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.
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.
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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…