For Denton voters, the November ballot comes packed with statewide races and seven local propositions: four for bonds and one each for a ban, a barter and booze.
Whether the city wins at democracy on Election Day remains to be seen. Texans lag behind voters in other states for political participation, and Denton residents have been no exception. Less than 10 percent of Denton’s registered voters have made it to the polls in recent city elections. But the propositions could change that, experts say.
Since the Denton City Council decided last month that a petition to ban hydraulic fracturing should go to the voters, it has ordered three more elections. A citizen petition also drove an election to decide whether to legalize liquor sales citywide. The city’s $98.2 million bond election has been in the works for months, but it was only last week that the council officially ordered it as four separate propositions. At the same time, the City Council also agreed to ask voters whether the city could consider a proposal to swap land on the edges of North Lakes Park.
Council members flirted briefly last week with a proposal to call an election on financing for Denton’s proposed convention center, but they didn’t. No other local propositions will be up for vote, since Monday was the deadline for anything else to make it on the ballot.
Uncompetitive races — common in Texas — don’t inspire voters to come to the polls, according to Philip Paolino, a political science professor at the University of North Texas.
But salient issues, such as the fracking ban, can energize voters, he said.
Regina Lawrence, director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s good news that Denton residents are so invested in local issues that they got two measures on the ballot.
Nearly 2,000 residents signed the volunteer-driven petition to ban fracking, more than three times the number needed to force the election. Organizers for the liquor election got professional help with their petition, but they still secured about 7,000 signatures in less than two months’ time.
The people who brought those issues will likely be vested enough to vote and work their way down to the bottom of the ballot, where the local propositions will be. That isn’t always the case with local issues, Lawrence said.
“It’s sometimes hard to get people to vote on local issues, which is a bit ironic because they are the most immediate and have a direct impact,” she said.
People often report to researchers that they won’t vote on an issue if they don’t have enough information, she said.
Like it or hate it, Democratic and Republican Party labels serve as an information shortcut for people, she said, but policy issues don’t always fall that neatly.
While it’s unclear what constitutes enough information, Lawrence said, voters know “the more information they have about a policy issue, the better they are able to align their vote to the values they have for the community.”
“Information does matter,” she added.
The local chapter of the League of Women Voters may be able to provide Denton voters some information about the issues, as can local media, she said.
Voters can also look to the rationales from those who brought the propositions, as well as those who oppose them, to glean additional information. That information can be a lot easier to find, now that people are able to publish online, she said.
If preliminary campaign finance paperwork serves as an indicator, Denton voters may be swimming in information by Nov. 4. Proponents of the bonds and liquor sales have formed specific-purpose committees to support those propositions. Residents also filed preliminary campaign finance paperwork, as “Pass the Ban” and “Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy,” on both sides of the proposition to ban fracking.
The city is permitted to distribute some educational information, but neither elected officials nor city staff can use city resources to advocate for any of the propositions.
Paolino said he didn’t think the prospect of seven propositions would discourage voters from coming to the polls in November, even if they are informed only about one or two of them.
“Nothing says that voters have to feel very highly informed about all of the measures in order to show up to cast a vote on one of those measures,” and then vote on the others while they’re there, he said.
AT A GLANCE
The bond election. A council-appointed citizens committee studied a list of projects proposed by city staff and by residents before recommending about $98.2 million in spending. The committee recommended four separate propositions on the ballot in the city’s largest bond election to date. The propositions would provide for about $61.7 million for street reconstruction and improvements, $8.5 million for drainage, $11.4 million for parks and $16.6 million for public safety.
If all the propositions pass, the spending package could ultimately bring a 3-cent increase to the city’s property tax rate. The city’s current property tax rate is 68.975 cents per $100 valuation. The increase means the average Denton homeowner could pay about $48 more in property taxes each year based on an average home price of about $160,000. Each penny increase in the tax rate brings the city about $20 million in new spending.
The ban on hydraulic fracturing. Nearly 2,000 Denton residents recently signed a petition to ban fracking inside Denton city limits. The technological advance — which uses high-pressure pumping of sand, water and chemicals to extract oil and natural gas from shale — has triggered a controversial energy boom around the country. Denton’s petition is an initiative under the city charter.
The local option election. More than a dozen local bar owners and other volunteers delivered about 7,000 signatures petitioning an election to make Denton wet. The petition seeks a change in local liquor laws to allow Denton bars to serve mixed drinks without the private club requirement and to allow liquor stores inside city limits. Bar owners estimate Denton loses about $700,000 in sales tax revenue annually to other cities that allow liquor sales.
The parkland swap. SSR Group, a local developer, has proposed a land swap with the city that would exchange a triangular-shaped parcel of about 1.7 acres along Bonnie Brae Street for about one-third acre on Riney Road along the northeast edge of the park. The city would likely receive payment for the swap, too, since the parcels are not of equal value.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.
ON THE BALLOT
Denton voters will have seven propositions to consider “for” or “against” on the Nov. 4 ballot:
• The issuance of $61,710,000 of public securities for street improvements.
• The issuance of $16,565,000 of public securities for public safety facilities for police and fire departments.
• The issuance of $8,545,000 of public securities for stormwater drainage and flood control improvements.
• The issuance of $11,355,000 of public securities for park system improvements.
• Shall the city of Denton, Denton County, Texas, authorize the legal sale of all alcoholic beverages including mixed beverages?
• Shall an ordinance be enacted prohibiting, within the corporate limits of the city of Denton, Texas, hydraulic fracturing, a well stimulation process involving the use of water, sand and/or chemical additives pumped under high pressure to fracture subsurface non-porous rock formations such as shale to improve the flow of natural gas, oil, or other hydrocarbons into the well, with subsequent high rate, extended flowback to expel fracture fluids and solids?
• Shall an ordinance be enacted authorizing the sale of real property consisted of 1.6598+/- acres and being a portion of North Lakes Park owned, held, or claimed as a park and being a tract of land in the Robert Beaumont Survey, Abstract No. 31, and being a portion of that certain tract conveyed to said city of Denton by deed recorded in Volume 647, Page 245, of the Denton County Deed Records?