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GUNTER — A railroad has, in the literal sense, always divided Gunter. The St. Louis, San Francisco and Texas Railway was built in 1902 through land donated by rancher Jonathan "Jot" Gunter for the North Texas city that now bears his name. The track passes less than 100 yards from City Hall — the frequent din of rumbling freight cars sometimes requiring a pause of city business.
More than a century after the first locomotive passed through, political acrimony has torn the city apart. And the railroad is to blame.
For more than a month, the municipal government has been in a state of paralysis. All five city council members quit in December, citing a hostile work environment. The city manager is gone, too. And the vacant council spots won’t be filled for at least four months, when a special election is scheduled in May.
In the meantime, the mayor is unable to appoint even temporary replacements, because that would require a quorum of council members to show up and approve them. Those members, whose sparring with the mayor influenced their resignations, have refused to do so. And so basic city functions, like platting new homes or funding sewer improvements, are on hold.
The origins of the crisis can be traced back to a warm evening in May, when the council unanimously and without discussion approved a development agreement with BNSF Railway that would clear the way for a 949-acre rail facility, the largest development in the history of Gunter. The city had not told residents this was coming; officials never posted details on the city website, nor sought any public input.
Residents, many of whom recently moved to Gunter because it offered a quiet country life, were furious. Their outrage fueled mistrust, which in turn sowed conspiracy. Over the next seven months, the dispute over the rail yard metastasized into a bitter power struggle that mirrored the coarsening of national politics — knee-jerk allegations that opponents have committed crimes, a refusal to compromise and an inability to agree on a shared truth.
The symptoms of this civic collapse are ones that ail many local communities: a council out of touch with constituents, a populist mayor angling for more power, public meetings where angry residents cross the line into abuse, and a vacuum of reliable information filled by social media.
“It’s a mess,” said Jason Padgett, a former Gunter school board member. “If I could solve the problem with the snap of my fingers, it’d probably be to elect new council members and a new mayor, and start fresh. … I’m just praying for the community.”
Gunter sits at the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, the most populous region in Texas and one of the fastest-growing in the country. Highway 289 runs north from Frisco through the new boomtowns of Prosper and Celina, through the windshield a blur of tidy subdivisions and strip malls. Four lanes drop to two just south of Gunter, where developers have recently purchased large tracts for housing. New homes priced above $600,000 interrupt acres of farmland, tilled to reveal dark soil of the fertile Blackland Prairie.
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But for now, it’s still a small town with a population of about 2,500. All of the city’s elected officials are unpaid; four of the council members are retirees. They are people like Cheyrl Cohagan, 72, who was the principal at Gunter’s highly-rated elementary school for 32 years. She had credibility: The school district and its Gunter High Tigers — who residents will remind you won state for football the past two years — are the pride of the community.
Cohagan joined the council in 2019, devoid of political ambition, with hopes of revitalizing downtown and addressing badly needed street repairs. She and the other council members — four out of five of whom spoke to The Texas Tribune — said they thought the development would help solve a looming problem: the city’s ability to pay for infrastructure and services in the coming population boom.
A company representative said during a presentation at the May meeting that the rail yard would create hundreds of jobs and about $1 million annually in tax revenue — a major boost to the city’s $4.3 million budget.
And even if Cohagan and her colleagues wanted to block it, they had little leverage against BNSF, the largest freight railroad in the United States. Half of the site is in unincorporated Grayson County, where the city has no authority. The deal included an agreement for the city to annex that land, allowing it to be taxed and subject to Gunter’s noise and other ordinances, in exchange for granting the railroad more favorable zoning for its parcel in the city.
“There didn’t appear to be any glowing red flags,” Cohagan said. “If I thought BNSF was that bad — which in the beginning, I didn’t think it was — I wouldn’t have voted for it.”
The backlash started at the next council meeting in June. By July, so did the calls for the council to resign. During public comment, residents said they worried about noise, pollution, traffic congestion, crime and declining property values.
Several recent transplants, who moved to Gunter to get away from the bustle of the city, said they would have settled elsewhere had they known the project was coming.
“I moved here for the residential, country life. I don’t want it being destroyed by having an industrial complex,” said one man, not identified in the meeting minutes.
To accommodate the crush of residents who suddenly wished to attend, the council meetings were moved from City Hall to the high school gym over the summer. The public comment period took on the atmosphere of a sporting event, with residents cheering speakers as they dressed down the council.
Some of the criticism took on a conspiratorial tone. Not only was the council incompetent, some residents said, but corrupt.
Once a respected educator in a community filled with her former students, Cohagan had become a pariah.
The council said they did not know about the development agreement until it came to them for a vote in May. But residents repeatedly accused Cohagan and her colleagues of lying about the timeline and of secretly negotiating deals with BNSF for themselves. A records request by a resident uncovered a 2021 email the then-city manager sent to the council stating the railroad was planning some sort of industrial development in Gunter.
“Cheyrl, your legacy is ruined. All those children up at the school — that is who you’re supposed to protect. And you’re not,” said resident Deirdre Diamond at a July city council meeting where she also called Councilwoman Connie Eubanks “the biggest liar on the face of the planet.”
