The city of Denton’s stationery lists transparency as one of Denton’s core values. Denton could be transparent and prevent corruption by sharing information with the press and citizens. According to the authority on city ethics, Harvard and Columbia law graduate Robert Wechsler, the appearance of impropriety matters most.
Denton’s lack of transparency goes back to 1890. A real estate syndicate led by then-Mayor Joseph Carroll purchased 240 acres, donated 10 acres to what became the University of North Texas, doubled the size of Denton when they got the city to annex the land, and benefitted personally from its development. Transparency problems occur in small towns — but Denton’s no longer small.
And transparency problems continue.
The heart of the problem is a definition of confidentiality that has the City Council meeting in closed session too frequently. To be sure, closed sessions are necessary for personnel matters, but the city creates a secret atmosphere eroding public trust by extending confidentiality to anything it wants to keep private. Denton cites an illegitimate interpretation of the Texas Open Meeting Act, available online at www.tml.org, to defend poor transparency.
I became aware of Denton’s lack of transparency through a Freedom of Information request. The city eventually sent pages of emails that took hours to sort into a timeline. Comments about residents between city employees were troubling, but most concerning was a memo to city employees ghost-written by then-Development Services Director Aimee Bissett for City Manager George Campbell, redacted by the city attorney. After the Texas Attorney General’s office ruled the city had to release the page-long memo, the City Attorney’s office sent a blacked-out memo. Whatever that memo said must have been serious for the city attorney to ignore the attorney general ruling.
But it’s a metaphor for Denton’s transparency.
Denton is least transparent about its relationship with developers they choose over residents. The story of how Buc-ee’s appeared within city limits against the cries of homeowners who didn’t want noise and light pollution behind their homes is a good example.
The proliferation of “college student housing” is another example of Denton’s lack of transparency. Development services keeps approving 300- to 500-bed “college student housing” in multi-storied buildings, increasing noise, traffic and crime in established neighborhoods. Homeowners, whose homes are their most precious possession, don’t get much voice in city decisions.
Decisions get made outside public meetings, which is a violation of the Open Meetings Act. Just after the first 2017 Charter Review meeting was called to order, Joe Mulroy, Mayor Chris Watts’ business partner, was nominated and elected chair without discussion. Since then, other board or commission chairs have been elected the same way, as recently as last week, when Paul Meltzer was elected mayor pro tem.
The city of Denton isn’t transparent about its relationship with the Chamber of Commerce. Before the pandemic, the chamber annually received about $2 million from the city through a combination of Hotel Occupancy Funds and funding for the chamber’s Welcome Center and Economic Development Partnership. Groups like the community market get limited funding because the chamber gets most of the money. Worst of all, funding gives the chamber access to city employees and elected officials. That relationship will become less transparent when chamber offices move to Denton’s Development Services building on Elm Street.
If Denton wants to live up to its aspirational statement, it needs to balance developer services with neighborhood services, rein in the city attorney, stop hiding behind consultants and communicate with residents.
Denton has a long way to go to become transparent and regain public trust.