By Nicole Cobler – American-Statesman Staff
MARTINDALE — The city of Martindale is so small every vote truly does matter.
Yet, election officials somehow lost track of who should be voting for mayor in May, forcing a redo next week for the first time anyone can remember in the history of the 160-year-old town.
Mistakes with the ballot during the May election allowed those outside the city — in Martindale’s extraterritorial jurisdiction — to improperly vote for mayor, while those in the city were allowed to vote on ETJ issues.
Following the election, Randy Bunker was sworn in as the new mayor, only to be ousted in September when a Caldwell County state District Court nullified the results and ordered incumbent Doyle Mosier to be reinstated until the race could be voted on again.
(Read the latest: Martindale finally elects a mayor)
“I believe (the ballot problems) definitely kept people from voting,” said Bunker, who won by five votes before the election was voided. “They walked out and never came back.”
Not mentioned in the court order was a problem on the ballot for four unopposed City Council races. The candidates’ names were listed on the ballot, but without boxes for voters to check, meaning no votes were officially cast. Those candidates will also appear on the ballots again next week. Early voting in the election ends Friday.
The problem with the mayoral race wasn’t discovered until about 11 a.m. on the day of the May vote. Officials then switched from electronic voting to paper ballots, allowing volunteers to verify where each resident lived before giving them the proper ballot.
Martindale, with a population of about 1,200, rarely has elections because there is often the same number of candidates as there are positions open, said Mosier, who contested the results after losing the race. In fact, he said, the only other election held in the past three years was in May 2014 to renew the city’s sales tax for street repairs. Only 11 people voted — nine for the tax and two against.
“That’s one of the limits of trying to govern,” Mosier said. “People don’t really care until things go wrong. We had a lot go wrong here lately, but I hope we have a lot of turnout next election.”
Mosier, 64, who is retired after working for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has been Martindale’s mayor since 2011. He had never faced an opponent until this year.
But after Mosier lost the race by five votes, 74-69, Bunker became mayor until September, when the court voided the election.
“It was like a bad movie,” Mosier said. “Even though everyone realized it was a flawed election, it’s still my responsibility as the losing candidate to contest it.”
Although Martindale is in Caldwell County, the town paired up with the San Marcos school district to defray election costs, which allowed the May vote to be administered by Hays County. The school district includes Martindale.
According to City Administrator Tom Forrest, it costs the city roughly $1,500 to run an election, but the cost can be lowered by teaming up with a school district or county. He couldn’t provide the exact cost to the city for next week’s election.
Forrest said two lists of voters — those in the city and those in the extraterritorial jurisdiction — were sent to Hays County to prepare the ballots. However, the two weren’t separated in the electronic voting machines for the May election. The city didn’t catch the error during early voting.
“There was a serious misunderstanding and oversight on our part,” Forrest said.
For the November election, Caldwell County will administer the election.
Just weeks after Bunker took the mayor’s seat, Martindale was hit hard by the May floods that swept across Central Texas. Five months later, the town is still picking up the pieces, with many residents continuing to repair damage to their homes.
It was up to Bunker to coordinate emergency services after the floods. He called it a “rough two months” but said his previous experience as flood plain coordinator in the area helped.
Mosier, who had to stand back as the new mayor learned the ropes, said the transition during such an extreme weather event made things even more difficult for the community.
“It caused all kinds of issues as far as coordination with FEMA,” Mosier said. “We’re digging out and trying to get back on track.”
It’s impossible not to notice tension between Mosier and Bunker. They each stop midsentence to collect themselves when describing the problems with the May election and the “other guy.”
“I try to avoid talking about him,” Mosier said of his opponent. “I just feel like, after the flood, the city really needs some basic, long-term direction and leadership.”
Bunker, 59, who has been a City Council member since 2013, said he ran for mayor because he thinks there is a lack of transparency about city expenditures.
“You can get more done on council, but some of the council members felt that we needed a liaison between the city and the council,” he said.
Despite their differences, Bunker and Mosier have one clear similarity — their pride in Martindale’s small-town lifestyle.
Once known for its prosperous cotton farming economy and later as the location of the 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie, the city about 10 miles east of San Marcos is in no rush to grow.
Mosier took in his neighbor when her house was destroyed during the flood. He has fought the exploding visitor traffic on the San Marco River by lobbying for legislation to allow local communities to regulate recreational activities.
Bunker, a retired stone mason, has been helping residents with odd jobs around town for years. His current project is creating a headstone with a Celtic cross for a family. Sitting on his porch with his dog by his side, Bunker brags about the events in Martindale that he’s seen grow over the years, like the annual chili cook-off and Independence Parade.
“A small town like this is just like when our country first started,” Bunker said. “(The mayor’s seat) is a nonpaid position, but it’s a civic duty to do it.”