Chris Watts’ council portrait has already been taken down from the hallway outside the council chambers at City Hall. Last week, he served his last full council meeting. Tuesday, as incoming District 4 Council member Joey Hawkins is sworn in, Watts will step down from the dais after six years on the Denton City Council.
He said he has no plans to offer his opinion on upcoming council issues, but because he knows institutional knowledge is important, he did tell Hawkins he would help, if asked.
“You’re called on to vote from day one,” Watts said. “I found it difficult to vote if I didn’t have an understanding of that factual background.”
Watts first joined the Denton City Council in 2007 after winning the District 4 seat in a race with retired business owner Diane Kelly Bunch. The previous council member, Guy McElroy, had not served very long. Watts said he spent a lot of time that first year talking to members of the city staff and the community, trying to get up to speed on the history and foundation of many city issues.
He first decided to run after controversy erupted over a proposed property maintenance code, something, as a real estate investor with many small apartments and other rental properties, he understood. He thought he could help.
Some residents were critical when he was appointed to a council committee that would tackle the issue. They were concerned he had a conflict of interest in establishing such a code. The early battle over property maintenance often pitted homeowners and neighborhood associations against landlords and property investors. The City Council passed new property maintenance codes in 2009 and 2010. But the topic flared again this year. And, showing how far the issue has evolved, criticism of the code enforcement didn’t come only from landlords and property investors, but from some homeowners, too.
When he started in 2007, Watts said he wasn’t sure how long he would be in office. He decided he would take it a day at a time. Then he found that he wanted to keep serving. He was challenged again in 2009 by Phil Kregel, who filed as a write-in candidate, and in 2011 by Derrick Murray.
“I like the process,” Watts said. “I find it personally rewarding — it helps you, as a person, develop skill sets outside what you might normally develop.”
But he declined to speculate whether he would run again.
Denton’s city charter prohibits a council member from serving more than three consecutive terms, but after one year out of public office, a former council member can run again.
All those 7-0 votes
Watts, 52, once called himself the “council contrarian,” which is hard to see on its face. Over the years, he occasionally has been the lone vote, but in the past year, the Denton City Council has often voted unanimously, even on contentious matters.
“Looking from the outside, you might think there was group-think, but I don’t see it,” Watts said.
“You haven’t seen us in closed session,” he added.
He doesn’t see a unanimous vote as a bad thing. He wouldn’t vote “no” just to do it, he said.
“The meeting often comes to a point where I’ll give my ideas — if I haven’t heard someone else say them already,” Watts said. “Others on the council have no doubt I’ll eventually speak my mind.”
If enough of his concerns are addressed, or his ideas are incorporated, the compromise is then sufficient for him to support the matter with his vote.
“I may believe it’s the best we can do, and doing nothing may be harmful,” Watts said.
For example, once, when the developers of Rayzor Ranch were reconfiguring the multifamily part of the development and how many units they wanted, Watts saw they were changing the definition of multifamily. He worked to negotiate the deal from the dais.
“I want to make sure we are protecting the city’s interests, and make sure that we’re not getting in the way,” Watts said.
Moreover, every vote the council makes sends a signal to the community, not only to residents but also to developers.
“We need to be mindful, and do what strengthens the community,” Watts said.
Watts has already asked himself which vote he regrets the most: the natural gas pad site at Rayzor Ranch.
It was the city’s first major challenge from the industry. Range Resources had four pad-site options for drilling in the massive retail and multifamily development. The company picked the site that was closest to existing neighborhoods, a hospital and a public park. The council pressed the developer and the operator to negotiate for another site, but nothing changed. The city’s ordinances weren’t as strong as they should have been, he said.
He has since questioned not only the true litigation threat but also the criteria they were asked to use to make the decision. He believes that other council members feel the same way.
“We felt we were backed into a corner, that if we opposed it, we would probably be sued,” Watts said. “I was outraged being put in that position. If the vote happened today, it would be very different. I don’t think it would pass — period.”
Now, “fear of litigation” has a different effect on him, and his thoughts and feelings are more conflicted.
“Next time I would not be so hesitant to do that fight,” he said.
He’s watched the continuing battle over shale oil and gas development with interest, particularly those cities that have been successful in banning hydraulic fracturing based on zoning laws.
“It will give time for the science to evolve,” Watts said.
Case study: a tale
of two TIFs
But, Watts said he wouldn’t change his vote against the downtown tax-increment finance zone. He was uncomfortable with what the city was trying to promote — that people knew Denton wanted to continue development and re-development downtown — and with the information that was stated about TIFs.
A TIF is typically used to help blighted, economically depressed areas that are dragging on a community.
“When you read the statutes, that’s what it says,” Watts said, adding that some of Denton’s highest-value real estate is downtown.
Some critics viewed his vote as being against downtown development, but Watts said that wasn’t true.
“If we really want to have downtown vibrant, we need the parking garage,” Watts said. “The parking garage is a pressing need, but the TIF is a bureaucratic process. We won’t have significant amounts of money from the TIF for 10-12 years.”
Instead, he thinks the parking garage should have been included in a general obligation bond package.
Without the county’s participation, and by singling out parts of the city, the downtown TIF didn’t maximize the city’s policy interests, Watts said.
Even though the rest of the council voted in favor of the TIF, the city benefitted from the pointed discussion that came from Watts’ arguments against it, according to Mayor Mark Burroughs.
Watts’ ability to make such discernments in other issues has been an asset to the city, Burroughs said.
“There are issues that, I think, would not have been discussed in great enough detail had Chris Watts not been there and added that dynamic to those complex issues,” Burroughs said.
Watts voted in favor of the TIF at the airport, in part because the TIF will leverage additional money from both the county’s and property owner’s participation. Not only does the split of increased value with the general fund make good financial sense, Watts said, the city can build water or sewer along Western Boulevard and attract businesses with good jobs.
Although his time on the council was coming to an end, the Denton City Council recently reappointed Watts as its representative to the Texas Municipal Power Agency. TMPA generates much of the power used by Denton Municipal Electric and four other cities.
Since Burroughs has been mayor, the council has had a policy of appointing only council members to that post, in order to best represent the city’s policy interests. Burroughs said he didn’t see Watts’ continued appointment as a compromise of that policy,
“We are maintaining an authoritative hand there,” Burroughs said.
Watts is currently the agency’s board president.
Watts believes Denton residents need to participate in the city’s processes where they can. It doesn’t matter to him if a resident, in stating their facts and concerns, appears to be attacking the City Council.
“We need good information — they are vital and critical to making the best decision,” Watts said.
There have been many times residents brought concerns that made him rethink an issue. The best example of that, he said, was the restructuring of the airport board.
In 2010, the airport board clashed with the council and city staff over the business plan and several proposals that would have dissolved the board. The council voted to keep the board but reassigned reviews of airport leases and contracts to a new council committee. The council also expanded the city's Economic Development Partnership board to handle airport branding, marketing and development incentives.
He changed his views of the matter after he heard from people close to the changes.
“I know some would say that I still voted for it [the restructuring], but the issues I’d had, they were heard,” Watts said.
He tried to make decisions that met as many interests as possible.
“I hope that people know I truly researched the different aspects of an issue and that I tried to hear everyone’s voice,” Watts said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.