That was just the beginning. For the next several months, the community anger over the rail development intensified, growing increasingly personal in a place where everyone knows everyone.
“Y’all lost your friends, your church partners, your dinner partners. We don’t wave any more when you drive by,” resident Jennifer Jolly said during an October meeting. “You are the most hated people in Gunter.”
The council’s lack of transparency, several residents said, reminded them of President Joe Biden — an epithet in a county where just a quarter of voters backed the president.
“Where was the dollar sign that was put here to make you sign this paper behind our backs?” asked a woman unidentified in the meeting minutes. “And you know we’re not going to believe you, right?”
“If this stuff happened in liberal Los Angeles County, you guys would be facing public integrity charges,” said resident Brian Ward, referencing the alleged secret meetings.
Council members acknowledged to the Tribune that residents have a right to express dissatisfaction, even anger, with decisions they make. But in some instances they said the public comments crossed the line into outright abuse. At times, the raucous crowds made members feel unsafe.
“I felt it was like a mob mentality,” Cohagan said. “You just don’t know, nowadays, that someone isn’t going to take a gun out.”
The council tried to float a compromise in August. It would impose stricter zoning on the city BNSF land, limiting the kinds of businesses that could be built next to the railroad, while still annexing the county parcel. But the residents who spoke at that month’s meeting made clear they would accept no deal with the railroad.
So on Oct. 19, the council agreed to cancel the development agreement, their original sin. They hoped it would allow a reset with the community. But lingering suspicions of malfeasance carried over to the following meetings.
Cohagan was hospitalized for three days in November with sharp stomach pain. Doctors diagnosed gastritis, which can be caused by stress. Cohagan said her body was responding to the emotional toll of constantly being harassed at council meetings.
The Dec. 6 meeting lasted until 1 a.m. A resident badgered Councilwoman Eubanks over how much time she had spent talking on the phone with the city manager. The council and mayor sparred over a land use agreement. The city attorney quit.
Councilman Spencer Marks, who declined to be interviewed, resigned on Dec. 8. The remaining four members — Cohagan, Eubanks, Larry Peters and Patsy Whitaker, followed suit four days later. In their resignation letters, they cited a toxic work environment at City Hall and disrespect from residents.
“I am no longer proud to be part of the decisions, meetings, and the unfair assessments and threatening, unruly conduct of the selected citizens who have moved to the forefront of the community,” Whitaker wrote in her resignation letter.
The one elected official who didn’t resign? Karen Souther, the mayor. The meeting in May when the council approved the rail yard deal was her first. She signed off on the deal and initially praised BNSF for its transparency and for “genuinely working to create a win-win for all of us.”
She changed her position once she saw how unpopular the project was among residents. Council members said Souther fueled the public’s resentment in an effort to make her look more like a hero.
Souther sees it differently. In her view, she inherited a dysfunctional government and was thwarted at every turn by conniving council members used to getting their way.
A resident of Gunter since 2021, Souther said her mayoral campaign tapped into a widespread feeling by residents that city officials were untrustworthy. A month before the election, scandal offered credence to that claim: The then-city manager was fired after being charged with domestic assault.
Souther defeated the incumbent, who served more than a decade as councilman and mayor, by 17 votes.
Her relations with the council got off on the wrong foot. She said in an interview that the members never congratulated her on her victory. Nor did Souther reach out to them. One of the few things the council and Souther agree on is they never sought to know each other on a personal level outside of city meetings.
Souther, who previously served briefly on the board of a Harris County municipal utility district, has a pugnacity more common in big-city politics. She is quick to cast council members as adversaries — Cohagan “probably hates me the most” — and is unafraid of tussling with residents on social media.
A charismatic communicator, Souther possesses political instincts that the council members lack — perhaps because they never previously needed them.
Cohagan faulted the mayor for letting residents attack them out of turn during meetings and for not defending the council when they made baseless allegations. For example, when a resident asked if there were any other behind-the-scenes contracts with the railroad, Souther responded, “I’m happy to let any of the council members answer that because I honestly don’t know.”
She cultivated a base of supporters, who praised her commitment to transparency at meetings.
“Our mayor has integrity, honesty,” said Desiree Devolk on July 20, in a speech that drew applause. “She has standards and she’s a badass.”
Souther said she didn’t defend the council members when residents accused them of corruption because she believes some of the claims to be true. She said council members have repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by collectively receiving emailed briefings from staff and meeting regularly in pairs with the city manager.
Two lawyers who work with the Open Meetings Act said those situations would only be illegal if the council privately discussed the content of these communications as a quorum (that is, three or more members). The council members deny doing so.
For Souther, her savvy politicking of the situation, at the expense of the council members, has boosted her reputation and her power.
Souther embraced a referendum, initiated by a citizen petition, to switch the city to a strong-mayor form of government, which would abolish the position of city manager and give her more power over how the city is run. The debacle over the rail yard was a perfect explanation of why the change was needed, in her view. If council members didn’t know city staff were negotiating with BNSF, they had neglected their oversight role for two years.
She cast the choice in populist terms.
