A spirited race for Denton mayor has three veteran campaigners vying to differentiate themselves to voters.
Jean Schaake, 70, an associate dean at the University of North Texas; Chris Watts, 52, an attorney and real estate developer and investor; and talk show host Donna Woodfork, 44, have all filed for the seat. Outgoing Mayor Mark Burroughs has reached his term limit under the city charter.
Schaake said she is a leader with a proven track record, including years of service with the Denton school board and the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, who will work collaboratively with other council members to address city issues.
Watts said his recent service — three terms representing District 4 on the City Council — means he can hit the ground running and will work with other council members to map out a plan for specific projects to be completed in six, 12, 18 and 24 months.
Woodfork said she is the only candidate advocating for the needs of the average resident: more transportation options, particularly with the impact of the widening of Interstate 35E, affordable housing, job training and better employment opportunities.
The election is May 10. Early voting begins April 28 for not only the Denton municipal election but also a host of other elections in area cities and school districts.
In addition to the mayor’s race, two other at-large places and one district race are on the ballot in Denton. Place 6 candidate Greg Johnson is running unopposed for that seat, although Brendan Carroll’s name will still appear on the ballot because he withdrew his candidacy after the deadline.
In the Place 5 race, current District 2 council member Dalton Gregory faces local businesswoman Hatice Salih. Two local businessmen, Glen Farris and John Ryan, have filed for the District 2 seat, which Gregory resigned effective with the canvassing of the May 10 election results.
The Denton Record-Chronicle sat down with all three mayoral candidates recently to talk about hydraulic fracturing, leadership and open government, including asking them to give city leaders a grade on their transparency.
Initiative to ban fracking
For many residents, urban drilling has become a pivotal issue, with some listening to candidates closely to determine whether they support an ongoing petition to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the city.
Schaake said she understood how residents could become focused on the issue. In several forums, she stated that residents felt their neighborhoods were under attack, not only from natural gas development but other development pressures.
But she hoped residents would take a wider view of the issues as they evaluate candidates.
“I do worry about a single-issue situation,” Schaake said. “You might like a candidate on one issue and realize you dislike them on all the others.”
Watts said he has noticed the issue is resonating with voters and has been a catalyst in getting more people involved.
“If someone wants to vote upon one issue, they are entitled to that,” Watts said. “That’s their own choice — and it’s an important issue.”
In several forums, Watts has said he believes the initiative petition is the right path for residents who want the ban and it should go to the voters. If voters approve the ban, he would defend it, he said.
Woodfork said she didn’t think fracking belongs inside the city limits at all. Too many wells are too close to too many people, she said.
“Our streets are already bad and this just brings more trucks and more noise,” Woodfork said, adding that other problems have been documented, too, including earthquakes that are damaging house foundations.
Even though she has stated her position clearly — she said she doesn’t ever want to waste people’s time by not doing so — she also said she is willing to sit down and listen to what people have to say about the issue.
Leadership and collaboration
Watts said he found that the City Council’s group discussions on issues tend to help bring the best outcome to the top and the council’s unanimous votes often reflect that process.
Several years ago the city was negotiating changes to the south side of the Rayzor Ranch development that, after he read the backup material closely, he realized would have allowed much more multi-family development in a part of Denton where city leaders wanted to see more retail.
“The council came together and passed a very different ordinance than what P&Z [the Planning and Zoning Commission] sent up,” Watts said.
But he said he has cast a dissenting vote, too, particularly in matters that he sees as counter to city policy, such as the downtown tax-increment finance district that would have funded a parking garage. The City Council recently proposed that project for the November 2014 bond package.
Woodfork said voters need not look much further than the formal education and employment of her two opponents — a lawyer and a university administrator — to know how they would solve problems as a leader. She said she would be different, listening to advocating for things that the average resident needs, particularly transportation.
“I’m just an honest person, and an honest politician,” Woodfork said. “I’ll tell you if I’m for or against something. But I’ll also listen to the person and what they have to say.”
Schaake said good leaders must be inclusive of many points of view and the leader of the City Council must be able to bring seven different people to a collective point.
During her many years on the school board, she has seen that play out in school boundary discussions. Many times, she said, board members might come into a public hearing thinking they knew where the boundaries might be.
“But we heard different points of view and listened to the parents and public, and perhaps all changed our minds,” Schaake said.
She said work sessions allow members to delve into the issues and come to understand each other.
“You have to be accountable to the voters,” Schaake said. “And you have to ask the staff to be accountable.”
Woodfork said transparency begins with providing residents with the information they need or request. She said some people feel intimidated by not only the complicated layout of City Hall but city leaders themselves. She’s not convinced that either city leaders or city employees embrace the wide diversity of people who live in Denton.
“It’s [city government] not just for the educated, but the uneducated, too,” Woodfork said. “The regular person wants to feel heard.”
For that, she gives the city a D in transparency.
She also feels the City Council holds too many executive sessions and, as mayor, she would work to reduce the number of closed-door meetings.
Schaake said she intends to take a second look at work being done in council committees, even though those issues eventually come to the council.
“There is work being done that is not part of the entire body,” Schaake said. “Work sessions are a great place to discuss the issues and people can see what is being talked about.”
Work by boards and commissions are part of that, too, she said.
She proposes an inventory on the city’s transparency that could be revisited in a year’s time to see how the city is doing.
She said she gives the city a B-minus, but wants to be an A-plus.
“You want citizens to feel really good about the city they are living in,” Schaake said.
