AUSTIN — Texas voters were overwhelmingly favoring eight changes to the state constitution — including two amendments related to the coronavirus pandemic. One of the amendments would prohibit governmental entities from enacting any rule limiting religious services. The other would allow nursing home residents to designate an essential caregiver who could not be denied in-person visitation.
Also on the ballot in North Texas were races for Mesquite mayor and a contentious Southlake Carroll ISD special school board election, along with city, county and school district bond proposals.
In Denton County, nearly 35,500 residents cast ballots — 6.2% of the county’s registered voters.
Several of the amendments passed by wide margins, although the amendment to prevent limitation of religious services was the closest of the eight, with just under 60% of voters approving.
Proposition 1 will allow the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association to hold charity raffles at rodeo events, much like Texas’ professional sports teams do at their home games.
Proposition 2 authorizes counties to issue bonds to fund transportation and infrastructure projects in neglected or underdeveloped areas. Cities can already issue these bonds, but not counties.
The proposed amendment would allow counties to use increases in property tax revenue in the area to repay the bonds. Critics argue the proposal would create more local debt.
Proposition 3 prohibits any governmental entity from enacting any rule prohibiting or limiting religious services. The proposed change, hailed by supporters as protecting religious freedom, comes after some places of worship were limited during pandemic lockdowns.
Proposition 4 requires judicial candidates to be Texas residents with a license to practice law in Texas, to be a practicing lawyer or judge for at least eight to 10 years before election and not have had their law license revoked or suspended during that time.
Supporters said the proposal is meant to ensure a higher-quality judiciary. Critics said the stricter requirements could exclude younger, more diverse lawyers from judicial appointments or races.
Proposition 5 allows the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to take complaints, conduct investigations and take other action against a candidate running for state judicial offices. The commission currently only handles officeholders, not candidates.
The lawmakers behind the proposed amendment said it seeks to “ensure that judicial elections are fair” by holding candidates and sitting judges to the same standards.
Proposition 6 gives residents in nursing homes and similar long-term care facilities the right to designate an essential caregiver who could not be denied in-person visitation. The proposed amendment responds to facility closures earlier in the pandemic, when residents were isolated from loved ones for months.
Proposition 7 will allow a surviving spouse of a person who is disabled and receiving homestead exemptions on school district property taxes to continue to take advantage of the exemption, as long as the surviving spouse is 55 or older.
Proposition 8 will extend tax exemptions to a surviving spouse of a member of the military who dies because of any injuries sustained during their service, whether it is related to combat or not.
In local elections, Mesquite voters elected District 6 council member Dan Aleman as mayor over Ron Ward. Aleman will be the city’s first Latino mayor.
In Northeast Tarrant County’s Southlake Carroll ISD, Andrew Yeager, a sales director at NBC Universal, easily defeated former educator Stephanie Williams. Yeager was backed by the influential Southlake Families PAC, which supported two candidates who won school board seats in May.
The election came in the middle of a tense period for Carroll ISD and Southlake. The district has been embroiled in a controversy over a proposed diversity plan, which led to the city being the subject of a national NBC News podcast. Recently, the district sanctioned a teacher who had an anti-racist book in her classroom, and a school administrator was heard telling teachers they could have to include books “opposing” the Holocaust.
In Richardson, a $190 million bond package for streets, public buildings, sidewalks, drainage and parks passed easily.
Allen ISD voters in early voting said no to two bond propositions totaling $23.6 million for updates to several school and athletic facilities.
Tarrant County voters approved $400 million in bonds for streets and roads but turned down a second proposal for $116 million to build and equip new offices for the district attorney’s office.
In other elections in Texas, Austin voters overwhelmingly turned down a ballot measure that would have required the city to hire hundreds more police officers. Some city leaders said the requirement would have put a strain on the city’s budget.
Denton County officials expect to have revised county redistricting maps later this week after residents and area mayors told commissioners they oppose the first version of the proposed new precinct maps.
