Fed-up citizens or 'radical hate group'? Politics have gone hog wild in Mineral Wells

It's been 100 years since Minerals Wells' natural healing waters entranced tourists and the historic Baker Hotel boomed with swing music as A-listers danced the night away. It's been 50 years since Fort Wolters swelled the city with servicemen and their families, helicopter pilots training for combat missions in Vietnam.

These days, some residents complain all that swells here relates to property tax rates and the number of potholed streets, too many to count and clearly to repair.

So roughshod are neighborhood roads that one clever citizen coined a slogan for a bumper sticker: "I'm not drunk, I'm missing potholes." And some of Mineral Wells' stagnating populace of about 16,000, a quarter of which lives in poverty and not even that many typically ever bother to vote, are so detached from past civic pride they mock their own city's name: Welcome to Miserable Wells, out beyond the affluence of Aledo and expanse of Weatherford, beaten down and looking its age, managing still on one outmoded grocery store, a slew of dollar stores and the Walmart Supercenter on the east side of town.

But recently, a citizens' political revolt has formed that rails against what its members say is the city's inability to tackle severe infrastructure issues, improve quality of life and attract businesses. The movement has roused, arguably, a silent majority.

The Facebook-fueled uprising is spearheaded by three local characters who look more like extras from a Duck Dynasty episode than firebrand political activists: There's Lann Murphy, the cherubic, outspoken, smiling owner of LannTex Electric; Russell Hess, the Second Amendment fanatic and gun-store owner who lives out of town on the Brazos River, passes out pocket copies of the Constitution and accessorizes his bushy gray beard with twin braided ponytails; and Mike Page, the acerbic Desert Storm veteran with family roots in Mineral Wells but who lives on Palo Pinto County land he said he purposely purchased just outside the city limits.

Their movement, called "We The People Uncensored!!!" is also the name of their Facebook page that serves up daily discourse, debate and occasional opposition butt-hurt, as they say, with a coarser edge than their politer predecessor, "We the People of Mineral Wells."

"We the People of Mineral Wells" gets full credit for igniting this rebellion, born last year from last-straw frustration after the city asked for millions in a bond package for a new city hall. The demand is financial accountability and greater transparency from city leaders. When the administrators of the original Facebook page weren't keen on some language and tactics being used, Hess and company started the "Uncensored" page. It hasn't always been a harmonious relationship; in fact, at times it has been cantankerous, but the populace is certainly taking notice.

Those revolting say the city is quick to collect taxes but has failed for years, if not decades, to keep up with infrastructure demands and grow the economy.

"Most of us are fed up with the way our tax money is being spent," said James Taylor, a 47-year-old Army veteran who moved here 21 years ago, owns one motorcycle repair shop that pays the bills and shut down another when business dried up. He follows both "We The People" Facebook pages. "This town has been needing a change in direction for the past 20 years. It really has."

Problems exist in spades, but it's not as if Mineral Wells is on the endangered list either. Multipronged recovery efforts are in motion.

The Envision Mineral Wells initiative brought together a broad group of citizens to set goals for improving all aspects of the city, from job creation to youth initiatives to the school system, and it seems to have support from both sides; self-made local businessman Randy Nix is buying up creaky downtown buildings and implementing a privatized, taxpayer-free revitalization plan that Nix said could have buildings available for retail space within a year; and The Baker's resurrection appears closer than at any point in the last three decades, one of the developers said.

"If you have a declining economy, this is what happens, and the only solution is to change the course," Nix said. "One way is to promote downtown. If we bring it back, it changes things. This is the start of to how to turn this town around."

'We got people fired up'

The "We The People Uncensored!!!" movement would argue the start is sweeping out the city's long-held leadership structure. And after playing key roles in, first, voting down the nearly $6 million bond proposition in November for a new City Hall and then upending a Justice of the Peace candidate it fiercely protested in the March primary, the movement believes an awakened voting bloc is creating a wave of momentum.

"It's been the same thing for 20 years, and people have finally decided," Murphy said. "You've always heard about people who wanted change, but nobody's been willing to stand up and speak for change."

