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On Backroom Deals and Run-off Elections: Clarifying the Convention Center

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A recent backroom meeting of the Denton City Council where secret negotiations of convention centers were rumored to take place.

It is election season once again in Denton as voters take to the polls in a run-off for two at-large seats: Mayor Mark Burroughs is defending his seat against Neil Durrance and Place 5 Council Member Pete Kamp is running to a final term against David Zoltner.  Regardless of your views, you need to vote – go here for more details.  Our local democracy needs you.

Elections are at their best when they are about big ideas, when the citizens are challenged to consider the health or ailments and future direction of their city.  This is why I love election season in Denton.  I think this beautiful city of ours is worth fighting for, arguing about, and seeing what happens when men and women submit their civic visions to the market place of ideas.

Far too often, however, disease within a city finds its entrance with the very people who seek to lead it.  Dentonites have come to expect the likes of Bob Clifton, Eli Gemini, and other recurring characters in Denton’s political landscape, who have seemingly found great joy in breeding cynicism and perpetuating distrust as they weave their fantastical and conspiratorial narratives together before all who would listen.  But until now, their approach has been limited to them and a few anonymous online commenters on the website of our local newspaper.

As a council member, I sometimes disagree with certain ideas, nuances, perspectives, or approaches of my colleagues – and they with me.  And though I am a city official, and precisely because I am a city official, I will be the first to point out many areas where we as a city are in need of drastic improvement.  That is why I am there: to help make this great city even better.  That is why I long for great ideas – our city needs them and deserves them.  While this could have been an election of great ideas, the current challengers have  adopted the Clifton approach to Denton politics: where there should be vision, they have brought confusion – where there should be optimism, they have intentionally fostered cyncism – where there should be statesmen, they play politics.

Today we saw an example of this in a much talked about post on the website of mayoral candidate Neil Durrance.  In attempting to criticize the Mayor on recent developments of a proposed plan for a Convention Center, Durrance’s wide swing goes after the entire sitting council.  This is the reason for my unorthodox wading into election affairs not of my own.  Had he simply gone after an idea, a plan, or proposal, that would be fine – even and especially if I disagreed.  But through misleading statements, falsehoods, and innuendos, Neil opted for the opportunistic Clifton route and questioned my integrity, honor, and commitment to the good of Denton and her citizens.

Let me set the record straight…

CLAIM: Citizens have been “sidestepped” and kept in the dark on plans for a Convention Center.

FACT: City participation in a Convention Center has long been a goal of the city, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and UNT.  Nearly 20 years ago, this was forwarded as a goal for our community and has been an official City Council goal for over 10 years.  Various developers have been consulted throughout the 2000s, resulting in a substantial proposal (requested by UNT) by the John Q. Hammons group in 2009 (after a market study was commissioned as to the viability of such a project for our city and in our region).  Because of economic and other factors, that project never materialized, yet the goal remained.  In 2011, UNT received two unsolicited proposals – one coming from O’Reilly Hospitality Management (yes, the same family as the auto parts store), which is now made-up of former key players from the Hammons team.

Citizens have long been a part of the broad discussion regarding the need for a Convention Center and the role the city should play in such a project.  The current proposal – again, not initiated by the city – involved the need for discussions among three separate entities: O’Reilly, UNT, and the city.  Knowing that it has long been a citizen-driven goal to find a way to have a convention center in Denton, your representatives on council gave the direction to staff members to meet with the other two entities in order to ascertain the feasibility of the proposal and to begin hammering out parameters that would be in the best interest of the city.  The Preliminary Agreement Durrance “exposed” was just that: an early preliminary, non-binding setting of basic direction and parameters for such a project.  As it became clear that the three entities were nearing a workable proposal, we made clear that we wanted the proposal presented in an open session of the City Council.  This happened at an open meeting of the City Council on May 15 with O’Reilly, UNT President V. Lane Rawlins, and members of the public in attendance – you can click here to see a video of the entire presentation.  To add to the public nature of this presentation, I made a point of it in my regular Council Meeting Preview prior to that meeting.

And let’s be clear: this still has to be voted on and approved by the City Council.  Nothing is set.  Citizens have long been in favor of the idea of a convention center and they will surely have the chance to chime in on the specifics on this one prior to the approval of any such agreement.

CLAIM: The city is on the hook for $87 million for this project.

FACT: That figure represents the approximate total cost of the project, including the value of the land and the cost of building the hotel.  $60 million of this is coming from private funding – the O’Reilly group proposes to fund the hotel and connected restaurant.  The land is coming from UNT.  If the plan is approved by council and goes through, the city’s investment in the project would be approximately $25 million.

CLAIM: The city is liable for the $87 million.

FACT: Once again, the city’s investment is much less – $25 million.  This is still significant, which is why the council has insisted that the city lower its risk as much as possible.  In order to pay off the debt associated with the Certificates of Obligation that would be issued in order to fund such a project, the ad valorem and hotel taxes generated from this project would be dedicated to pay this down.  In addition, O’Reilly would make lease payments to the city for the convention center.  And here is where the potential deal is great for the protection of our taxpayers: in the event funds generated from this project are not enough for the city to pay off the debt, the O’Reilly team will make up the difference.

