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The Supposed Gentrification of Denton

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Is Denton experiencing gentrification? Citing rising property values, changes in the downtown business make-up, new development in our urban core, and several anecdotes about people not being able to buy a house or afford rents, many in town are taking to social media to claim that we are. Even our local newspaper is chiming in, forwarding the narrative that downtown is in trouble and the Denton Creative Class is being forced out.

Let’s bring some data to the discussion.

But first, let’s define the question. According to a dictionary, gentrification is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

This definition shows why the phenomena is generally found in certain areas of our nation’s urban centers, usually following a renewed interest in downtown areas that have been neglected for decades thanks to the growth of suburban America post-World War II. You don’t refer to a city, as a whole, undergoing gentrification, rather you point to a particular neighborhood that experiences significant change over time.

There’s also significant back-and-forth among urban planners and urban researchers as to the problems gentrification brings and whether managed gentrification can be good for underserved areas.

It is important to understand what gentrification is not (according to all definitions):

  • a general rise in property values that track across a city and track with trends state and nation-wide
  • a housing market that makes it difficult for most homebuyers to purchase a home anywhere in a given city due to supply and demand
  • the closing of a particular business
  • the opening of a particular business
  • Walmart coming into town
  • Chain businesses setting up (in fact, many point to the emergence of distinctively local, trendy, and unique/boutique businesses as a sign of gentrification)

For the purposes of this analysis, let’s look at how property values, rent, income, and ethnic make-up track over time in Denton by zip code. If Denton was experiencing gentrification in one or more of its neighborhoods, we would expect to see this played out in one or more of these categories. And you’d see it happening in neighborhoods connected to our downtown core.

Daniel Hartley, research economist at the Cleveland Federal Reserve, defines the metrics of gentrification as follows: a neighborhood (census tract) that has “moved from the bottom half of the distribution of home prices in the metropolitan area to the top half” between a given set of years. As we look at the data, let’s look for neighborhoods in Denton that follow a trend similar to this.

Here’s a zip code map of Denton. Pay attention to 76201 – that’s where downtown, our two universities, and their surrounding neighborhoods reside. There have been massive changes and investment in this area over the last ten years with renewed interest in our downtown, so if gentrification is happening in Denton, this is where you would expect to find it:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.29.57 AM

PROPERTY VALUES
The following chart shows the trend of property values in Denton since 2007 and compares those trend lines with the average values in the US, in Texas, and for purposes of comparison, a city to the North of us (Sanger), and a city to the South of us (Lewisville).

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.25.44 AM

Denton is the yellow line. This shows that the rise in property values that we are experiencing in Denton are all part of a trend nationally and Texas specifically. Notice the parallel trend lines of Texas, Denton, Sanger, and Lewisville.  The slope of property values in Denton is not anomalous and therefore not indicative of something particularly problematic for our city.

This is also made clear by the median home sales price per square foot. Consider the following chart comparing Denton to the rest of the country:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.15.24 AMBut what do the trend lines look like within Denton? Do we see significant property value changes in certain neighborhoods in Denton signaling gentrification? Do we see what Hartley says to look for – a particular neighborhood going from the bottom of the pack toward the top rapidly? Below are the property value trend lines by zip code in Denton since 1996:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.23.06 AM

This chart demonstrates a remarkable stability across Denton’s neighborhoods. While some neighborhoods are more expensive, property values are rising at a consistent rate across the city. The revitalization around the downtown square, train station, and universities (all within 76201 – the bottom line) has not impacted the property values of the surrounding single family neighborhoods in a way that is different from the property value increases across the city. In fact, 76201 continues to be the cheapest place to by a home across the entire city. A fact I find remarkable.

Compare this with a case of actual gentrification in Austin – the ascent of 78702 in East Austin. Look for the dotted line representing that zip code. Notice how it is rapidly ascending from the bottom of the pack toward the middle. That sort of trend-bucking change is a great indicator of gentrification:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.38.58 AM

IS THE RENT TOO DAMN HIGH?
Not everyone can or desires to purchase their own home, so rents across our city are another important indicator that might point to gentrification. Let’s first consider how Denton compares nationally, in the state, and with the same cities we used above in the area of single family home rental cost per month:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.59.41 AM

Here you see that Denton is above the state and national average, but that it has been that way for a while and the trends lines are roughly parallel to the national, state, and averages found in other cities.

Let’s see how single family home rental rates track across zip codes within Denton since 2010:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.05.45 AM

Once again, as we saw with home values, the trend lines are consistent across the city and 76201 – where our downtown neighborhoods reside – continues to be the cheapest place to rent a home in the entire city.

And here’s a chart showing the trend lines for multi-family rental units across zip codes in Denton:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.24.40 AM

While 76201 is not the cheapest place to rent an apartment in Denton (it’s the second cheapest), it also isn’t trending abnormally as compared with other parts of town. And this is particularly remarkable given several hundred high end units that have gone in around the square in recent years.