And now with the approaching May 5 mayoral and city council elections, "We The People Uncensored!!!" sees its chance for a total upheaval of a what it dubs the "The Good Ol Boy network," a leadership structure of nearly 25 years that includes City Manager Lance Howerton, Area Growth Council economic director Steve Butcher and Richard Ball, president of the Industrial Foundation charged with recruiting new industry to the city and expanding the corporate tax base. Its own list of accomplishments reveals lean times.

A new mayor of Mineral Wells will be tapped, that's for certain. Mike Allen is stepping down after 10 years in office and 22 in all on the council. Councilwoman and mayor pro tem Tammy Underwood, 59, who sides with the city's establishment, is arguably the frontrunner. She is also the lone candidate who has vowed not to put Howerton's future to a council vote.

Clif Wright, 68, a former councilman taking a second stab at mayor, and two political rookies, Christopher Perricone, 37, owner of a roofing company and a relative newcomer though raised in nearby Cool, and Vyncent Hemphill, a 29-year-old fully transparent vape shop owner, have all advocated for a hard look at change at the top. A fifth candidate, postal worker Terri Blevins, who some say had the best shot at beating Underwood, dropped out of the race for family reasons and in a video statement endorsed Perricone.

But then again, strong voter turnout can throw everything up in the air. The movement's expanding influence was witnessed again last month when some 120 citizens showed up at the local VFW for a political forum organized by "We The People Uncensored!!!" Wright, who might have fared better in his 2016 mayoral bid had 10,087 of 11,011 registered voters not stayed home, marveled at the forum's turnout.

"We've had people that have been in this game a long time say that they've never seen this many people come out to an event like this," said Hess, who, in seeking wise financial decisions and transparency from city leaders, offered transparency into his own financial problems. He filed last month for bankruptcy on his business, Backwoods Equipment and Hauling, and personal bankruptcy two weeks ago, and he paid the Internal Revenue Service more than $55,000 in unpaid taxes from 2009 to 2014.

None of that, he said, should detract from his efforts to embolden the residents of Mineral Wells.

"I think Lann and I, we're a voice to Mineral Wells," Hess continued. "And I think people believe in us, and I think that we got people fired up."

'A radical hate group'

Fired up goes both ways. Because for these amateur activists, political rebellions are on-the-job training, and they haven't gone without keystone cops missteps.

Before the March primary election for Justice of the Peace, "We The People Uncensored!!!" campaigned hard against former game warden Bill Jones, who retired in 2012 while embroiled in an internal investigation into a sexual relationship with a subordinate and an attempted suicide, according to court and Texas Parks and Wildlife documents.

Murphy also dug up additional character concerns regarding Jones' past, allegations of sexual abuse 30 years ago made by his stepdaughter, Shauna Sanford, who put her claims on a video Murphy uploaded on the Facebook page.

Mineral Wells police and CPS investigators made numerous visits to the Jones home during those years, Jones confirmed; however, he was never charged with a crime related to the sexual abuse allegations.

But then Murphy, in his determination to see Jones defeated, got carried away. Jones accused him of voter intimidation after Murphy threatened to put the names of people who displayed "William 'Bill' Jones" campaign signs on some kind of mysterious "list." Murphy has since admitted that there never was any list and said he's used the incident as a teachable moment.

"I look at it like a sloppy football game," Murphy said. "Got to get on the sideline and see how we're going to clean it up for the next time."

As for Hess, during the movement's earlier days, he got to mixing Second Amendment protectionism with local government protests. Three times he organized "open-carry walks" in front of City Hall, and he'd stream them on Facebook.

Mineral Wells is come-and-take-it gun country — the scenic rolling hills outside of town are ripe with deer and wild turkeys — but a half-dozen beer-bellied men stalking the sidewalk with AR-15s strapped to their shoulders freaked out some people.