I hope this helps clarify this issue for those who have been confused by various claims made recently.  I guess it is more fun to conjure up images of slick politicians sipping on Scotch and smoking cigars in the seedy back room of some ambiguous local bar ran by the politically-connected.  Sometimes I wish local government was that enticing.  More often I find myself debating the nuances of setbacks during a 7 hour council meeting in front of an audience of about 3…

Please let me know if you have further questions.

Council Meeting Preview – June 5, 2012

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My apologies – this preview is late and it will be brief.  Been a busy week all around, but I wanted to give you an idea of what we were hearing and deciding at today’s meeting.  We begin with a Council Work Session at 3pm, followed by the Regular Session at 6:30pm – all at City Hall.  Click here to see the full agenda.

Here are some things you might be interested in…

PRELIMINARY BUDGET DISCUSSIONS
It’s that time of year again in city government when we take a look at our financial health and our plans to spend taxpayer money throughout the next fiscal year.  In the next few days, I’ll post some basics about our budget for you to peruse – I find it fascinating.  Now is the time to give feedback on budget expenditures, so I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop on more information as it comes available.

GAS DRILLING MORATORIUM EXTENSION
Tonight, we are set to approve an additional 120 day extension to the Gas Well Drilling and Production Moratorium we approved just 120 days ago.  We are still working to complete the rewrite of our gas well ordinance, so this gives us more time to maintain the status quo and not subject our citizens or environment to certain practices that might be changed in the near future.  This is a good thing for Denton.

CHRIS FLEMMONS ON PUBLIC ART COMMITTEE
Just saw that Council Member James King is set to nominate Baptist General frontman, 35 Denton founder, and Denton-phile Chris Flemmons to be on the Public Art Committee.  Also good for Denton…

ZONING CHANGE REQUESTS
We have 5 items on tonight’s agenda related to zoning or special use request changes for properties around Denton.  One involves turning the green space beside the downtown Wells Fargo into a “motor bank” drive-thru facility for that same bank (the current one is being demolished to make way for new apartments downtown).  Two involve projects that may involve the allowance of more apartment building in town (one off McKinney near Ryan High School and one on the corner of Mingo and Nottingham).  One involves a special use permit request for wind turbines in a neighborhood area and one involves a zoning change of a property near the Denton Water Park for an undetermined future development project.

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

Friday Night A-Train Derailed by DCTA Board

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Francis Paul, my strapping one year old whose appetite for household destruction is insatiable, often takes possession of certain toys of Rosie Lou, my decidedly more sophisticated three year old daughter.  Filled with jealously and the seemingly natural proclivity toward private property rights, Rosie will often demand the toy back from her little brother.  Once she regains possession of the toy in question, however, she typically wants nothing to do with it.  Her aim, after all, is never really to play with the toy herself.  She never has any real plans for it.  Her sole motivation, the root cause of her protests, is simply to ensure that her little brother experiences no joy, no happiness from a toy she deems as rightfully hers.

I observed a similar display of maturity during Thursday’s DCTA Board meeting.

On the agenda were a number of items relating to upcoming service changes in August.  After conducting a community-wide survey and several public meetings throughout the county, the DCTA staff were recommending a series of smart changes and additions to their public transit programs.  The most controversial recommendation involved a plan to alter Friday night train service in order to better serve the needs and desires of riders.  The DCTA staff was advocating a way to make it better with later hours in order to better accommodate nightlife and special events in both directions.

Truth be told, certain members of the board disliked the idea of Friday night (even Saturday service) for a few years.  After a DCTA report indicated lower than anticipated Friday night ridership earlier this year, there were murmurings among some board members to kill it then.  At the time, I did my own analysis of the data and took issue with several of the metrics being used to paint a negative picture of weekend ridership in general, and Friday night ridership specifically.  One of my key findings was that Saturday service was actually OUTPERFORMING weekday commuter ridership with 65% more passengers per trip.  That shows a market for non-commuter ridership that deserves further exploration.  What that showed me is that if Friday night wasn’t working, it wasn’t because of a lack of interest.  Alternate models of Friday night service would have been the right thing to pursue.

To see my complete analysis, provided in January to the City Council, Denton city staff, and DCTA staff, click here.

Despite the fact that the DCTA staff had found a way to adjust Friday night service in a way that added no additional costs to the operating budget and despite the fact that there was clear interest in continuing the service on the part of the three member (sales tax contributors) cities (Denton, Lewisville, and Highland Village), two DCTA Board members representing non-member cities decided to make the Friday night issue a display of their apparent “fiscally responsible” commitments.  This becomes quite a silly stand when we consider the facts…

ALL THIS OVER $100,000?
Friday night service costs somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 to $150,000 to run annually.  This is out of an operating budget of $21 million dollars.  That seems to amount to only about .047% of the total cost to operate DCTA this year.  Do you know that a single traffic signal costs roughly $250,000 to purchase and install at one intersection. Did you know that the proposed I35 expansion will cost taxpayers anywhere between $4 and $6 billion dollars for a stretch of highway just about equal in length to the entire A-Train? $100,000…

