Vocal mayor drives Kaufman race

Challenger Torres sees chance in city's love-hate relationship

07:47 PM CDT on Wednesday, April 20, 2005

By JIM GETZ / The Dallas Morning News

KAUFMAN Nearly two years after she was elected mayor and only two weeks before her bid for re-election, Paula Bacon remains a lightning rod for both praise and criticism.

But the latest bolt may be charged with big money to strike her and her City Council allies.

Formed in February with the goal of raising $20,000, Citizens for a Better Kaufman aims to turn out what members believe is a silent majority of voters in this city of about 7,000 residents 35 miles southeast of Dallas those who want a less-outspoken, more businesslike mayor and a unified council.

Like or loathe?

Ms. Bacon also has a well-funded opponent, Kaufman County Title & Abstract Co. Hector Torres.

"She has not conducted herself in the way she should, in a more ladylike manner and in a manner that encourages more businesses to locate here and more people to live here," said Norma Fortner, chairwoman of Citizens for a Better Kaufman.

But council member Janice Murrell sees it differently: The old guard is irked that Ms. Bacon upset the status quo. That was especially true last fall when she got enough council votes to fire John Mosley, city attorney for 32 years.

"She's very smart, and they didn't like that," Mrs. Murrell said. "She questions things and does her homework. In the past, the council took the city manager's and Mr. Mosley's word on things."

Ms. Bacon has given people reasons to like or loathe her.

Seniors cheer her for her leadership in raising home exemptions on property taxes and in lowering sewer rates. Yet council members censured her 18 months ago when she issued her own city newsletter without consulting them.

Others praise her for battling horse-slaughter plant Dallas Crown's occasionally excessive sewage output. But business advocates say the development impact fees she pushed, and her outspokenness, will discourage Wal-Mart and others from coming to Kaufman.

But does that justify a political action committee whose $20,000 goal would have equaled $40 per vote in the last mayoral race?

Mrs. Fortner says yes, because the committee is designed to boost turnout. Only one out of six registered voters cast ballots in the 2003 and 2004 city races.

"We feel that the majority of our citizens should vote," Mrs. Fortner said, "and if they vote her back in, fine. But we feel the majority in the past has not spoken. That's what the $20,000 is about."

But Joan Neely, a Bacon supporter who left the council in January when she retired to the Austin suburb of Lago Vista, wonders.

"It just makes you think, why is it so important to try to raise all that money to get back into control?" she asks. "Wal-Mart will come when it wants to come. Nothing about the impact fees will stop that."

On the most recent reporting date of April 7, CBK had tallied only $200; since then, however, signs promoting the PAC's candidates have sprung up in various parts of town. Ms. Bacon had raised $1,560 on April 7. Her mayoral opponent, Mr. Torres, had $1,500.

Mr. Torres and other CBK candidates are focused on being positive and say Kaufman's only problem is a fractious council brought about by a mayor who sometimes has a go-it-alone attitude.

"We want what's best for the town, not much different than other communities want," he said. "But there seems to have been personality conflicts. If a council member or the mayor doesn't like somebody, there's less communication between the two."

'Old guard' view

Mr. Torres said he sees why some might think the "old guard" is trying to run things, but his differing opinion is based on his first two years on council before Ms. Bacon became mayor. Residents told him then, he said, that the council was finally getting along with the county, the school district and the Chamber of Commerce.

"Personally," Mr. Torres said, "I look at that as teamwork."

But Ms. Bacon said she realized she would have to go straight to the citizens when, early in her term, the council disregarded her Planning and Zoning Commission nominees and instead appointed Mrs. Fortner and Ms. Bacon's 2003 opponent, Dennis Berry.

"It's the insiders club, the entrenched," said Ms. Bacon, noting that most of CBK's founders are Mr. Mosley's neighbors. "I know it's something people say you can't prove, but I found a small group of people who were benefiting from the way things were being done and 90 percent of Kaufman residents weren't."

Opponents want to hang an anti-growth sign around her, but Ms. Bacon differs.

"We have at our front door the Economic Development Corporation," she said, "and they control who gets in the door and who doesn't."

Lee Ayres, who heads the EDC and local Chamber of Commerce, denies that.

"We're not keepers of the gate," he said. "We're not trying to protect anybody. Our goal is to try to get growth and development wherever it can go."

Just about everyone agrees that growth has ratcheted up the debate. After decades of waiting, Kaufman is on the cusp of getting development that other parts of the region are experiencing, including Forney to the north and Cedar Creek Lake to the south. Both sides agree that whoever is mayor will be crucial in the coming years.

"She has stated she likes Kaufman as it is," Mrs. Fortner said of Ms. Bacon. "But whether you like it or not, growth is coming and you can't stick your head in the sand."

Ms. Neely sees it differently.

"The only thing that she can say about Paula is she's a maverick, that she's anti-growth, that she's anti-establishment, but I don't believe it. She has the support of most of the town, from what I hear. But [CBK] is a powerful group. We'll see what happens."

E-mail jgetz@dallasnews.com