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City limits, taxes and waste, and one pioneer: Denton's top 5 local government stories of 2020

Reporters and editors with the Denton Record-Chronicle pored through many editions of 2020 — a year of near-constant change in our lives — to find the biggest stories of the year impacting the city and its residents.

Here are our picks for the top stories in Denton:

Non-annexation agreements

In the lead-up to an Aug. 11 decision by Denton City Council members, Nathan Harvey led an effort to shield 156 property owners from the city’s efforts to annex land bordering Denton — for at least another 15 years, anyway.

The agreements are guarantees from city officials to not annex property bordering Denton under a few conditions: Property owners must have agricultural exemptions, and they must adhere to certain development standards set by the city.

In theory, it keeps substandard development from harming the city, and it helps Denton manage its growth without bringing uninterested property owners into the fold.

It’s also a guarantee that property owners won’t be burdened with higher taxes and city fees during the length of the non-annexation period.

Council members on Aug. 11 agreed to offer the 20-year contracts to all owners of the 156 properties, including those who already signed initial five-year deals. Other property owners have since agreed to the same non-annexation agreements.

Aubrey tax rate

On Aug. 4, Aubrey Mayor Janet Myers downplayed the approval of a resolution that gave the city administrator the ability to calculate a property tax rate that would generate more revenue.

Her reaction came after a split decision (3-2) by Aubrey City Council members to approve the resolution and after state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, sent a letter to the governing body criticizing the resolution and saying that municipalities that raised property taxes during the pandemic would be punished during the next legislative session.

Myers did not participate in the vote on the resolution but said she would be remiss if she didn’t present all options to the council. She casts votes only when council members are deadlocked.

Senate Bill 2, passed by the Texas Legislature last session, caps the growth of property tax revenue at 3.5% for municipalities. Aubrey and cities like it would have to get voter approval in a tax rate election to move beyond that 3.5% cap under normal circumstances.

Little Elm approved a similar resolution on June 16; Pilot Point did the same on July 27; and Krugerville reviewed a resolution on June 25.

Aubrey officials have not raised the city’s tax rate. It remains $0.54 per $100 property valuation.

Jury awards slashed for former DME employees

A Dallas judge agreed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office that terminated Denton Municipal Electric employees Jim Maynard and Michael Grim should not receive nearly $4 million they were awarded by a jury for pain and suffering.

The Attorney General’s Office intervened in June to uphold an existing statute that caps payments for mental anguish at $250,000 in whistleblower cases.

Dallas Judge Marty Hoffman ruled alongside the state’s recommendation in July. Grim and Maynard may still be paid for lost wages and benefits, but those accounted for a much smaller portion of the previously awarded $3.9 million.

Eric Roberson, the lawyer representing the two plaintiffs, said Grim and Maynard would receive roughly $1.7 million and $1.1 million. Those amounts are down significantly from the previous $2.1 million and $1.8 million awarded by a jury in February.

Attorneys for the pair argued that now-former Denton City Council member Keely Briggs leaked internal documents to the media and that the city fired Grim and Maynard as retaliation for them reporting the leak. Briggs was never a party to the suit, and she was not sanctioned or disciplined in the allegations.

Roberson had argued they should receive front pay because they were not eligible for reinstatement. Alison Ashmore, a defense attorney hired by the city, argued evidence did not exist that reinstatement wasn’t feasible for Grim and Maynard.

Hoffman ultimately disagreed, opening the possibility the pair could receive front pay. That would mean they would be guaranteed to a career’s worth of money if they are not able to make up the difference with another job.

Radioactive waste remains

More than two years after U.S. Radiopharmaceuticals was ordered to decommission and clean its defunct manufacturing site in Denton, the radioactive waste remains.

Work was meant to be finished by July 2019, but little progress has been made.

The plant closed in 2009 and has stored nuclear waste at the site on Shady Oaks Drive. Before USR owned the property, Trace Life Sciences made radioactive isotopes that helped treat cancer and diagnose diseases.

Crews did begin work after the initial ruling to clean up, but more low-level radioactive waste was found, and cleanup was halted in May 2019.

At that time, the company cleaning up the site reported to the Denton City Council they had removed about half of the waste. Since then, no progress has been reported.

The company was fined $465,000 by a state administrative law judge for failing to meet that deadline. That ruling was upheld earlier this year.

The Department of State Health Services continues to check in on the site.

Chris van Deusen, a department spokesperson, said the radioactive waste left behind posed “no risk to the public,” as of July.

He said in an email earlier this month that USR will be sent a letter on how to pay the administrative penalty. The matter will be referred to the Texas Attorney General’s Office if USR does not comply with the letter, Van Deusen wrote.

