Denton City Council hopefuls sparred in their last forum of the political season at an event hosted Thursday night by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
The event was recorded for Denton Community TV, but station operators on Friday had not yet announced the broadcast schedule. This is the second candidate forum that has been recorded for DCTV, which is broadcast on Charter Channel 25 and Verizon Channel 39.
The league is preparing its voters guide and announced that it will post the guide online this weekend. Other information related to the May 11 election is also available on the league’s website, www.lwvdenton.org.
Early voting begins Monday. A list of early voting times and locations is available on the county elections website, http://elections.dentoncounty.com.
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. Alfredo F. 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. He attended the forum but did not participate.
Moderator Linnie McAdams fielded questions written by some of the 30 or so people who also attended a forum with the school board candidates earlier Thursday night. Most of the questions covered similar ground as previous City Council candidate forums, including ferreting out the candidates’ top priorities and their views on Denton’s urbanization. Others asked about the candidates’ views on public-private partnership for the convention center and the increase in the City Council’s closed sessions.
But recent headlines recast one of the persistent questions: What’s the best way to regulate natural gas drilling and production in the city to protect people?
Emotions have been running high since Eagleridge Operating lost control of the Smith Yorlum No. 7 well in the early hours of April 19. Homes surrounding the well were evacuated, but no injuries were reported. A preliminary report with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality shows the operator claimed an “emissions event” with the incident, estimating 59 pounds of benzene along with other hazardous air pollutants were released between 8 a.m. and 3:39 p.m. when the well was capped by well-control specialists that day.
The emergency came two days after a fertilizer plant exploded in West, killing 14 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters, burning a school and destroying or damaging buildings over a 35-block area.
Residents wanted to know whether the candidates felt the city was able to do what it could to protect residents from industrial activities so close in. All the candidates expressed varying degrees of frustration with the state’s interference with home rule.
Rice said that the city needs the autonomy to make tougher rules that protect residents without the state’s interference. He wondered whether Friday’s emergency called for the operator’s permit to be reviewed or revoked.
Carroll said the city’s comparative silence — both Carroll and other residents have complained that the city isn’t answering e-mails and calls with questions — after the incident hasn’t helped.
“I’m not sure we have a grasp of what we need to do,” Carroll said.
Hawkins questioned whether operators could be made to reapply for permits after problems emerge. He didn’t understand why the industry’s trucks weren’t labeled, given what was required by the health department visiting his bagel and coffee shops.
“My spray bottles have to be labeled — this doesn’t make sense,” Hawkins said.
Kregel called on residents to be in contact with state representatives, since it was a hot topic in the Legislature right now.
“As a community, we need to be louder,” Kregel said.
He called for operators to follow rules already on the books, and those charged with enforcing the rules to be held accountable by the City Council.
Gregory said he feels frustrated by the whole thing, and particularly how the city has been limited by a state Legislature that is friendly to oil and gas. But he underscored that the city can, and has, done a lot with its zoning powers, including increasing setbacks and defining many more protected uses.
Sanchez echoed the frustration with state legislators, saying that politicians have been “bought off.”
“We need to start voting for people who will represent us,” Sanchez said. “It is our health and our kids that’s at stake.”
Engelbrecht said oil and gas production is the only industrial activity Texas allows to come into neighborhoods.
“We are under siege more than we have ever been at the state,” Engelbrecht said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.