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Texas GOP speaker drops re-election bid after secret tape

AUSTIN — Texas’ embattled GOP House speaker announced Tuesday that he won’t seek reelection after a growing number of Republicans called for his resignation following the release of a secretly recorded conversation in which he sought help to oust members of his own caucus in 2020 and used foul language to disparage Democrats.

The decision by Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen comes less than a week after the release of the hourlong tape that sparked among the biggest political scandal in the state in years. Bonnen’s retreat puts Republicans’ fragile dominance of the state Legislature further at stake.

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement that included a list of 43 House Republicans calling for him to step down.

Though he will not seek reelection in 2020, Bonnen of Angleton will serve the rest of his first term as House speaker.

The Texas Legislature won’t meet again until 2021, when lawmakers will redraw voting maps and political control of the House and Senate will be critical. Heading into 2020, Democrats can grab a majority if they flip nine seats in the lower chamber.

The secretly recorded June meeting between Bonnen and the head of a conservative group called Empower Texans is at the center of an ongoing state police investigation. The lobbying group often criticizes Republicans it feels aren’t conservative enough on issues such as spending, abortion and guns.

Bonnen can be heard asking for the help of Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan in targeting several Republican incumbents in primaries next year. He also suggests he can provide a news affiliate of Empower Texans with media credentials for access to the House floor in exchange for the group’s help.

Bonnen sought to drive out moderate GOP members who he believed stood in the way of his agenda, and he used crude language while discussing freshman Democrats whose midterm victories in 2018 weakened the GOP’s House majority.

“Jon Rosenthal makes my skin crawl. He’s a piece of (expletive),” Bonnen said in the recording. He refers to Michelle Beckley as “vile.”

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who remained largely silent after the tape was released, thanked Bonnen in for his work but did not comment directly on the scandal.

“Looking ahead to 2020, the Republican Party of Texas must unite and work together to retain a majority in the Texas House,” Abbott said in a statement. “To that cause, I am redoubling my efforts to ensure we achieve that goal.”

Five top House Republicans released a statement Monday night stating they no longer supported Bonnen. “It is clear that trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded among our membership, and the matter has both damaged the reputation of the House and relationships among individual members,” they said.

The Texas Republican Caucus condemned Bonnen’s remarks in a statement released on Friday.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that Bonnen’s decision not to seek reelection was a victory for transparency and accountability.

“Texans are tired of politicians, like Republican Speaker Bonnen, who use backroom deals, cover-ups and outright lies to pursue power over everything,” Hinojosa said.

Empty council chairs push some city business to another day

Two council members were absent Tuesday, delaying two executive employee reviews and the contract approvals for two others, while threatening the approval of another outside service contract altogether.

Both council members John Ryan and Jesse Davis were absent during Tuesday afternoon’s work session and special call meeting. Mayor Chris Watts noted that Davis, a prosecutor with the Denton County District Attorney’s Office, was in court. He made no public announcement about Ryan’s absence.

Jesse Davis

At one point, Watts took the unusual step of making his own motion — an effort to postpone a vote on a contract with a temporary labor company, when it appeared that the contract might not have enough votes among the council members in the room.

John Ryan

State purchasing laws require a council majority — in Denton’s case, that’s four votes — to approve a winning bid and award a contract. Council member Deb Armintor said she opposed the contract to All-N-One Services because the company was paying its employees about $9 per hour.

This year, the City Council agreed to a minimum wage of $15 per hour for the city’s regular, full-time employees. The council stopped short of raising the minimum wage for part-time, seasonal employees.

Watts made the stopgap motion after council members Keely Briggs and Paul Meltzer showed an interest in revisiting the city’s policy for employee pay under certain kinds of city contracts.

The council voted 3-2 to postpone a vote on the All-N-One contract to November, with Armintor and Meltzer opposing the delay.

In addition, Watts gave City Auditor Umesh Dalal and Municipal Judge Holly Fox the option to delay their closed-door employment reviews with the City Council because of Ryan’s and Davis’ absences, which both accepted.

Four executive employees answer directly to the City Council — the municipal judge, the city auditor, the city manager and the city attorney.

The council already completed its reviews for City Manager Todd Hileman and City Attorney Aaron Leal. Both their contracts were on the consent agenda for approval. After council member Keely Briggs pulled the contracts for individual votes, Watts asked that the votes be rescheduled for November. Briggs agreed and moved for postponement.

Hileman’s contract includes a 4% raise and a one-year extension, taking his employment term to Oct. 23, 2023. The raise increases Hileman’s base pay to about $278,500 annually.

Leal’s contract also includes a one-year extension, taking his employment term to Oct. 11, 2021. He received an equity adjustment in his base pay, taking him from about $188,000 to $210,000 annually.

