MARLIN, Texas — People in the city of Marlin had hoped to put the political drama behind them more than two years ago when voters sent a new administrative team to city hall.
But the ride has been bumpier lately as some describe what they call a "hostile takeover" of city government.
"I just wanted to see what was going to be brought up and what will be discussed," Marlin resident Johnny Cooper said at the start of a recent city council meeting.
Folks in Marlin have come to know that sometimes there's no better show in town than the city council.
City leaders say that now, for the first time ever, Marlin has its first-ever all minority council.
But don't think for a minute that common frame of reference guarantees a consensus.
"This item was previously vetoed. Does anybody have any questions?" said Mayor Carolyn Lofton, who vetoed an agenda item from the previous meeting after a contentious discussion of the city manager's salary.
Lofton says it seemed clear to her: Four council members had an agenda.
"They were on the fact-finding mission to get information regarding those rumors that they've heard," Lofton said. "The way they were going about things may not have been the best way to go about it."
With the new members on the board, Lofton uses whatever parliamentary roadblocks she can to keep the meeting from falling into the hands of the council majority.
Why? Four council members constitute a quorum, giving them the ability to force the Marlin city government to do things their way.
"Ordinances and regulations adopted amended by the city of Marlin. I second that, but I have a question," said one council member.
Lofton never had unanimous support, although it seemed, more often than not, the old council saw things her way. She re-opened a closed park, got a road program rolling and ushered potential investors through the town.
But the group of four — Henderson, Armstrong, Ponce and McDavid — had begun asking for records and voting to hold special-called meetings to discuss items important to them.
Had the group hijacked Marlin government?
"The central issue tonight is whether to move forward with the Lofton style of government or return to the Keefer era style of government," said Derrick Hogget, Marlin business owner, speaking to the mayor, council and those on hand at a recent meeting.
As people struggled to explain the new discord, some of the discussion centered on John Keefer, the previous mayor.
Keefer had, and has, a problem with the new administration's handling of the information flow to council members.
"Mainly not giving them all the information for them to make decisions, and we're a lot of it was stuff that was rolling over from my time so I knew the facts behind," Keefer said.
Keefer argues that for everything you did see coming from city leaders, it always came with something that voters didn't see.
One of those things was the city manager's raise in salary that got tucked away among other city workers in Marlin's budget paperwork.
Lofton says her team has been very transparent about the increase of all city employees, even winning over one of the four new council members.
"One council member came forth and said that it was a part of the council members that were seeking to get rid of our city manager, and he said he admitted that we needed to give him a chance, we hadn't done that," she said.
And Keefer says he's stepped away from his role as a critic of city government.
"Since the election, you won't survive a single posting for me," Keefer said. "I'm not out there bashing, I'm out there gathering the facts."
But it still leaves an important question unanswered: Did the former mayor conspire with city council members to dump the current city manager and install him in the job as some think?
People in Marlin say the unanswered questions and the drama need to stop.
”I hope that the people in Marlin get help and everybody stands together and makes this city right,” said Debra DeCamp of Falls County.
"Every time I go to the meetings, no one can give exact numbers as to where we are, what we need and what we have," she said.
That quote described the previous administration, where in one meeting, council members walked out in protest as then-Mayor Keefer tried to explain how he, instead of a contractor, ended up renovating a city building.
Keefer also had trouble with the council when the police chief retired. Keefer wanted then-Sheriff Ricky Scaman to take over temporarily, even working out a deal with county leaders to make it work.
But back at city hall, council members turned thumbs down on the sheriff's solution, sending Keefer back to the drawing board with a stack of applications.
A couple of years later, voters sent a new team to city hall, and Keefer points out the new group's own brand of "fuzzy math" caused council people to call finances and legal opinions into question.
"The council are questioning items that they feel, I believe, based on talking to the council people, there are some trust issues, there are major transparency issues," said Keefer.
Four members of the newly elected city council, the town's first "all minority" council, apparently agreed and started peppering the administration with questions and demands for special meetings, something Mayor Carolyn Lofton didn't see coming.
"No, I think I actually didn't," Lofton said. "Not until we had a meeting and these things started to come out. Well there was some misinformation being spread that the new council members had heard."
Let’s face it, Marlin city government hasn't had an easy time of it in most people's lifetimes.
However, if disagreements and discord continue to rule the day, and nothing gets done, who does that serve? Nobody.
Council members weren't the only ones getting peculiar information. Citizens came up with a narrative involving former Mayor Keefer, instructing the quorum he supposedly influences to fire the City Manager Cedric Davis and install Keefer to the job.
"I want to ask the rebel council if there's any truth to the rumor that they plan to appoint Keefer as city manager. Is that why they have been meeting with him privately after council meetings?" asked Hogget.
Keefer has long criticized what he calls deficiencies in Davis' resume.
Davis, the former mayor of a Dallas suburb and the first person of color to run for Texas governor, insists he is more than qualified for the job and points to Alan Grindstaff, his predecessor who worked under Keefer and became the target of a Texas Ranger's investigation for reportedly calling for a police "ticket quota" in violation of state law.
Keefer and his city council also fired Grindstaff when, as Keefer says, Grindstaff and the city council's plan for Marlin, "diverged."
Keefer spends his time these days, as a classic entrepreneur, who builds businesses from the ground up, like Marlin's only gym.
Keefer also helps kickstart underperforming businesses, like a butcher shop, which began to thrive during the pandemic when Texans put more of a focus on "eating local."
Like many of his investments, Keefer sold the butcher shop after making improvements and helping it stand on its own firmer financial footing.
He makes no apology for his interactions with city council members and says every citizen needs to speak to their representatives regularly.
When it comes to getting "his people" elected, Keefer says, those kinds of situations sound great in political thriller novels but are way harder to carry out in reality.
"People may say I'm behind that, that I put my people on the council to give the mayor a hard time. Did I do that? No," Keefer said. "I think it's a little hilarious that people would think that I could convince people to give the mayor a hard time. I'm not the evil puppet master that people want to say. I don't think I've got the ability to be a puppet master."
Even if he did, there's no law keeping any of us from getting our favorite people elected, provided we do it honestly.
Some observers simply call it a "plot twist" in the long-running and ongoing drama they call Marlin politics.
”Council members, the mayor, and everybody else, they've all got a part in it,” Cooper said.
Others call it politics as usual because it seems the Marlin City Council has proven time and again that it sometimes thinks and acts independently no matter who is in charge.