CHANGING ETHNIC DEMOGRAPHICS?
Something else to pay attention to as it relates to gentrification is the changing percentages of ethnicity within key neighborhoods. According to the census, neighborhoods in 76201 continue to become more diverse between 2000 and 2014:


2000 2010 2014
White 74.70% 74% 69.80%
Black 8.80% 12.50% 13.10%
Hispanic 18% 15.70% 18.30%

 

INCOME DATA
Gentrification typically occurs when something triggers a surge of higher income residents into a particular area. Denton, generally speaking, does not have the type of jobs or income characteristics to force rapid gentrification anywhere in the city. Denton’s median household income consistently lags behind the state. And as you see from the below chart, 76201 is well behind that:

2000 2010 2014
Median household Income in 76201 30,231 23,328 23,252
Median household Income in Denton 35,422 NA 43,976
Median household Income in Texas NA NA 51,704

CONCLUSION
A look at every metric associated with gentrification, Denton – and in particular our downtown neighborhoods – show absolutely no sign of such a trend. In fact, when I came on council in 2011 – just after the approval of the Downtown Implementation Plan and at the dawn of the downtown apartment boom – I remarked often how the plan left the downtown single family neighborhoods out of the equation. I argued then (and continue to argue) that the first couple of rings of single family homes around downtown have the most potential to realize a renaissance. But not a renaissance associated with the displacement of poor families and minorities, rather a renaissance of families moving back to neighborhoods that have historically been seen as places for real estate investors to have rental homes for college students. The conversion of downtown neighborhoods from college rentals to owner-occupied homes would be a welcome change.

So much more could be said on this topic and the unique impact of having two growing universities within our downtown core and how that impacts these neighborhoods and what sort of college apartment policy we should have to guide this… But I’ll stop here.

Thoughts?

City Council Preview – June 21, 2016

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Starting at 1pm and likely going past midnight, today’s Denton City Council meeting is likely to be a marathon. But more than that, it is filled with several significant items of concern to many citizens. If there was a city council meeting to pay attention to, to tune in via the online stream or DTV, this would be it. For the full agenda with backup, go here.

Many significant items will be discussed and/or decided upon, including:

- a substation near a prominent historic neighborhood

- a major “road diet” project along Eagle Drive, moving our key thoroughfares in an increasingly walkable and bikeable part of the city toward a “complete street” concept

- consideration of a ban on handheld mobile devices while driving – in other words, the possibility of prohibiting talking on your cell phone (as you now know it) while operating a vehicle

- consideration of the future contract of the city manager

- a vote on the adoption of Road Impact Fees and moving away from the exaction method of determining the contribution of new development projects toward the increased road usage their development brings

VOTE ON THE RENEWABLE DENTON PLAN
But perhaps the most watched decision of the evening will be the council vote on the proposed Renewable Denton Plan.

Only cities that own and operate their own electric utilities could possibly have this conversation. Realize that there are somewhere around 20,000 cities in the United States. Among those, there are only about 250 of them that have municipal electric utilities like we have in Denton. That’s 0.125% of all cities. Already Denton is in a unique spot.

Citizens living in the other 19,750 cities around the nation have very little, if any, ability to direct the future of their electric utility.  In Denton you have a voice and if that last 8 months of intense community discussion on the energy future of our city doesn’t show that, I don’t know what will. We’ve all become much more aware about the mechanics of running an electric utility, the national landscape for renewables, the ins and outs of new technology, what a grid is, how rates are set, and so much more. Every idea – no matter how seemingly wild it is – has been asked and addressed at one forum or another.

I’m convinced that had the Renewable Denton Plan been introduced 5 years ago or even this year in another municipality, it would be met with near universal praise from environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike. While cities all over the world are getting accolades and articles written about them for their mere intent to talk about someday somehow doing something about moving away from fossil fuels with vague resolutions and setting dates and percentages without any specific plans, DME has been doing something about it since 2009.

Renewable Denton will put Denton among just a handful of cities in the entire world who are taking serious steps to wean themselves off of fossil fuel:

- 100% reduction in our use of coal by divesting ourselves of Gibbons Coal Plant

- 36% reduction in our use of natural gas

- nearly 75% reduction in air emissions for the RDP portfolio compared to what we have today

- meeting our load with 70% renewable energy from wind and solar

But because the plan involves creating our own generation asset powered by natural gas in our city limits in order to back-up that massive amount of renewable energy, it has generated much controversy. So for the last several months, we’ve explored all sorts of ideas thrown out by citizens and environmental groups to understand the options.

We’ve looked at the status and cost of battery storage. It’s not ready. It’s not at utility scale. It’s incredibly expensive. And most haven’t even begun talking about the fact that batteries do not generate their own energy – rather, they must be charged by other energy generation. With a battery connected to the Texas grid, what it means is that your battery will be charged with mostly fossil fuel generation which is then returning power at a loss due to inefficiencies.

We’ve looked at buying enough renewables to meet all of our load demand even on the hottest and coldest days. This would involve a massive investment in renewables a few times over what we normally need. That would be costly and would still involve significant risk.

We’ve looked at just going to the market to meet our energy needs when there aren’t enough renewables from our 70% contracts to match our load. This would be incredibly expensive and risky – we’ve go to the market at the precise times to purchase energy when the costs are the highest.

Some have even suggested staying invested in coal generation, arguing it’s cleaner than natural gas and better for our environment.

What is lost in much of this conversation that has been focused on the part of the plan that involves natural gas generation is that the real risky part of this plan – financially speaking – is moving our portfolio to relying on 70% renewable energy. Because what generates renewable energy is not turned on or off under our control and because it can’t be ramped up or down according to peak demands, how you meet your load when the renewable portion of your portfolio is what brings in the greatest amount of financial risk. There’s huge financial value to the low cost energy contracts we are able to secure for wind and solar, but the financial value of that is crucially dependent on our ability to hedge against the times we need something else. This and this alone is the only value of creating our own gas generation asset.

This must be understood: if we weren’t moving to 70% renewable energy, talk of creating our own gas generation asset would not even be on the table.

So our city has a decision to make. Do we want to move the needle on renewable energy? Do we want to wean ourselves off fossil fuels? Do we want to take a huge step toward 100% renewables? Or do we want to remain status quo and join the hosts of other cities who pat themselves on the back for making vague plans about someday doing something about getting off of fossil fuels – always waiting for the magical right time.

