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Last year set a record for DWI arrests in Denton, and this year could see even more
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The number of driving while intoxicated arrests in Denton is on pace to exceed last year’s record total of 937. The Denton Police Department’s traffic unit supervisor says everything from increased enforcement to more post-pandemic partying could be the cause.

From January to June 2022, Denton police had 441 DWI arrests. For the same period of 2021, there were 434. Sgt. Daryn Briggs said the difference could have been greater, but two of his most-productive officers have been in training recently.

As to whether the increase in cases is due to more people offending or more offenders being caught, Briggs said it’s a combination of both.

Briggs spoke of changes to the department’s culture and philosophy over the past few years being a contributing factor. In 2021, roughly 70 different Denton police officers made at least one DWI arrest.

“We’ve done a lot of training for standardized field sobriety testing to get [officers] comfortable,” he said. “It’s not just six or seven officers doing it. It may not be their favorite thing to do. But they understand the importance of it, and they’re not shying away from it.”

But changes in the public’s behavior after several years of the COVID-19 pandemic could also be a factor, Briggs said.

“There are not as many restrictions for people’s behavior,” he said. “They lived through the lockdown and not being able to do a lot of things, so that has changed how they approach their lives.”

Another factor is a statewide staffing shortage for law enforcement agencies, which could affect a department’s ability to take proactive measures and prevent drinking while driving.

“It’s not just us,” Briggs said. “Even the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission doesn’t have as many field agents in the bars and doing all the regulatory work they do.”

Maps generated from 2018 through 2021 show the areas of Denton where crashes occurred with at least one contributing factor of impairment. 

In the first six months of 2021, the department saw 101 crashes with at least one contributing factor of impairment. This means a driver being under the influence of alcohol, having been drinking, taking medication, being under the influence of drugs, a test resulting in a blood-alcohol content of greater than 0.00 or testing positive on a drug test.

The number of crashes in the first six months of 2022 is just under last year at 95. But Briggs said this might not be completely accurate, as BAC test results can take several weeks to return, and the department doesn’t yet have some from June.

What upsets law enforcement the most, Briggs said, is all of these crashes were completely preventable.

“There are so many options available between all the rideshare services, having a designated driver, not leaving a house or letting someone have your keys,” Briggs said. “There’s no excuse. Just plan ahead. We’re not saying you can’t have a good time. Just be responsible about it.”

Briggs said the department usually sees spikes in DWIs around holidays. The department has plans for a DWI enforcement push around Labor Day, he said. DPD also intends to participate in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Saturation Saturday campaign during the last week of August.

The department frequently publishes educational material about the dangers of intoxicated driving on social media and has posters up around hotspots such as the Downtown Square and Fry Street, he said.

During the height of the pandemic, Briggs said, the department saw a lapse in opportunities for educational presentations at events like HOA meetings, civic groups and school events.

“I’m hoping community meetings will start to become the norm again,” Briggs said. “If those groups reach out and want a presentation about whatever law enforcement topic, we have officers available for those things.”

Mustard seeds, great big dreams: First Refuge's community garden already yielding crops

SANGER — Paul Juarez ducks toward an okra plant that seems almost impervious to the triple-digit heat that has beaten down on Community Strong Farms in Sanger.

Juarez, the executive director of First Refuge, has spotted a visitor to the community garden. A slender brown rabbit skips around a raised bed of plastic milk crates full of soil, wood chips, Dyno Dirt and recycled campaign signs. Its nose twitches in the direction of the fresh black dirt four feet above. There aren’t any plants growing yet in the milk crates.

But there soon will be.

Juarez whips out a pocketknife and slashes it across two firm stems of the okra plant. He cups a firm spear of okra in his palm, then throws it, underhanded, toward the rabbit.

“See if that gets its attention,” Juarez said, while farm supervisor Matt Basham busies himself for the day’s work. The okra, when cut fresh from the stem, is surprisingly and mildly sweet. Juarez and Basham like to think that, when Sanger families are able to take this fresh produce home with them, they’ll taste sunshine, good dirt and cool water in each bite.

There’s an additional ingredient growing with each spike of okra, each juicy, heavy globe of melon: the love of faithful hands who work the soil as a demonstration of devotion. Sure, a morning at Community Strong Farms leaves volunteers with dirt under their nails. But they’ve put their hands in the service of people who need fresh, nutritious food but who can’t regularly buy it.

