According to the Texas State Historical Association, Denton adopted the Council-Manager form of government in 1914, abandoned it in 1919 just before city leaders moved a thriving middle class Black community out of present-day Quakertown park, and readopted it in 1959.
In the past decade, Denton has abandoned the Council-Manager form of government without a voter referendum.
Government works when it serves the most people, but Denton serves the will of a few.
According to the National League of Cities, Council-Manager government combines political leadership of elected council members with the management experience of a city manager. The Council-Manager system provides checks and balances between legislative decisions representing the will of the people and executive action carrying out council’s directives.
This form of government is also known as a weak mayor system, where the mayor, who creates decorum, is no more important than council members. Council-Manager is the newest and most popular American municipal government style. According to the Texas Attorney General’s office, cities adopt the Council-Manager style to minimize politically motivated decisions that can hamstring a city.
Mayor-Council, or strong mayor government, features an elected, full-time, paid mayor with a large staff. Strong mayors have broader decision-making power and fewer checks and balances. New York, Houston and Minneapolis are strong mayor cities.
In Council-Manager government, management reports to council — but not in Denton. Over a decade ago, Denton’s city manager, who was ultimately forced out, began making policy decisions. Staff size and salaries simultaneously increased faster than other Texas cities. Our latest city manager, who departed abruptly earlier this year, made policy decisions that should have been made by council, like making pie charts of council members who consume the most city staff time. Not surprisingly in a misogynistic environment, council’s two women came under fire for asking too many questions. In Council-Manager government, the full council sets weekly agenda items. Who sets the agenda in Denton?
The city attorney’s role in Council-Manager government is to provide legal advice to council and other city officials, and to defend the city in lawsuits. Denton’s city attorney appears to provide legal advice to the city manager and the mayor, but not to council. Legal representation for Denton is done by outside law firms at taxpayer expense. Denton’s staff has seven full-time lawyers; Plano, which is 51% larger than Denton, has six full-time lawyers.
Denton isn’t transparent. The city attorney frequently cites confidentiality as a reason to not share information. President James Madison believed government without information, or the ability to obtain it, is prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or both. But City Attorney Aaron Leal expects council members to keep everything confidential, which is secrecy, the opposite of transparency.
If city leaders believe a Mayor-Council government is best, this must be taken to voters in a referendum; a majority vote is the only way Denton can abandon the Council-Manager government style.
The city manager and attorney shouldn’t participate in council meetings; they shouldn’t sit on the dais when council returns to in-person meetings. Everyone should understand that the mayor’s vote is no more important than other council members.
Denton must return to the Council-Manager government it abandoned over a decade ago.