Three City Council seats are up for election on May 7, but the hottest item on the ballot is Joey Hawkins’ recall.
Hawkins faces recall after enough registered voters in his district, District 4, signed a petition late last year. Most of southern Denton, including many of the city’s newest neighborhoods, make up District 4: Denia, Southridge, Forrest Ridge, Montecito, Sundown Ranch, Thistle Hill, Ryan Ranch, Tuscan Hills and elsewhere along Unicorn Lake.
It didn’t take many signatures to force the recall, but it took the petitioners two passes to make their effort stick.
When Hawkins ran for re-election last May, no one challenged him. Voter turnout for local elections is usually anemic, so few District 4 voters were inspired to cast ballots last year. As a result, only 75 signatures were needed to force the recall — or 25 percent of the turnout for Hawkins last spring.
The first recall petition came a few days too early. The city charter doesn’t allow a council member to be recalled until he or she has served for at least six months, or 180 days.
The city charter also prohibited the petitioners from simply resubmitting the same documents a few days later. They had to go out and canvass the district again. Just to be sure, they submitted about one-and-half times as many signatures as they needed to be ratified.
Denton voters have used their charter-granted power to try and recall council members before. Most recently, voters in central Denton filed a petition to recall Raymond Redmond, who was representing District 1, in 2002. Redmond survived the election by a wide margin.
Anyone who wants to follow the money in this part of the election has little information to go on.
Elida Tamez and Cindy Spoon, who helped circulate the petition, said their grass-roots group doesn’t plan to raise or spend any money on the election. They are simply talking to people in District 4, they said.
A former council member, Pete Kamp, formed a different kind of political action committee to support Hawkins and the other incumbents. A website, www.dentonlocalgovernance.org, debuted over the weekend at the same time a flier was mailed to the homes of Denton’s likely voters.
But that committee won’t be filing any campaign finance reports showing who has contributed or how the money is being spent for at least two more weeks, Kamp said. She is following filing instructions from the Texas Ethics Commission.
Hawkins has erected many large signs around the city that say “Support Joey Hawkins. Vote No on Recall.” But he has not reported those expenses, citing an opinion he received from the city about the reporting requirements.
Hawkins is an officerholder, not a candidate.
Officeholders are required to report twice a year if they kept their campaign bank account open. Candidates, however, are required to report contributions and expenses more frequently before an election.
According to Texas Ethics Commission attorney Ian Steusloff, state election law also requires an individual who has spent more than $100 on a election to report it prior to the election in most circumstances.
In an email, City Attorney Anita Burgess said the city secretary, as the election official, got different advice from the commission than the Denton Record-Chronicle did.
On Facebook, Hawkins recently disclosed to supporters some of the help he has received from the Texas Association of Realtors.
The group’s political action committee contributed $1,500 in 2013 and another $2,000 in 2015, even though he had no opponent.
This spring, the committee contributed a third time, $3,000 to help him fight recall, which, like the expenses, he said he is not required to report until July.
The recall petition listed three grievances against Hawkins. We asked Tamez and Spoon to explain the grievances. We also asked Hawkins to answer them.
Reason 1: Council member Hawkins fails to return emails, hold public forums or communicate with his constituents regarding city matters.
Explanation: Tamez, Spoon and others involved in the recall petition say they have been frustrated by the lack of communication but also wondered whether their perception was accurate. They made an open records request for Hawkins’ email from his re-election in May through November 2015. They paid $315 for about 450 pages that included emails directly to and from Hawkins (the city opted not to provide emails with multiple addresses).
A Denton Record-Chronicle analysis of those pages showed Hawkins received about 300 emails during that time period. From May to October, he received about 47 emails per month and he sent or replied by email to less than 10 per month. That changed in November, after the recall drive began. He received 19 emails in November and responded to all of them.
Some people have criticized the petitioners for resorting to recall, saying that remedy should be used only in the most egregious circumstances (such as a council member being accused of a crime). Tamez and Spoon rejected the argument. Without good communication, council members cannot represent their constituents, they said.
“We just want the minimum,” Tamez said.
Hawkins: “Out of the three grievances this one bothers me the most. This comes after I personally went to their house [Tamez and husband, Theron Palmer] to have a meeting to discuss some of their concerns.
“I have never shied away from any conversation regarding city business. We get a lot of emails and I work hard to reply to them as promptly as I can, or my favorite form of communication is calling someone on the phone. I have never turned down an invitation to a neighborhood meeting unless I am double-booked and most weeks I have multiple individual meetings with Denton residents. I own three restaurants that I am constantly talking to people at and I am involved in many events that take place in Denton. This is hardly not being available to my constituents.”
Reason 2: Council member Hawkins voted to repeal Denton’s ordinance prohibiting fracking within the city limits and to relax restrictions on drilling operators in residential areas, reducing setbacks to as little as 250 feet.
Explanation: One month after Hawkins was re-elected, he joined the majority of City Council in overturning the citizens’ initiative that banned fracking. The city overturned the ban after the state and industry sued and the Legislature passed House Bill 40. Many legal experts called HB 40 a legislative overreach, but no Texas city, including Denton, has challenged the new law. In response to HB 40, the council also retreated from a new rule that required 1,200 feet between a new gas well and existing homes and businesses.
The Denia neighborhood has been disproportionately affected by gas well development compared to many other neighborhoods in the city, Spoon said. Denia is adjacent to both the University of North Texas and large landowners who leased and benefited from fracking. Many Denia area residents signed the petition.
Hawkins: “This was a very tough vote which passed 6-1. The reason it was difficult was it [the fracking ban] had so overwhelmingly passed in November by the people. But in the last legislative session, House Bill 40 was born, making our citywide ban illegal. The state had trumped us. A way to get rid of some pending lawsuits the city was facing also, in regards to fracking, was to repeal the ordinance.
“Some wanted us to keep fighting and some thought it would be too expensive to fight it in the courts. In fact, some who were originally for the fracking ban and helped campaign for it came out publicly and said they thought it was best to repeal the ordinance. I don’t feel like this was giving up, yet choosing to fight another day.”
Reason 3: Council member Hawkins has voted irresponsibly in regards to the use of city funds and tax incentives.
Explanation: Some Southridge area residents also signed the recall petition after Hawkins voted with four other council members to grant Buc-ee’s more than $8 million in tax rebates to build a travel plaza on Interstate 35E. People living close to the project said they were worried about lights, noise, traffic and a negative impact on their property values. According to the emails obtained via open records, nine people emailed Hawkins about the project in November and only one of the nine was fully in favor of the project.
The City Council also approved a generous incentive package to bring a convention center and hotel to Rayzor Ranch, which reimburses the developer all the taxes collected there — property, sales and hotel occupancy — for the next 25 years.
Hawkins: “The three city budgets that I have been involved with have passed 7-0, 7-0, 5-2.
There is always a lot of time spent on the city budget. It is the most important thing a council person votes on. The council meets multiple times going over it line by line, making adjustments and ultimately compromising.
“When it comes to tax incentives, I feel I study each case very closely and independently. I was for a convention center when I first ran in 2013 and I am very proud that Denton is now getting one. This incentive is a self-generating tax incentive which comprises mostly of the use of HOT [hotel occupancy tax] funds, which are a restricted fund and do not trickle down to the general fund.
“Buc-ee’s is the tax incentive which I think the grievance is referring to. This incentive also is a self-generating tax incentive, which, when combining property tax and sales tax, will equal $21 million during the length of it. About $14 million will go to the city and $7 million will go back to Buc-ee’s to pay back for major infrastructure that is deeded over to the city and to help pay for some of the neighborhood protections.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.