FUN WITH NUMBERS!
Tom Spencer, the leading advocate against Friday night service, based his supposed “fiscally responsible” argument on a series of stats and data that he presented to the board. Putting aside his strange discussion of his personal conjectures about ridership demographics, Spencer’s most forceful analysis rested on a comparison of the total ridership levels of the various types of A-Train service.  It went something like this:

  • X number of people ride the train during normal weekday commuter times.
  • X number of people ride the train on Saturdays.
  • X number of people ride the train on Friday nights.
  • Look at how little the number is on Friday nights compared to the number on weekday commuter hours?  It looks really small.
  • Divide the number of Friday night riders by the total number of weekday commuter riders and look at how really, really, really small the percentage is!!

It sounded good.  It sounded convincing – and apparently it was.  Not a single member of the board questioned his stats or his way of crunching them.  Problem is, it was a meaningless analysis.  Consider this:

  • Monday-Friday commuter service consists of 45 one-way trips per day – that is 225 one-way trips per week.
  • Friday night service, on the other hand, consists of a mere 5 one-way trips per day – in fact, only 5 one-way trips per week.
  • Any analysis simply comparing “total riders” between these two types of service of widely different amounts of trips per week is unenlightening.  I would point you back to my January analysis above for more info.  A better way to do this is to look at average riders per trip.

Our apparent defenders of “fiscal responsibility” are either being intentionally misleading by offering such stats or are mathematically inept.  Either way, no one should take their advice when they start crunching numbers – especially if it involves money.  It is too bad no one else among the board caught this and called it out.  If decisions were made on the basis of it, it seems there is good reason for another Board member to request a revisiting of the vote.

WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO WITH ALL THAT MONEY?
If it was so important, in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” to kill Friday night service, thus saving a whopping .047% of the DCTA operating budget for the next fiscal year, then there is surely a plan in place by our “fiscally responsible” defenders of what to do with this money?  In a surprising twist, they had no plan.  In fact, they then passed the annual budget with this money still tied to the now defunct Friday night service.  Without a single ounce of vision of what to do with this new-found savings, the crusaders of “fiscal responsibility” left the decision of its reallocation in the hands of the DCTA staff – the same people who, according to these board members, couldn’t be trusted with their initial recommendation of what to do with it in the first place.

With this move, this utter lack of interest for the allocation of this supposed precious amount of taxpayer resources, the naysaying DCTA board members tipped their hand and revealed their true political motivation.  Someone else was playing with their toy.  Once they got it back, their interest in it was removed.  “I don’t care what you do with the money – just don’t give it to THEM…”

IT COULD HAVE BEEN GREAT
When building interest in public transportation in a state like Texas, you have to be patient and creative.  Non-commuter, or discretionary, ridership offers a way for potential future riders to try out the train for the first time when the stress of getting to work on time isn’t present.  We should be seeking new paths for selling public transportation to our car-centric culture.

And it is a shame.  After only a year in service, we were just beginning to see signs of people catching the vision for what public transit could do for our community.  The same day of the board vote, I announced a series of on-train concerts to be held on three Fridays in June – a chance for citizens to experience the train for the first time and a way for artists and musicians to explore the possibilities of performing in new, creative venues.  The future of that initiative is now up in the air – it was designed to increase ridership on Friday nights.

The benefits to our city of the A-Train have been well-documented and the impact the Downtown Transit Center has had on the vibrancy of our downtown area is unmistakable. But it has long been my vision to make sure all parts of our community benefit from its presence. Just the other day , I met with Gracie Samano, owner of La Estrella, a small tacqueria/mini market on E. McKinney Street just on “the other side of the tracks.” Nestled on an otherwise undesirable street with little to no walkability or attractiveness, yet within walking distance to both the train station and the lower-income largely Hispanic neighborhood in Southeast Denton, La Estrella has quickly become a destination spot for neighborhood families and other Dentonites. Gracie has used outdoor taco sales, live Latino music, and Friday night dances to turn an area that used to be frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes into a place where mothers bring their children after dark. She now has plans to develop a regular Hispanic Market in the area – another potential unique destination in the greater downtown area.

It is the presence of the A-Train, and particularly its Friday and Saturday service, that has given Gracie this hope and vision to create a business that betters her neighborhood and community. This is just one example of the beautiful unintended organic results of the power of transit to transform a city.

This is the sort of vision we need from the DCTA Board. “Fiscal responsibility” is void of content – everyone knows we are committed to staying within financial constraints. How you do so requires vision and creativity.

