Stafford Mayor Leonard Scarcella delivered the annual State of the City Address last Wednesday, and it could be described in one word – divisive.
I have consistently welcomed Scarcella’s candor and his tendency to speak his mind. In a world of PR handlers who measure and polish every word, interviewing Scarcella – Stafford’s Mayor since 1969 – has been a journalist’s dream.
But last week’s hour-long State of the City address was nothing short of an embarrassment.
Scarcella read through a 7,000 word, 22-page speech with maybe two or three pauses, showing a total lack of self-awareness.
Sure, Scarcella covered the city’s goals and challenges, but the majority of the speech was a tirade that targeted his growing list of political opponents.
The speech had such a negative vibe that Stafford council member A.J. Honore left the panel and went into the audience to listen.
“I thought if I heard it from a citizen’s perspective, I thought I’d hear it differently,” Honore said. “That didn’t change anything. The Mayor took the opportunity to demean the good efforts of the council. Stafford used to have prosperity by default. Now, we must have prosperity by design.”
Said council member Wen Guerra, “He threw rocks at everybody. It’s not conducive to have a mayor with that type of demeanor.”
Early in the speech, Scarcella criticized the six-member council’s decision to share their comments after State of the City – capped at five minutes per member.
The Mayor was angry about that, making the apples-to-oranges comparison of the U.S. President allowing 535 legislators to respond to the State of the Union.
Scarcella even referred to himself twice in the third-person when discussing his 65-to-35 percent mayoral victory over council member Robert Sorbet last spring.
He then went on to accuse Sorbet, who is expected to run for council re-election this spring, of undermining his administration.
Sorbet raised the issues of $7 million debt in sales tax re-payment to the State of Texas, and the underfunding of municipal pensions. He also raised the urgency of renewing the contract with the Stafford Centre’s management company because it expires in September.
Scarcella responded by saying the no interest payments on the $7 million make it more favorable to pay it back to the state over 25 years, and that the pensions are comparable to most Texas cities.
WHAT’S THE CAUSE?
A large part of the problem is the fact that Scarcella has seldom been challenged during his 46 years as mayor.
That’s starting to change.
Yes, Scarcella easily won his 24th re-election last year, but he was disappointed last year at losing the presidency of the Stafford Economic Development Council (which is made up of the mayor and council).
Scarcella had been president of the Stafford EDC since its 1999 inception, but the rest of the members voted in Guerra as EDC President last year.
“He’s gotten really ugly since I became president of the EDC,” Guerra said. “There are innovative ideas, and he can’t grasp him. His decision process has been kind of lacking.”
The Mayor’s only reliable ally on council is longtime council member Cecil Willis.
Even Virginia Rosas, elected last spring and expected to be a Scarcella ally, expressed disappointment in the State of the City address. A former Stafford MSD (SMSD) board member, Rosas emphasized her support for the school district and its leaders, whom Scarcella criticized during his speech.
Scarcella likes to tout the Stafford accomplishments that occurred under his watch – the creation of SMSD, the opening of the Stafford Centre and Stafford Civic Center and the abolition of municipal property tax.
But it’s important to note that those things happened when the Mayor and Council worked together.
While few can deny Scarcella’s impact on Stafford, his stubbornness has made him a difficult teammate. It’s resulted in missed-opportunities for the city he professes to love so much – including a revenue-generating outlet mall at the Street Level Investments (former Texas Instruments) property.
The Mayor belabored Stafford’s reliance on the tax dollars of energy-related businesses, but offered few solutions other than to hunker down fiscally.
Guerra said several Stafford residents have asked him to run for mayor next year. He hasn’t made a decision yet, but Scarcella said he’s already prepared to go negative should that happen.
“I already have the billboard location picked out,” Scarcella said. “I’m going to have a billboard with a photo of Wen sleeping through a meeting, and the election will be over after that.”
Guerra isn’t worried about the possibility of that billboard standing above a busy Stafford road.
“I have difficulty staying awake at times when he rambles and rambles,” Guerra said. “A lot of council members go to sleep on Leonard.”
In paranoid fashion more associated with a dictator than the popularly elected leader of a small city, Scarcella attempted to assess his political opponents’ mindset.
“They want to see the city crash to its knees and go to a desperate state, so they can say it’s all of the mayor’s fault,” Scarcella said.
The Mayor is entitled to stand up for his views and policies, but a Scarcella-versus-everyone approach isn’t productive for anyone in Stafford.