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Denton County Office of History and Culture taking the reins on Confederate monument changes

Three weeks after Denton County commissioners accepted changes to the Confederate monument, doubts about the feasibility of the project persist.

During commissioners' Feb. 6 meeting, a 15-member ad hoc advisory committee recommended that the statue stay in its place on the south side of the Courthouse on the Square lawn with additional historical context. Their concept, which the commissioners unanimously approved, included two basic tenets: adding a large plaque below the monument's arch with language decrying slavery, and adding two informational video monitors on either side of the statue. 

In the weeks since the approval, commissioners have hinted at potential changes to that concept. They have expressed doubts about whether electronic video kiosks would hold up under the threat of bad weather and would-be vandals. Minutes after they accepted the recommendation, County Judge Mary Horn proposed putting the video monitors indoors, in the museum inside the Courthouse on the Square. 

Commissioner Hugh Coleman, who was the only commissioner to oppose the monument committee's creation, also has tossed around the idea that the new plaque should include a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. or President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. 

According to Commissioner Andy Eads, the concept needs some technical refinements before commissioners make any kind of guarantee about the final product. 

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Denton County Office of History and Culture Director Peggy Riddle has gotten the ball rolling. Her office is leading the charge on the project, and she's making every effort to execute the committee's recommendation as it was proposed, she said in an interview Tuesday. 

"We should be gearing up and presenting some ideas to the court in a couple weeks," said Riddle, who served as the advisory committee's only nonvoting member. "My job will be looking at manufacturers who make sturdy exterior kiosks. And I'll be looking at different museums and sites that use them and then bring that information back and coordinate with technology services, as well as our facilities departments, and maybe bring in an engineer to see how all this works." 

Riddle did most of the dirty work during the committee meetings every Thursday morning, organizing an ever-growing stack of research documents for historical discussions and occasionally providing coffee for the members. She also attended the evening forums to gather public input. 

Riddle said she's been busy with the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum restoration after a Dec. 26 fire at the Downtown Mini Mall left a layer of smoke and soot inside the county building. However, recent progress has cleared up some time on her calendar for the foreseeable future, she said. 

Riddle said she's already had informal conversations with Texas Historical Commission officials who support the concept for the Confederate monument. She said a county preservation architect has been researching outdoor video kiosks. Riddle also has been in touch with filmmakers in the Dallas area to work on the content for the video monitors, which would include discussions about race relations in Denton, she said.

"[The video will] be on the civil rights movement," Riddle said. "It will cover everything that the committee recommended. We have information on the slaves who were in Denton County and the families that stayed in Denton County who are still part of our heritage. So we'll have all of those, and then the filmmaker will take all that context and turn it into visuals." 

As for the monument's large plaque decrying slavery, Riddle expects her staff to come up with specific language with the help of various African-American scholars in the area, she said. 

While county commissioners differ on whether county funds should pay for the changes, Riddle said she's exploring grant options with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She said the county could use both private and public funds, but the exact cost estimates are pending. 

"I feel like I've got a lot of resources — different exhibit companies that do this type of thing — that can help guide us," Riddle said. 

Court gets sheriff's update 

At the start of Tuesday's Commissioners Court meeting, Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree delivered a half-hour update about the sheriff's office since he took over Jan. 1, 2017. 

Last year, the drug enforcement unit seized $7.2 million worth of drugs, including 60,000 grams of cocaine worth about $3.6 million. He said the unit took about $32,000 worth of weapons off the street. 

Murphree also highlighted some administrative changes at the start of the year, such as canceling an underused drug lab in Denton, renewing the relationship with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and streamlining the hiring process. 

The sheriff's office created several new positions, including an internal affairs division, which was responsible for 61 investigations stemming from policy violations or alleged criminal activity in 2017, Murphree said. The sheriff also created a position dedicated to tracking and registering sex offenders. 

Murphree said the office is now prioritizing veterans in the hiring process. And for the first time in years, employees will be able to refer to a comprehensive policy manual. Previously, employees referred to policies from previous administrations simply because the policy manuals hadn't been updated, he said.

At the start of his speech, Murphree, who routinely voices his opinion on national tragedies, discussed an email he sent to his employees Tuesday morning about sheriff's office policy in an active-shooter incident. 

His comments followed reports that possibly up to four sheriff's deputies remained outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, as a former student shot and killed students and teachers in the building. 

"We do not stage and wait for SWAT," Murphree said in the email. "We do not take cover in a parking lot, and we do not wait for another agency. We go in and do our duty." 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.

FEATURED IMAGE: Version 2 of the advisory committee's concept design for additions to the Denton County Confederate soldier monument, as presented to county commissioners on Feb. 6. Courtesy art