According to the Texas Secretary of State, counties are required to have two of three maps — one for commissioner precincts and one for justice of the peace and constable precincts — approved by Nov. 13, the first day candidates can file for a place on the general primary election ballot. The map for voter precincts can be approved as late as Dec. 30.
Only two county meetings fall between the proposal going public and the deadline, which has led some residents to criticize officials for starting the process so late. But commissioners have maintained the timeline was pushed back due to the late release of census data and waiting for the state’s maps. Elections Administrator Frank Phillips said the department got preliminary numbers in August and downloadable numbers for their system last month.
Phillips said the county’s elections staff uses software called Esri Redistricting to help draw its maps, which can be done in an expedited timeframe.
“That redistricting tool allows us to import the census data and then draw any kind of maps we want on the fly,” Phillips said. “I know some counties started a little earlier. They were working on, in my mind, more preliminary maps.”
Shortened timeline and all, a handful of residents and two local mayors spoke on the topic Tuesday. Many focused on the proposed changes to Precinct 2, the most politically competitive of the four precincts. Those changes would see commissioner Ron Marchant’s precinct lose voters west of Carrollton and northwest of Frisco, although it would absorb Precinct 1’s Corinth, Shady Shores, Oak Point and Lakewood Village.
Two mayors — Dena Meek of Oak Point and Mark Vargus of Lakewood Village — lobbied commissioners against moving their neighboring municipalities out of Precinct 1. Other speakers said the changes to Precinct 2 could jeopardize the representation of minorities and make it easier for Republicans to win the southeast precinct next year.
“It essentially eliminates the possibility that any [precinct] will be politically competitive outside of the political ruling party or its current incumbents for the next decade,” Denton County Democratic Party representative Mary Infante said. “We need to give everybody a fair chance to run for office.”
Infante said the shifts don’t reflect the county’s stated goal of “minor modifications.” Party chair Delia Parker-Mims has publicly accused commissioners of gerrymandering the map to ensure Republican control of Precinct 2, which was decided by less than 500 votes when Marchant was re-elected in 2018. Infante and Joanna Cattanach, co-chairs of the party’s redistricting committee, submitted alternate maps at the meeting.
A demographic comparison shows Precinct 2 currently sits at a 42.9% white population, the lowest of the four. Under the new map, that would increase to 47.4%. The precinct’s Hispanic population would increase slightly to 22.6%; its Black population would decrease by about 2% to 13.2%; and its Asian population would drop to 13.3%, a decrease of over 3%.
Phillips said the county focuses on population numbers firstly, which are in dire need of updates. Precinct 1 has swelled to 283,994 residents, 25.3% higher than the target of 226,606 (about one-fourth of the county’s entire population). Precinct 3 is at 182,886, 19.3% lower than that target. The maximum difference legally allowed for any one precinct is 10% above or below the target.
“Our starting point is to start dragging precincts around until we can get our population numbers where they should be, and start taking input from there,” Phillips said. “It’s harder than it looks to just start picking up population without blowing things totally out of whack.”
For Precinct 2 specifically, Phillips said staff could either have pushed it up toward Frisco or across the lake toward Corinth — the chosen option — to gain population. Under the new map, the precinct would jump from 219,035 residents (3.3% under target) to 236,368 (4.3% above). It would have the highest difference from target of any precinct due to the county accounting for growth over the next 10 years, he said.
“This is never a fun process, because it doesn’t matter what you do, it invites criticism from someone,” Phillips said. “The word ‘gerrymander’ is thrown around a lot these days, typically by those who don’t like the map you draw, and that’s fair enough. That’s someone’s opinion, and that’s fine. … At the end of the day, I’m confident that any finalized map we come up with will be a good reflection of what we were asked to do.”
Marchant said he wasn’t involved in drawing the proposed map but thinks it’s a fair way of adding population to his precinct and will well represent any incoming communities.
“You have to understand what the challenges are in my precinct,” Marchant said. “I’m pretty well landlocked in that I can’t go to the east, I can’t go to the south, and if I go the west I may be intruding too much into Precinct 3.”
As for accusations of unfairness or gerrymandering, Marchant said the process is complicated and that “irregular” lines or population fluctuations don’t mean the county is trying to influence elections.