"The tactics they're using are extreme far-left, but if you looked at their appearance you would say extreme far-right," said an opponent of the "We The People Uncensored!!!" movement prior to the March election, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a fear of retaliation. "When you start talking about putting people on a list and you're walking around with dadgum AR-15s, what does that mean?"

Jones blasted the group as a "radical hate group." He also lost the election to an opponent that even the "We The People Unconsored!!!" can claim wasn't as qualified.

"I think he would have won in a landslide," Murphy said.

"Let me tell you something, they're scared of these people because they think they are going to get shot and killed out of this deal," Jones said of his supporters before the primary. "I'm not so sure that if I win I'm not going to have an attempt on my life. Every time I come home and my house isn't on fire, I think it's a good day. That's how these people act."

Murphy and Hess chuckled at Jones' assertion that they'd commit murder and arson to gain a political edge. But they've also since acknowledged that political activism taken seriously requires a level of professionalism, so there's no more threats and no more guns.

"We have to be like the press, above board, not biased and get the people to make their own decisions," Murphy said following last month's successful forum.

'We certainly have our challenges'

The median household income in Mineral Wells is about $35,000, or $20,000 less than that of the state of Texas. About 75 percent of the 3,222 schoolchildren in the Mineral Wells school district qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.

Mineral Wells is easily the largest city in Palo Pinto County, but the county seat sits in tiny Palo Pinto, an unincorporated town with a population of less than 500. The lone hospital in the county is on the western edge of Mineral Wells.

While plenty of folks drive through Minerals Wells on U.S. 281 and U.S. 180 on their way to Possum Kingdom Lake, 25 miles to the west, downtown is 15 miles north from the travel and trade corridor of Interstate 20, which hasn't aided industrial or retail development. Most people driving through stop for gas, to take a photo of the decaying Baker Hotel or grab a fast-food burger.

Mineral Wells citizens keep paying the price. Between 2011 and 2017, the city's property tax rate was increased four times from 0.491 to 0.605 cents per $100 valuation. The additional revenue, city leaders say, is needed to maintain basic services, so the streets have remained in disrepair and old water pipes continue to leak.

"This thing about the streets are bad, where’s the money going, well, take a look at the budget," said Butcher, the Area Growth Council director who also serves as a consultant to the Industrial Foundation. "The city's been hit upside the head on job and tax losses. But the city hasn’t let people go, it's kept services, it's done a helluva job maintaining during a tough period."

A water shortage nearly left Mineral Wells dry during the drought in 2015, but in March the Palo Pinto County Municipal Water District No. 1, which serves Minerals Wells and other communities, received its permit to build the Turkey Peak reservoir, which will be adjacent to Lake Palo Pinto.

The water district is relying on state grants to fund the $95 million project.

During last month's forum, mayoral and city council candidates told citizens they can expect higher water bills upon the project's completion. Taxpayers who only two years ago paid off the city's 1989 bond, leaving a legacy of unfinished or never-started projects, are leery that the $11.5 million designated for road and sewer repair, and a water line heading west, will be used appropriately.

Howerton invited all with any doubts about when the projects are scheduled and where they're scheduled to visit his office at City Hall.

"What has kind of haunted us back from the late '80s is, well, all this money was approved and it was never spent," Howerton said. "The approach we took was we're going to tell the public the specific projects we are going to do."

Howerton also echoed Butcher's praise of the city's resiliency through economic downturns like the 2008 recession and more recently the oil and gas bust. He cited decisive sales tax decreases since 2008, which, not coincidentally, Howerton added, is the year Mineral Wells ceased street repairs with monies from the general fund.

"Yes, we certainly have our challenges," Howerton said. "But we are not unique in the challenges that we have. There are some people here that seem to think that."

Corporate closures haven't helped. Oil and gas heavyweight Baker Hughes and a prisoner transfer facility both accounted for the loss of hundreds of jobs in recent years. A deal to bring in an ammunition manufacturer, Precision Ammunition, backfired, only to be somewhat buoyed by ambulance re-manufacturer American Medical Response opening a facility.

