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Time ripe for City Hall change

Regime change is sweeping through Denton City Hall. We are optimistic that the new bosses will be better than the old bosses. They’ll be more open to including the public in their plans to manage the city’s growth, development and tax-and-spend policies.

The latest shoe to drop was this week’s announcement that City Attorney Anita Burgess will retire. We thank Burgess for her service in the U.S. Marine Corps before coming to Denton. And we respect her subsequent eight-year tenure as Denton city attorney.

But it’s time for a change. Denton citizens doing business with City Hall are looking for more openness and transparency. People have a right to know about big projects on the City Council’s agenda earlier rather than later in the process.

The regime change began after last spring’s City Council elections. Support for longtime City Manager George Campbell had eroded, and the council nudged him out the door last summer after 10 years as city government’s top bureaucrat.

Next came the departure of Aimee Bissett in September. She was director of economic development and also managed planning and code enforcement departments. Bissett was a protege of Campbell, but too inexperienced to succeed.

Later this month, Todd Hileman will take Campbell’s place as city manager. We expect he will shake up the crew of assistant city managers and their respective portfolios. And, like many leaders, he’ll probably bring in his own people to help run the city.

With a raft of new people on board at City Hall, this is a good time for citizens to register their suggestions about what city government can do to improve its services.

For example, we consistently hear construction companies complain that it takes code inspectors too long to approve the myriad permits needed to build a commercial building. Building codes that result in safe and sturdy structures are a hallmark of American life that distinguish us from other nations full of cheap and poorly constructed buildings.

Stringent codes are necessary, but maybe City Hall could speed up the permitting process without diluting the standards.

The city attorney who succeeds Burgess should support open government. He, or she, should work to minimize secrecy. This means not blacking out major portions of public records when a citizen asks for them. It means not acquiescing every time a council member wants to take a sensitive discussion behind closed doors.

Insiders refer to these meetings as “executive sessions.” We call them “secret meetings.” Council members and senior staffers need to get over their reliance on secret meetings to shield the public from vigorous debates.

City Hall is a meat-and-potatoes operation when it gets right down to it. Its core responsibilities include providing citizens with police and fire protection, animal control, street maintenance, garbage pickup and disposal, code enforcement, clean water, electricity, good city parks and libraries.

But city government can be much more than those things. It should provide democracy at the retail level. No one can deny the disconnect between citizens and city government.

Look at voter participation. In some elections, as few as 10 percent of eligible voters decide who gets elected to City Council or which ballot proposition passes into law. Look at the Tuesday City Council meetings. The same 10 or 12 people show up each week, and that estimate would be on the high side.

Here’s an idea, City Council members should implement a new annual evaluation system for Hileman and his staff. Their job performance should be based partially on their ability to increase public participation in city government. Unfortunately, George Campbell and Anita Burgess were not very huggable. If City Hall opens its arms, citizens will hug it more often.