He said the state will continue to work with the site’s owner to ensure the abandoned plant is decommissioned.

Denton mayor makes history

Two-term City Council member Gerard Hudspeth defeated Keely Briggs in a mayoral runoff to become Denton’s first Black mayor.

He received 53% of the vote for a two-year term and took office on Dec. 17 with other new council members. A litigation consultant and a Denton native, he had left his council seat a month earlier after Birdia Johnson was elected to replace him in District 1.

Briggs, a community volunteer, was in her third term as the District 2 council member. Hudspeth received 8,440 votes in the runoff to Briggs’ 7,430.

2020 forces Denton arts, performances to make big changes

While businesses large and small got most of the attention regarding pandemic fallout, Denton’s arts scene suffered immediately as emergency orders banned large gatherings.

Here’s our look back at the biggest stories about the arts and entertainment industry in 2020.

Festivals pull the plug

Al Key/DRC file photo 

Jim Meyer, left, and Jennifer Meyer, center, do the Chicken Dance with family and friends, who created a simulated Denton Arts & Jazz Festival for them in their front yard April 26. The Meyers, who have been married for more than 20 years, typically celebrate their shared birthday at the jazz fest, which was canceled by the pandemic.

It started with South By Southwest canceling the massive Austin music and film festival, and it didn’t take long for spring festivals around the state to close up shop early.

Denton has two major festivals in March, the Texas Storytelling Festival and Thin Line. The Tejas Storytelling Association hosted the opening day of its 2020 storytelling festival, but the second day, officials announced it would have to end the fest to comply with Denton County’s emergency declaration.

Thin Line, a documentary film, music and photography festival, canceled all concerts and in-person screenings, but was able to host film screenings and some Q&A sessions online. The model worked so well that officials announced the 2021 festival will be online, as well.

A brand-new music festival, BUTTS Fest — Better Understanding Through Trash Service — had to fold up to comply with the emergency declaration. Denton musician Michael Tong Kokkinakis launched what was to be a 45-act festival the second week of March. The festival was a hat-tip to Earth Day, and a way to spread the word about Kokkinakis’ weekly volunteer litter cleanup — especially focusing on cigarette butts — around the downtown Square. The festival was also meant to bring awareness to the large-scale recycling of cigarette butts (the No. 1 litter item in the city and the state) into a material used to make park benches and play structures.

There’s no word yet on whether BUTTS Fest will come back in 2021, but the group is still active and evangelizing about litter, its impact and how to clean Denton up some.

The Denton Arts & Jazz Festival canceled this year’s event, setting off a chain reaction of disappointment from locals who never miss the free three-day music and art festival. The jazz festival is one of the largest events in Denton every year — second only to the North Texas Fair and Rodeo. Arts & Jazz packs multiple stages with everything from choral, gospel, country, blues and jazz, with headlining concerts saved for some of the best-known solo acts (past headliners have included Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval and Buddy Guy) and bands (the Neville Brothers, Los Lobos, McCoy Tyner Trio).

Smaller festivals also decided to take 2020 off: Denton Cinco de Mayo, Denton Redbud Festival and Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival.

The North Texas Fair and Rodeo was perhaps the largest event to survive the pandemic. The event moved from August to October and made the most of its outdoor setting. The fair added a screen so more people could see rodeo events and concerts while socially distancing.

The Denton Holiday Lighting Festival shifted to a drive-up photo event and toy drive, with no performances, booths or music on the Square.

Performance anxiety

For Theatre Denton — the newly merged group formed by Denton Community Theatre and Music Theatre of Denton — the pandemic put a damper on the unveiling of the new name and brand, but it also effectively closed its venue, the Campus Theatre. The season was postponed, and like so many other organizations, the company streamed productions online — The Gin Game as well as its Christmas family production, “Fireside Footlights,” which is online at www.footlightdenton.com through Dec. 31. The company has made use of the months of an empty house, however, and has embarked on some remodeling work and updates to the historic theater.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

Dan Mojica, co-owner of Dan’s Silverleaf, said in September that the storied local venue could survive the rest of 2020, but could use relief money from the Save Our Stages Act to support employees and operations through next June.

For Denton’s music scene, COVID-19 was a punch in the gut. Bars had to close, and the city’s storied music venues like Dan’s Silverleaf and Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios closed their doors for the first portion of the shutdown. Rubber Gloves reopened gradually, and Dan’s Silverleaf launched streaming, ticketed concerts. Andy’s Bar has stayed mostly quiet, and LSA Burger Co. canceled most music on the rooftop bar.

