A small forum for both school and city candidates at Robson Ranch this week underscored the diversity of constituents in Denton’s far-flung District 3, as well as their wide-ranging interests, from students who live on or near the University of North Texas campus and the older adults at Robson Ranch to residents in some of the city’s most established neighborhoods.
Two candidates are challenging the incumbent’s bid for re-election. A retired businessman, Jim Engelbrecht, 65, is seeking his third and final term on the Denton City Council. University of North Texas student Griffen Rice, 21, and local technology consultant Brendan Carroll, 43, both seek to unseat him.
District 3 begins on the western edge of central Denton, where several multistory student apartments have been erected in the past two years. It sweeps out to the small ranches around Denton Enterprise Airport and Westpark, the city’s industrial park, and down to Robson Ranch on the southwest edge. A retirement community of more than 1,400 homes, Robson Ranch was moved from District 4 to District 3 after redistricting following the 2010 census.
During the forum, which was conducted by the Robson Ranch Republican Club, there were no questions from the audience; candidates only gave a short, prepared speech. Yet, themes have already emerged in the race, with some emanating from recent controversies. Some residents are concerned about the city’s risk in a proposed public-private partnership that would build a city-owned convention center on UNT property. Others are concerned about large capital and utility projects needed for a fast-growing city, some of which go before the voters while others do not.
In addition to the District 3 race, Denton’s spring ballot will include races in District 2, District 4 and a proposition election, asking voters to authorize the city to form a natural gas utility in the industrial park.
In District 1, incumbent Kevin Roden drew no opponent.
The election is May 11. Early voting begins April 29. Thursday is the last day to register to vote.
Carroll said he has watched some issues become contentious and thinks they merit better outreach measures, such as town hall meetings. However, he sees the council sometimes making policy that, rather than following the spirit of the law, comes from finding vagueness in the law.
“We don’t want to get into situations where the citizens doubt us,” Carroll said.
He is reaching out to new people in District 3 to talk about issues. He hopes one day to have a web-based tool that delivers city agenda packets that helps people not only follow issues, but also give feedback.
“There are tools at the state and federal level that do this, although not as advanced as I’m hoping to deliver,” said Carroll, who works in computer technology.
As voters mobilize around an issue, it becomes another powerful tool for local governance, he said. Many Denton residents view the state’s rules for new oil and gas production methods as lax and have turned to the city for help.
“The city has probably done what they believe they can do,” Carroll said, adding that perhaps officials were leery of doing more. “Maybe they didn’t think they had the public support.”
During the previous candidate forum at Denia Recreation Center, Carroll told the crowd that civil disobedience was an option in communicating to the state.
“That is a very powerful tool to exert political pressure and achieve political gain — I think we know that,” Carroll said, adding that he didn’t think that was something the City Council could do. “But if a large number of people felt that way, and I felt powerless as a City Council member, I might join them, or at least recommend we use it as a tool.”
In his speeches, Engelbrecht has said that keeping the city moving forward is a theme in the election.
To represent the many diverse constituencies in District 3, as he deliberates on issues with fellow council members, he tries to “keep an ear to the ground,” he said. Outreach helps too, he said, and while he works to find more leaders, he has seen the barriers for many people to serve the community, too.
“Frequently, they are just so busy with their own stuff,” he said.
Sometimes it’s clear when an issue needs to go to the voters; for example, the city’s recent election to rebuild streets.
“You can put your hands on those metrics, that signal this is the point [of needing voter approval],” he said. “We’ve done an analysis; we can get an assessment.”
But other times — for example, a public-private partnership for the proposed convention center, the proposed natural gas utility in the industrial park or a shift in long-term borrowing practices — it’s less clear that an election is needed to represent the will of the people, especially for projects that have been so long in the making, he said.
“I think that’s why you see the council waffling around,” Engelbrecht said.
Even when the council works to represent the will of the people — for example, in adopting new rules for gas drillers or for payday and title lenders — controversy remains.
The Texas Legislature has passed some laws and directed some rule-making to make it easier for businesses in the marketplace, pre-empting what cities try to do for the health and safety of residents.
Engelbrecht said he knows the city’s new rules don’t do everything residents hope for.
“We’ve got to follow the law and it is problematic,” Engelbrecht said.
Rice said students have many of the same concerns other residents have, and he hopes to serve in a way that includes their voices without marginalizing any other constituents.
“Students complain about the roads, too,” Rice said. A lot of money spent at some of the festivals comes from students, and those events and other facets of the city’s quality of life have many students falling in love with Denton and staying, he said.
Local politics are poorly understood and advertised on campus, so Rice is doing what he can to educate students about how local politics affects them, he said.
“I’ve gotten a few complaints about code enforcement, too, from students getting notices to mow the small square of grass in the front yard,” Rice said.
Like other residents, students are concerned about the proliferation of gas wells and other production equipment inside the city, Rice said.
He wants to advocate for sustainable development, which could include a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
“Especially with fracking, we have to have a cleaner, healthier city,” Rice said, adding that it didn’t have to come at the expense of getting out the oil and gas that’s needed.
Before the city considers putting the utility on the west side of town, there needs to be some consideration of whether that public investment will bring high-paying jobs and whether even more tax breaks will be needed.
As for the convention center, Rice has his doubts whether the proposed public-private partnership for the convention center and hotel has broad support among city residents and whether Denton should be competing with other cities whose convention centers aren’t doing well either.
“The convention center needs to go to a public vote,” Rice said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.
Born in: Washington, Mo.
Education: bachelor's degree, Park University, Parkville, Mo. 1976; M.B.A., Northwest Missouri State University, 1977; doctoral studies, Oklahoma State University 1979-82
Experience: active-duty officer, U.S. Army, 1966-76; instructor, various universities, 1976-85; sales representative, Unitrin, 1985-2004; part-time teaching and investment, 2004-11; retired
Born in: Wichita Falls
Education: diploma, Denton High School, 1986; paralegal certification, 1987; attended the University of North Texas, 1987-89, 1999-2001
Experience: residential and commercial construction and contracting, 1990-present; computer systems management, 1998-2007; entrepreneurial business startups, 2007-present; information technology consultant and owner, Blooming Technologies, 1997-present
Born in: Austin
Education: diploma, Liberal Arts and Science Academy, 2010; majoring in philosophy, economics and political science, University of North Texas, 2010-present
Experience: intern, office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, summer 2009; child care worker, 2011-12; intern, office of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, fall 2012