City Council Preview – July 9, 2013

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After a bit of a summer break from regular council meetings, your local city council is back in action on Tuesday afternoon to discuss some important issues. Our meeting begins at 3pm in the Work Session Room of City Hall, followed by a very brief Regular Session at 6:30pm where our only action items are several items on the typically uncontroversial Consent Agenda.  Go here to see the full agenda along with background material.

A few items that might interest you…

REVIEW OF OUR FOOD ORDINANCE, particularly as it relates to FOOD TRUCKS
Upon passing the latest food ordinance last November, opening the door for food trucks in Denton, the council requested a review of the policy after 6 months so as to get feedback from operators and citizens regarding any unintended consequences.  I have received much feedback and the city staff has as well – some of the points up for discussion on Tuesday afternoon are outlined in this Staff Report. The goal, from my point of view, is to make sure we have a business-friendly environment for these new entrepreneurs.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE MANY DOWNTOWNS OF DENTON
The city has aggressively pursued downtown revitalization over the last 20 years. As a result, there are varying plans, overlays, and descriptions, each with their own boundary definition of what constitutes the downtown area: the Downtown Master Plan, the Central Business District, the Downtown Implementation Plan, and the Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) District.  The Planning department is presenting us with a plan that would essentially consolidate the boundaries of the Central Business District (with its specific guidelines for parking, signs, etc.) and the Downtown Implementation Plan (with its suggested planning strategies, including the upcoming adoption of a Form Based Code).  This would be a technical adjustment that has ramifications on development standards and perhaps be an encouragement to the desired development in the downtown area.

Tangentially related to this, yet still important, is what this change might mean for other developing areas. Take for instance the growth of neighborhood-scale businesses along Congress Street (between Greenhouse and Seven Mile) and North/South on Locust/Elm and this areas connection to the surrounding up-and-coming neighborhoods… This area, to me, cries out for its own district identity – and that identity should involve a set of development standards developed by those living and doing business there. Currently, this entire area is part of the Central Business District and, as such, would be eyed for development consistent with downtown-proper standards.

It is my view that with the success and momentum we are experiencing downtown, the city should be proactive in discovering other areas of town where unique districts are already, or could with a little help, developing. Denton deserves several unique centers of commerce with a sense of place and connected to thriving neighborhoods. This entire downtown discussion helps get us thinking in this direction.

YOUR TEXAS LEGISLATURE AT WORK
For those of you interested in the intersection of city and state politics, you might enjoy catching up on this overview of the Texas Legislative Session (now currently in their second special called session) and how it impacts cities like Denton. Go here for a great overview of all this.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, you can leave them below or contact me at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

City Council Preview – June 18, 2013

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Today’s City Council meeting begins with a Work Session at 3pm followed by a Regular Session at 6:30pm, all at City Hall at 215 E. McKinney Street. Click here to see the entire agenda with hundreds of pages of background material for each agenda item.  Here are some things that might interest you…

NEW ANIMAL SHELTER CONSTRUCTION BID and ADOPTION FEES

You might recall we discussed a new plan for animal adoption fees during our last council meeting. We will be officially voting on those changes at today’s meeting. Go to my last preview to catch up on that.

On a somewhat similar note, we are also set to vote on the awarding of a construction contract to get the new Linda McNatt Animal Care and Adoption Center built and ready to go.  If all goes according to plan, the new facility will open in April 2014. We have also required that this building will be built to LEED certification standards.  This entire project has been the result of the city collaborating with the hard work of the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation. At today’s meeting, the foundation will be officially presenting the city with a check for $1,271,200, money that has been collected from many generous individuals in our community, no doubt including many of you.

COMPREHENSIVE PLAN AMENDMENT AND ZONING CHANGE FOR DENTON BIBLE CHURCH (NRMU and NR-3 to Community Mixed Use General, CM-G)

Denton Bible Church is looking to expand its use of its property, mostly in order to facilitate the physical spot for the ambitious Serve Denton non-profit collaboration project.

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BUDGET TIME

It’s the time of year when we start pouring over the numbers for the upcoming budget year. We will be looking at key trends in revenue projections (most of which comes from sales tax and property taxes), key priorities for spending and investment, and alignment of the budget with city priorities. If you ever wanted a primer in the basics of a city budget, today’s presentation would be a good one to check out - here’s a copy of the powerpoint we will be viewing during today’s meeting.

I have also posted my own budget recommendations here.  Much more on this topic to come…

BUDGET RECOMMENDATIONS for 2013-2014

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Council members are invited to submit budget recommendations to the City Manager ahead of the release of the Manager’s recommended budget (near the end of July). I submitted the following recommendations for consideration of the council and City Manager. Click here to download a PDF of what is below.