In case you are interested, here are the men who voted against the continuation of Friday night service…

Tom_Spencer_ThumbTom Spencer – small cities

Dave_Kovatch_ThumbDave Kovatch, The Colony

Bill_Walker_ThumbBill Walker, small cities

Daniel_Peugh_ThumbDaniel Peugh, Corinth

Charles_Correll_ThumbCharles Correll, Denton County unincorporated

And one more I am working to verify…

More Creative Jobs for our Creative City

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Smart cities are paying attention to trends and desires among the younger generations. Studies are increasingly showing us that millennials first choose desirable places to live  and then look for employment.  If you are paying attention to our own city, you will realize that we are one of those desirable places.  How many college graduates do you know are still living here simply because they love being a part of Denton? How many of those graduates are working in fields other than their degrees and for far less than their talent deserves, simply because they want to make it work in Denton? With a creative city, a creative army of talented and ambitious young people, and two major universities, we have all the ingredients to turn Denton into a center for creative, tech-centered jobs.

Last week, the connection between Denton’s music scene and our downtown development was featured in an article on the Atlantic Cities website (written by our own Michael Seman).  Read it here to see how our city is earning national attention for this.  Something special is brewing in Denton.  We need to understand this, study it, foster it, and leverage it for the economic health of our city.

It is time to begin focusing our community’s economic development efforts toward this end.  I have been sharing these ideas with key leaders in our city and business community.  But as we put together a Creative Jobs Initiative, it is important to recognize that many of you are already pioneers of this industry in Denton.  In the coming days, I want your help in shaping the future of our city.  If you are a filmmaker, web designer, coder, app developer, social media guru, graphic designer, sound engineer, video gamer maker, photographer, or any other sort of creative talent who shares the vision of seeing Denton capitalize on its creative vibe, I need to learn from you.

In the coming days, I will be putting together smaller focus groups and larger mixers. Please contact me if you want to help – via email, facebook, twitter, or call me at 940-206-5239.

Below you will find some of the ideas I have been presenting to others…

Council Meeting Preview – May 15, 2012

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O'Neil Ford, prominent Denton architect

This was supposed to be our first council meeting AFTER the election of this past weekend was over, but now that two of the three contested seats are headed for a run-off next month, I guess we are still in election season…

No doubt a time to catch a more lively city council meeting than normal. We will begin Tuesday’s meeting with a Work Session at 3pm in the Council Work Session Room at City Hall followed by a 6:30pm Regular Session in Council Chambers.  Click here to access the agenda online.

Here are items you might find interesting…

CONVENTION CENTER DISCUSSION
The city is in discussions with members of the O’Reilly family (yes, owners of the auto part store chain) and UNT about a potential partnership to build a city-owned convention center attached to a major hotel, all on UNT property where the old Radisson Hotel once stood.  A convention center has been the desire and goal of the city council, UNT and Chamber of Commerce for many years.  We will get a chance to hear a presentation from city staff and representatives from the O’Reilly Hospitality Group (the hotel development team) about the concept and direction of the project. While discussions have taken place, no action relating to this proposal has been taken by council.  Pay attention for more details on this project.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD $283,676 TO SPEND FOR DENTON?
During last summer’s budget discussions, council was presented with a slight surplus of funds that had no specific designation.  Several council priorities had been identified, but it would be up to us to determine how (or even if) to spend this money.  Up to this point, no determination has been made.  We will be returning to this discussion at today’s meeting.  Some of the priorities we have already identified are as follows:

  • Additional street maintenance funding
  • Implementation of various elements of the bike plan
  • Additional traffic signals
  • DCTA downtown shuttle capital and operating costs
  • Neighborhood improvement incentives

With a new round of budget talks about to commence, another option would be to roll this amount into initiatives for next year.  What are your thoughts about these or any other initiatives?  Let me know – kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com

ON STREETS and PUBLIC ART
As I’ve mentioned before, the city will be putting a $20 million bond program on the November 2012 ballot for citizens to decide whether to commit these funds to much needed repairs on our city’s streets.  We have not yet reached the goal of committing the necessary $10 million a year in order to maintain the current condition of our streets, so we are actively seeking more and creative options to increase street funding.  This bond program will help us to make a bit of headway into several street projects that have gone undone due to lack of funding.  What does any of this have to do with public art?

Back when the economy was sunnier and there was money to spend, the 2006 City Council passed a resolution that sought to take 2 to 4% of every future capital improvement program and direct it toward public art projects.  Though this bond program is specifically tailored to street projects, this resolution requires that we at least contend with its recommendation.  Council tasked the Citizen Bond Advisory Committee (a committee formed to help guide the city through the bond program) with providing a recommendation on whether or not to commit a portion of this bond program to public art funding.  The committee met last week and voted 11-8 to use some funding from this bond program for public art projects.  We now have to decide if we agree and, if so, how to place this on the ballot next November and, furthermore, how to decide what sort of art projects would be included.

I look forward to this discussion and have not made up my mind.  Let me preface some thoughts with this: our street situation is dire and getting worse every year.  It is quickly reaching a point of unsustainability.  The goal of us pursing a bond program was to tackle this.  The art issue was only thrown into the mix after the fact once the resolution was discovered by city staff.  It puts me and other council members in the awkward position of seemingly making a statement of our support, or lack thereof, of the value of art in our city in the midst of an issue that is very different in substance.