It’s just after 8 a.m., and the community garden is in for another day of full sun and soaring temperatures. And yet all of the crops — the okra and squash, the emptied cantaloupe patch, the jalapeño peppers and the pumpkin mounds — bear only the slightest signs of heat stress.

Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales/DRC 

Paul Juarez, the executive director of First Refuge, walks among new pumpkins planted at Community Strong Farms. The community garden, which was established in October, is already yielding okra, squash, cantaloupe and peppers and will soon have its first pumpkin harvest.

Juarez and Basham are excited, though.

Because last October, when First Refuge added the community garden to its human aid operations, the 14-acre field was nothing but a cement slab, a new iron gate announcing the ministry’s brand, and rough grasses bleached blond by the late summer sun and persistent drought. The community garden was funded by a grant from Texas Health Resources and will supply an in-school grocery store at Sanger ISD’s Linda Tutt High School. The grocery store was funded by an additional grant from the hospital system. Texas Health Resources is one of the country’s largest faith-based health systems.

Now, there is a building on the farm, the first phase of an irrigation system and, as of Friday, newly installed gutters fitted on the building to divert rainfall into a catchment barrel.

“Once we get this all connected, the water we get from the rain barrel will water what we’ve got over there,” Juarez said, pointing to the raised beds.

Juarez said the farm has been on a recycling kick. Wood pallets carry supplies that First Refuge, a local ministry that offers food, health care and counseling to low-income individuals and families, distributes in Denton and Sanger, and are then turned into the raised beds and a new fence along Milam Road. The campaign signs used to enclose soil in the recycled milk crates were given from the campaign of the Rev. Jim Mann, who leads New Life Church. The church is a farm partner and neighbor. The city of Denton donated tons of Dyno Dirt to the operation. Another batch of donated signs is from Denton City Council member Jesse Davis.

“We didn’t have any of this until this year. We started planting in April, which is late,” Juarez said.

“We wanted to show people, even ourselves, that we could jump in and progress and stay busy,” said Basham, a certified horticulturist and landscaper.

Getting people out in the garden and watching the plants yield fruit brings more interest to the project.

“It’s just like the flowers, you know, that cause the bees to buzz,” Basham said. “People come here to help volunteer. The volunteers have taken care of all this. They’ve watered throughout this hot summer. We have a lot [of volunteers] on the books who are wanting to work. We need to expand, and the temperatures need to drop this fall. I think we’ll have a lot more to have a productive fall garden.”

Juarez said the core volunteer crew is a group of women who relish getting their hands dirty and who love talking about their work on the group text Juarez participates in.

“They love saying ‘This is how much we did today,’” Juarez said.

Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales/DRC 

A visitor to Community Strong Farms in Sanger shows some interest in the fresh crops and soil in milk crates. The milk crates contain wood chips, soil and Dyno Dirt. Soon, they will contain tomato and potato seedlings.

Basham assembled volunteers in the spring to scrape the top inches of soil from the ground. Then, he prepared rows and irrigation with the help of volunteers. They planted quickly, and Juarez said the workers learned quickly how punishing the North Texas sun can be.

Basham said the farm plans to add tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries to the operation in the next season. Juarez said the farm is already eyeing the next plot of acreage to develop. The raised bed milk crate project will be open for community members to adopt, Juarez said. Basham said the farm leadership is focusing on nutrient-rich produce that people like. (“Some people don’t like radishes, and a lot of people don’t like beets,” he said.) But he and Juarez are also thinking about a limited line of farm merchandise.

“We’ve been talking about tomatoes and onions, peppers, things that you can combine to make a product,” Basham said.

“Yeah,” Juarez said. “We could create our own salsa and sell it as a fundraiser for First Refuge.”

Juarez looks around as Basham heads toward the farm building, where he’ll start the day’s work. His eyes rest on the next plot of land to be farmed, but his imagination is at the corner of Carroll Boulevard and Mulberry Street on some summer Saturday morning in the future, where Denton Community Market shoppers make the short trip across the parking lot to the Denton County Farmers Market.

“We look forward to, at some point in time, having enough crop where we can go, then, to the farmers market out there in Denton. You know, and actually be able to sell some of what we grow. All of that comes back to us to help more people,” he said. “That’s what we’re here to do. It’s a God thing.”