This is an expansive list, but I hope you see a clear theme emerge: a call to invest in new, ambitious, and sometimes aggressive economic development initiatives for the city.  As we are still at the beginning of our budget discussions, my own interest and prioritization of some of these will no doubt diminish as other competing needs and priorities are made clear. Nevertheless, our citizens are deserving of a robust discussion of big ideas and I am hopeful this list leads to such discourse. Please let me know your thoughts…

Updated Economic Development Plan                                    COST: unknown

I’ve sat in on several of the community discussions surrounding the Denton Plan 2030 process and economic development continually rises to the top of people’s concerns. As far as I can tell, the current trajectory of economic development is based on a plan put together in 2003. It seems prudent to reinvigorate a community conversation about the future economic possibilities for our city in close connection to our work with the Comprehensive Plan.

Along with this, I would like to encourage a detailed analysis of what data and metrics our economic development team, partners, and policy makers should be seeing on a regular basis. There is an unfortunate amount of outdated data living on the EDP website, some of which dates all the way back to 2009.  We need to make sure we are asking the right questions and continually getting the best data available to assess our local economic health and activity.

Creative Economy Economic Impact Study                        COST: $7000 – $20,000

As you are aware, I have been working to assess the current state of Denton’s “Creative Economy” through mixers, gatherings, panel discussions, and in collaboration with our economic and university partners.  We are annually losing our best and brightest to other cities due to our lack of meaningful employment for college graduates. Meanwhile, it seems a growing number of start-ups, tech firms, entrepreneurs, and creative agencies are taking root in Denton, particularly in the greater downtown area. I would like to see us commission a study to develop a baseline for the current state of our creative economy, assess its possibility as a target for our economic development efforts, and provide data for future policy decisions.

Houston recently did such a study with great results: The Creative Economy of Houston, A comprehensive study of creative-sector industries and their impact on the Houston economy.  Simply doing and releasing such a study would bring a city our size significant attention. Michael Seman, local expert on this topic, and Dr. Terry Clower from UNT provided the ballpark figure for such a study.

Collaborative Co-working Space Partnership                                    COST: Unknown

There’s been significant interest and discussion of creating a downtown space for the purpose of tech-focused co-working options, business incubator/development/accelerator programs, and an events and training area. I’ve held several meetings on the topic and have surveyed the community. UNT, local businesses, and downtown developers have also expressed interest in some sort of public/private partnership leading to this. Given the momentum for such a project and the likelihood that a proposal for such a partnership might materialize within the year, I’d like to see the city set aside money with our Economic Development office earmarked for this.

Economic Development Events and Programming                        COST: $50,000

With the advent of UNT’s Innovation Greenhouse, increased relationships with various UNT business resources, the success of initiatives such as the Denton Creatives Mixer and Denton’s first Startup Weekend, and a growing desire for business development programs, events, and trainings for local businesses and promising local entrepreneurs, I am recommending that we allocate a small budget to our economic development team to give them the chance to be a player/sponsor at this table. We need to leverage such events to market our city as friendly and helpful to small businesses.

Development of a Downtown Innovation District                                    COST: $50,000

The success of the downtown has resulted in a new opportunity for targeted economic development in our city: the cultivation and attraction of innovative businesses and startups, businesses most likely to have the potential to scale rather quickly. Already we are seeing a number of tech-related firms gravitate toward downtown. The concentration of smart, creative young people combined with the desired amenities is the “new infrastructure” of our knowledge-based economy. In this sense, Denton has what no other city in the North Texas region has: a recognizable, concentrated sense of place, desirable by our smartest citizens, and in walking distance to two major research institutions.   We should be leveraging the hell out of that fact.

Boston has branded an area for their innovation district that ALSO doubles as an arts district – and it has been successful: http://www.innovationdistrict.org/  This would be mostly a matter of branding, marketing, and targeted leasing by our downtown development community.  And this would have the added benefit of bringing several high paying jobs and expendable income right where we want it spent.

City-owned High Speed Internet Utility Downtown                        COST: Unknown

This is connected to the previous topic… I have recently held a meeting with Verizon and city officials to encourage Verizon to increase their Fios connectivity in the downtown area.  The lack of a reliable high speed service for businesses in the downtown area will discourage efforts to attract tech-focused firms.  In the event Verizon is not willing to do so, I would encourage us to examine the possibility of providing this ourselves and use it as an economic development tool.  Consider the Google Fiber initiatives in cities – https://fiber.google.com/cities/ – and the example of other cities, such as Chattanooga, TN which is selling the highest speed internet in the country to its residents and businesses – http://chattanoogagig.com/.  My proposal would be much more limited than these and would simply define an area of service corresponding to a targeted economic development initiative, such as a Downtown Innovation District. And, of course, would only be considered in the event that Verizon is unwilling.

