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Denton's marijuana issue dead in the water

A proposal before the Denton City Council regarding expanded protections for locals in possession of marijuana is dead after failing to reach consensus Tuesday evening.

The issue can come back to the council in a subsequent work session, but it must first pass through the same process from square one.

That means a council member must pitch the proposed work session and gain support from a majority of their fellow members. That process took more than two months this time around.

Deb Armintor, who brought this issue before the council in November, said she was stunned after progress died for want of direction from her colleagues.

“After all the good questions and points that my colleagues made in today’s discussion, I’m stunned and devastated that I was the only one to give direction for a vote on the actual progress that the people want and need,” she said Tuesday evening.

Only Armintor and council member Alison Maguire gave direction Tuesday.

Armintor wanted the council to support an ordinance or resolution as drafted by Decriminalize Denton, a local advocacy group.

That ordinance called for the City Council to ban all arrests and citations for possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana; ban the use of drug paraphernalia tickets in lieu of cannabis arrests; and commit to not sending any suspected marijuana products to lab testing to determine potency of the substance in cases not involving high-profile trafficking and/or violent offenses.

Maguire supported passing a resolution codifying the city’s current policies so they don’t rest upon the whims of whomever happens to be the current police chief and municipal court judge.

That sentiment was voiced by other council members who were worried the current favorable system might disappear if the current officials filling those roles were to leave the city.

Those two points, between expansion and cementing the status quo, were the basis of much of the council’s discussion Tuesday.

As it stands, most low-level marijuana possession cases handled by Denton police can eventually be expunged from people’s criminal records based upon policies in both the Denton Police Department and at the municipal court level.

That means a person stopped by Denton police with less than 2 ounces of marijuana would likely have their marijuana confiscated and then be issued a citation for the possession of drug paraphernalia instead of the higher penalties associated with marijuana possession.

That is a Class C misdemeanor akin to low-level traffic violations. The municipal court, overseen by Judge Tyler Atkinson, then has a process for those citations to be deferred and potentially erased from one’s criminal record entirely.

Atkinson, addressing the council Tuesday, said there were 150 drug paraphernalia citations filed with his court from July until Dec. 21 of this past year. Of those, 64 had already received deferred disposition.

That means charges were dismissed and will not appear on those people’s criminal records. All deferred cases are then able to be expunged, which means those people would be able to legally claim they were never arrested or cited for the original possession charge.

Atkinson said roughly 75% of those 150 citations were related to marijuana possession.

Parts of the complicated legal process are automated to make it easier for people to clear their names if they check all the right boxes.

Atkinson said he isn’t aware of any other municipalities in Texas that have the expunction process automated in the way his court handles things.

Police Chief Frank Dixon, also addressing council members Tuesday, said that on this matter, Denton is far and above all other cities in Texas near its size.

Just before her final question, Armintor said she planned to give staff direction regarding what she’d like to see going forward.

Mayor Gerard Hudspeth interjected to say the council wasn’t scheduled to give direction that day. Armintor said she is allowed to give direction on work session items and did so despite the mayor’s comments.

Stuart Birdseye, a city spokesperson, said the issue is closed for now because not enough council members gave direction to reach a majority consensus.

“If a council member would like to hold another work session on this, or any topic, it would most likely happen through the 2-minute pitch process,” Birdseye said. “There is no limit within that process to the number of times that a council member can request a topic.”

Denton nonprofits preparing to survey county's unsheltered population

While the 2021 point-in-time report isn’t available yet, the Denton County Homelessness Coalition is gearing up to once again have volunteers count the local unsheltered population in person — something they mostly avoided last year due to the pandemic.

The annual point-in-time count serves to give local organizations a tally of how many people are experiencing homelessness on one day in January. This year, nonprofits and volunteers will survey people experiencing homelessness on Jan. 27.

“It’s far more than just a requirement from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development,” said Gary Henderson, the president and CEO of United Way of Denton County. “The point-in-time [count’s] core purpose for us is making sure the federal government understands what our population of need is so it drives the proper level of federal funding. In my eyes, any opportunity we have to send someone out to have conversations with people struggling with housing instability, it’s a win-win.”

Henderson said those continuous conversations between nonprofits and people experiencing homelessness throughout the year — not just on the scheduled count day — help build trust with these Denton County residents when it comes time for this federally mandated count. In the survey, they are asked questions related to demographics and how long they have been without a home.