Nonpartisan Denton city elections are anything but, campaign filings show

In May 2017, Texas Monthly reported that the partisans, both Republican and Democrat, were coming for city and school elections, which have been traditionally nonpartisan in Texas and which political reporter R.G. Ratcliffe deemed “the final bastion of party free elections.”

The Texas Democratic Party and some Republicans, according to Texas Monthly’s Ratcliffe, sought “to make elections in the Lone Star State even more partisan. … Even if city charters and school district laws call for non-partisan elections, the parties want to erase that line.”

McKinney conservatives sought to make it law during the 2021 legislative session when their state representative introduced a bill that would require local candidates to identify their parties on the ballot.

Based on a review of 2022 campaign filings, the nonpartisan line has nearly vanished in Denton after the May city election for mayor and two council seats. Candidates made their party affiliations known through the support of Democrat and Republican campaign organizations. They also stressed their political leanings in advertising and on a progressive platform.

Donations from outside the city also poured into several campaigns, in some cases seemingly because candidates had run on a progressive slate or were friendly to developers of luxury communities. That left at least one critic questioning why the city doesn’t have a rule requiring elected officials to recuse themselves on projects from special-industry PAC donors.

While Denton’s city elections are nonpartisan, city spokesperson Stuart Birdseye said the charter requirement doesn’t mean voters don’t know a candidate’s political leanings.

“Candidates would exercise their discretion whether to identify themselves by party in their campaign literature and speeches,” Birdseye wrote in a July 20 email to the Denton Record-Chronicle.

But in this campaign season, discretion was an afterthought.

Focus on nonpartisan races

The dead canary in the coal mine, Texas Monthly’s Ratcliffe wrote in 2017, may have been the November 2015 Houston mayor’s race when Bill King, a Republican and former mayor of Kemah, and Sylvester Turner, a former Democrat state representative, faced off with the help of Republicans and Democrats who organized voting efforts. Texas Monthly pointed to a 2015 Houston Chronicle report:

“The result is a race without overt party identification, but with all the trappings of a partisan battlefield. ‘We’ve seen across the country the intensity of the partisan division grow,’ University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. ‘It’s not that the overall population has become more partisan and polarized, but people who vote, particularly in a low-turnout election like a Houston mayor runoff, tend to be partisans.’”

The Texas Democratic Party, Texas Monthly reported, had decided to focus on nonpartisan elections after its candidates lost every statewide election and 200 partisan county judge and commissioners posts in 2010. The party believed “a stronger, blue Texas — our goal and core mission — requires a sustained effort across the state to recruit and train excellent Texas Democratic candidates for both partisan and nonpartisan offices,” according to a memo by Texas Democratic Party then-Executive Director Kay Perkins, obtained by Texas Monthly for the 2017 story.

Yet, the Texas Democratic Party wasn’t alone in wanting to focus on nonpartisan local elections.

In late February 2021, state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney filed House Bill 2092, a law that would require candidates for municipal elections to declare a party affiliation and for that declaration to appear on the ballot. Derek Baker, a McKinney real estate agent and prominent Collin County Republican, told the Texas Scorecard in February 2021:

“There is no such thing as a nonpartisan election. It is disappointing and I believe misleading to the general public for Texas to continue the charade that local elections are somehow nonpartisan.”

Two months later, Monty Winn from the Texas Municipal League claimed one of the primary reasons city governments respond efficiently to their constituents is because they’re nonpartisan and able to avoid “the partisan gridlock that plagues Washington, D.C., and, on occasion, the state legislative process in Austin.”

“H.B. 2092 is a simple bill that would have a disastrous impact on local communities across the state,” Winn wrote in an April 1, 2021, letter to Briscoe Cain, chair of the House Elections Committee.

The bill never made it out of the committee.

Denton campaign filings

About a year after the Texas Monthly story, Paul Meltzer, then a member of the Denton City Council, wrote a guest essay for the Record-Chronicle about the importance of Denton’s nonpartisan local elections.

“I think it’s a darn good thing, too,” Meltzer wrote in the Jan. 20, 2018, essay. “… The last thing we need is dug-in tribal affiliations putting our city in the kind of unproductive partisan gridlock we see year after year at other levels of government.”