The plan has been introduced by some of the top experts in the country at DME. The plan, at the request of some citizens, has been studied and vetted by some of the top energy experts in the world. It’s been vetted and approved by our city’s Public Utility Board. It’s been thoroughly discussed by our citizens for several months.

What a remarkable community conversation. It’s a truly remarkable, historic plan. I look forward to the conversation and vote on Renewable Denton this evening.

City Council Preview – June 7, 2016

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rosielou

My daughter Rosemary was only 2 when I first took office in 2011. Today is her 8th birthday. Happy birthday, darling!

The Denton City Council starts Tuesday’s meeting with a Work Session at 1pm, followed by a 6:30pm Regular Session. Click here to access the entire agenda with backup information.

There are two big issues up for discussion during our afternoon Work Session…

DENTON’S ENERGY FUTURE
The 3rd party expert study from the Brattle Group has now been completed and the council will hear from this team during our meeting. As a reminder, we opted to seek a third party consultant to review the Renewable Denton Plan after being asked to by some concerned members of our community. The group to do it and the scope of their study was approved unanimously by everyone on the city council at the time.

I’ve read through both the executive summary and the preliminary full report. The report extensively reviews the Renewable Denton Plan as conceived by our own internal experts at DME following direction from council to look for a way to scale beyond our current and nationally-acclaimed energy portfolio of 40% renewables. If we want to take advantage of the current low cost of wind and solar and take advantage of significant Purchase Power Agreements to move from 40% to 70% by 2019, the most fiscally responsible way to do that is to invest in new quick start generation technology powered by natural gas in order to avoid the risk of relying on market back-up at the same times that such market energy is at its highest cost.

I look forward to a significant conversation with the consultants during the meeting and hearing from continued concerns about and support of the Renewable Denton Plan from others in the community.

No doubt, there will be some coming forward criticizing the results of the very study they spent so much time asking for. I’m sure we’ll see some coming forward demanding that we take this issue to the voters. There will be several different suggestions on how to continue to delay this plan despite the fact that no viable alternative has been brought forward after 8 months of significant community conversation on the topic.

I think this is a time for leadership on Denton’s Energy Future. I’ve been clear all along of my view that this is one of the most progressive, innovative, environmentally-sensitive, and aggressive renewable energy plans you’ll find anywhere in the nation. Denton led the country with 40% in 2009 and we have the chance to lead the nation with 70% renewables by 2019. While other cities, states, and nations are celebrating the passing of vague and unenforceable resolutions regarding their desired energy future without actionable and specific plans, Denton has a plan to do something about it. We’re not waiting on circumstances or opportunities to arrive at our door – we’re acting now to invest in significant new wind and solar infrastructure through our PPAs. Make no mistake, such investments moves the renewable energy forward and provides a model for other cities around the nation to do the same. Further, beyond the benefit of the proposed Denton Energy Center to help firm up our renewable energy portfolio, having more quick start generation on the grid has the added benefit of helping other energy providers shore up their own new investments in renewable power.

If you are concerned about fossil fuel use or fracking, this is the plan for you – 100% reduction in our use of coal as we divest from the Gibbons Coal Plant and a 35% reduction in our use of natural gas.

If you are concerned about emissions, this is plan is for you – 74% reduction in emissions compared with our current energy portfolio.

If you want to see more renewables, this plan is for you – we’re going from 40% to 70% in less than 5 years. No one else comes even close.

If you are concerned about the economic impact of all this, this plan is for you – we now have the nation’s leading experts telling us Renewable Denton is the way to go.

I look forward to voting yes on the Renewable Denton Plan in the near future, recommending that we fund it via Revenue Bonds (backed by revenue from DME, not the taxpayers), and moving Denton forward as a national leader in renewable energy.

texting

BAN ON HANDHELD DEVICES
Two years ago, Denton voted to ban texting while driving. We knew at the time that a ban only on texting would be difficult to enforce, but we also wanted to use the new ordinance as a way to spread awareness of the dangers of mobile phone distractions while driving.

The issue is getting any better. Anyone driving down the road (even the highway) will notice several drivers with their phone in their hands and their gaze cast upon it. It’s not about texting anymore – it’s Facebook, Twitter notices, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like. The same addiction that causes all of us to pull our phone out while in line, at the restaurant, on the toilet, at the dinner table with our family, during a meeting, and every where else that is inappropriate is the same addiction that drives us to stupidly pull out our phones while operating vehicles.

The problem is we are addicted to this technology. And we know no boundaries. And just like we act stupid when we take it out during a date with our significant others, we are likely to act stupid and take it out to check a push notification we received while driving down Bell Ave. The former only leads to relationship problems, the latter has been proven to lead to tragic deaths.

So what do we do? Will a law change behavior? Does the data from other communities suggest that such all out bans reduce the number of mobile device relating accidents? Are there any other ways to address the root of the problem.

I full recognize that we are now about 20 years down the road of being able to drive while talk on our phones, so for some taking away that “right” just to curb the decidedly more contemporary problem of texting, tweeting, or checking emails from our phones seems a bit too far. I appreciate that perspective. But I also am at a loss to know how to curb what seems to be a growing problem, especially in a town made up of nearly 50,000 college students.

All this to say, I look forward to deliberating on this topic tomorrow during our work session on this important topic.

As always if you have any questions or concerns about these issues or anything else on the agenda, feel free to contact me at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

 

2016 Denton City Council Race – Early Voting Analysis

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Despite all the media attention on the craziness that is this year’s Presidential primary season, the craziness that is the Denton City Council election is arguably more important and relevant to your day to day lives. Despite having over 65,000 registered voters in the city of Denton, we are looking at yet another city council election that will attract well less than 10% of them to the polls. So if you are one of the few, thank you for doing your civic duty for your city and tell your friends – Saturday is election day and the last chance to vote.

