ITALY — In a town of about 2,000 people, less than 30 minutes from the county seat, a new mayor is cleaning house — department by department.

Most recently, he terminated the Italy police chief and sergeant within the last month, and that’s brought up concerns by residents. Too many changes, too quickly? Are they changes within reason? Did the hiring process happen according to policy? Steven Farmer, the man who’s only been mayor in the small town for about seven months, said he’s now explaining those changes to those he serves.

Prior to Farmer taking the helm in the mayor-run town in about August, the council voted to take all hiring rights out of the mayor’s job responsibility. Thought it’s unclear how long ago that occurred, in the first month, Farmer showed council members that a mayor in a mayor-run town should legally have the right to hire and fire city employees, he said.

“I’m very hands-on. I want to get the city back to where it once was,” Farmer said. “I’m a hometown guy. I moved back here by choice to raise my son, and I love this town. I’ve got friends and family in this town, and I graduated high school from here. I just want to see it back to where it was, where the community was always together, and was always doing community activities. There’s not very much involvement compared to what it used to be. I would like to see people get more involved, but right now it just seems like we’re having a lot of issues. And partly, I’ll take the blame because I have made a lot of changes. People don’t like change, and I’m not necessarily saying my way is the right way, but I do know it needed to be changed. It’s tough, but every change I’ve made has paid off for the better.”

Since then, he’s gone department by department, reshuffling and dismissing city employees, he said, with the latest being the appointment of interim police chief Cameron Beckham on Jan. 8, who’s expected to be named as the official chief at Tuesday’s city council meeting, according to the agenda.

“Per state law, it gives me the power to appoint a department head, and then it’s taken up to city council, which that is in the process,” Farmer said. “Going into the changes, I’ve got a list I was making that I’ve noticed as I was watching whether I was going to be able to make a change or not. There were a lot of things going on [with the police department].”

From unaddressed issues swirling on social media, to a lack of accountability, investigations, proper equipment and leadership by police officers, to residents’ concerns over city officials spending taxpayer funds on questionable items, Farmer said the situation wasn’t something that developed overnight.

“Every department head is brand new. We have two brand new people on our admin side of things, and we have a new city administrator,” Farmer said. “I’m basically having to start over, and rework the whole city, and we’ve had a lot of problems. A lot of overspending. A lot of misuse of city funds in the past with our previous department heads, and now I have department heads here who are looking at the money and watching what they spend, and making sure it’s spent for what’s right by the community. They care, and they have a personal, invested interest in the community.”

At least twice in January 2015, while Farmer was serving as an Italy city councilman, multiple residents and Farmer brought concerns about city spending to the council’s attention. At one point, a called session was held where Farmer urged the discussion of “disturbing spending” on city bills between 2011 and 2015 and said the city shouldn’t be paying for workers’ lunches, cakes and flowers and was putting the city in jeopardy of being over budget and possibly violating the penal code, according to the minutes of the Jan. 20, 2015 meeting.

At the time, some council members agreed with Farmer and urged more accountability, or the city wouldn’t be able to move forward. The mayor pro tem even admitted the misuse of funds had been ongoing, and that the council had never told anyone funds couldn’t be spent on items like water,

gatorade, coffee, lunches, sugar and cream, the minutes stated. Because Farmer brought the issue to the attention of the council, the council members ultimately voted to approve all of the bills without the unnecessary items.

Farmer had only been on city council for a year, his only other elected office held, before he decided to run for mayor. But spending examples like that could be just one example of why Farmer said he’s trying to get the city back on track.

He relies heavily on the two main handbooks in his office for guidance — the Texas Local Government code and the Texas Penal Code.

“I read them all the time, especially my local government code,” Farmer said. “Basically, it tells me what I can and can’t do as the mayor, and as a strong mayor in a mayor-run city. If you look at the state law, it says I am the CEO of the municipality. Pretty much, I run the day-to-day operations here, versus a city manager form of government. I’m really involved, and there are some issues out there. I was voted in to do what’s best for the community, meaning if I have to make a change, then that’s what I have to do. Am I going to blast it all over Facebook? No, I’m not. I’m not always going to tell the reasons why either because No. 1, I don’t want to ruin someone’s name and No. 2, I want to make sure the transition goes over smoothly.”

He understands in his role, the community will talk, and that a lot of that talk happens on social media, but he doesn’t pay any mind to it, he said, adding he’s keeping his eye on the long-term future of the city and not who’s friends with who in town. His focus is on accountability across the board, and that includes law enforcement changes, he said.

“As an officer, you take an oath. I take an oath in my position, and I have to hold myself to a higher standard of the law, meaning I’m not above the law, and that’s kind of where where have fallen in place with the change,” Farmer said.

The next step, he said, is to just get more residents to attend city council meetings, with a focus on transparency.

“I drive myself to do better each day, and it’s because of those people. I serve at the people’s pleasure, and at the end of the day, that’s why I ran. I wanted to do what’s right by them. Not right by me, because I don’t have a personal agenda. I want this city to grow, and I want this city to be cleaned up because my son is here. He loves this town, and he has friends here,” Farmer said, adding his mission is solely about uniting the community in a positive atmosphere. “Seeing my son play with his friends brings me back to the days when I was growing up here, and I’m not saying I want to take it back to where it was, but I am saying we need to take it back to where we had those community values.”

 

Contact Shelly Conlon at 469-517- 1456 or email sconlon@waxahachietx.com. Follow her on Twitter @ shellyconlonwdl.