Brandon Chase McGee

Amber Briggle

Four years later, Meltzer ran on a progressive slate with Amber Briggle, a District 6 candidate who is a renowned supporter of transgender rights, and the working-class candidate Brandon Chase McGee, for District 5, to unseat Mayor Gerard Hudspeth and bring change to Denton. Donations poured in from around the country.

The slate’s campaign finance reports reveal a level of grassroots and candidate support not seen in recent years in Denton. Meltzer, McGee and Briggle appear on each other’s reports under contributions, in-kind contributions and expenditures for thousands of dollars.

For example, Meltzer gave in-kind contributions of $11,269 to Briggle’s campaign and $9,936 to McGee’s. In return, McGee donated $6,650 to Meltzer’s campaign, while Briggle topped it at $17,146, becoming Meltzer’s top donor, according to Meltzer’s 2022 campaign filings.

They were also the only local candidates to list paying campaign workers for their grassroots help.

Briggle could not be reached for comment.

Former Denton Mayor Chris Watts, who won Meltzer’s old District 6 seat in May, has run for several local elections in the past but said he never aligned with a political party. According to his 2022 campaign filings, a majority of his $24,715 in donations came from Denton residents. He spent $33,296 on the May 2022 race.

Briggle and McGee received about $48,600 and $26,478 in donations while spending $56,000 and $12,856, respectively on their races. A majority of Briggle’s donations came from outside of Denton, while McGee utilized The Collective PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps Black candidates get elected around the nation.

“I am proud to have been supported by several organizations during my recent campaign,” McGee wrote via email Friday. “I received broad support because I committed to focusing my efforts on the working people of Denton. Now, as a blue collar worker on Council, I am intensely focused on solutions to the problems working people face in our daily lives.”

All three candidates — Briggle, McGee and Meltzer — utilized Denton Together, a group of volunteers who help progressives get elected. Meltzer also paid a $5,250 consulting fee to The Mellinger Group, a Baltimore political organization that fundraises for Democratic candidates in local, state and national elections.

“This was probably one of the more — I don’t want to say expressly but implicitly partisan elections,” Watts said. “The slate came out with the flyer that showed all of them in a photo-op with Beto O’Rourke. It was clearly, based on the campaign and some of the wording, representing a side that was well-known based on the language for a political party.

“It’s unfortunate,” he added. “People can run a campaign, use certain words while not expressly stating it, and we all know that words have meaning. They have political meaning.”

Meltzer called the cooperation between himself, Briggle and McGee a direct response to special industry money that poured into races in previous election cycles. He claimed it was “complete transparency showing collaboration and a lot of coordination that wasn’t expressed so transparently [by other candidates].”

“It enabled us to create some massive impressions,” he said.

During the previous election, special industry money appeared on 2022 campaign filings for District 5 candidate Daniel Clanton, Hudspeth and Watts. The donations came from apartment, home builder and Realtors associations from outside of Denton. Kent Key, who owns Key Custom Homes, also donated to their campaigns.

Daniel Clanton

Clanton, who couldn’t be reached, didn’t report his $11,000 in special industry donations until his July filing after the May election. Some of those donations came from the Texas Association of Realtors, the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas and the Dallas Builders Association, based in Plano. Key donated $4,000.

Watts received $1,500 donations from HOMEPAC of Greater Dallas, which is the Dallas Builders Association’s PAC, and the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas. Key donated $2,500, making it Watts’ largest donation in his late April campaign filing.

In a Friday email, Watts said that based on their values, council members make their own decisions case by case on which contributions to accept or reject. They disclose the donations to voters who then can decide if they’re acceptable or not.

“I see no issue with special-industry PACs donating to local candidates,” he said.

In the mayor’s race, Hudspeth received $10,289 from TREPAC — the Texas Realtors Political Action Committee — and $3,000 from HOMEPAC of Greater Dallas. He also received about $6,500 from people associated with companies such as Centurion America, Hillwood Development and San Antonio real estate company Cardinal MF.

Hudspeth has a political history of receiving money from development PACs, outraising his mayoral competitor, Keely Briggs, in the 2020 election with the help of large contributions from those PACs, according to an April 4 Record-Chronicle report.

According to his 2020 campaign filings, Hudspeth raised more than $109,000 and spent about $104,000.

