An otherwise predictable candidates forum turned briefly feisty Tuesday night when mayoral candidate Mike Tittle said the conservative nonprofit group Empower Texans stands for God, faith and family — and he’s not sure why Mayor Stephen Haynes, who has spoken critically of the group, “is so against God.”

That brought a vocal and visceral reaction from the audience at the Depot Civic and Cultural Center, where the Pecan Valley Republican Women’s Club hosted the forum for the two candidates in the mayors race and the pair of candidates in the race for the Ward 1 City Council seat.

In the mayor’s race, Tittle, a former 3M plant manager, is challenging Haynes, who has held the office since 2010. In the Ward 1 race, Pat McLaughlin is challenging incumbent H.D. Jones.

Moderator Leland Acker read questions that were submitted by audience members as well as his own questions. Many of the questions were similar to the ones asked Friday at the a forum hosted by the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce and dealt with budgetary topics including taxes, debt, spending and projects on which the city has spent money including splash pads and fire trucks.

Then Acker asked a simple, but arguably loaded, question of Haynes and Tittle: “What is your opinion of Empower Texans?”

Empower Texans coalition director Zach Maxwell of Cisco created at least one of Tittle’s campaign social media groups and has been critical of Haynes and other city officials. 

Tittle answered first, saying, “I got that question three or four times Friday and I wasn’t really sure what the deal was. But I researched it since then. Empower Texans stands for God, faith, family, America, lower government, less taxes, less government waste, that life begins at conception the way almighty God planned it.”

Tittle then said he hasn’t received any money the group but said he would welcome its endorsement, and called out his cell phone number.

Haynes answered by saying Empower Texans is funded by billionaires who don’t want to pay property taxes. The state of Texas doesn’t collect property taxes, but cities, school districts and counties do, Haynes said.  “So I’ll tell you what, I’ll make a (proposal) to Austin,” Haynes said. “Let’s switch. You give me sales tax, you take the property tax. Let’s see how fast Empower Texans comes after you.”

Tittle returned to the podium and said he’s not sure why Haynes “is so against God, faith, family, lower taxes …” The crowd’s reaction drowned out some of Tittle’s next words, and he concluded by saying “that’s what may family stands for. … the rich and the powerful … the downtown folks who push annexation … these are the rich and powerful people who are funding the mayor.”

Haynes then answered, “I’m not going to respond to the first part, but let me respond to the last part. I’ve got friends in the business community, and I’m never going to apologize for that. … It means I’ve been in every business in Brownwood in the last eight years, working with those people, helping those people … are a buck, helping them keep jobs, and I will never stop doing that.”

  Leaving the topic of Empower Texans, Tittle gave concluding remarks, saying “I think the solution to our financial issues are simple. I you want four more years of record high property taxes, record high property tax rate, record high spending, record high debt, record high interest rates on our debt, you should vote for the incumbent.”

Tittle said if elected he will work with the City Council to manage the budget, reduce unnecessary spending, reduce unnecessary spending and work with business leaders to recruit new businesses.

Haynes concluded by saying Tittle was a plant manager for 4 1/2 years, and Haynes has been mayor for eight years. “While he took organic chemistry, I took accounting and economics,” Haynes said. “So experience is in my favor. I’ve been doing the job, and doing it pretty well, I believe.”

Haynes said it is difficult “to impact your taxes in the city of Brownwood.” He gave an example of a tax reduction that would add only a small amount of money to a taxpayer’s pocket but reduce the city’s revenue by up to $2 million, “which means less trash pickup, less fire services, less police.”

Solutions have to be found “at a much larger level” than Brownwood, Haynes said.

See Friday’s Bulletin for a report on the remarks by the Ward 1 candidates.