From publisher to politician, El Campo’s new directly-elected mayor has spent his life working with the citizens of El Campo.
He has plans for the next year and a half, Chris Barbee told the Leader-News, sharing his thoughts on a variety of issues as he gets started on his term in office.
Service is key, according to Barbee, a self-styled fiscal conservative who has decades worth of perfect attendance in the El Campo Rotary Club. He’s a charter member El Campo Museum Society and BEEs; past member El Campo Hospital Board; and past president Texas Press Association.
The top vote-getter in the 2018 at-large election, he was passed over when the mayor was selected. Instead, Randy Collins got the post, a decision made among the seven serving members.
This time it was up to the voters. They not only returned Barbee to office for a second term, they also made sure he was mayor by approving Proposition H, a charter amendment codifying how an El Campo mayor is chosen.
Barbee and District 3 Councilman David Hodges circulated the petition bringing Proposition H to the November ballot.
Now the count is done, the oaths sworn and the publisher turned city community services director turned councilman is ready to work.
ECLN: With the overwhelming passage of the charter amendment and your strong top finish, the citizens have made it perfectly clear they want a change in city government. What strengths do you bring to the mayor’s position?
Barbee: While I am not the only former city employee (Community Services Department Director Jan. 2011 to March 2017) to serve on city council, as far as I know I am the only one to serve as mayor.
As a reporter for the El Campo Leader-News for 36 years, I covered not only city council and city government-related stories, but I also covered commissioners court for eight years and a few school board meetings as well. That experience gave me a great deal of insight into the issues faced by local governmental bodies.
But serving as a city department head responsible for submitting, overseeing and staying within four budgets each year (Community Services Administration, Civic Center, Parks & Recreation and Aquatic Center) gave me an in-depth understanding of what it takes to effectively run a city. As a department head I met with and worked with every department in city government, further broadening my knowledge and understanding of city government.
My work experience, particularly as a journalist, made me a good listener. My wife was always amazed at how often people would approach me in public with a tip or a request for assistance.
I think people trusted that I would do my best to look into what they had discussed with me; to help them if I could. That is a responsibility I do not take lightly.
I feel as an elected official it is my duty to be as responsive to the public as possible. At the end of the day there may be little I can do to help them, but it won’t be for lack of interest or lack of trying.
ECLN: What do you see as the top three issues that need to be addressed in this fiscal year? Why?
1) Continued focus on Infrastructure – working on our streets and water and sewer mains. The city has about 3.5 miles of unpaved streets. We need to reduce this every year. Our water and sewer lines are cast iron and aging, some dating back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
2) Identifying strategic priorities, particularly those in the city’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan, by building a strategic plan to focus on for the next budget cycle and beyond.
3) Focus on economic development. Since being on city council I’ve had people who have lived in cities such as Brenham and Fredericksburg tell me that in those cities they felt they were getting something for their tax dollars. They’ve told me they don’t mind paying taxes as long as they can see those tax dollars being used to improve and even beautify the city. This is something council and staff should keep in mind while looking at a strategic plan.
ECLN: Aside from those, is there any program/practice you’d like to see started this fiscal year? What and why?
Barbee: The council should work with the city manager and department heads on comprehensive capital planning processes and updates, with emphasis on planning for the future. This would include project ideas, succession planning and financial management.
I also want to make sure we are doing all we can to keep our servers and data safe from hackers.
I’ve talked to Chief Gary Williamson about this, but I’d like to see our officers spend more time at the shooting range to improve their proficiency, and I’d like to see a citizen police academy initiated.
ECLN: Anything you’d like to see stopped? Again, what and why?
Barbee: No, there is nothing I can think of that I’d like to see stopped, but if additional public funds are sought for any ongoing projects the need will have to be justified, and fully accounted for.
Right now I’m not aware of any such project or request for funding. Some want to see the city withdraw its support from the rail warehouse project on U.S. 59. Why? The city has already paid a considerable amount for engineering, and the CDC has not yet spent any of the $3 million it has pledged toward infrastructure. So I can’t see a downside to waiting this thing out.
