By Paul Bryant
During a forum on Monday, Denton City Council candidates offered their positions primarily on issues centered around leadership and diversity in the police and fire departments.
The event was hosted by the Denton County NAACP, whose president, Willie Hudspeth, asked all eight candidates for Districts 1, 2 and 4 the same questions, with a focus on public safety. One of the questions was about how chiefs should lead their departments.
“Chief [Frank] Dixon is doing a good job running the Police Department,” District 2 council member Connie Baker said. “Training the officers is a lot better than what it used to be. For the fire chief, it’s the same way. He looks out for his men.”
Challenger Daniel Clanton agreed.
“I believe that both the police chief and fire chief are both doing well,” he said. “They hold themselves to a higher standard. They’re setting the example.”
Baker was elected last year to fill the unexpired term of Keely Briggs, who ran against and was defeated by Gerard Hudspeth in a mayoral runoff. The other candidate for District 2 is Brian Beck.
“I know that our various law enforcement organizations already get together really well,” Beck said. “But we have the opportunity for … a more cohesive response. It’s not just making sure they have the equipment they need but also training in working with other divisions of the city.”
In District 1, Birdia Johnson, who was elected to fill Hudspeth’s unexpired term, faces challenges from Matthew Irvine and Vicki Byrd. Johnson encouraged cooperation among departments.
“I think together that our Fire Department and our Police Department would work … with each other,” she said.
Byrd, a retired peace officer, cautioned against the militarization of police.
“We are citizens,” she said. “We are not military people. We are not out there trying to score some big deal with putting people down.”
Irvine said that safety concerns in Denton should be a priority.
And in District 4, incumbent John Ryan, seeking his third term, said that those in leadership roles “have to earn the respect of the community and the people working for them.”
“They have to be safety-minded,” he said. “They have to be able to keep morale up and still be able to discipline when someone does something that they shouldn’t have done. That, sometimes, is where the downfall ends up being.”
Ryan’s opponent, Alison Maguire, kept her answer brief.
“I think they need to actively solicit the input of Denton residents and work to enact what the community wants to see,” she said.
Diversity among police and firefighters
Keeping with the public safety theme, Hudspeth asked the candidates whether they believe the police and fire departments employ “enough” minority first-responders.
“I strongly believe that our institutions that are serving the community … should reflect the makeup of that community,” Maguire said. “I will be honest that I don’t know exactly what the racial makeup is of our police force and our Fire Department. But I do think that is a goal we should be working toward.”
Other candidates expressed a similar sentiment, saying they do not know the racial makeup of the departments.
“From what I’ve seen, our police department is across the spectrum,” Ryan said.
Johnson said she doesn’t think the “representation is completely equal,” while Byrd said that the Fire Department “can do a better job” and that the Police Department “has done a great job in putting more African American or minority people on the streets.”
Irvine called for a “blind hiring process during initial screening.”
As for Beck, he said that the Police Department has “done a better job” in hiring minorities but asked for more promotion and expansion. Baker agreed but said he couldn’t speak on hiring policies at the Fire Department.
“They could probably reach out to qualified people and try to change some policies.”
And Clanton said that Denton simply needs to “be able to have a community [where] people want to come.”
City manager qualifications
Another question posed by Hudspeth was about what candidates should be looking for in the next city manager.
“We are looking for someone who has experience in running a city our size or even larger than our city,” Johnson said.
Irvine said that the next city manager, who would succeed Todd Hileman, should “be transparent.”
Byrd said that person should be a motivator.
“It’s not a matter of pulling people along,” she said. “It’s a matter of pushing people ahead. It’s a great communicator. This person knows the skills.”
Clanton said the next city manager “needs to be able to lead” and should have “the same vision for the city.” For Beck, like Irvine, he’d look for a candidate who knows how to work with others.
“I’ll be looking for someone with a lot of communication experience with a city our size,” Beck said. “Whether you like Mr. Hileman or not, one thing he did really, really well is that he [protected] staff. The buck is going to stop with them.”
Baker said, simply, that the next city manager needs to know how to run a city.
“They manage a city,” he said. “That’s what their job is.”
Ryan opined that Denton’s next city manager should keep the tax rate and utility rates low and know how to handle a budget, while Maguire said the city manager must understand those same things and know how to build consensus among council members and lead.
Asked what they would focus on if elected, the candidates offered a variety of responses. But several were consistent in targeting infrastructure and communication between council members and city staff and residents.
Clanton said that he would start his time as a council member with virtual town hall meetings “to get everybody on board.”
“I want to make sure that … I’m listening to them. I have my priorities,” he said. “But the biggest thing I can do is reach out for the community.”
Beck said that for him, it’s about public health.
“I will immediately begin to press for getting a public health officer,” he said. “One of the most critical elements of the city revolves around public health. It’s not just about COVID. It’s air quality, water quality, issues of mental health for the homeless.”
Baker said he would continue to try to keep local businesses open during a pandemic.
“Our businesses here in this town have been hit pretty hard during COVID-19,” he said. “Everybody can drive down the streets and see what’s going on.”
Johnson said that she wants to build up education programs in District 1.
“We need to, in my opinion … have a lot of neighborhood meetings and get a lot of decisions from a lot of people in our neighborhood,” she said. “We need to make sure education is provided in this neighborhood and in this entire city.”
Byrd wants city officials to place more emphasis on Southeast Denton.
“We received this construction guide in the paper a couple of weeks ago and it talks about the 2019 residential street program,” she said. “It’s just not setting well with me. With Southeast Denton, something is going on with that.”
Irvine said he just wants to get “jobs going.”
“I want to sit down and shut up,” he said. “I would try to figure out what other career people [with the city] are doing on how things work.”
As for Maguire, she said that if she were elected, she’d want to hire an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer.
“The second thing I would do [is] try to find a few single-family neighborhoods that we could rezone … and reduce the setback and parking requirements for those types of housing,” she said. “I would advocate for banning the source of income discriminating against veterans who use [vouchers].”
Early voting for the May 1 election is scheduled for April 19-27.
PAUL BRYANT can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @paulbryant_DRC.