Elena Lusk, the local United Way’s director of housing initiatives, said they’re hoping the larger return to in-person counting will give them a better count of who is experiencing homelessness in Denton County.

“It’s a little disappointing because we were only able to survey people in shelters last year,” Lusk said. “We counted 176 people in 2021, which is a dramatic reduction from 2020. … The data is not as accurate or reflective of what our community was experiencing [in January 2021].”

Lusk said the organization’s homelessness data dashboard would be more reflective of the county because it’s updated each month. It shows the number of people who are actively homeless, and breaks down that number into homeless veterans, chronically homeless people and homeless people escaping domestic violence.

The coalition counted 176 people just in shelters last year for the point-in-time count, but the dashboard showed there were 284 people experiencing homelessness that month. The figure stayed in the 200s up until the summer, when it started to increase, creeping up to 601 on Nov. 30.

Lusk said they have the numbers for the 2021 count, but there’s been a delay in getting the full report put together because the numbers came back to them later than expected.

Lusk said they worked with the local overnight shelters to count their clients, but they didn’t count anyone unsheltered in camps last year. Lusk said last year they didn’t bring out volunteers to survey people who were unsheltered as a precaution. Instead, volunteers put together packages filled with toiletries and necessities to drop off at United Way’s Denton office.

This year, volunteers will be return to surveying people who are unsheltered across the county. She said they’re short on volunteers. Henderson added that they can count more people across the county with more volunteers.

“It’s a really good opportunity for folks who may not be able to work with people experiencing homelessness every day to come and support the larger change,” Lusk said.

Residents can also help by filling bags with necessities like shampoo and conditioner, toothbrushes and toothpaste and dropping them off at United Way of Denton County’s office at 1314 Teasley Lane.

'The customer is rarely right': New restaurant embraces 'absurdity,' staff well-being
  • Updated

What’s got breakfast until 3 a.m., $1 weekend mimosas and an albino squirrel mascot? Fry Street’s newest addition.

Located at 1216 W. Hickory St., the Flying Squirrel is serving up breakfast and lunch favorites beginning Tuesday, when it hosts its soft opening in the former Potbelly Sandwich Shop location. Open until 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, the restaurant will be open until 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, offering cocktails alongside late-night staples like chicken and waffles, grilled cheese and vegan pizza. But that’s not all that’s unique about the new dining spot.

“Our business model is based on two main facets: Get a good location and prioritize the mental, physical and emotional well-being of the team,” owner Adam Hasley said. “Everyone hears whenever they go into a restaurant that the customer is always right, and that’s just such a toxic mentality. The first thing we teach staff is the customer is rarely right and they know they’re encouraged to be their full selves.”

Apart from an apron and nonslip shoes, staff can wear whatever they choose to work. Customer complaints are taken by Lucky, the restaurant’s albino squirrel mascot.

“Unfortunately, squirrels don’t talk, so the only response they’ll get is a squeak,” Hasley said.

Contributed photo 

Lucky, an albino squirrel, is the Flying Squirrel's mascot. 

The model is an attempt to change the way restaurants are run. A former server himself, Hasley is no stranger to the stories that often circulate among service workers about dealing with impossible customers and unsupportive work environments. It’s what has kept some from returning to service jobs over the past year.

Hasley also spent time at the National Restaurant Association, interviewing restaurant operators across the U.S.

“Diving into emerging trends and really looking at where the industry’s going, it seemed inevitable that you have to at some point change your model to be people-first, rather than that toxic ‘the customer’s always right’ [model],” Hasley said. “A lot of larger organizations are starting to see that shift, and they’re starting to pivot to really prioritize the people.”

At Flying Squirrel, staff are more than just expendable workers: They’re valued for who they are, Hasley said. And the restaurant’s model doesn’t mean it’ll lack customer service.

“We have the friendliest staff ever, but truly at the end of the day, they’re the lifeblood of our entire operation, and without them, we could not function,” Hasley said. “Management knows from the very beginning that we work for them — we work for our employees.”

Jeff Woo/DRC 

Flying Squirrel, in the Fry Street area near the University of North Texas campus, is a new restaurant that features all-day breakfast and is open until 3 a.m. on weekends.

That also means encouraging staff to have fun and bring a dose of spontaneity to the space.

“You might have a server dance party break out in the middle of a rush-hour peak, and that could be a possibility,” Hasley said. “The next day you might see a giant albino squirrel popping a champagne bottle with a sword. You could also just have a perfectly normal dining experience — no matter what, we just want you to never fully know what to expect.”