“[The map] can’t be four different squares or rectangles that you follow,” Marchant said. “Precinct 2 is very diverse, not only politically but ethnically, and once you start adding more population, then you may either boost those numbers or dilute those numbers.”
Following Tuesday’s lengthy executive session, commissioners took no formal action regarding redistricting. County communications director Dawn Cobb said they discussed the input with attorneys and anticipate revised maps to be released Thursday.
Tuesday’s meeting was the last commissioners will hold at the downtown Courthouse on the Square. Moving forward, the weekly meetings will be on the third floor of the county’s new administrative courthouse at 1 Courthouse Drive off Loop 288.
“It is such an honor to get to office at this courthouse all these many years,” County Judge Andy Eads said. “It’s not only about the employees and officials, but I think of all the different community events that happened here.”
The Courthouse on the Square will still house the county’s museum and Office of History and Culture. It also will once again see use as a courtroom when the 367th District Court moves over from the Denton County Courts Building.
Denton will host the annual Texas Downtown Conference this week for the first time in more than two decades.
The statewide conference, which connects communities committed to downtown development, will be held Wednesday through Friday afternoon. Attendees representing cities, economic development initiatives, chambers of commerce and businesses from across Texas will gather for the conference, which will feature breakout sessions, tours of downtown projects and keynote speakers. Denton last hosted the conference in 1999.
“Our local host committee is made up of board members from DMSA, city of Denton and Discover Denton, and local host sponsors have anticipated this conference coming to Denton for a few years,” Denton Main Street Association executive director Christine Gossett said. “We worked hard to put together a fun and educational downtown Denton experience for the attendees with our field sessions and events.”
Conference organizers will host an opening reception at Sunago Bell on Wednesday night from 5-6 p.m. followed by a sip-and-stroll walk through downtown until 7 p.m. Events will continue through Friday afternoon. Exhibits will be held at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center.
Two downtown projects are also finalists for the Texas Downtown Association’s President’s Awards. The new American National Bank & Trust Building is a finalist for the Best New Construction Award for cities of 50,000 or more residents, and Sunago Bell is a finalist for the Best Commercial Interior for cities over 50,000. Winners will be announced at an awards gala Thursday night at the convention center.
Event sponsors include the city of Denton, Discover Denton and Texas Woman’s University, among others.
For more on the Texas Downtown Association, visit the organization’s website.
Denton City Council members decided Tuesday they would consider their options to further decrease the emphasis on local marijuana arrests and citations.
Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon has previously deemphasized low-level marijuana arrests, and a state-level debacle regarding how to determine what is hemp versus marijuana furthered that policy.
The issue arose during Tuesday’s City Council work session, during which council member Deb Armintor took time to pitch an ordinance to drastically alter the city’s stance toward marijuana infractions.
Council members gave city staffers direction to pursue the issue and bring it up for a future council work session. Council members are not required to pass Armintor’s ordinance, which was drafted by the activist group Decriminalize Denton during the Oct. 19 City Council work session.
Staffers expect preparation for the next work session on the issue would take 10 hours.
“We must act now if we wish to live up to our city values of inclusivity and innovation,” Armintor said during her Tuesday pitch regarding the issue.
Council member Paul Meltzer said he would like to bring Chief Dixon back before the council to get his opinion on the proposed ordinance and the issue as a whole. Meltzer said he would support treating minors in possession of marijuana the same way the city treats minors in possession of alcohol.
Council member Jesse Davis also supported having the issue come back for a future work session, but he stressed obtaining an understanding of where locals stand on the issue as opposed to how an advocacy group thinks most people feel.
Most Texans think marijuana use should be legal in at least some instances, according to a survey of registered voters conducted by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune this past June.
“Only 13% of voters think marijuana should not be legal under any circumstances,” the Tribune report read. “Twenty-seven percent believe it should be legal for medical purposes, 31% believe small amounts should be legal for any purpose, and 29% believe any amounts should be legal for any purpose.”
