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Forums yield further insight

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Political tidbits revealed in Denton candidates’ final public discussions

Candidate forums wrapped up this week with the last of two public discussions, Thursday night with the Denton Neighborhood Association and Saturday morning with the Denton County chapter of the NAACP.

Both yielded fresh questions and different perspectives on some of the same questions the community has been wrestling with since campaign season opened a month ago, but neither forum was as well attended as a few other forums earlier this month.

On Thursday night, residents wanted to know how candidates would address the tree code, water conservation and historic preservation. But they also asked the candidates what cities and neighborhoods inspire them and what elements of those cities or neighborhoods they might bring to Denton. And they also asked what the candidates consider to be the city’s worst problem and how they would fix it.

On Saturday morning, residents lobbed questions about the city’s homeless population, respect for citizen participation, building a white-collar job base by hiring local, government transparency failures and the appropriateness of social media and alternative forums.

Those who did attend got interesting peeks behind the political veils from several candidates.

Greg Johnson, 44, who is running unopposed for Place 6, shared with the crowd Thursday about being interviewed by a consultant — since Johnson works for a commercial development group — about Denton’s tree code.

Johnson said he knew the tree code was broken, too complicated and too confusing for the city to really enforce. Denton has lost even more valuable canopy, or tree coverage, since the code was adopted. But he was curious about the consultant’s role and why the city felt the need to write another tree code.

“He told me there is no perfect code,” Johnson said, adding that what the city really needs is people who can work with it.

It became clear to him, he said, that the tree code wasn’t a priority with the current leadership.

Johnson wasn’t able to attend Saturday, where the political veil came down again several times, prompted by questions from moderator Gerard Hudspeth.

Answering a question of what they know about government transparency with an example of a situation that failed, both Dalton Gregory, who is running for Place 5, and Chris Watts, who is running for mayor, talked about the development of the convention center project and the council’s discussions around it.

Gregory, 62, a retired elementary school principal and current District 2 council member, said that in the early days of project negotiations over the proposed convention center, it would often be six months or more between each council briefing. As a result, the city staff would often have to spend a great deal of time providing the council background information before ever getting to the point of advice and direction.

It took a while and some pressure from him and others on the council, Gregory said, for the realization that those briefings should be in open session.

Watts, 53, an attorney and real estate investor and developer, was representing District 4 during some of those negotiations, but has been off the council for the past year. He said it took even more pressure than that.

A resident had to complain about the city’s practices to the Texas attorney general, and the attorney general had to write an opinion, Watts said.

“It shouldn’t have gone that far,” he said.

During Saturday’s forum, participants learned that mayoral candidate Donna Woodfork, 44, a talk show host, was not invited initially by council member Kevin Roden to a forum held April 14 at a bar in downtown Denton.

Woodfork said she was upset at first but later called and asked why she wasn’t invited.

“I enjoyed the forum and I don’t really care about the reason now,” Woodfork told those in the room Saturday. “I embrace the entire community.”

Local businessmen John Ryan, 48, and Glen Farris, 35, gave unexpected responses to a question about a fake Twitter account that has been circulating satirical posts about their race for the unexpired term in District 2.

Although the account was set up as an alternative persona for Ryan, Farris said he didn’t think it was flattering to either one of them.

Ryan said the average voter in Denton is 61 years old and he didn’t expect that they were using Twitter or Facebook, but he also has seen what technological tools — texting, for example — can do, and he employs those that are useful.

Farris said he sees social media as an important tool and one that could be used, particularly with younger constituents, to build more bridges in the community, which he sees as a priority.

University administrator Jean Schaake, 70, who is running for mayor, said she could see social media and alternative forums becoming more important as the years go by.

The forum in a downtown bar felt like being in someone’s living room, she said, and that has value.

“You’re a better voter if you attend the forums,” Schaake said.

But, she cautioned, “in order for us to be inclusive, we need to communicate using all formats,” Schaake added. “One size does not fit all.”

During Thursday’s forum, moderator Patrice Lyke read a resident’s question — “What is the worst thing about Denton and how would you fix it?” — and cautioned the candidates that the questioner didn’t want them to change it to a positive before answering it.

Many candidates did, saying they’d answer it as Denton’s biggest challenge.

However, local businesswoman Hatice Salih, 55, who is running for Place 5, weighed in.

“Denton’s worst problem is environmental,” Salih said. “We have fracking within 250 feet of inhabited structures.”

She told the crowd that because of hydraulic fracturing, she doesn’t think the city’s population is going to grow as has been projected.

“I can’t imagine 100,000 people coming to Denton with fracking allowed so close to homes,” Salih said.

Thursday’s forum is being broadcast, along with an earlier forum organized by the League of Women Voters, on DCTV, the city’s public access channel.

The League of Women Voters Candidates Forum, held April 10 at City Hall with Sue Smith moderating, is airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, 9 a.m. Wednesdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays, through May 10. The Denton Neighborhood Association forum will air at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Thursdays and 4 p.m. Saturdays until the May 10 election.

DCTV airs on Verizon Channel 39 and Charter Channel 191, and can also be viewed on Channel 47-4 through a digital TV tuner.

Hudspeth said results of Saturday’s forum would be distributed among both the members of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Early voting begins Monday and continues through May 6.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.