Once again, I’ve crunched some stats from the Early Voter rolls provided by the Denton County Elections office with basic demographic and voting history data that is publicly available via the Denton County voter database.

 

  TOTAL # of VOTES EV % EV Mail-in votes # of new voters % of new voters AVG AGE of EV #/% of voters 25 and under % of voters 26-35 % of voters 36-45 % of voters 46 or older
2012 3790 2205 58% 50 1211 32% 61 2% 5% 9% 84%
2013 2364 1347 57% 13 510 22% 60 2.5% 7% 11% 79.5%
2014 5128 2875 56% 754 2013 26% 63 .5% 3.5% 7% 89%
2015 3887 2443 63% 281 1436 (582 from 4003) 37% 59 2% 10% 12% 76%
2016 4110 – so far 3215 895 1084 26% 59 67/1.6% 228/5.5% 369/9% 83.9%

Elections for seats on the city council are staggered each year so that district-specific seats are on the ballot on odd years and at-large positions (Place 5, Place 6, and the Mayor) are on the ballot in even years. So when you compare this data, realize that at-large elections have historically drawn more interest and voters precisely because each position can be voted on by anyone in the city. Voters in district-specific elections may stay home if the race for their district seat is either uncontested (as we saw in the District 4 race in 2015) or contested by an unlikely-to-win challenger.

This year, there are two hotly contested races for Place 5 and Place 6 and an additional reason for District 4 voters to get involved due to the recall election of Joey Hawkins.

VOTER TURNOUT
The trend lines are moving toward increased voter involvement every at-large election. With the first significant mayoral race since 2008 (when Mark Burroughs challenged incumbent Mayor Perry McNeil), the 2014 race between Chris Watts and Jean Schaake drew the largest turnout in recent history with 5128 total votes.

This year’s early voters have now surpassed the early voting numbers of 2014, signaling a likely increase in total voters this time around. But this must be qualified by a sudden increase in the percentage of early voters we saw in 2015 (63%). If that percentage holds this year after Saturday’s vote, we will still be slightly under the 2014 voter totals, as the following table shows:

If Early Voting % is ___% of total vote Then the total vote count after Saturday will be
63% (2015 level) 5103
56% (2014 level) 5741

Given the history of 56-63% early voting turnout during the last four elections, I don’t anticipate a wild swing this year. Even at the lower percentage, we will only see a bit over 600 votes from 2014. All this to say, there’s nothing in the current data that indicates a significant uptick in voters for this election.

It’s also important to note that high early voting, especially among certain voting precincts or demographics, usually indicates a particular candidate or two had a solid “Get Out the Vote” ground game. We saw this in 2015 with Robson Ranch, as an example.

VOTER AGE
Ever since I started following local voter trends, I’ve been appalled by how many young people fail to engage in local politics. And I’m not simply talking about college students (as you will see, their age demographic is all but non-existent every year in local elections), but rather young professionals and 30/40 somethings.

If there is anything encouraging to report here, it’s that the average age of voters (so far) went from 63 in the last at-large election to 59 of early voters in this election. That, too, must be qualified because I intentionally do not factor in the average age of the mail-in voters. The average age so far of mail-in voters is 78.

YEAR AVG AGE of EV #/% of voters 25 and under % of voters 26-35 % of voters 36-45 % of voters 46 or older
2012 61 2% 5% 9% 84%
2013 60 2.5% 7% 11% 79.5%
2014 63 .5% 3.5% 7% 89%
2015 59 2% 10% 12% 76%
2016 59 67/1.6% 228/5.5% 369/9% 83.9%

Though it is a slight change, it is interesting to note that while district-specific elections tend to attract less interest overall, the percentage of younger voters is slightly higher in those odd years.

BY COUNCIL DISTRICT
Prior to the 2011 redistricting of council districts (as required by law and overseen by the US Department of Justice), District 4 was regularly outvoting every other district. This was due to the fact that the part of the city represented by District 4 was where just about all of the growth in the city had happened over the previous decade. It included Robson Ranch and all the new developments West and South along I35 and Teasley. While redistricting rules require you aim for a proportionate size of registered voters in each district, I argued back then that the historical voting behavior of District 1 justified that criteria be further examined. Because of the higher percentage of apartments, rental properties, and lower income residents as compared to the other 3 council districts, District 1 has always lagged behind in local voting behavior as compared to its counterparts which have a larger percentage of established neighborhoods.

As you’ll see, except for that anomaly in District 1, the redistricting did its part of break-up the power of District 4 and spread it out among the other districts:

  TOTAL # of VOTES Early Voters Mail-in Voters # of new voters Avg Age of EV # EV under age of 45
District 1 347 260 87 108 53 99
District 2 1172 907 265 251 58 231
District 3 1205 957 248 205 62 163
District 4 1208 913 295 349 60 171

NEW VOTERS
For the purposes of this analysis, I consider “new” voters to be voters who have no voting history in the previous four city council elections. It could also mean they are newly registered voters or even brand new to the city – all would fall into the same category. As you can see from the first table, there is a predictable 25% or more of new voters every year. The highest percentage was in 2015 (at 37%) which, as we’ll see, was driven by the high Robson Ranch turnout to elect Council Member Kathleen Wazny.