“I appreciate the fact that as a candidate, I have the requisite balance of personal property versus public health versus growth, and I have shown the ability to balance those interests and not focus on my own ideology,” Hudspeth told the Record-Chronicle in a Dec. 1, 2020, report. “Developers understand that and appreciate that.”

He is also a candidate the Protect and Serve Texas PAC appreciated with $17,279 in donations. Formed in 2020 by police associations from around the country, the PAC’s mission is to embrace candidates who don’t “embrace the disastrous policy of ‘defunding the police’” but recognize law enforcement’s role in the community, according to the PAC’s website.

Hudspeth campaigned at the Denton County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner. And Brint Ryan, founder and CEO of property tax consulting firm Ryan and the namesake of the University of North Texas’ business school, held a meet-and-greet for the mayor at Galleria Tower in Dallas.

In total, Hudspeth received $94,499 in donations and spent $80,752 without taking out loans, compared with Meltzer, who raised about $67,091 while spending $98,512 and taking $57,750 in loans.

To run a successful campaign, Hudspeth paid $61,553 to Murphy Nasica & Associates, a political consulting firm that represents candidates in municipal, state and national elections. The firm has won several awards, including “Best Biographical Online Video for a Republican,” “Best Online Video for a Republican Bootstrapped Campaign” and “Best Villain in a TV Ad Republican,” as well as several awards for the firm’s direct mail campaigns.

He went on to beat Meltzer with 52% of the 15,909 votes cast in the May 2022 race, according to a May 7 Record-Chronicle report.

“I have used Murphy Nasica since my 2019 campaign,” Hudspeth wrote in a Monday email. “I use them because of their professionalism and their staffing. They are a full service organization that provides exceptional customer/client services.”

Partisan or nonpartisan?

Shortly before the May election, Meltzer pitched the idea to the City Council for members to consider forced recusals related to campaign donations from industry PACs.

“In our fast-growing city, the public needs confidence that decisions about development are made with the interests of the community as a whole in mind,” his request read, according to the April 4 Record-Chronicle report. “It undermines that confidence when we see thousands of dollars flowing into political campaigns from interested parties like Texas Realtors, Apartment Association of Greater Dallas and Texas Association of Builders.”

He wasn’t the first to consider the idea. The city’s Board of Ethics, Birdseye said, had discussed tweaking the conflict of interest definition to include recipients who received $500 or more in campaign contributions.

The proposed amendment was submitted in June to council members who, in turn, sent it back to the board to refine, Birdseye said.

But Watts said that “if money buys influence and bias, it is not just limited to PACS or organizations pursuant to personal political ideology; it goes across the board.”

For example, Watts said, Meltzer paid Jordan Villarreal a total of $12,000 for political consulting, $4,000 of which Watts said occurred one day prior to Villarreal’s appointment to the Planning and Zoning Board via a consent agenda vote.

Neither Meltzer nor Villarreal, he said, disclosed the payment to Meltzer’s council colleagues who were voting for Villarreal prior to the vote.

“What and how much influence did that buy and continues to buy because Villarreal is still on P&Z?” Watts said. “Additionally, Meltzer contributed a substantial amount of money to his fellow slate member candidates’ campaign. How much influence was Meltzer buying with said contributions? McGee, a recipient of the contributions was elected. What influence does Meltzer have over McGee?”

While some conservatives want partisan local elections, Birdseye said no one has approached the city about issuing a charter change to turn Denton’s elections partisan.

It may not be a good thing if someone does. As Watts indicated, “Unfortunately, a partisan environment at the local level creates what we’ve seen with the recent state and national issues becoming something that gets on a resolution, and staff have to spend time doing that, in essence, on something that we can’t do anything about.”

Brent Hagenbuch, chair of the Denton County Republican Party, said in a Friday email that making local elections partisan would allow his party “to provide voters with so much information about the candidates so voters could be better educated about how each candidate would approach the position they were elected to perform.”

He added that partisan elections offer voters an educational advantage. Similar to the progressives, local Republican activists, he said, try to determine which candidates have conservative approaches and let voters know who has a GOP voting history.

“I believe most Republicans in Denton County would strongly support making these elections partisan,” Hagenbuch said. “Because of the excellent educational advantage partisan elections provide to voters, I have no reservations about partisan elections for municipal and school board campaigns.”