Local music venues campaigned for the Save Our Stages Act, a relief bill that would distribute $10 billion through Small Business Administration grants for live venue operators, promoters, producers and talent representatives. Grants would be equal to the lesser of either 45% of gross revenue from 2019, or $12 million, and could be used for rent, mortgages, utilities, personal protective equipment, payments to contractors, maintenance, administrative costs, taxes, operating leases and capital expenditures related to meeting state, local or federal social-distancing guidelines. The legislation has passed as part of the $900 billion stimulus bill.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

The exterior of Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio is shown in October. Denton County opted in to allow bars to reopen to 50% capacity this fall, although they had to close in early December as the percentage of COVID-19 patients in area hospitals topped 15%.

Two Denton dance companies, the Festival Ballet of North Central Texas and Denton City Contemporary Ballet, decided their annual shows would go on. The Festival Ballet moved its annual staging of The Nutcracker to the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, slashed its cast in half and had dancers rehearse and perform wearing masks. The Contemporary Ballet recorded its annual production of A Gift for Emma and streamed two performances for ticket buyers.

Dark galleries, virtual walls

The shutdown meant that the downtown Patterson-Appleton Arts Center closed its doors to the public. The city’s largest visual arts organization, the Visual Arts Society of Texas, had to pivot and postpone its annual shows.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

South Carolina artist Tyrone Geter stands next to one of his pieces from his solo exhibit “I Come as One, But Stand as 10,000” in the Meadows Gallery at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center in 2018. The Greater Denton Arts Council closed the center's doors for months in response to the pandemic. 

The Greater Denton Arts Council — which operates the arts center and coordinates all exhibitions and most programming that keeps the downtown center busy and booked for much of the year — created online exhibits on its website and made ample use of social media to keep local and regional art in the public imagination.

The arts society moved its monthly members’ meetings, demonstrations and critique groups online, and discovered its membership especially took to demonstrations and classes taught in a virtual format.

In the fall, the arts center reopened, although it’s currently closed for the holidays through Monday, Jan. 4. The council will open “Hopeful Wanderers: Works by Angelia Ford,” in Festival Hall for in-person viewing that day.

The arts council has planned Elementary Art After School, a four-week program that will bring small classes to the center, 3:30-5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Jan. 5-26, focusing on fibers and weaving with the theme “It’s Cold Outside.” The Feb. 2-23 program will have students working with clay. The program is for ages 6 to 10, and tuition costs $80 and includes supplies.

A new visual arts enterprise, Envision Arts, had been staging art shows in local businesses, mostly at Armadillo Ale Works. Artist Ginger Cochran pioneered the company, and during the pandemic, she discovered that the affiliated magazine, Envision ARTS, built a growing readership.

Al Key/DRC file photo 

Ginger Cochran, founder and director of Envision Arts, at Armadillo Ale Works in February.

Year in Review: Top 5 uses of the Texas Public Information Act to obtain government documents

Each year, Denton Record-Chronicle reporters send dozens of requests for public information, a quasi-formal process to obtain hard-to-obtain information from government agencies.

Requests range from routine contract requests to more complicated asks that often get bumped to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for guidance.

Below, in no particular order, are some of the best uses of the Texas Public Information Act by the Record-Chronicle this year:

Body cameras: Always on but rarely shared

Body cameras: Always on but rarely shared

Public documents obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle show Denton, Denton County have spent close to $1 million on body cameras since 2015, but footage has been shared in just two of the six officer-involved shootings in that time.

A local analysis earlier this year broke down how much taxpayers paid to equip local law enforcement officers with body cameras over the past several years and how often video from those cameras was released to those same taxpayers.

The analysis found the city of Denton and Denton County spent nearly $1 million on the cameras, and taxpayers at that time had only seen about 20 minutes of footage from two of the six times officers had shot and killed somebody over the past five years.

Texas Rangers released 43 seconds of dashcam footage in a third shooting.

Local experts said releasing body camera footage quickly can help build public trust, but it isn’t a golden bullet to address a systemic problem.

Outrage and pleas ahead of Denton school openings

The pandemic forced many public bodies into having remote meetings. That meant people wishing to comment publicly on an issue facing those bodies had to follow suit.

The overwhelming majority of public comments submitted to the Denton ISD school board from March 23 through early August were done so in writing, meaning the comments were given to board members but they often weren’t read aloud during the meetings.

A Record-Chronicle request for those comments netted 60 comments submitted, all but two of which dealt directly with the coronavirus pandemic and the district’s handling of it.

Most comments argued passionately for and against school closures.