ROBSON EFFECT
While we are on that subject, will Robson Ranch sustain its record turnout from the 2015 race? In 2015, precinct 4003 turned out 1215 voters, accounting for 31% of the total vote from across the city. We must qualify that last stat with the fact that District 4 saw virtually no turnout that year due to the uncontested District 4 seat. So far, between early voters and mail-in voters, Precinct 4003 has seen 793 voters, accounting for 19.3% of the total city vote. Perhaps more alarming to the rest of that council district, the voting power of that one neighborhood so far accounts for 66% of all the voters in District 3.

There are several reports that Kathleen Wazny has been supporting the campaigns of Mike Cheves for Place 5 and Sara Bagheri for Place 6 out at Robson Ranch. Whether or not her influence is helpful for these candidates in Robson and whether Robson becomes a determinative force in either of these elections will be something to pay attention to when the results come in on Saturday.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
There is nothing that points to wild swings in voting behavior, demographics, or totals for this year’s election. Every indicator – turnout, early voting, district voting behavior, age, new voters – is relatively on track with previous elections.

But this has been a strange year for politics both in Denton and in the nation as a whole. The same anti-establishment sentiment that all but secured the GOP Presidential nomination for Donald Trump has reared its head in Denton with a number of actually controversial issues (frack ban, Renewable Denton Plan, Bucee’s) as well as a number of manufactured controversial issues (ethics ordinance, internal auditors, city debt levels, disdain for DME).

Those latter issues – the manufactured ones – have always been the darling issues of the Clifton Party and his regular team of unsuccessful candidates and would-be political advisors over the years (Bob Clifton, Hatice Salih, David Zoltner, Sam Alexander, and the like). But with the confluence of currents coming from the national spirit of anti-establishment and a disenfranchised crowd of citizens still fuming over the demise of Denton’s frack ban, these long-time political opportunists found a fresh crowd of politically ambitious newcomers by which to carry forward their otherwise tired, worn-out cries of corruption, out of control spending, and “Denton is going to hell if we don’t save it” political rhetoric that the citizens have rejected time and time again.

What’s been sad to see is candidates who have a lot of talent and who could be an instrument of real vision in our city succumb to the wiles of this Clifton Party. They could have been great, but they hadn’t been engaged long enough to know that you don’t have four and a half hour phone calls with Bob Clifton and you don’t get up at your election launch and call Sam Alexander your political hero.

But the question for this election is whether or not a full year of this new generation of the Clifton Party beating the political drum of corruption, conflicts of interest, and Boys Clubs has done real damage to this crop of incumbents. When it was just Clifton and his few friends getting up to speak at council meetings each week, that’s one thing. But when he has a new, younger, more connected crowd that is constantly connected on social media, the narrative can take a life of its own.

We’re in a year where the ambitious plan to power our city with 70% renewables is spun by this crowd as if it’s one of the biggest environmental disasters of this generation. We’re in a year where the politically progressives in town are passing around articles written by Empower Texans (the most powerful Tea Party PAC in the state) taking aim at city budgets and arguing for no taxes. We are in a year when Trump is a serious presidential candidate. It’s a strange year, so even with little anomalies in the voting data, predictions are perilous.

Stay tuned to the Denton County Election website on Saturday evening. Early voting results will come out at 7pm. To prepare yourself for that and how to interpret the results, you might read up on my 2014 analysis on how predictive early voting results are in determining the final outcome of Denton City Council elections.

On Anger and Vision: a Time to Vote for Denton

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Early voting for the Denton City Council election starts today.

I love election season because it provides an opportunity for candidates and incumbents to share their vision for our city, to promote their big, bold ideas for Denton, and to ask our fellow citizens to dream what tomorrow can bring for our ambitious city.

I also love seeing a new, energized, and engaged crop of younger citizens who are interested in city issues, out of which many of this year’s council candidates have come. I love it because it is from them that the freshest and most creative ideas are most likely to emerge. I’ve loved hearing Will Wooten, as an example, repeatedly raise the issue of Denton’s digital divide and the need for a more substantial plan to attract substantial, high-paying, tech-savvy jobs so that we can retain our two universities best and brightest. I’ve appreciated Sam Ortiz’s call for criminal justice reform, greater advocacy for the homeless, and his oft-repeated plan to fill our parks and public spaces with fruit trees.

Elections, at their best, are about big ideas.

Those challenging the incumbents this year are incredibly smart and passionate people who want what is best for the city they love. This is why it has been so disheartening to hear so little vision from these otherwise promising leader’s of tomorrow. Instead of inspiring citizens with where we can head together as a city, they have chosen to sell narratives of rampant corruption, incumbents lining their pockets, out-of-control city spending, and a city so on the brink of failure that it’s in need of a savior.

That they come from a place of disenfranchisement and suspicion of government is understandable. Most of them started paying attention to city issues for the first time during the extended and heroic fight against fracking in the city of Denton. HB40 and the subsequent repeal of Denton’s frack ban by the city council no doubt angered them and drove them toward greater involvement. I totally get that. I first started paying attention and getting involved during the fight against the demolition of old Fry Street and still to this day see the burning of The Tomato as the rallying cry that launched many of my generation into greater civic engagement.

The question is, how will you channel your frustration? And, perhaps more importantly for this election discussion, as a would-be leader, how will you channel the frustration of the citizens?

One thing I’ve learned from five years in office is that it is easy in this social media saturated culture to whip others up into a frenzy. It’s easy to appeal to people’s fears, biases, prejudices, and suspicions to command attention to an issue for 12 hours. It’s easy to quickly amass and command an army of angry citizens armed with “Like” buttons and retweeting potential. How do I know this? Because, to my shame, I’ve done this myself when I’ve found it politically expedient.

But what I have also learned is that such “support” is ultimately counter-productive. Building momentum to bring lasting change never comes about through encouraging distrust, suspicion, and anger in the system.