Let me make two important distinctions:

  • one can support the arts, even the public funding of arts, and not support the use of funds from this bond program for such a purpose
  • one can support the arts without supporting all instances of public art funding

However any of us come down on this issue, please realize that our direction does not, according to the distinctions above, indicate a lack of interest or support of the arts.  It is our duty as council members to make budget priorities and to do so in the best interest of the city as a whole.  I came to Denton to study jazz, I frequent art museums, I played in a local rock band, my 3 year old daughter listens to Tchaikovsky and goes to music class each Saturday, I host art shows and concerts at my house, I buy old houses and make my neighborhood look more beautiful, and I am convinced Denton will remain a cultural powerhouse with or without funding from this street bond program.

FAIRHAVEN REZONING
The Old Fairhaven Senior Living Facility, a reputed O’Neil Ford structure, has been purchased by a group who desires to rezone the property.  We listened to this application in a public hearing on May 1.  The neighborhood is concerned what may come of the property if it is rezoned, both because of how a change in use may affect the surrounding neighborhoods and whether or not it will encourage the developers to tear down the historic and culturally-meaningful structure.  After the planning office and Historic Landmark Commission investigated the historical value of the building (which has only been brought into question by the applicant – it has never been questioned in the past), we are now ready to discuss this issue once more.

To get more background on this, check out this DentonRC article written after our last meeting and this one written after the Landmark Commission meeting on the subject.

THE PEDESTRIAN/BIKE BRIDGE OVER LOOP 288 IS COMING (and will even have a name!)
We will have the chance to approve a contract to construct this long awaited connector over Loop 288 to complete the rail trail that runs parallel to the DCTA A-Train line.  We will also have the opportunity to vote on a proposal from former council member Charlye Heggins to name the bridge after Martin Luther King, Jr.

As always, if you have thoughts or questions, please contact me at kevin.roden@unt.edu or 940-206-5239.  You can also follow me on twitter or facebook.

Council Meeting Postscript – May 8, 2012

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In case you missed my preview of Tuesday’s meeting, click here.

As I stated in my preview write-up, this meeting was a 2nd Tuesday Session and, as such, there were no action (i.e. “voting”) items on the agenda.  It is a chance for the council to be briefed on various issues and to provide feedback and direction to the city staff.  We discussed four issues…

DCTA UPDATE FROM PRESIDENT JIM CLINE
The highlight for me of Cline’s presentation had nothing to do with its content, but with its method of “delivery.”  Prior to the meeting, Cline tweeted this: “Catching the 3:05 NB to Denton to make a City Council Presentation. Should be on 5:03 or 5:29 SB 4 Rtn. Say hello if u see me.“  In other words, the DCTA President is leading by example and taking the train himself when he can.  If you are on Twitter, you might follow him.

If you have yet to hear the DCTA staff recommendations to the Board, please take some time to check that out here.  It looks like we will be seeing train service expanding to midday by August, among other tweaks to the schedule.  At issue is the fate of Friday night service.  The DCTA staff is recommending that such service continue with changes to the schedule – pushing the times back to accommodate later train times (and thus allowing the possibility of trips, for instance, to the American Airlines Center for sporting events).  This is a good move.

While Friday night service has been underperforming compared to its weekday commuter counterpart, it is important to point out that Saturday service is seemingly consistently outperforming weekday commuter trips.  A DCTA analysis of train ridership between the months of October and March (accounting for 26 weeks) shows that Saturday passengers per trip was beyond 100% of the weekday passengers per trip for 14 weeks during that period (in 7 cases beyond 150%).  This means that there is significant interest in non-commuter service or discretionary service – people who are riding the train for something other than work purposes.  That should tell us that there is a distinct market for Friday night service, if only the times can be adjusted to match the interested riders’ needs.  I will be providing more of my own analysis soon…

For now, please let DCTA know what you think about whether to keep (with modifications) or do away with Friday night service – contact them at info@dcta.net.

NAMING THE 288 RAIL TRAIL BRIDGE
It took very little time for the council to agree to move forward with the naming of the soon-to-be-constructed after Martin Luther King, Jr.  Former council women Charyle Heggins, the initiator of this idea during her time in office, was present to hear the discussion.  This will come before us for a vote soon.

GAS ORDINANCE AND GAS WELL INSPECTION UPDATE
Now that the city’s task force has completed its series of meetings, the council was officially briefed on the results of the task force recommendations and a staff-suggested timeline of how the ordinance will progress from here.  It was a lively, and I think healthy discussion centered mostly on the process of the ordinance writing.

Based on what I saw in the staff report we received prior to the meeting on the subject, I was concerned about two things. First, I was concerned that the ordinance was set to be written simply on the basis of the majority view of the official city task force. I had paid close attention to their deliberations, even attending several of their meetings and catching the others on Denton TV.  It became increasingly clear to me that some on the task force, especially those who represented the industry perspective and lacked Denton residency, were voting down ideas and suggestions that seemed clearly in the interest of the Denton citizens.  I am not comfortable with simply moving forward with the majority recommendations and, after considerable discussion with the full council, it seems many of them shared this concern.  We would like to make sure that we are capturing all of the ideas that came about, including those presented by two of the task force members in the now infamous “minority report.”