Butcher denies speculation by "We The People Uncensored!!!" that the Industrial Foundation and Area Growth Council scratch each other's back to the detriment of the city, and no such evidence has been presented. Nix, the local businessman seeking to uplift downtown, revealed his own investigation into the Industrial Foundation found a troublesome lack of openness into its activities but no red flags of corruption.

"They think it’s all being done in a back room smoking cigars. That’s the furthest thing from the truth," said Butcher, who admitted fault for the lack of transparency, saying it has damaged credibility with the public and left it vulnerable to conspiracy theories. "We have a number of things we’re working on that’s going to increase our industrial base and create more jobs. It's just taking a little longer."

As for the approaching election, Butcher said: "I think they’ll do what they feel is right. That’s just the way it works. I just hope enough will educate themselves so they're not just running with a portion of the facts."

'A minimum-wage town'

When the city wanted $5.8 million in the November bond package to buy the vacated Bank of America building and repurpose it as a new City Hall, many citizens followed the lead of "We The People of Mineral Wells" in protest. The measure failed at the polls.

"You don’t spend $6 million on a City Hall building when you can’t drive down the streets of town and 28 percent of your people live at or below the poverty level," said Terri Glidewell, a first-time city council candidate and an original member of "We The People of Mineral Wells." "This is a minimum-wage town."

That victory signaled to the "We The People Uncensored!!!" movement that it was gaining clout and could impact the city's course.

Still, for many who live here, significant progress can be as hard to fathom as the status quo is to stomach.

"Unless something miraculous happens, I'm probably going to leave," said Taylor, the Army veteran who will wait on his 16-year-old son to graduate from Mineral Wells High School before deciding whether he will stay or go. "We're pretty much set to go. I bought a dually, and I got a big ol' camper trailer, and I got a Winnebago.

"We're ready to just find a piece of dirt and be somewhere else."

But what if miracles do happen?

What if Mineral Wells could come full circle as a resort destination?

The belief for decades was that restoring The Baker Hotel, shuttered since 1972, would cure all the town's ills. Nix, the citizen businessman who owns real estate across the city, now sees things the other way around.

Return downtown to relevance, he says, and The Baker is more likely to follow.

So he has been busy buying "a significant amount" of downtown buildings used mostly as warehouses. A high-end boutique mall with three stores is coming, closely followed by a strategy to entice retail stores in other towns to join him.

"This is private investment coming in and taking risk on their own," said Nix, who confirmed he has the old Crazy Water Hotel under contract and bought the Bank of America building the city wanted but was denied. He said he is in talks with Weatherford Community College as a potential tenant for the bank building.

Cheering him on is Crazy Water co-owner Carol Elder, who with her husband has re-made Crazy Water into the city's most recognizable business and export — with sales throughout Texas, including Fort Worth, plus New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

She's worked to bring tourists to Crazy Water's headquarters, The Famous Pavilion, where the mineral water craze started. She envisions tourists walking lively city streets from the pavilion to downtown, whimsically spending the day strolling in and out of welcoming shops and cafes.

"It's like spring cleaning," said Elder, who supports city leadership and turned down overtures to run for mayor. "I think everything is starting to turn."

As for The Baker, Laird Fairchild, the Southlake real estate developer and investor in his 10th year working to make it happen, confirmed the complex funding mechanisms needed to pay for the $64 million project are finally falling into place, a significant recent development.

Acquisition of the building, he said, is now a hopeful four to six months away, "commencing construction thereafter."

Four years ago, taxpayers approved reallocating an eighth of a cent of the city’s sales tax to what was then deemed to be a $56 million project. Now multiple layers of capital are coming together.

"We are in the final stages of securing the senior financing," Fairchild said. "It’s real. It’s looking better than it's ever looked."

Maybe so.

But more imminent is the most pivotal election in modern Mineral Wells' history.

"It's significant for sure," Nix said. "Some want to take out anybody that is involved with the city. There has to be change. But what does change look like?"

The awakened citizens of Mineral Wells will soon make that determination.

Jeff Caplan is an enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705 or on Twitter @Jeff_Caplan