So when newcomers to city politics focus their campaigns on the manufactured controversies of unnecessary ethics ordinances, internal auditors, and supposed out-of-control city debt, we should all be asking ourselves, “Is this really their big idea for Denton?” Are these the issues with which our citizenry is concerned?

Making people angry is easy. Inspiring them is much more difficult.

mixer

As you go to vote in this year’s city council election, think about who is continually working to move our creative and ambitious city forward. In my mind, that is a vote for Mayor Watts, Dalton Gregory in Place 5, Greg Johnson in Place 6, and supporting Joey Hawkins in his recall election. While I have had disagreements with each of them on various topics, they come to the table each week with big ideas, big goals, and big dreams for Denton. In that context, disagreements become opportunities for even better ideas and I have found each of them willing to openly debate, look for common ground, compromise when necessary, and build coalitions to keep our city moving forward.

Under their leadership, we’ve seen:

  • a more livable city with greater investments in biking and pedestrian infrastructure
  • focus and strategies to invest in high tech economic development, small businesses, and entrepreneurship
  • continued investment and care of downtown Denton
  • economic development strategies that aim to attract and retain more significant jobs as well as increase our corporate tax base
  • greater focus on social issues and partnerships with other community stakeholders to tackle big problems: homelessness, at-risk youth, mentoring, mental health
  • a more transparent city with the city’s first Open Data policy, open data portal, and collaboration with citizen and university partners to make our city more accessible, transparent, and open for the 21st century
  • and so much more…

If Denton is a city in need of saving, I’m not sure I want to be saved.

Early voting starts today and goes through May 3. Election day is May 7. Here is more info on where and when to vote.

City Council Preview for Feb 23 and Some Thoughts on Citizen Engagement and Open Government

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sity hall

The Denton City Council is set to meet today at 1pm. What was originally scheduled as just a Work Session has now turned into part-Special Called Session at the request of a council member in order to reconsider a vote made last week. You can see the full agenda with backup here.  Here’s what we will be discussing…

RECONSIDERATION OF VOTE FOR JOE RIVAS HOUSE
I’ve already addressed this issue late last week with this post. We will be hearing, discussing, and voting on that issue again at the request of a council member who wants to change their vote.

CONSIDERATION OF BAN ON MOBILE PHONE USE IN CARS
You might recall the council taking up this issue a couple years ago. What resulted was our current ban on texting while driving. One council member has requested that we visit this issue again and today will be the start of that conversation.

STRATEGIC PLAN, OPEN DATA, and BLOOMBERG’s “WHAT WORKS CITIES” PROJECT
As you may recall, Denton was selected as only a handful of cities nationwide to participate in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities” initiative to pilot ideas of how cities get smarter using data, analytics, and technology. We’ll hear an update on this project.

CITY COUNCIL RULES OF PROCEDURES
Finally, because some council members have asked for a discussion on a few items relating to the City Council Rules of Procedures, the city staff has forwarded a series of recommendations for us to consider. Some of the questions that have been asked are:

- should a city council member be able to attend a closed session of a city board or commission

- because we recently changed the rules to allow for an “open mic” section of the council meeting whereby any citizen can speak for up to 4 minutes without having previously signed up, how that process interacts with another existing opportunity for citizens to sign up ahead of time needs to be addressed (where in some cases, the person who signs up ahead of time has to wait until the end of the meeting while the person who didn’t sign up gets to go first)

- we recently changed the rules for citizen comments to be increased from 3 to 4 minutes. Now that we have had time to ascertain the effectiveness of that recent change, this may be part of the discussion

The nature of the posting and odd, un-requested changes and suggestions to the policy quite understandably caused concern with many people. To be sure, council has yet to discuss any of this. Today’s meeting will be the first time we have had the chance to dig into these issues – there won’t even be a vote on any of this tonight.

So while I agree with many of the concerns being raised on this topic, it does reveal what I see as a misdirection of focus on the city council meeting as a primary, or even effective means of citizen participation in local democracy. In fact, the most progressive cities who are really thinking through the very real problem of apathetic citizen involvement at the local level are all saying the same thing: it’s time to move beyond the old paradigm that citizen involvement happens in the context of official public meetings.

If you think about it, so much focus on the city council meeting as the primary vehicle for citizen engagement misses the crucial point that such meetings are typically significant barriers to citizen engagement and are, by their very nature, exclusionary. After all, this sort of “participation” requires citizens to actually show up to a meeting – this excludes people whose work schedules conflict, this excludes people who have to take care of kids or the elderly, and it is often an unrealistic ask for the vast majority of  our citizens who live quite busy, productive lives. And, just as important, this sort of involvement is just plain intimidating to the average citizen.

This point is absolutely crucial for policy makers to understand. I would be doing a great disservice as a representative of the city and my council district if I somehow equated the people and comments at a city council meeting with how our entire citizenry (or even a majority) feel about any particular issue. Of course, those showing up are an important part of that equation, but in a growing city of 120,000, confusing the 20 people who take the time to chime in at a meeting on a substantial city matter as “the voice of the citizens” is perilous for representative democracy.

It’s why cities and city council representatives should always look for new ways of getting citizen input and fostering genuine citizen involvement that are more inclusive, accessible, and scalable for a 21st century democracy.

This is why I was the first city council member to utilize social media, to use a website to post information about council meetings and my thoughts on important topics, all with the understanding that a city our size needed to utilize technology to scale our two-way communication efforts. This is why I initiated the creation of the Council Committee on Citizen Engagement to continually tweak the ways our city is hearing from, involving, and interacting with our citizenry. This is why I encouraged our city to pursue new technological avenues of citizen engagement, including a recent initiation of Denton’s Open Data policy and platform. This is why I’ve brought our city’s tech and startup community to the table to help us make democracy better. These initiatives have put Denton on the cutting edge of government transparency, even recently earning us the distinction of participating in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities” project.