Tiffany Thomson, director of human resources, said any changes in pay approved on Nov. 5, the date of the next council meeting, would be retroactive to Oct. 5.

Vaping is making people sick in Denton County, too

Three people in Denton County were deemed to have a vaping-related illness since the end of July, a county public health official said on Tuesday.

Authorities still don’t know what causes vaping illnesses, but health officials across the nation are investigating and paying closer attention to the health risks of vaping, or smoking from an electronic cigarette, which has come to be viewed in recent years as an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes.

There were almost 1,300 vape-related illness cases nationwide as of early October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 30 people’s deaths have been linked to e-cigarette use, according to the CDC.

No deaths from vaping in Denton County have been reported, but there are three confirmed cases of vaping-related lung injury and five other cases could turn out to be confirmed cases, according to a Tuesday morning commissioners court presentation by Denton County Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Juan Rodriguez.

The county health department declined to say whether any of the patients from Denton County had to be hospitalized for vaping but did say that a majority of the 147 patients across Texas were hospitalized.

These patients have symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, as well as fatigue and abdominal pain, Rodriquez said Tuesday.

Epidemiologists in Denton County are monitoring symptoms reported by patients in the county. Authorities are also trying to identify any links between particular vaping devices or liquids and the vaping illness cases.

Vape consumers could be breathing in chemicals that can cause cancer, Rodriquez said in his presentation. There could also be ultra-fine particles, or even nicotine, going into a consumer’s lungs, he said.

The CDC says people should avoid vaping right now while health officials investigate the causes of the illnesses. Rodriquez said people should especially not buy vaping products that have been modified or if any substances have been added to the liquid.

UNT takes next steps in Avenue C eminent domain cases

The University of North Texas has officially started the eminent domain process to acquire four properties near campus.

The move comes four months after university officials sent offer letters to buy the following: 903 Kendolph St., site of Eagle Car Wash; 902 Ave. C, home to Campus Bookstore; 906 Ave. C, home to New York Sub Hub and Naranja Cafe; and 1000 Ave. C, the site of Oriental Express.

Officials notified property owners by letter Oct. 14 that since no property owners accepted UNT’s initial offers, eminent domain is starting. UNT will be represented by Clint Harbour, an assistant attorney general who specializes in condemnation hearings when public entities take private land.

“As the university and property owners have been unable to reach agreement after four months, the court will appoint neutral parties to hold a hearing and determine fair pricing for the properties,” said Leigh Anne Gullett, a spokesperson for UNT, in an emailed statement. “As the university continues to grow and thrive in Denton, our students need more housing, classrooms and labs. Our campus borders severely restrict where we can seek additional land to build infrastructure necessary to continue delivering the quality educational experience our community deserves.”

Hunter Christiansen, the second-generation owner of New York Sub Hub, has become an informal spokesperson for the impacted businesses. He’s gained attention through social media posts, an online petition and building awareness through posters at university events.

Regents authorized the use of eminent domain in February, which kicked off the acquisition process. In June, Christiansen’s family was offered $700,000, while the owners of Oriental Express were offered $500,000. The car wash was offered $500,000 as well, and Campus Bookstore was offered $800,000. None of the property owners accepted the offers.

“First and foremost, we all want to be left alone,” he said. “It’s not about the money or anything like that; we want to be left alone and continue what we’ve been doing.”

Christiansen said in the past four months there wasn’t much communication with university officials since his father is the property owner. He’s heard that once current businesses are demolished, UNT will build a mixed-use property with retail on the bottom floor and student housing above. He said in this scenario, he’d want to get and own the same square footage he has now, but his idea was rebuffed.

Other suggestions were to update the exterior to fit the look of campus, or make an offer they can’t refuse, Christiansen said. Officials never provided a second offer, he said.

The university never received counter offers though, according to the statement. With no consensus reached, this was the next step to move forward.

Christiansen and the other business owners are looking into legal representation as they figure out the next steps now that the eminent domain process has started. But it’s not too late to strike a deal, he said.

“I’m fighting for justice and what is right, because this isn’t right that they can do this,” Christiansen said. “It’s not too late for UNT. Let us stay here. If we need to fix up outside to make it more of what you want, then let us.”

Jeff Woo/DRC 

Vehicles drive by construction work near Loop 288 and Interstate 35E Tuesday in Denton. The $33.3 million project for the widening of I-35E from Dallas Drive to Mayhill Road is expected to be completed by the end of December. 

Photos by Jeff Woo/DRC 

Vehicles drive by construction work near Loop 288 and Interstate 35E Tuesday in Denton. The $33.3 million project for the widening of I-35E from Dallas Drive to Mayhill Road is expected to be completed by the end of December.