WACO, TX — Attorney Kyle Deaver seemed well-prepared to become mayor of Waco. A Baylor Law degree, time on the city plan commission, people called him tailor-made for the job.
Waco had some good years under Mayor Deaver, then COVID-19 hit. Suddenly the mayor and government leaders across the country were put in the uncomfortable position of issuing orders people might describe as out of character.
"Being Mayor in Waco is a volunteer position," said Deaver.
Waco's "weak mayor" form of government means city managers and other bureaucrats really run the show. You might compare the mayor and city council to a CEO and board of directors. The arrangement works well most of the time.
But when COVID-19 hit, voters did not want to hear from an un-elected person they may have never have heard of. Deaver's so-called volunteer job got the spotlight, and he found himself with some tough decisions to make.
”We were really concerned that our hospitals could be overrun with COVID, know that I felt like we needed to be communicating directly with our citizens about what the risks were, what we could do to prevent further spread," Deaver said. "I, you know, and I recognize that the response to COVID became politicized, and that's really an unfortunate situation and I hope we can move away from that. Just felt like with the more transparent we can be with our citizens, and the more engaged we can be with them, the better."
Deaver says he never planned on taking control of the COVID message the way he did, but he saw a void and a need to be open and honest about the biggest challenge of his career and the biggest challenge of our lives.
”The emergency shelter-in-place order was the last thing. I had never even considered that that was a possibility for a mayor to have to do that. It was against a lot of by nature, but at the same time it was a public health emergency and even though it was a difficult thing to do, it was not a difficult decision,” said the outgoing Waco mayor.
Another controversial decision made under Mayor Deaver's watch was the firing of Dr. Brenda Gray, who oversaw the huge, jointly-run Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. A July 20th letter from Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson to Dr. Gray described her job performance as "failure of performance standards."
Dr. Gray's sudden dismissal raised a lot of eyebrows. After all, who in their right mind fires their public health director in the middle of a pandemic? But the City stuck to its guns and Dr. Gray left.
Without mentioning the Gray incident directly, Mayor Deaver called Waco's COVID-19 response "appropriate and necessary."
”We'll never know. I mean, we never will. And so that's... that's part of the hard part of it," he said.
Now, as communities around the country struggle with the hard truth of slowing COVID-19 infections, many say we could have a long winter in front of us. As a new mayor and city council take office, they may review Deaver's term, its successes and its failures.
Deaver says despite the COVID-19 challenge, he's proud of what he and Waco have accomplished.