The restaurant also plans to introduce other fun events, such as RuPaul watch parties every Friday.

Though some University of North Texas students might find familiarity in Lucky — and the eagle the mascot is riding in the restaurant’s logo — there’s no affiliation with the university, Hasley said. But Lucky is a star in his own right at the Flying Squirrel, with a commissioned Lucky Mona Lisa greeting customers as they enter the restaurant.

Contributed photo 

Ownership at the Flying Squirrel, a new restaurant on Fry Street, commissioned art of its mascot Lucky in the style of Mona Lisa. 

The eatery plans to soon offer an array of vegan and gluten-free options, including for those with food allergies, but is operating off a temporary menu while it waits for a hood system. Aside from offering late-night drinks, the dining spot also plans to offer mocktails and other nonalcoholic favorites for the sober community. The staff hopes that, before long, everyone will be able to find something they love on the menu.

For now, they are enjoying the journey.

“We’re really just leaning into the absurdity — it’s been such a fun ride to get here,” Hasley said.

Health officials: Sheer numbers from omicron surge, not severity, straining hospitals
  • Updated

Denton County health officials say that while the omicron COVID-19 variant generally causes less severe illness, the skyrocketing case volume nonetheless is bringing back hospital capacity concerns.

The hospital system was the focus of Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson’s COVID-19 update on Tuesday, based on what he called an “enormous” spike in cases over the past few weeks. Monday, the county blew its previous daily record out of the water with 2,070 additional cases reported — although that total does reflect three days’ worth of reporting.


Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson speaks on COVID-19 trends at Tuesday morning’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Richardson said the surge is starting to impact county hospital capacity, a topic that was brought to the forefront during previous spikes. In speaking with hospital CEOs, he said, a number of concerns have been raised.

“There’s quite a bit of momentum with omicron in hospitals,” Richardson said. “They reported ICU beds are harder to staff. They reported, in many cases, up to 20% absenteeism in their existing staff.”

Richardson added that some county hospitals have received state assistance in the form of temporary nurses, which was a huge aspect of the response to last winter’s surge. The result of the troubles is that emergency room “holds” are starting to pop up again.

“It’s when you go to the emergency room, and there’s no inpatient bed for you,” Richardson said. “Some are hours, and some are multiple hours, maybe double-digit hours in the emergency room waiting for a staffed bed.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, adult ICU occupancy sat at 93.6% with 88 of 94 staffed beds occupied. That number changes daily as hospitals flex their staffing up or down in accordance with demand, but other metrics are on the way up as well. In mid-November, COVID-19 patients accounted for under 8% of all inpatient hospitalizations, but that number has now eclipsed 25%.

The hospitalization stats are still well under what they reached in the previous two spikes, though the upward trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down yet. Richardson noted, however, that hospitalizations haven’t climbed as quickly this time around despite an ongoing all-time high in test positivity. He attributed that to the qualities of the omicron strain.

“It may not make people as sick as prior variants,” Richardson said. “The bad news is, there’s so many more cases that there’s still people needing hospitalizations. … The enormous wave that is here is still putting pressure on the hospital system.”

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton President Jeff Reecer agreed with Richardson’s assessment that the omicron variant seems to be causing less severe illness. That’s using comparisons with the first two spikes.

Jeff Reecer

“While we are seeing a lot of it, we currently don’t have the same portion of those patients in the ICU at this point,” Reecer said. “But we do have as many patients. We have as many patients now as we had at the delta surge.”

Reecer said another major factor is that the hospital is busy with non-coronavirus patients as well. During the first surge, for example, hospitals were cleared out and residents were even putting off care. But now, hospitals have a typical workload on top of any coronavirus patients.

That workload is compounded even more by the staffing troubles, which Texas Health hasn’t been able to escape. Reecer said the Denton hospital has had “quite a few” staff dealing with the exposure protocols or testing positive, which knocks them out of availability for a while. He said the hospital did request state assistance and should be getting it soon, although he said he doesn’t know exactly when.

As for emergency room availability, Reecer said he isn’t quite at the same level of concern he had during previous surges, but that the system is getting “very close.” The important thing, he said, is that hospitals need occupancy to be low enough that it allows them to absorb any sudden spikes in demand.

“We don’t want to run 95-99% full,” Reecer said. “I think it’s very close to that. Again, it changes day to day and hour to hour.”