“You have seen the meetings and the behavior of a few,” Souther wrote on Facebook in October, endorsing what became known as Proposition A. “They care more about controlling me than they do about serving YOU.”
The proposition passed narrowly in November. Before the vote, Souther had told residents that the then-city manager would shift to a similar role called city administrator. Souther said after researching the efficiency of city government, she has decided the position is not yet needed.
For now, the administrator role will be filled on an unpaid basis by her.
Daniel Seibel moved to Gunter two years ago from rapidly developing Celina, to “get out where there’s room.” A Marine Corps veteran, he lives in a brick house on a quiet street and is happy his stepson can attend an excellent public school.
He is among the residents who believe corruption is at the heart of the BNSF deal. What’s more likely, he reasons, that council members knew nothing about the largest development in city history until one day it showed up on a meeting agenda? Or that they held secret meetings to negotiate the development behind closed doors?
As for bribery, Seibel said it is the only explanation for why the council would approve such a lousy deal for the city. He is part of a group of residents who have been digging into the city council.
“We’ve done absolutely everything we can do as citizens in gathering information,” Seibel said. “Without an investigation, we can’t get any deeper than that.”
He said the group has submitted a packet of evidence to the Grayson County district attorney. He said they have also informed the offices of Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and a local municipal court judge. None have shown interest in intervening, Seibel said.
The distrust in Gunter has sprung from a lack of reliable information about what’s going on. There is no newspaper in town. The city, despite all of the rancor over the past year, issued not a single press release about the rail project. The city secretary records meetings but does not post them online. This news vacuum is filled, mostly, by social media. Private Facebook groups like “Gunter Community,” “Gunter Informed” and “Gunter Moms OR Dads” are the new public square — sort of.
Administrators regulate membership and sometimes delete posts they find objectionable. Some residents complain that this regulation of speech is capricious. They suspect posts are deleted for political reasons.
The Tribune reviewed the Gunter Community page with the permission of its administrator, Cyndy Davis. Mostly the posts chronicle daily rural life — loose horses, a complaint about target shooting too close to livestock.
Many posts from the mayor are shared. But there are none recently from council members. They can’t; they’ve been blocked, an action Davis said she took because they “abandoned the city.”
When Renée Marler moved to Gunter three years ago, she was dismayed with the dearth of reliable information. She said the private Facebook groups, when it came to discussing city politics, became hotbeds for disinformation spread by the mayor or her supporters. A former newspaper reporter, Marler said she used to post corrections to false claims, but the administrators have since blocked her.
The inability to agree on a shared sense of truth is not unique to Gunter, Marler said, but a reflection of how the divisiveness that now defines national politics has infected local communities.
“You have to pick a side, and I don’t like it,” Marler said. “When someone tries to come at you with facts — like literally, black-and-white, on-paper facts, you don’t want to believe it.”
Marler started a magazine called Ourgunter in 2018. It steered clear of opinion and included community news and tools for civic engagement, like a voter guide for last year’s mayoral election. It now exists online as a public Facebook page with more than 4,000 followers, where Marler livestreams council meetings.
Marler said she feels a responsibility to inform residents since the city communicates little to the public — if not a journalist, then who? But even the woman seeking to be the city’s impartial narrator faces an uphill battle.
A fellow resident texted the Tribune, unsolicited, to warn Marler was “not a good source.”
There is a tentative deal to resolve the council vacancy crisis. The council members are open to attending a meeting to conduct time-sensitive city business — like renewing a sales tax key to the city’s budget — with the assurance that the mayor will not attempt to appoint interim replacements before the special election in May.
The plan would allow the city government to function again, albeit temporarily. But whether it will be a first step toward community reconciliation is unclear. Some residents remain so distrustful that they worry the council members will find a way to resurrect the BNSF deal. The railroad told the Tribune it still plans to build the project — but without the deal with the city, Gunter would lose out on some future tax revenue.
In interviews, the council members conceded that they made mistakes. They could have been more transparent about the rail yard project and solicited public input. And maybe they could have had a better working relationship with the mayor if they had tried harder to get to know her.
Cohagan is introspective. She said each city official needs to admit their role in the dysfunction. For her part, she said she regrets too often digging in her heels when conflict arose.
“I failed as a council member the last nine months to lead and bring unity as we addressed our first major issue on our continued path of growth,” Cohagan said. “I pray our new staff, mayor, council and residents will stop the divide (and) put our differences aside.”
Souther is defiant. She said she has just one regret: signing off on the development agreement before understanding how the public felt about it. As for her relationship with the council members, she said the city is good without them.
“I wouldn’t have done anything different,” Souther said, “because I exposed what I needed to be exposed.”
The sun sets on Gunter City Hall on Jan. 11, 2024.
Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune
The city government crisis has become a source of embarrassment for Gunter residents. And many are tired of the sniping between elected officials and residents.
“We all know that growth and expansion are coming and in our first major test to handle things we’ve imploded catastrophically,” David Hall wrote on Facebook. “If we don’t learn to handle things maturely… nothing will be able to save us from ourselves.”
Disclosure: BNSF Railway Company and Facebook have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
We the Texans is supported by Common Cause Texas and the Henry Luce Foundation.
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