Second, I was concerned that most of the work on the new ordinance would be done PRIOR to the council having substantial discussions on its direction.  An ordinance of this magnitude will take considerable work – it is important that the council has a chance to direct this train before it heads in a direction not of our choosing.  Again, this sentiment was also shared by many others on the council and it appears we have a better path forward that will include significant public input and council direction. Please stay tuned: your continued input will be valuable and necessary as we seek to make a better ordinance that protects the health and safety of our citizens and city.

But perhaps one of the main reasons for discussing this issue at this point centers on the upcoming end of our drilling moratorium.  You might recall that council passed a 120 moratorium on all drilling activities in order to give us time to rewrite the ordinance.  That is set to expire on June 6.  Because it is clear that this process will take a few more months, council gave clear direction that it is time to extend the moratorium to allow us to complete the process.  We will be voting on that at our June 5 meeting.

PROPOSED CONVENTION CENTER
We met in closed session on this topic – an open discussion is slated for May 15.  Those interested in this should stay tuned for that.

SENDING OUR YOUTH TO JAIL
Following our meeting, I ran over to the Denton Police Department for this school year’s final meeting of the Youth Advisory Council I started last Fall.  We had the chance to hear from two of our finest officers about the police profession, take a tour of the jail facilities, learn about finger printing, check out the action in the 911 call room, and much more.

Questions or comments? Let me know – kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940.206.5239

Council Meeting Preview – May 8, 2012

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It’s the last council meeting prior to the election – a great chance to throw the council some softballs, uncontroversial topics, and items to avoid unnecessary press attention.  Seems like a great time to hold a discussion on the gas well ordinance rewrite…

Speaking of voting, if you haven’t voted yet, you should – go here for all the details of when and where.  Tuesday is the last time to early vote (easily done between 7am and 7pm at the Carroll County Building at the corner of Hickory and Carroll – or, for my younger friends, that big ugly government building just across the street from Midway Mart).  After that you have to wait until Saturday to vote at a specific location in your district.

Tuesday’s meeting is a “2nd Tuesday Session,” meaning that we use it for various work session discussions and there are not action items (items that are voted upon).  We get started at 4pm in the Council Work Session Room at City Hall.  Go here for a full agenda and back-up material.

Four things will be discussed at the meeting:

DCTA UPDATE
The DCTA Board is planning a vote at their May 24 meeting on a variety of issues that will impact levels of service beginning in August.  Sales tax in all of the three member cities of DCTA (Denton, Highland Village, and Lewisville) has been strong as of late, giving DCTA a bit of wiggle room to consider changes and slight augmentations to service.  At the same time, DCTA is burdened with paying millions of dollars for a federally mandated Positive Train Control system in the next couple of years.

After conducting a community survey and a series of public meetings, the DCTA staff has developed a series of recommendations of changes for their Board.  These include adding midday A-Train service for the A-Train, adjusting the Friday night train schedule so as to accommodate later trips, and considering starting Saturday service a bit earlier (among others).  But while these are the staff recommendations, it seems clear that the DCTA Board is not unified on how to proceed, particularly with Friday night service.

To see the DCTA’s recent presentation, including recommendations to the board, click here.

Yes, once again, Friday night service is on the chopping block.  They have a chance to make it better and make it work for travelers in both directions.  If you haven’t yet lent your voice, please take a minute and send your thoughts to info@dcta.net.

NAME THE RAIL TRAIL PEDESTRIAN BRIDGE!
If you haven’t heard, the rail train bridge crossing Loop 288 alongside the A-Train tracks is finally scheduled to begin construction in late June.  This is great news for our community.  My esteemed predecessor, Ms. Charlye Heggins, had pushed to have this soon-to-be-built bridge named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think this is a great idea.

GAS WELL TASK FORCE AND INSPECTIONS UPDATE
Local conspiracy theorists no doubt will be busy logging onto the anonymous comment section of the Denton Record-Chronicle over the next few days to provide insightful analysis of our decision to broach this topic just days before the election.  I wish them well in their politically courageous endeavors.

It has been a while since we were officially briefed as a council on the process of the ordinance rewrite – in fact, since the end of January.  We will get an official presentation on the task force discussions/votes and an estimated timeline on the ordinance rewrite.  It is important to note that the 120 day moratorium that the council passed unanimously is set to expire in early June.  That means that the council must now decide, based on the timeline we are about to hear from the staff, whether or not to place an extension of the moratorium on the agenda for a council vote in time to keep it from lapsing.  I have strong intelligence indicating that we will see a moratorium extension on the Consent Agenda at the June 5 meeting.  I also have a pretty confident reading that there is considerable support for such an extension among the current city council.

The update we will receive outlines the process from here on out. You will be happy to hear that there will be significant public input throughout the rest of the process – several chances for you to share your thoughts, concerns, and ideas.

Click here to see the staff information sheet and powerpoint presentation that has been and will be provided to council during Tuesday’s meeting – tons of good information for you to digest.