Between virus and protests, Denton police logged fewer overtime hours

Despite attempts to curb overtime in the face of the pandemic, civil rights protests over the summer still resulted in more than 2,000 hours of overtime related to the demonstrations.

Public records showed, overall, overtime was down in 2020 for the period of time analyzed compared to the same window in 2019.

The Denton Police Department accrued $151,607 in overtime between May 30 and June 27 of this year.

No documents released related to firing of Denton ISD nurse

Denton school board members voted unanimously to terminate a probationary contract for a school district nurse in early May.

Board members held a special meeting solely to vote on the matter.

A district spokesperson at the time said the move came after an investigation by the district’s Human Resources Department.

“While Denton ISD cannot comment on the specifics of this case, we can assure you that we have high expectations for our employees with regard to professional interaction and ethical communication practices with parents and staff,” Derrick Jackson, the spokesperson, wrote at the time.

The Record-Chronicle filed two requests for public information shortly after the board vote.

One requested any and all separation agreements between nurse Kay Hill and Denton ISD, and the second requested the human resources investigation conducted into Hill’s behavior.

A Denton ISD attorney later responded that no documents existed to fill either request.

Certain aspects of an employee’s personnel file are excluded from public disclosure.

The attorney wrote that Hill was “directed to improve professional communication as a goal for the 2020-21 school year. Less than 24 hours after being directed in this manner, the employee made unprofessional comments to a co-worker, which left the Board no choice but to terminate her probationary contract based upon her inability to meet the clearly communicated expectations.”

A tale of two departments: Where DPD, DCSO diverge on use-of-force policies

A tale of two departments: Where DPD, DCSO diverge on use-of-force policies

The Black Lives Matter movement surrounding police brutality prompted the Denton Record-Chronicle to search for local law enforcement agencies’ policy manuals and use-of-force policies. The Denton Police Department’s general orders are readily available online, but the Denton County Sheriff’s Office’s orders were made available only through a records request and were redacted.

In response to widespread public outcry against police brutality, the Record-Chronicle analyzed use-of-force policies from the Denton Police Department and Denton County Sheriff’s Office.

The departments differed wildly in their transparency in the matter. The city Police Department had its full policy published online for anybody to review, whereas the Sheriff’s Office required a request made under the Texas Public Information Act before it would disclose its policy.

That policy was heavily redacted in sections when the Record-Chronicle eventually received it. Many redacted sections appeared to mirror unredacted sections of the Police Department’s policy.

Both agencies contracted the same company to help draft their policies.

DCPH holds first round of COVID-19 vaccinations for health workers; other groups yet to come

Denton County Public Health held its first round of vaccinations Monday, administering the first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine to emergency medical service providers and home health care workers, with vaccinations for the general public still yet to come.

The county held a brief Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday, partly to discuss DCPH’s first round of vaccinations. The department received 1,000 doses of the vaccine, though not all of them were used at Monday’s drive-thru vaccine clinic at the University of North Texas’ Discovery Park, according to DCPH spokesperson Jennifer Rainey.

Rainey stated via email that the department received 100 more doses of the vaccine Tuesday and is planning additional vaccine clinics for health care workers who qualify in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccine plan, which includes groups such as those workers and long-term care facility residents. The county has not received information on future shipments.

For most of the public, vaccines are not yet available, and will not be until the county reaches Phase 1B of the state’s plan, which includes people considered high-risk if they contract the virus. Specifically, 1B defines those people as anyone over 65, or anyone over 16 who is pregnant or has a chronic medical condition such as cancer or heart disease.

While some providers and counties could have moved to Phase 1B already under the state’s timeline, Denton County remains in the first phase of vaccinations, with no update as of Tuesday afternoon on when it will begin including the high-risk group. No DCPH representative was present at Tuesday’s meeting, but County Judge Andy Eads said those who meet the high-risk definition should contact their health care provider to find out when they will be eligible to receive the vaccine.

Jenna Duncan / Screenshot 

Denton County Judge Andy Eads during Denton County Commissioners Court Tuesday, Dec. 29.

In past weeks, Denton County hospitals have been vaccinating their front-line workers without county involvement, as their larger hospital systems have received shipments directly from the state and federal levels. Rainey stated no information was available on if DCPH will have any involvement in that process now that it, too, is receiving shipments.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved eviction prevention assistance for Jan. 4-22, which Dawn Cobb, the county’s director of community relations, said will close the gap between the upcoming expiration of such programs and the beginning of new ones in late January. Over that period, an additional $371,546 in federak CARES Act funding will be set aside for rent, mortgage and utility coverage for qualifying county residents.