Code for America City Program                                                                        COST: $180,000

Key Focus Area 1, Organizational Excellence, identifies the utilization of technology and the enhancement of citizen engagement efforts as budget priorities.  Code for America, the leader in innovative civic tech solutions, has a year-long program where 3 of their fellows are assigned to the city to identify pressing city issues which are ripe for technological solutions and works with the staff to develop custom made applications.  They also help foster an innovation culture within the city and typically attract significant national media attention to their projects.  I would like to see us explore the possibility of applying for their city program.  Applications for their 2015 City Program will be do at some point in March 2014, so this would need to be budgeted for in advance. For more information, go here: http://codeforamerica.org/cities/city-impact/

311 System                                                                                                    COST: Unknown

This has been discussed by the Committee for Citizen Engagement and it seems there is an internal task force studying the matter and making recommendations to the City Manager.  Pending the results of the task force’s recommendation, I wanted to express my interest in seeing this program through.

Street Repair Update Web Application                                                COST: $10,000

Given that street repair and maintenance is a major priority of the city council and given that our funding levels are still behind where they need to be, community concern and pressure in this area will continue to be a problem for some time.  One cheap and easy way we can publicly demonstrate our commitment to the citizens in this area is by developing and highlighting a web application that tracks our progress, our successes, our future plans, and provides a way for citizens to give recommendations.  You can call it something like “Street Repair Tracker” and place it prominently on the front page of the website.  Anyone could go on, put in a street name and get instant information on the current OCI ratings of the street, its history of repair/maintenance, and whether or not it is scheduled for reconstruction through our bond program or other programs. I think we could assemble a local team, similar to what we did with the votedenton.org initiative to use this as another example of the possibility of civic tech and a positive use of open public information.

City Council Interns                                                         COST: $5000 per intern/year

This could be a great partnership with our universities. I receive offers for volunteer help on a regular basis from university students and plan on piloting such a program with interested students this summer (at no cost).  It would be helpful if such a program were formalized.  While volunteer possibilities exist, a funded internship would increase the commitment level of the intern and allow for more reliable expectations from week to week. I don’t anticipate every council member finding the need for such help, which could lower the cost.

Neighborhood District Initiative                                                COST: $50,000

Connected to the Neighborhood Empowerment Grant we funded this year, this would be an initiative aimed at incentivizing neighborhoods to create distinct neighborhood identities. Austin and Fort Worth have embarked on similar initiatives with great success. The lack of neighborhood identity is a particular issue among the older, core neighborhoods.  With the increased development of neighborhood-scale businesses in or near the edges of these neighborhoods, the possibility exists to create, brand, and market these areas in order to increase the number of unique spaces we have in our city. The greater South Austin Street area neighborhood, with its connection to the growing commercial district along Congress Street, is an example of an area that is ripe for such a district identity. The neighbors and businesses are interested, yet there is no clear path on how to do so. We could pilot such a project with neighborhoods such as this and learn from it.

Art Master Plan                                                                                          COST: Unknown

This was part of the discussion with the Public Art Committee earlier this year

City Council Preview – June 4, 2013

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charlyeToday’s council preview begins with a tribute to a remarkable woman – Sister Charlye Heggins, former Council Woman for District 1. She is the reason I am on city council today. A few years ago, I wanted to meet my council representative, so I called up Ms. Heggins and asked her out for coffee. I wanted to know how to get more involved in the city and find ways to serve.  She let me buy her a green tea and spent most of our time entertaining my 1 year old daughter. This, to me, is what defined Charlye – she always knew who was “important” and who deserved her attention.  And most often who was “important” to Charlye wasn’t “important” in the eyes of the world.

We will bury this firecracker of a woman today and Denton will lose a tenacious voice for the voiceless and a war-worn defender of liberty. Perhaps it is fitting she is having her earthly send-off on the day of the first official council meeting of this new term.  We are told the faithful will be put in charge of cities and kingdoms on the new earth – I’m quite confident Ms. Heggins is already shaking things up in the council chambers of Heaven.

Today’s council meeting begins with a Work Session at 3pm, followed by a Regular Session at 6:30pm – both at the Main City Hall on East McKinney Street.  Go here to see the agenda along with full back-up information.  Here are a few things that might interest you…

LOWER ADOPTION FEES FOR ANIMAL SHELTER PETS
As it stands right now, you need to pay $110 for a cat or $120 for a dog in order to adopt from the Denton Animal Shelter. Although that cost does include many services, including spay/neutering, vaccinations, medical exams, and a microchip, you may see these fees cut in half after our discussion on Tuesday afternoon.  Several private donors generously step up to subsidize these fees on special days in order to encourage adoption. While this is great, it is probably not a sustainable practice long-term and our city staff have found a way to lower the costs.  Check out this listing of available pets in the shelter and go here to learn more about the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation and an update on the new shelter.