CONVENTION CENTER DISCUSSION IN CLOSED SESSION
Finally, we are scheduled to have a closed session on a proposed Convention Center – a possible partnership between a private developer, the city, and UNT.  At the council’s urging, however, we will be having an open discussion on this issue during the May 15 council meeting.  Stay tuned for more on that…

The Gas Industry’s Awkward Dance

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During the gas drilling ordinance rewrite process, I have attempted to stay above the fray, if you will.  After all, as a city council member, I will have sufficient opportunity to chime in and contribute to the end-product once the process has run its course. But sometimes, out of concern for the education of our citizenry and the transparency of our people and processes, things just need to be brought to light…

As many of you already know, Ed Ireland, Executive Director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry funded pro-drilling apologetics organization, has been the most controversial member of the city’s official drilling task force – controversial both because of his connection to the drilling industry and because of his non-Denton citizen status.  I have taken much criticism for his presence on this task force and have even defended having industry representatives at the table, arguing that a rigorous debate on such matters is healthy in a democracy when such matters are debated openly and publicly.  This is why I have insisted on the open and public nature of the drilling task force meetings.  Open and public dialogue allows everyone to see the arguments, observe the positions, and see the people from whom they come.  It also allows you to identify complete BS when you see it.

During one of the deliberations on air quality, a recommendation was made to require drilling operations to utilize “green completion” technology in order to capture otherwise vented or flared natural gas upon completion of the drilling process.  Ed Ireland voted against this recommendation.  Fair enough – he was quite clear about his stance of rejecting most regulations on gas drilling activities.

I can appreciate consistency, even if I disagree with it.  But in the aftermath of the recent EPA announcement that the agency would start requiring such technology in 2015, Mr. Ireland is quoted taking a very different perspective on the issue in this little story in the Dallas Business Journal

“Officials in the industry say the new requirements already are standard practice in the Barnett Shale of North Texas… Producers in the Barnett Shale routinely use “green completions” to capture the gas, said Ed Ireland, director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. Green completions involve using extra equipment to capture the gas and feed it into the pipeline system.”

A critic of this technology one day, a champion of it the next! How do we account for this obvious inconsistency?

The pro-drilling apologists have a difficult job nowadays.  The slow creep of natural gas drilling into urban and residential areas has resulted in widespread concern over this industry’s impact on the environment and public health.  To combat this concern, the industry has invested millions of dollars in TV, web, radio, and print advertising attempting to convince us that natural gas drilling is actually really good for the earth and our health.  Check out this video as an example.  At the same time, because profit is their ultimate interest, the industry is also intent on fighting reasonable regulations meant to protect the health and safety of the citizens living on top of these shale formations.  They are in the awkward situation of trying to promote their environmental initiatives on the national stage while simultaneously actively fighting against them in local governments around the country.  Thus the inconsistencies – the ol’ Texas two-step.

The industry and the people like Ed Ireland who work for it hope that you aren’t quick enough to catch on to their inconsistencies.  Unfortunately for them, they’re pretty bad dancers.

My Suggestions on the Proposed Food Ordinance (and a few reflections on the nature and uses of government regulations)

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The council had the opportunity to hear and comment on the proposed food ordinance at Tuesday’s council meeting.  That discussion lasted nearly 3 hours.  I asked several questions and made several comments during that time, but I have organized by remarks and have provided them to the city staff tasked with writing this ordinance.  I wanted to also make them available to anyone else who may be invested in this issue or just plain nerdy enough to comb through the minutia of complex policy-making.

The proposed ordinance can be found on the city website here.

THESE ARE MY COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS RELATING TO THIS ORDINANCE. – click link to left to read.

The city staff will now be tweaking the proposed ordinance to get it closer in line with the direction they received from the council during Tuesday’s discussion.  No time has been set as to when this will come back to council – hopefully sooner than later.

THE NATURE, USES (and abuses) OF REGULATIONS
I would like to take this opportunity to comment on the nature of regulations.  One of the overriding themes of the council discussion on this issue was that this proposed ordinance is too regulatory to meet the policy goals we are hoping to achieve by creating a culture conducive to the ever-changing food-scape in Denton.  Some have even commented on the clear “anti-regulatory stance” I seemed to take during this discussion.  After all, haven’t I been a strong advocate for stronger and greater regulations in other areas of city ordinances, such as the issues surrounding natural gas drilling?  Am I being inconsistent?  Do I lack a coherent political philosophy?

All great questions.  Yet these questions are perhaps the result of our being reared to think about politics solely from the vantage point of a national landscape.  From that point of view, blind allegiance to seemingly consistent positions is rewarded over thoroughly thought-through, coherent political philosophies.  On a national stage, the question is simply: Are you FOR government regulations or AGAINST government regulations?  If you are a conservative, you are supposed to be against regulations at every turn in order to promote a free market economic system.  If you are a liberal, you are taught to be for a robust governmental regulations in order to protect the American people.  National politics is predictably superficial in such things – distinctions aren’t made, nuances aren’t explored, and simply, sound-byte-style party-line statements are the name of the game.  As a result, we tend to take this unhealthy political baggage with us as we approach local levels government.