And while technology is an essential tool to 21st century democracy, it can’t replace good old fashioned face to face democracy that takes place in every day life. It means rethinking our notion of “meetings” to include engagement opportunities in your home, in the neighborhood, in the coffee shop, or even at your local bar. I’ve held countless meetings on our city’s most controversial topics in just these places.

When someone asks me how they can be effective in getting their ideas in front of local policy makers, the very last thing I would recommend is to show up and speak at a council meeting. The most effective form of communicating with council members often takes place in unusual  settings: at the coffee shop, while swimming at the city pool, in line to pick up my kid from school, over a beer at a show, or while watching our kids play at the park.

This is the virtue of local democracy. It is supremely accessible.

So while I agree that we don’t need to exasperate things by too much tightening of council meeting rules, I also think we don’t need to focus on that particular vehicle of participation as the only or even the most effective or important for citizen engagement. If we are really serious about bettering citizen engagement in the 21st century, we need to start thinking beyond the walls of city hall.

As always, if you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, contact me at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

Tell City Council to Save Joe’s Home

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joe

When the apartment Joe Rivas was living in was purchased by DME in order to make room for a new substation, it became the legal responsibility of DME (under state law) to provide adequate relocation expenses for all affected renters.

If you’ve not met Joe, you are missing out. He’s been around Denton as long as I remember. An advocate for others with disabilities, a children’s book author, and a frequent advisor to the city and UNT on accommodation issues related to those confined to wheelchairs, Joe is a constant servant for others in his community.

So when Joe’s apartment was purchased, one of his main concerns was how he could find a new apartment in close proximity to the university and the places he is now able to get to on his scooter. DME worked overtime and with great compassion and creativity to find a way to accommodate Joe’s unique needs. DME had previously acquired property in close proximity as the result of another transmission line project, including a house. After crunching the numbers on getting that house remodeled and accessible for someone like Joe, DME concluded that finding a way to get Joe in his own house would be both the financially wise choice and the most compassionate choice. After all, this is how we want our city treating its most vulnerable – isn’t it?

joes house

After consulting with council and receiving unanimous direction to move forward with the plans (including at least two unanimous votes), it came as quite the surprise when two council members became very critical of the plan this past Tuesday when it came down to officially vote to get the house in Joe’s hands.

What happened? Why on earth would a council member oppose such an idea?

A guy from Sanger named Sam Alexander (who is a long-time complainer about everything DME does) contacted Council members Keely Briggs and Kathleen Wazny and apparently convinced them to fight against this thing. Council Member Briggs voted against it on Tuesday and now it seems Council Member Wazny was confused about her vote and now wants to vote against it, too. So as a result the council is set to reconsider this issue once again so that Council Member Wazny can join Council Member Briggs in voting to keep Joe out of this home.

This is simply unbelievable.

Of course, Joe is concerned – he was planning a move soon and has no backup plans. Here’s Joe taking to Facebook tonight asking his friends for help and asking them to contact City Council to save his house.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 8.57.31 PM

Let Joe know that you want him to get into his new home – contact the entire council here and ask them to vote to keep Joe in his new house.  Tell city council to stand with this great Denton citizen and resist the temptation this time to do the bidding of Sanger Sam and his counterproductive vision for this city where he doesn’t even live.

City Manager’s Recommendation on 3rd Party Consultant to Review Renewable Denton Plan

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farm_SMALLThe Denton City Manager, George Campbell, released a memo to the City Council today outlining his recommendation on a possible 3rd party consultant to review the Renewable Denton Plan as forwarded by DME.  The City Council is set to discuss these recommendations as part of our Work Session meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Click here to read the memo.

As you will see from this memo, the city manager recommendation is limited in scope and in line with the majority of council who recommended a narrowly tailored review of the plan within a very short timeline.

Renewable Denton is one of the most ambitious renewable energy plans in the nation and has plans to scale our renewable portfolio from 40% to 70% by 2019, reduce emissions associated with our energy portfolio by 74%, divest us from a coal power plant, and lower our overall natural gas consumption by 37%.

I look forward to hearing the results of this review and fully anticipate the consultant will recommend the Renewable Denton Plan as forwarded by DME.

NextGen Climate, the nation’s leading advocacy group calling on cities around the country to get serious about tackling climate change, is working overtime to convince our nation’s city leaders to commit to pursuing 50% renewables by 2030. That’s 15 years from now. Denton is going all the way to 70% by the end of 2019.

I look forward to moving this historic plan to a vote and acting quickly to implement the Renewable Denton Plan in Denton.

 

City Council Preview – January 5, 2016

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The Denton City Council will meet at 2pm on Tuesday to have a Work Session followed by a 6:30pm Regular Session. Go here to find the entire agenda with links to back-up material.

I am traveling on business in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio this week and will unfortunately be missing out on this meeting. But here are some items of interest on this agenda:

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INVESTMENT and DOWNTOWN REINVESTMENT FUNDS
During this year’s budget discussions, the council reauthorized $100,000 for the Downtown Reinvestment Fund and authorized $150,000 for a new fund to serve as a cash incentive fund for new and significant economic development projects in town. Both of which are part of many tools in the city’s economic development toolkit by which we can attract, retain, and encourage business activity in Denton. During council discussions, we agreed to meet to discuss both of these issues in greater detail at a later date.