Support for legal cannabis use was strongest among younger voters, with only 4% of those polled from 18-29 years old in opposition.
That study did not focus on reactions from any particular region, let alone the city of Denton.
If passed, the ordinance would prevent Denton police officers from making low-level marijuana arrests or handing out citations except in a few circumstances.
Davis referred to the societal ills of marijuana use as debatable, but he said drug trafficking is dangerous.
He referred to the 2019 attempted robbery during an alleged weed sale that ended with a 20-year-old dead after he was stabbed with a bayonet by a 17-year-old.
Murder charges against the teenager were later dropped when a grand jury determined he had acted in self-defense.
Council member Alison Maguire said current marijuana laws do more harm than good. She said she would support legal measures the city could take to rectify some of those imbalances.
The council already had enough votes to ensure the issue would come back down the road at this point, and Council members Vicki Byrd and Brian Beck had less to say in support.
Byrd, herself a former police officer, also supported a work session to discuss the issue further.
Beck said it is clear the national, state and local communities had moved forward on the issue of marijuana reform, and he supports hammering out the specific details that would improve the situation for locals.
Arrests and citations would largely be restricted to felony narcotics cases designated high priority investigations by a Denton police commander, assistant chief or chief, as well as investigations of violent felonies.
All other instances would allow Denton police to seize what they believe to be marijuana if they write a detailed report of the incident and release the individual who had the substance if that was the sole reason they were stopped or detained.
Possession of marijuana paraphernalia would also not be an acceptable charge in lieu of a marijuana possession charge, and city funds would not be used to test concentrations of substances believed to contain THC, which is the most prominent psychoactive substance found in marijuana.
The Denton Fire Department hopes to have the last piece of equipment it needs by the end of the year needed to be a COVID-19 vaccine provider after officially getting the designation in October.
Brad Lahart, the Fire Department’s emergency medical services battalion chief, said they’ve been approved to provide vaccines after filling out paperwork with the Texas Department of State Health Services and obtaining the minimum equipment for vaccine storage.
“In case we have residents throughout the city that for some reason are totally unable to get a vaccine shot in other means or if the vaccines become difficult to get again, we’ll be available to give shots in the future,” Lahart said about becoming a vaccine provider.
Professionals and facilities have to register with the state to start the process of becoming a vaccine provider and then follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization practices.
The Fire Department was already helping out in vaccination clinics with Denton County Public Health. Lahart said part of training for paramedics entails giving shots, so his staff could do anything from drawing up the dose to actually injecting people with the vaccine.
Although the vaccines provided by the Fire Department will be available to employees and people who can’t get a shot in other means, Lahart said they’re focusing on pockets of vulnerable people, such as those experiencing homelessness. Part of that includes partnering with local organizations, like Our Daily Bread Denton, to host vaccination clinics.
“We keep on seeing spikes of the homeless getting COVID and it’ll slow down and then we’ll see another spike,” Lahart said.
The Fire Department has a refrigerator and freezer on hand to store vaccines but they’re still awaiting an ultra-cold freezer for Pfizer-BioNTech doses. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored between -90 and -60 degrees Celsius, according to the CDC. Lahart said they hope to have that ultra-cold freezer by the end of the year.
“You can’t go to your local Walmart to buy [an approved] freezer,” he said.
Other minimum equipment they needed to have included thermometers to make sure the doses stay at the proper temperature and backup equipment. Lahart said they were also sent ancillary equipment — mixing supplies including needles and syringes as well as administration supplies like vaccination record cards and personal protection equipment.
Lahart said the city budgeted $500,000 to the Fire Department from its allocation of American Rescue Plan relief funds, which they’re using to obtain all the equipment.
The federal funds are meant to be used to respond to COVID-19-related impacts. Denton will receive $23.29 million in total over the next two years, with the first relief tranche of about $11.65 million already sitting in a bank account.
While the focus right now is on COVID-19 vaccines, this authorization will come in handy post-pandemic if we reach herd immunity.
“We’ll always be available to vaccinate not only city of Denton employees, but also city of Denton residents if another pandemic occurs in the future,” Lahart said.