The Early Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum for Early mayoral and city council candidates on Tuesday evening in the Ranger College lecture room in Heartland Mall.
The forum, designed to give Early residents more insight into the views and opinions of their candidates, featured incumbent Early mayor Dr. Robert Mangrum, his challenger Sean Fulton and city council candidates Joel Johnson and Amy Beam. Mayoral candidate Frankie Wilder and council candidates Travis Eoff and Noah Williams did not attend.
The forum was moderated by KOXE news director Rick Phelps, who opened the forum just after 6 p.m. by laying the ground rules and explaining the format. Phelps also read a message from Eoff, who previously committed to attending his grandson’s school function. It read, in part, “I believe the most important thing about serving on the council is trying to make sure that each citizen’s tax dollars are spent in the most efficient and useful way in doing things that will be the most beneficial to the citizens of Early.”
The candidates then introduced themselves for the audience. Mangrum, a veteran, has been serving as Early mayor since 2005 after moving to Early in 1996. He has taught on the Howard Payne faculty since 1980.
Fulton has lived in Early for 10 years. He owns and operates a construction business, Amerimerc Construction LLC, and is the co-owner of Central Texas Armory.
Johnson worked 42 years for the GTE Phone Company, which was bought by Verizon, before retiring in 2014. He served on the school board and was on the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which later became the Municipal Development District. An incumbent, Johnson has served on the city council for five years.
Beam has lived in Early for 13 years and works at Creative Image Laser Solutions in Brownwood. She currently serves on the Early Chamber of Commerce board of directors and has served on the Early Beautification Committee. She cited a desire to “be the link between our younger and older generation.”
After introductions, the candidates answered nine prepared questions from Phelps, touching on their reasons for running, the city’s challenges and their qualifications. Though all exchanges were cordial, the biggest differences between the candidates emerged when discussing the transition from the EDC to the MDD and the community center renovation.
When asked about the decision to move from the EDC to the MDD, which was approved by Early voters, Mangrum said the transition gave the city more flexibility in assisting its businesses. “The structure of the Economic Development Corporation … was limited in what they could do and who they could help,” Mangrum said. “It became very attractive because the MDD was much more flexible in what they could use the money for. They could use it for retail, they could use it for heavy industry or manufacturing, which gave us flexibility.”
But Fulton said the change has caused local development to stagnate. He said city hall had been “micro-managing” the EDC and causing its problems, and pointed to the city’s ill-fated $1.15 million loan to Tejas Clay in 2002 as an example. “It cost taxpayers $1.86 million,” Fulton said. “We just paid that off in 2016.”
Mangrum later responded that the city was not at all liable for the Tejas Clay debt and that the EDC’s half-cent sales tax financed the entirety of the loan repayment.
Later, when Phelps asked the candidates about the recently-approved community center, Beam and Fulton suggested the money might have been better spent. “I feel like we could have … possibly done something that would have been potentially better for our businesses and our community,” Beam said.
Fulton said that he had proposed an alternative center that would have included more athletic and activity space, citing a lack of entertainment and recreation options for Early youth. Mangrum declined to comment on whether the community center was a good investment, the only abstention from any candidate during the forum.
Finally, the candidates answered questions submitted anonymously from the audience. One question asked candidates about the most important near-term project to take Early into the future. “Don’t lose businesses,” Beam responded. “Retain our current businesses, and grow the ones that are here substantially.”
Johnson agreed, and added that maintaining the city’s infrastructure will be crucial. “We have to keep an eye on our infrastructure and our first responders,” Johnson said. “Public safety is our top priority.”
Fulton said saving the Heartland Mall should be “priority number one.”
“That mall is our downtown,” he said.
In a final statement from each candidate, Mangrum and Fulton made a final case for their respective candidacies. Fulton doubled down on his previous description of Early’s city government as an “oligarchy,” saying his goal is to restore “political efficacy in Early and bring transparency to city hall.”
Mangrum said he sees Early as a town with enormous potential. “I bring to the table 18 years of experience in city government, all of which has been free, gratis … Unlike Brownwood, unlike Dallas, unlike San Antonio, we are not politicians. We are not professionals. We are working for the city because we love the city and want to help the city.”
Early voting begins on April 24, and election day is May 6. The four city council candidates are running to fill two at-large seats.