DENSITY AVERAGING
A recent request for a “detailed plan” in a Planned Development area triggered a council discussion about density averaging.  Basically, parcels of land have a particular zoning category that dictates the level of density allowed per acre of that property. For instance, if your property is zoned at NR-6 (Neighborhood Residential 6) that means that the allowable density is 6 houses per acre.  Planned Developments, a planning tool we currently do not use (yet there are some previous Planned Developments already approved under earlier ordinances), were created to allow for flexibility in how a development develops.  We’ll be discussing what will probably be a boring topic to the vast majority of you: whether or not we should allow density to be averaged between various phases/projects of a planned development.  If you are interested in more on this, check out the back-up agenda sheet for this item at the link above.

ZONING CHANGES
I’m going to try something new for zoning change requests on our agenda – I’ll be posting a Google Map of the location of the property where the change is requested. This should give you a better sense of where these are and whether or not you are interested in them…

MASCH BRANCH REZONING – RD-5 to EC-I (off University at Masch Branch Road)

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PROPOSED APARTMENTS – DETAILED PLAN FOR PD-120 (6 acres on Loop 288, West of Locust)

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ZONING CHANGE FOR CAR DEALERSHIP OFF I35 – RCR-1 to RCC-D

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 SERVE ON A BOARD OR COMMISSION
We are nearing that time when the council will appoint citizens to fill vacancies on our many boards and commissions. Interested? Start exploring now and I’ll brief you with more when additional details come out.

MORE CIVIC TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION
Not only are you getting the new google maps feature in this preview, I also want to show you the WORLD’S FIRST City Council Meeting Preview ever to occur on Vine, the new social media video app. Another first from Denton, TX…

The End of Democracy as We Know It

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The night of my first election in May 2011, one of my more colorful opponents in the race sent this tweet out…

Eli Gemini - election of Kevin Roden tweet

I’m unhappy to report that it appears Mr. Gemini’s predictions are coming true. I’ve been tracking early voting data and comparing it to previous years. With only two days left of early voting for the City Council races in Denton, we are on track to see the lowest voter turnout in recent history.  Consider these stats:

YEAR Early Vote TOTAL VOTE % of early vote
2008 1778 3169 56%
2009 1514 2738 55%
2010 1724 3021 57%
2011 1244 2143 58%
2012 2308 3944 58.5%
2013 680 SO FAR Unknown unknown
Shows low voter turnout compared to previous five city council elections. The final two days of early voting would have to see an average of 417 voters per day just to put us up to 2009 levels, the lowest out of the previous 5 years. Unlikely, given the highest day of early voting so far this year has only yielded 186 voters.

Why is it that low participation in local government elections signals the “Death of freedom and true justice for all in the US,” as Eli Gemini puts it? Precisely because it is in the context of local government where we first learn to exercise our freedom and learn how to “do” democracy.

Consider this quote from 19th century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville on where American democracy finds its origin and why it works:

“It is nonetheless in the township that the force of free peoples resides.  The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it.  Without the institutions of a township a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom.  Fleeting passions, the interests of a moment, the chance of circumstances can give it the external forms of independence; but despotism suppressed in the interior of the social body reappears sooner or later on the surface.”

What does it mean to be a democratic citizen on the national level, the level to which all of our attention is given? Voting once every four years, maybe writing a congressman a form email which very likely will be given no individual attention, and the occasional Facebook fight whereby you post or like things that conform to your already existing ways of thinking and delete those friends who share things that offend you. This is the state of democracy in America. Be encouraged.

And to the extent that all of our political rearing is done on this national stage, we have great reason to worry about the future of our democratic institutions in our nation. Local democracy, on the other hand, and her institutions “are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it.” In short, it is in the city where you learn how to be a citizen.

If that doesn’t convince you, perhaps this will. The average voter age so far in this election is 63. I have a hunch that those who follow me through this site and social media tend to fall into a much younger demographic. The average voter age among Dentonites during the last Presidential election, for comparison, was 45. You can somehow make the time to get out to the polls for an election with far less consequences on your daily life.

So let this motivate you: 63 year olds are the ones determining the look, feel, culture, and future of Denton.

This year we have seen some incredibly innovative resources come along to help educate you and get you to the polls. votedenton.org was the result of two nights of hackathons at my house where a bunch of talented people worked for free to make democracy easier for Dentonites. The good people over at We Denton Do It have done some of the best coverage of the candidates in town, including this helpful instructional video on where and how to vote.

No excuses. Realize that the names of voters in each election is public information. Don’t make me cross reference my Twitter and Facebook followers with the voting list and publish a public airing of grievance to all my non-voting friends. Don’t let Eli Gemini’s prediction come true. Do your part to prevent THE DEATH OF FREEDOM AND TRUE JUSTICE FOR ALL IN THE U.S. and vote in this year’s city council election.

Vote today and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday) at the Civic Center – you can do it between 7am and 7pm. Just bring your ID.

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