The truth is, both the liberal and conservative positions on regulation are right – in their proper context. We do need to allow our economy to flourish without the often-times stifling effects of government regulations and bureaucratic obstacles.  We also do need to make sure that the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of our citizens is vigorously protected by the powerful hand of government.  As such, it is up to the wise politician not to be simple-mindedly FOR or AGAINST regulations as a matter of principle, but rather to understand when to properly apply regulations and when to fittingly remove them for the purpose of achieving the common good.

You have a right to know how your council member thinks through such issues.  I apply a simple matrix as a way to BEGIN my thinking about the application of regulations to various issues, industries, or processes in town.  Regulations become useful if they serve one or both of the following goals:

  1. Protecting the health, safety, well-being, and possibility for happiness of the citizens.
  2. Responding to an overwhelming desire on the part of the citizenry.

It is much easier to state these guiding principles than to apply them to various situations.  After all, most suggested regulations will typically claim to fit into one of these two categories.  The policy-maker must determine whether such claims are justified.  It is the nature of bureaucracy to want to justify itself through its own expansion and is typically too focused on concerns of its own efficiency to meet larger policy goals.  Policy-makers must always be cognizant of this tendency and work to ensure that policy aims are served by governmental rules and regulations and not determined by them (which is far too often the case in modern government).

In the case of mobile food trucks, for instance, I am confident that certain current regulations satisfy the requirements of #1.  Many proposals of the suggested ordinance go further than this and offer at times arbitrary and onerous rules that will only have the effect, not of protecting the health and safety of the citizens, but of making it hard to operate a business.  That is a bad use of regulations.  Combine that with the fact that my analysis of the citizenry suggests to me that the desire referred to in #2 is decidedly in favor of opening the city’s doors to a more robust food truck culture – this makes me want to direct regulations (or remove them as the case may be) toward an “open for business” result on this issue.

These very same principles allow me to be encouraging of very strong ordinances as is relates to an issue such as natural gas drilling in Denton.  I have good scientific reasons to worry that the health, safety, and well-being of our citizens is negatively affected by the presence of such an industry in close proximity to where humans live, work, breathe, drink, and eat.  Hence, #1 inclines me to seek out every available, reasonable regulation to mitigate such concerns.  Additionally, my read of the citizens’ desires described in #2 is this: no one wants a city filled with natural gas rigs, wells, storage tanks, pipe lines, etc.  And this desire can (and should) be warrant for governmental action even if the requirements of #1 are not met – this is important to understand.  If I thought there was overwhelming resistance to food trucks in Denton, I would be inclined to regulate them away regardless of whether there exists any real health or safety issue associated with them.  The people, in this case, don’t want them – and in many cases and many issues, this can be enough justification for a city to regulate toward that end.

Thoughts?  Let me know – kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com

Council Meeting Preview – April 3, 2012

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Today’s meeting begins with a Work Session at 3pm and continues with the Regular Session at 6:30pm. Go here to see the full agenda, but here are a few things that might interest you…

FOOD ORDINANCE AMENDMENTS
We will be getting our first look at a new ordinance amending the current food ordinance.  Three issues are of particular importance to me…

First, Food TrucksI’ve been advocating the need for these in Denton for some time and it appears this unique culture is just around the corner.  But it’s not enough just to have an ordinance, we need a good one.  The food truck scene has exploded in the metroplex over the last year thanks, in part, to good ordinances in Dallas and Fort Worth.  There’s no reason Denton can’t do it as good or better as they are.  Expect plenty of questions from me regarding this issue.

Second, the Community Market – if you haven’t discovered this local gem, make sure you make your way to the county’s historical park on the corner of Sycamore and Carroll for the Denton Community Market season opener on May 5.  Changes in state law will allow food vendors to operate for up to a year under a special Farmer’s Market vendor permit.  We are working with market organizers to make sure we can encourage a thriving market for the 2012 season.

Third, outdoor food vendors – we need to find a way to allow permanent permitted food establishments to bring their food and cooking outdoors.  The recent emergence of weekend night taco stands along McKinney street serves as a good example of how this can radically change a street for the better.  Check out my recent post on East McKinney Street right here.

FREE SCHOOL LUNCHES THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER
Did you know the city of Denton partnered with the Denton ISD and the Texas Dept of Agriculture and Special Nutrition Programs to organize a Summer Food Service Program?  I didn’t.  Last year, the program served 39,190 lunches at 18 locations throughout the city in order to serve low-income children who grow to depend on such programs during the normal school year.  This is remarkable and makes me proud to live in a city that concerns itself with its underprivileged youth.  We will be approving the contracts for another summer of this.

CITIZEN ADVISORY COMMITTEE FOR STREET BOND ELECTION
As you may know, we are anticipating going to the voters in November 2012 to seek approval of a $20 million bond program aimed at much-needed street repairs throughout the city.  Prior to doing so, we are appointing a citizen committee charged with helping identify the needs and prioritization of the funds for the life of the bond program.  Each council member was asked to appoint three citizens to this committee.  I choose three individuals from District 1: Mike Thomas, Joe Gregory, and Gerard Hudspeth.

I hope to see some of you there on Tuesday.  If you have any thoughts or questions, please contact me at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

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