Words by Eric Pruett
While many people across Denton, and the nation at large are still reeling at the election results - either way - we know that the most impactful thing we can do is get involved at the local level. Read on for what is happening in our own local political sphere - so that you can stay up to date, informed and involved.
The Dust Settles
Since the national election, our public raw emotions have been displayed for everyone to see, except perhaps those locked in a nuclear bomb shelter without even a shortwave radio. This election campaign was long and arduous and the expansion of social media makes it feel somehow different than before – but perhaps there is nothing new under the sun. Alexis de Tocqueville saw many similar societal trends in our young democracy even before our civil war:
"Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest and, as it were, the only matter which occupies people’s minds. Then political factions redouble their enthusiasm; every possible phony passion that the imagination can conceive in a contented and peaceful country comes out into the light of day…
As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads. Citizens divide up between several camps each of which adopts the name of its candidate. The whole nation descends into a feverish state; the election becomes the daily theme of newspapers, the subject of private conversations, the object of every maneuver and every thought, the only concern of the present moment.
It is true that as soon as the result has been announced, this passion is dispelled, all returns to calm, and the river which momentarily overflowed its banks returns peacefully to its bed. But should we not find it astonishing that such a storm should have arisen in the first place?"
— Democracy In America
Time will tell whether the heartfelt passions of grave concern and elation return to calm this year and usher in a 44th peaceful transition of power to our 45th president of this free union of states. Clearly the national conversation and direction are driven by presidential leadership and it should not be diminished in importance. But one must wonder: is the much higher turnout and concern for presidential elections than our local elections consistent with the influence our vote holds and the magnitude of expenditure these governmental bodies control?
Local still matters.
There is a almost a 1% chance that our vote will decide a local city council race, and that representative is likely to be a deciding council vote on many matters since the council consists of only seven people. Our votes in other races have a much lower chance of making a difference, and our congressional representatives are lost in a sea of congressmen where they are less likely to cast deciding votes. However, the magnitude of government expenditures within Texas directed from federal, state, and local authorities are roughly equal!
It seems that local leadership has almost as much if not more influence than the US President in directing government expenditure which impacts our lives directly, since the President is dependent on Congress to implement many programs. Our votes are millions of times more likely to affect who is chosen in local elections, and yet 10 times as many people expend the effort to vote in presidential elections as vote for our local leaders. In fact, two recent local elections were decided by as few as 116 votes / 1.96%, and 39 votes / 1.1% (Bagheri vs Johnson 2016, and Burroughs vs Durrance 2012).
Recent City Council Decisions
Believe it or not, our city council does more than approve zoning changes. While we were all paralyzed by the national election over the past couple of months, our local leadership has taken many actions which keep our city running and chart its future direction.
The city budget for fiscal year 2016-2017 was approved after a long and thorough process, with a compromise tax rate decrease. Because land values have increased quickly, most residents will still see a real dollar increase to their tax bill, but it will not be as much of an increase as if the tax rate decrease was not approved.
Utility rates (electricity, solid waste, water, waste water) for 2016-2017 were approved.
Approval for Denton Municipal Electric to implement the Denton Energy Center portion of the Renewable Denton Plan was approved for land acquisition, natural gas engine purchase, and engineering and construction services.
A Downtown Reinvestment Grant of $20,000 was approved to JT Clothier’s, to incentivize a $225,000 capital improvement investment by the new store on the downtown square. A similar grant in the amount of $25,000 was awarded to Armadillo Brewing Company.
Chapter 380 Economic Development Programs and tax abatement agreements were established or modified for Sally Beauty and West Gate Business Park.
A Charter Review Committee was established, and appointments are ongoing. This committee will review the City of Denton charter which governs the operation of our local government. The committee was called as a result of requests for a tougher ethics ordinance, but could also consider modifying the charter in other areas as well.
An amendment to the 2014 cell phone use while driving ordinance began deliberation. This 2014 ordinance ostensibly banned hand-held cell phone use except for dialing or making voice calls on all roadways other than the interstate freeways. The council is trying to modify the ordinance to be more enforceable by requiring hands-free usage of phones, while also making it easier for citizens to understand and follow. The general consensus is that passing additional restrictions on cell phone use while driving is warranted because of their increased attribution to accidents caused by distracted driving.
The selection process for a new city manager continued, and Todd Hileman was selected.
Council approved approximately $1.7 million to build the Northwest Denton Park Loop Trail Project.
Council approved the city to coordinate with Denco for 9-1-1 database information, in order to improve Denton’s services response to emergency calls from cell phones.
Discussion has started on Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartments, considering whether a zoning change is necessary to balance development goals of the city with the interest of developers building apartments typically occupied by students near our Universities.
A $2.6 million contract was approved for expansion of the Denton Water Works Park to include a wave pool. Once complete, the park will house more visitors, and admission rates are scheduled to increase.
Counting our Blessings
Whether you are downtrodden or excited by the surprise future of a Trump president-elect, you will always have more impact on our government’s operation by engaging at a local level rather than bemoaning or gloating about national policy on your social media platform of choice. There are signs of encouragement though, as local election turnout actually increased from 4.4% and 6.2% in 2013 and 2014 to 6.7% and 8.2% in 2015 and 2016.
As shown by stories of mob-boss mayors made popular by a new Gimlet Media podcast, it pays to be diligent and attentive to possible corruption. But even the most egregious accusations made against our local leaders in the past do not come close to this extreme example. We can achieve the dreams we have for our community if we refine a shared vision for our city’s future by offering our priorities and ideas and listening to others. By all accounts, Denton is a growing vibrant community of individuals struggling to articulate their desires and concerns. Let’s take a moment this holiday season to acknowledge all of our local leaders’ volunteer efforts, and find ways to serve this community we love.