A fight over the right to applaud may not sound like the opening salvo of a revolution, but it might at least be one of the seeds of a revolt in Amarillo.
Mayor Ginger Nelson has squared off with a loosely organized group of locals who are fuming over what they perceive as an autocratic style that ignores a part of her constituency. Her short-lived attempt to ban clapping at council meetings is one of the things that has aggravated them and has now led to the creation of three websites, a Facebook page, “Ginger Nelson is not my mayor,” and an online petition thus far signed by more than 700 people, urging the mayor to resign.
The fight began over open-government issues. But the activists’ objections to Nelson’s attitude about public participation have also brought to light other, wider disagreements.
“We’re working against a number of things — money, the local newspaper and this entrenched power structure,” said Charles Kempf, who runs one of the new websites, called Amarillo Exposed.
Nelson’s votes on the council are also causing concern in some quarters. Although her vote usually isn’t needed on a council where most issues pass or fail unanimously, the mayor has repeatedly cast ballots and taken part in council discussions that benefit her own neighborhood and her properties.
Her votes have affected an area of the central city that includes both the historic district where she lives and downtown, where she and her husband, Kevin, own a building that houses their law office. That includes a vote approving landscaping improvements on streets surrounding her $500,000 home, according to a review of meeting videos and minutes.
“The perception is worse than the legality of votes that could impact an elected official’s property or interests,” said Dave Rausch, a professor of political science at West Texas A&M University. “It’s probably legal, but I would not do it, because it just looks bad.”
In December, the council heard a request from the Oliver Eakle Neighborhood Association, where Nelson lives, for a speed reduction on several streets and increased capacity for a bike lane. No vote has been taken yet, but City Manager Jared Miller said the city would hire an outside firm to do a traffic study.
“This is a bigger conversation than just the neighborhood,” Nelson told the council. Not mentioned was the mayor’s longtime membership in the requesting association, which meets in an office building owned by her and her husband.
In February, Nelson voted to approve a contract for street improvements in an area three blocks south of her downtown office building. The contract went to a company partly owned by Joe Bob McCartt, a former business partner of Nelson’s husband.
She also voted on the continued agreement between the city’s tax-financed nonprofit downtown improvement arm, called City Center, that includes in its work upkeep and upgrades to public areas of the downtown. As mayor, Nelson is an ex-officio board member.
The mayor disputes any notion of unethical or unsavory behavior.
She admits to making mistakes — including her statement in April that city meeting attendees must refrain from taking pictures or videos — and insists that she casts her votes with a clear conscience.
“If I felt like I had a direct conflict, I would not vote on a project,” Nelson said in an interview. “I have always followed the conflict of interest policy.”
She noted that she and her husband own property all over town, which makes it difficult to decide where to draw the line on casting ballots.
“Where do you pull it in?… You can take that focus and say, ‘Well anyone who owns property in the city would have a conflict,’ ” she said.
She added that she has never applied for any of the grants that are available through city-financed cooperative agreements with nonprofits or other entities created to benefit downtown development, although “we have done some projects at our building that have qualified.”
Nelson said she hasn’t considered whether to run again next year, when her term expires. If she does, she is sure to draw an opponent. And any foe would quickly be faced with the evidence of Nelson’s political influence.
After she was elected in May 2017 with 79 percent of the vote, Nelson didn’t stop fundraising. Since then she has raised $71,000, compared to a combined $3,500 for her council colleagues. She spends $3,200 a month for the ongoing services of three political consultant groups — a rare practice among mayors of similar-sized Texas cities.
Nelson said her political spending benefits the citizenry. Unlike many cities, she noted, Amarillo doesn’t pay for aides to city council members.
The consultants help her mostly with social media, she said, and “the citizens get the benefit of those consultants. … I’m thankful that people were willing to invest with campaign dollars so that those services are provided without using tax dollars.”
One Nelson supporter said that the mayor’s critics have little credibility.
“These are people who, for the most part, don’t even vote,” said Sandra McCartt, ex-sister-in-law of developer McCartt. “Most people think this city council is doing as well as any other city council. We’ve just got this small group that delights in this kind of stuff. They have these grudges and they make a federal case of it.”
The websites that have popped up in recent years to comment on local events indeed sometimes make unsubstantiated allegations. Kempf and the operators of Amarillo Independent and the Amarillo Pioneer have nary a day of major newsroom experience among them.
“A lot of people don’t bother to vote anymore because nothing ever changes,” said Kempf.
Some critics admit they haven’t been voters in the past — but say that will change. Like Claudette Smith, whose beef with the city started with a zoning issue.
The more she began probing codes and ordinances, Smith said, “the more backroom agreements I found.” Eventually the zoning question “took a back seat to these larger things — the no-clapping, the no photos during meetings.”
“And I am now a registered voter and will vote,” she added.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].