By the time the audience finished trickling in, more than 50 people — including some present and former City Council members — listened to current council hopefuls in a forum organized by the Denton Neighborhood Alliance at City Hall Thursday night.
The candidates fielded questions from moderator Sue Smith related to tree preservation, street repair, the proposed convention center and the increase in the number of closed meetings by the City Council. Some of the liveliest discussion came after a question that put both incumbents and candidates on the spot.
Three of the city’s four council seats have a full slate of candidates. Incumbents Dalton Gregory and Jim Engelbrecht are running for their third and final terms in District 2 and District 3, respectively. Al Sanchez and Travis Trawick are challenging Gregory, although Trawick has stopped actively campaigning and was absent from the forum. 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.
Kevin Roden, the incumbent in District 1, drew no opponent in his bid for a second term, but he participated in the forum, giving spirited responses to many of the questions.
Residents with cable access can watch the forum broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on the Charter 25 or Verizon 39 channels. Rebroadcasts of the two-hour event begin Wednesday, and will run at 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8:30 a.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Mondays through May 11.
One resident asked whether, if made to, the candidate would choose between pleasing constituents or city staff, a question that nearly every candidate quickly redirected.
Engelbrecht said he would translate “pleasing” to “working with” the staff and the citizens, insisting there wasn’t a need to choose. Both his opponents, Rice and Carroll, bristled at the question, too, saying that running for office meant they expected to listen to their constituents and represent their concerns in the discussions.
Hawkins heard the assumption behind the question, saying the city staff wasn’t the enemy, although sometimes overwhelmed. He saw his role as bringing both sides to the table. Kregel pointed out that there can be a natural tension between a city council’s charge to do the right thing and the city manager’s charge to do things the right way.
Roden said he didn’t want to please the citizenry, but “activate” them instead. He said the city is filled with creative, talented residents, as is City Hall.
“But if people are putting up roadblocks, that will be dealt with,” Roden said.
Gregory said his job wasn’t to please the people, but to serve them. Yet, he understood the question, since as a former school principal, he considered waiting out school board members.
“Maybe there is some reluctance to implement policy,” Gregory said, adding that the council can apply quiet, but firm, pressure to meet the goal.
Sanchez said that educating constituents is an important part of resolving a problem, as is educating the staff.
“The staff may not be in tune with what the neighborhood is asking for,” Sanchez said. “When there’s no agreement, you have to educate both. They may be at odds because they don’t understand.”
This was the 11th forum organized by members of the Denton Neighborhood Alliance, a loose affiliation of neighborhood groups that started about 12 years ago, after residents along West Oak Street found themselves in a zoning fight with City Hall, according to one of the organizers, Patrice Lyke, a Denton resident and English professor at the University of North Texas.
Former City Council member Mike Cochran encouraged the group’s formation. That way, lessons learned, such as those acquired by the Oak Street neighborhoods, wouldn’t get lost if another neighborhood faced a similar issue, Lyke said. During that battle, residents did vast research on zoning in Denton, in Texas and in the United States in order to protect the vitality of their neighborhood and the historic value of their homes.
Lyke said the first forum was held at the Women’s Club building. The next year, the forum was moved to the City Hall chambers and taped for the community cable channel.
“Sometimes we’re clunky with it [the format], asking each question of each candidate down the dais; and we’re a little constricted being done in two hours,” Lyke said. “But it’s one of those things. We always do it.”
League of Women Voters forum
The local chapter of the League of Women Voters will have a pair of candidate forums Thursday in the Denton City Council chambers at City Hall, 215 E. McKinney St. The first forum begins at 6:45 p.m. and features candidates for the Denton school board. The second forum begins at 7:30 p.m. and features hopefuls for Denton City Council. Both forums are free and open to the public.
The election is May 11. Early voting begins April 29.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.