says there are not the problems that these people say. What you need to do is talk to someone who has an open mind about this situation."

Gowin said its troubling that the Texas Commission on Environ-mental Quality made a list of things wrong with the dam some time ago and the items on that list were only recently im-posed.

“I just think we need to take the property more seriously,” he said.

Igbokwe said the city council should be taking a closer view of the lake, which is difficult since it is not near downtown.

“It would seem the phrase is 'out of sight, out of mind,' ” Igbokwe said.



YES OR NO: WILL YOU APPROVE THE CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW CIVIC CENTER?



Melvin: “Yes.”

Gowin: “No.”

Igbokwe: “It depends on what the community wants.”



FINAL COMMENTS



Melvin ended his time at the forum the say way he started it: In full defense of Jacksonville and its decisions. And he was still demanding answers regarding contentions from his opponents.

“I heard the word 'stagnant' twice tonight and I would like to find out what portion of the city government is 'stagnant' before I leave here tonight," he said.

Gowin said the biggest disconnect for him is the myth of Jacksonville  perpetuated in city council meetings and the reality of true Jacksonville where the citizens actually live.

“Part of my campaign is to consider new ways we can recreate our city,” he said. “… We have to find the money somewhere to fix our town up. … Let's do something where one step forward is one step forward.”

Joked Gowin: "I am not cut out for debating  I have never been to a debate before in my life."

Igbokwe emphasized he has been listening and will continue to listen to the concerns of Jack-sonville citizens.

“I am really firm in my belief I am a blank canvas,” Igbokwe said. “… The city council should be a reflection of what the people want. It's difficult to do that if there is a divide between the people of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville government.”