Down in the Rio Grande Valley, politicians are wary when the O.W.L.S. (Objective Watchers of the Legal System) are in their chambers. If this group is in attendance in their bright red shirts, politicians will begin to dot their i’s and cross their t’s; otherwise, Fern McClaugherty will take the opportunity during open forum to address their inefficiency.

McClaugherty’s first political involvement was working for Ronald Reagan during both of his presidential campaigns. “Back then there were not many Republicans in the Valley, and it was hard for a shy person to make calls, but I did it.” However, she didn’t become active in local politics until she met the O.W.L.S. It was this encounter, she states, that changed her life forever.

In the early 2000s, she remembers reading an ad in the newspaper to attend Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court if she “wanted to pay less in property taxes.” “I didn’t even know what commissioner’s court was,” she recalls. “I didn’t know the public could get involved.” During her first meeting, she realized the consensus inside the chambers was to raise the tax rate from 51 to 65 cents; Fern couldn’t believe that the county wanted more money. At her second meeting, she was tapped on the shoulder by “Momma O.W.L.” Virginia Townsend. Townsend asked her, “You want to fight this?” Since then, elected officials across the RGV know Fern by her first name, as she has become very vocal in speaking on behalf of those who need help.

For 30-plus years, residents in the Valley have relied on the O.W.L.S. to be a watchdog for the taxpayer. The group initially began with Virginia Townsend and Nancy Shary in the 70s, but over the years Fern has become the spokesperson for the group, and you can find her at various local governmental meetings scrutinizing the agenda and commenting on politicians’ tardiness.

She says politicians don’t always appreciate their attendance. “Most times, when somebody is doing something wrong, they don’t like to have us in there.”

Whenever Fern speaks on an agenda item to be voted on, she reminds politicians of their role as public servants and pleads for them to “think of the taxpayers.” She states, “We speak for the people who can’t get their voices heard. We have never gone anywhere without someone from the public calling us to attend the meeting.”

“All we ask for is good governance,” she continues. “I really enjoy the O.W.L.S. and helping people.”

Fern is a woman of humble beginnings. Born in Odessa, her family moved to the RGV in the ‘60s as her father sought better opportunities to support his family. She recalls her father’s strong work ethic, which in turn explains her fiscally conservative view of taxpayers’ money. Fern dabbled in real estate before she became entrenched in her involvement with politics. 

Married for 52 years and mother of two sons, her pride and joy is in her grandchildren. She keeps her family out of politics, for fear of retaliation towards them. She feels forever grateful for her supportive husband. “I thank the Lord, he’s very understanding,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to leave without cooking dinner or have had late nights at city council. In the end, my husband knows I do all of this for my grandchildren. It’s their future I worry about.”

Fern stresses she hopes her involvement will enhance transparency in elections and accountability in government. “It’s so heartbreaking to know people are getting paid as little as $10 to vote,” she states. “It also saddens me how it’s so hard for the ‘average Joe’ to contact their representative, except before elections. This needs to change.”

In November 2017, she took a gamble with politics and ran for City of Edinburg Council Place 1. She ran with taxpayers’ interests in mind and promised she wouldn’t be bought or bribed. Even though she didn’t win her race, she attended the swearing-in ceremony of her opponent. During the open forum that immediately followed, she said she’d faithfully continue to attend city council meetings and keep an eye out for wasteful spending.

In her downtime, she enjoys shopping with her best friend. Fern is also a certified NRA instructor and a State of Texas-licensed gun instructor for open carry. She’s a strong Second Amendment supporter and an advocate for teaching women self-defense.

When people want transparency, or want to learn how to shoot guns, they call Fern.

Otherwise, if you don’t find her reprimanding politicians at city council meetings, Fern can be found caring for her two beloved grandchildren — a refreshing break from the political arena, as her grandkids only know her as “Granny.”

Miriam Cepeda

Miriam Cepeda is the Rio Grande Valley Bureau Chief for Texas Scorecard. A second-generation Mexican American, she is both fluent in English and Spanish and has been influential in grassroots organizing and conservative engagement within Hispanic communities. If you don’t find her “Trumping”, you can find her saving animals, running her dog, hiking the Andes, or volunteering with the U.S. National Park Service.