Denton City Council candidates differentiated themselves on a couple of key topics during the first forum of the season, conducted this week by the Denia Area Community Group.
Former City Council member Linnie McAdams served as moderator Monday night, rounding up questions from the audience that ranged from topics in the headlines to those bandied about the water cooler. The candidates’ answers in both types of topics allowed some of the sharpest differences to emerge among them.
A proposed convention center and hotel has grabbed local headlines for more than a year, with a developer negotiating for a public-private partnership that would bring the city a full-service hotel along with space to lure much larger gatherings. The current talks between the city and the developer, O’Reilly Hospitality Management, brought many and varied responses from the candidates. But another question — focused on the current council’s frequent unanimous votes — also elicited a wide range of answers.
Except for Travis Trawick, a candidate for District 2, all the candidates attended the two-hour event that included chicken sandwiches, deviled eggs and other refreshments celebrating the city’s new ordinance that allows residents to keep chickens in their backyard under certain conditions.
Incumbents Dalton Gregory and Jim Engelbrecht are both running for their third and final terms in District 2 and District 3, respectively. In addition to Trawick, Gregory also faces a challenge from Al Sanchez. Engelbrecht also has two challengers — Brendan Carroll and Griffen Rice. Joey Hawkins and Phil Kregel have squared off to replace Chris Watts in District 4.
On the residents’ questions about the convention center, Gregory underscored that the city wouldn’t be paying for the hotel, a common misconception in the community, only the convention center. He said he believed the talks should continue and could endorse the project as long as he was “convinced that the taxpayers are protected.”
But Sanchez underscored that the developer’s proposal to the city to build the project was unsolicited. To him, that signaled the city probably shouldn’t get involved with such a public-private partnership. However, he said, “we should take it to the public; either they want it or they don’t.”
Engelbrecht underscored that the city built, and outgrew, the Civic Center and it is appropriate for cities to be involved in such projects.
“The devil is in the details,” Engelbrecht said, adding that the council could still send the issue to the voters.
Carroll told the audience that the facility was on the council’s wish list for 18 years, but couldn’t find evidence of a substantial public discussion about it prior to 2008.
“I don’t think the city needs to take your money and apply it to this,” Carroll said.
Rice predicted that if the public-private partnership for the convention center deal did go before the voters, the proposition would fail.
“Our town is too small for a project this size,” Rice said. “The funds can go to other projects, like roads.”
Hawkins called the project visionary, given Denton’s population growth. He said the proposal has its positives, and the business plan has worked in other cities and would allow Denton to lure convention business it has been losing.
But he agreed that residents should vote on the matter.
Kregel called the project “foolish” and said the city shouldn’t be trying to compete with Grapevine, Frisco and other midsize cities that are easier to get to from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
“It’s been on the wish list for 18 years because the community doesn’t want it,” Kregel said.
To the council’s frequent unanimous votes, the challengers and newcomers positioned themselves as being willing to run counter to popular thinking on an issue or idea.
Rice said he wouldn’t have a problem being the lone voter, especially if he’s consulted the District 3 constituents and goes with what they want. Hawkins said he valued his sleep at night, and feels that if he’s as informed as possible, he will be able to vote his conscience.
Kregel said the many 7-0 votes “really gets my gears” and he would be proud to be the only one voting “no,” if needed. Sanchez said being open-minded and educated was key. He’d prefer to persuade the others if he could, but being the lone vote was OK, too.
Carroll said that challenging the current, popular thinking on an issue wasn’t a negative thing. “It’s from challenges that we come up with good ideas,” he said.
But Gregory said he works hard to listen to all sides to move an issue forward. He also studies his fellow council members and knows the votes aren’t always there. For example, he cited a desire for a stronger smoking ban than the one the city recently adopted.
Engelbrecht echoed that, saying a lot of work and interaction is behind many of the council’s 7-0 votes. “Unlike at the national level, we try to compromise,” Engelbrecht said.
Residents also posed questions about the city’s philosophical shift in how it finances some long-term debt, the number of closed City Council meetings, Denton’s population growth, regulating natural gas production inside the city limits, the bike and pedestrian plan, the smoking ban, food insecurity and the homeless. The differentiation in the candidates’ answers to these questions was less sharply drawn, with challengers admitting on some occasions that they didn’t know enough about the city’s inner workings to answer the question fully.
“They’re going to need a lot more education,” said David Zoltner, a former candidate, after the forum.
About 30 residents attended the forum, including several other former candidates for City Council. Current District 4 council member Chris Watts also attended Monday night’s forum. Because of term limits, he is ineligible to run for a fourth term. He does not plan on endorsing a candidate to succeed him, he said.
The next scheduled forum will be conducted by the Denton Firefighters Association at 7 p.m. April 15 in the community room at the Central Fire Station.
Karen DeVinney of the Denton Neighborhood Alliance said Monday that her group is planning its forum for April 19. Representatives of the local chapters of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters have not yet announced forum dates.
The election is May 11. The last day to register to vote is Thursday, April 11. Early voting begins April 29.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at and via Twitter @phwolfeDRC.