Watts said Texas law presumes that government meetings are open and city business is transparent, except for stated exceptions for the public good.
“That can be subjective advice,” Watts said.
Current public perception shows the council’s risk in being conservative with that advice, he said.
“You lose the public trust,” Watts said.
The city’s website can be hit or miss, with council meetings online and timely access to video and agenda. But minutes for boards and commissions are less consistent in content and timeliness, he said.
He also gives the city a B-minus and called for the city’s website itself to have the latest code of ordinances. The most current version of the city’s laws are online with MuniCode.com, not the city, he said.
The Denton Record-Chronicle searches public records of all candidates, including state and federal civil and criminal court records and tax records, for the past 10 years.
Watts and his wife, Robin, have been involved in an eminent domain case with the city, and a hearing is scheduled for May 14, according to the Denton County courts registry. The case began in spring 2013 when Chris Watts was still on the City Council and the city began acquiring land needed to widen South Bonnie Brae Street.
The city is appealing a decision by a court-appointed commission that awarded Watts $66,000 for his parcel in September. Watts’ attorney, Josh Westrom of Jones & Westrom, said the city put on evidence saying the parcel was worth about $10,000, while he put on evidence that the parcel was worth about $120,000.
Watts said he hasn’t disputed the commission’s award nor has he disputed the city’s authority to take the land. The $66,000 is in escrow with a Denton probate court while the city appeals the award.
Records with Denton County justice of the peace Precinct 1 show that Woodfork was evicted from 407 Robertson St. in June 2013. Woodfork said she was using the building as an office space and got behind on her rent when she was in the hospital.
She said there were no hard feelings between her and the property owner and that her personal matters would have no effect on her ability to tackle the issues facing the average resident of Denton.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.
Occupation: university administrator
Prior political history: Denton school board, 1992-2007, board president, 1994-99 and 2003-05
Background: professor, University of North Texas, 1973-present; Denton City Planning and Zoning Commission, 2008-present, chairwoman, 2012-present; Citizens Advisory Committee for Denton Vision 2030, 2013-present; board of directors, North Texas Public Broadcasting (KERA-TV, KERA-FM and KKXT-FM), 2008-13, executive committee, 2011-13; Adopt-a-School Advisory Board, 2008-present; Denton Chamber of Commerce, 1992-present, ex officio of board of directors, 1994-2007; Denton Library Board, 1988-94, chairwoman, 1991; master trustee graduate, Texas Association of School Boards Leadership Program, 1994; adjunct instructor, school board training by Texas Association of School Boards, 2002-06; president, Houston Elementary, Calhoun Middle and Denton High PTAs and Denton Area PTA board of directors; Denton Bach Society, 1974-76; sustaining member, Denton Benefit League; member, The Arts Guild; member, Christ the Servant Lutheran Church, 1973-present.
Top priorities: Use my proven leadership to work collaboratively with fellow council members to manage growth to keep Denton a unique, thriving community; attract new business and industries to increase the business portion of the tax base and create a broad range of jobs; update economic development policies; adopt an infill/redevelopment code to assist existing and new businesses redevelop and ease the process; protect neighborhoods and encourage neighborhood associations; update comprehensive plan to maintain, update and add infrastructure; reconsider code enforcement polices and fee structure; encourage citizen involvement using the citizen voice instead of the consultant voice; and support economic incentives for entrepreneurial high-tech projects.
Occupation: attorney, 2001-present; owner of real estate investment company, 1990-present
Prior political history: District 4, Denton City Council, 2007-13; Denton City Council appointee to Texas Municipal Power Association since 2009; TMPA board president, 2012-present
Background: computer programmer, 1984-89; real estate broker, 1989-present; attorney, 2001-present; real estate investment company, 1989-present; volunteer and board of directors, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Denton County, 1999-2005; member, Kiwanis International, 2007-present; board member, Health Services of North Texas; negotiation coach, Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law), 2001-present; member, United Way of Denton County Citizen’s Council on Mental Health and BankOn Denton; charitable events sponsor, Denton Benefit League, American Cancer Society luncheon, Court Appointed Special Advocates, Denton Animal Shelter Foundation and the University of North Texas.
Top priorities: Change culture to improve customer service; together with colleagues, map out plan for specific projects to be completed within six, 12, 18 and 24 months; ensure adequate funding for street and infrastructure repair; reverse anti-business reputation through both the rewrite of Denton Development Code via citizens/developer committee and a streamlining of the development review and permitting process; create 250 new jobs through recruitment of new businesses and expansion of existing businesses with average salary of $75,000; restore public trust; balance the budget without use of reserve funds; reconvene citizens’ property maintenance committee to review Property Maintenance Code; and secure funding for fire/police training facility.
Occupation: talk show host
Prior political history: precinct chairwoman (elected) for Precinct 4011; Denton school board candidate, 2013; mayoral candidate, city of Denton, 2011 and 2012
Background: member, Denton County Historical Commission; currently, trained logistics and supply manager for Denton County Medical Reserve Corps; created, produced and hosted a talk show on Denton Community Television, viewed on Charter and Verizon cable TV since 2005.
Top priorities: Initial transition phase for the expansion of Interstate 35E for community; implementation to complete street repairs within the inner city of Denton; increasing commuter transportation options to serve seven days a week, from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; and additional bus service on Loop 288 and University Drive and trolley service on the Square
Online: Search for Donna Woodfork on www.linkedin.com.