Because the new Economic Development Investment Fund is new, it needs to have a set of policies to guide both its revenue sources and its allowable expenditures. That will be part of the discussion.

Because several questions have been raised as to the continued need for the Downtown Reinvestment Fund – in its current form – the council agreed to revisit that policy. On this point, I agree that this fund (and many other efforts and initiatives) has been used on several significant projects in the downtown area that have resulted in substantial preservation and revitalization of historic buildings downtown.

But as I have pointed out on many occasions, the success of Downtown Denton is the direct result of vision, attention, and creativity over the course of several decades. Before anyone saw any promise in downtown, plans were in place to bring it back to life. In that spirit, I’ve advocated that it is in the best interest of the city to think beyond the square for other pockets of life, culture, and potential economic vitality. We are seeing inspiring signs of life near the A-Train Station, on South Locust and Elm, the Congress Street corridor, and other near-downtown locations. And there are many other places we could consider. Here are my suggestions on how to think through the future of this fund:

  • Instead of simply looking at reallocating these funds, we ought to look ahead to the next budget cycle and consider increasing our annual allotment into this fund. If it is as successful as the data seems to show, then additional investment in different parts of the greater downtown area is justified.
  • Work with local businesses and developers to identify emerging cultural areas.
  • Perhaps identify a certain percentage of the current funding and earmark it specifically for an emerging cultural district near downtown – highlight that and test the waters to see what sort of interest that brings. Re-evaluate at the end of the year.
  • In addition to allocating a percentage of these funds to a newly identified area, begin thinking through several other tools that could demonstrate city commitment and investment in this area: naming the district, mobility issues (including pedestrian and bike access), landscaping, street lighting, broadband access, public wifi, etc.

RENEWABLE DENTON DISCUSSION
Council will continue discussions on the Renewable Denton Plan that seeks to up our commitment to renewables from 40% to 70% in 5 years. Here’s a link to the presentation with an updated list of answers to questions that have been raised since our last meeting on the subject. We continue to receive great questions related to this plan and our DME team has done a great job meeting with concerned citizens and fielding their questions.

There also continues to be calls from some people to stall the project until the city spends additional dollars seeking a third party consultant, “to objectively verify whether or not DME’s recommendation is the best way forward.” In most (not all) cases, calls for a third party consultant come from the same people who have stated explicitly on several occasions that they will oppose any efforts that involve the investment in gas generation in Denton. In other words, for these folks, their interest in a third party consultant does not stem from a desire for genuine objectivity – they have a stated interest in mind: shut down the Renewable Denton Plan if it involves the investment in gas generation. That’s fine if that is your perspective. But let’s not confuse things by calling for consultants when there are already possible results from such a consultant’s report that you reject before you ever read it.

My standard for whether or not to call for a consultant is clear: if there are answers or expert perspectives that are not being provided to the council (and can not be provided) from our current staff of energy experts, then we need to invest in additional expert help. To date, however, our DME team, in dialogue with questioning council members and citizens, have consistently addressed every issue that has come up.

The city council oversees a one billion dollar budget every year. We have several significant projects in the works that involve hundreds of millions of dollars and several years of planning. If every time a high dollar, complex, long-term, and potentially controversial project comes up we have to run to consultants for a “third party, independent, expert opinion” to “verify” the path forward, then I submit we will have a very slow, dysfunctional local government that will always be too paralyzed to do anything significant.

As I’ve maintained on several occasions, the Renewable Denton Plan is one of the most ambitious and aggressive plan involving renewables pursued by cities around the world. And we are able to do so in a way that keeps our electricity reliable and our rates low. Let’s make history and do something great.

RECALL PETITION OF JOEY HAWKINS
There’s an item of today’s agenda that has the City Secretary certifying a petition to recall Councilman Hawkins. I’ve run some stats based on voting records of those who signed the petition. You can see those results, and my opinion of this effort, here.

I’ll be back in town for next week’s meeting. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, let me know at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

 

Less than 20 Voters from District 4 Involved in Hawkins’ Recall Election

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Joey Hawkins at his an election party following his first election to Denton City Council in 2013. Only 14 people who signed his recall petition took the time to vote in this election.  Photo credit: David Minton (Denton RC)

Photo Credit: David Minton, DentonRC

The effort to recall Denton City Councilman Joey Hawkins is a joke. Far from being a demonstration of the democratic process, a simple analysis of the voting records of those who signed the petition reveals that a bunch of people living in District 4 are apparently so concerned with the leadership of their city council representative that they couldn’t even take the time to vote in Denton City Council elections – ever.

In the name of “democracy,” the organizers of the petition to recall Hawkins found a hard time finding actual voters to sign the petition. For all their claims of how disenfranchised they are from the service of Mr. Hawkins, the petition circulators couldn’t find but a handful of actual city voters from District 4 to sign their petition to throw him out of office.

After reviewing the list of petition signers and comparing that with the public voter records, I have found the following facts to be absolutely shocking:

  • Out of 131 people who signed the recall petition, 42 of them aren’t even registered to vote in Mr. Hawkins district and many of them aren’t registered to vote in the city. That’s 32% of the petition signers.
  • That leaves only 89 eligible signatures on the ballot.
  • Out of those 89, only 6 of them voted in the last city council election (2015).
  • Out of those 89, only 18 of them voted in the 2014 city council election.
  • Out of those 89, only 14 of them voted in the 2013 city council election – when Joey was first on the ballot (and had an opponent).
  • Out of those 89, 59 of them have never voted in a Denton City Council election. That’s 66% of the people who signed the petition.

What does all of this mean? Less than 20 actual voters from District 4 are responsible for triggering an official recall election of a sitting Denton City Councilman.

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