ECLN: What’s your stance on blight?
Barbee: The city has a mayoral-appointed blight committee and ordinances and codes that if used and enforced will, over time, make El Campo more attractive, especially along the Business 59 and Highway 71 corridors.
The city should utilize these tools, but do so in a compassionate way. Don’t just send letters, actually stop by and talk to the business owner (who may not be the owner of the property; in that case talk to the property owner as well). As a follow-up, letters must be sent to document the discussion.
I understand that financing can be a problem, but in my way of thinking a more attractive property could yield more business. Show pride in your business. About 12 years ago we spent about $80,000 putting a new brick front on the Leader-News, and we did some remodeling on the inside, especially in the front office area. That was a lot of money, but every time I drive by the newspaper I feel a sense of pride that we bit the bullet.
If everyone would start taking care of their property, that sense of pride hopefully will become contagious. It’s like mowing your grass. If one resident goes out and mows, then more often than not, the neighbor will soon mow his grass, and so on.
ECLN: What additional, if anything, should the city be doing to help keep COVID numbers low?
Barbee: I am in favor of following Gov. Abbott’s guidelines. But I will neither recommend nor support measures more strict than what the governor asks us to do.
Masks where appropriate, social distancing and washing hands are common sense measures that should be utilized. On the flip side, I have given approval to the Chamber of Commerce to host the annual Christmas Parade and Christmas Mall, asking them to do their best to follow safety protocols.
ECLN: How would you describe council at this point? What are your thoughts about working with your fellow members?
Barbee: Each of us has different skills, abilities and experiences that are beneficial to council. I know each member of council wants the best for El Campo, and I appreciate each one of them giving of their time to represent El Campo’s residents.
I’m happy that for the first time ever, as far as I know, we have two Hispanic city council members. For a city that is somewhere between 55-60 percent Hispanic, this is appropriate and overdue.
And thanks to passage of Proposition H in the November election, one of those Hispanic council members is now mayor pro-tem, becoming only the second Hispanic to serve in this capacity.
ECLN: Parks have been your strength looking back to your time as a city employee – what more should be done to enhance city parks? When should phase two of Legacy Park be started? Why? What about debated pocket parks?
Barbee: The Park at Legacy Fields, being the newest park, is in good shape. I want to see the city keep it that way and to stay on top of maintenance, including keeping the landscaping looking nice.
As far as Phase 2, the main feature of which is an outdoor pavilion, the city has more pressing needs.
When the West Loop Park Committee started working on what became Legacy Park, it was approved with a caveat … “Don’t neglect the parks we already have.”
Most of the playground equipment in our parks is more than 25 years old and is rusting. Fortunately, with a Hurricane Harvey grant, a new play feature was added to Rotary Park. And of course the trail at Friendship Park was just rebuilt. Playground equipment is very expensive, so it must be budgeted for.
When I was with the city, working with a playground equipment provider, I presented plans and budget needs several times. It never made the budget.
I realize that compared to water, sewer, police, fire and EMS, parks takes a back seat. So you have to be intentional about improvements. Rusting playscapes are a safety concern and must be planned and budgeted for.
ECLN: What about the Texas A&M students proposed changes to Evans Park?
Barbee: The downtown revitalization project included not only redesigning Evans Park, but store fronts and alleys in the area as well. I thought it was a good exercise, and I appreciate the time the A&M students spent on the project. They submitted several interesting proposals. If money was no object, for the city or the business owners that would need to participate, great.
Implementation of the students’ ideas would certainly make our downtown a tourist destination, and an area that our residents could be proud of and even brag about. But without a very large grant or private funding, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
ECLN: What’s your stance on annexation?
Barbee: I think there is a time and a place to annex. The last annexation of any sort was spearheaded by then mayor and now county judge Philip Spenrath. There is very little land inside the city limits for new residential or business development.
Right now we are relying on voluntary annexation, which is helping.
Remember, annexation is expensive because city water and sewer must be provided, and that would add to the city’s debt which is already on the high side. So if and when we annex, it must make sense financially.