The Denton Firefighters Association hosted the first forum for candidates in the upcoming Denton city council election on Monday evening at the Central Fire Station. Candidates for Mayor, At-Large Place 5, and At-Large Place 6 answered questions for a little over an hour. We were there to catch the platforms and the unexpected drama that unfolded…
Kevin Roden – 03.22.10
All the candidates were present with the exception of Jason Bunch, who is running for the Place 6 At-Large seat. This was the first time the public has had the chance to hear from some of these candidates. Because the event was sponsored by the Denton Firefighters Association, a good portion of the discussion centered around issues relating to their important role in the city. But from the opening and closing remarks, along with some of the general audience questions, we are able to catch a glimpse into their key positions and issues in order to see just how this race is shaping up.
Place 5 At-Large Seat – Pete Kamp v. Eliborio Beltran, AKA “Eli Gemini”
Incumbent Pete Kamp may not have much to worry about in terms of a real challenge from her opponent Eli Gemini (who earned only 16 votes in his last run for Charlye Heggins’ District 1 seat in 2009), but Beltran’s presence in this race is providing a good dose of entertaining political drama. Beltran set up the table in front of him with past diplomas, high school pictures, and a array of medals from unknown sources (some around his neck, some pinned to his jacket, and several simply displayed in a neat row in front of his notes). His opening statement consisted of allegations of “unlawful activity” on the part of city council, city staff, the Denton Police Department, with the Denton Record Chronicle engaged in a conspiracy to cover-up the alleged abuses. He also spent time critiquing Kamp’s involvement on council committees and community and corporate boards claiming that such involvement compromised her ability to adequately serve all the citizens of Denton. But this is when his presence on the forum began to wind down…
Asked in the first question whether or not he supported the “meet and confer” process that brings the city’s decision makers together at the table with representatives from the Fire Department, Beltran immediately ducked the question and proceeded to ask who was the highest ranking fire official in the room. Once identified, Beltran asked pointedly, “Why is there only one black firefighter employed by this department?” Apparently not receiving a satisfactory answer to this, Beltran than called for the official’s job to be replaced by an African-American.
To be fair, though it is not a politically smart move at this forum, this is an appropriate question and one that has been a live issue in Denton for some time. But the firefighters in attendance were not impressed and the moderator, Mike Holdsclaw, made it an issue the next time it was Beltran’s turn to answer a question. Holdsclaw told Beltran he could answer the next question only if he refrained from attacking another firefighter during his answer. Clearly, this firefighter could start fires as well as he could put them out… Beltran defensively responded with an extended tirade that involved everything from quoting the US Constitution, to referring to his freedoms in this country that he was not afforded in his parents’ home country of Mexico, to questioning Denton Record-Chronicle reporter Lowell Brown, to threatening to go to Hollywood and talk to Robert Redford, Danny Devito and others about a documentary on the corruption in Denton. “Hollywood would be very interested in this film,” were his final words as he collected his medals, diplomas, and pictures and left the forum. It even drew the criticism of Bob Clifton, who has earlier been referred to by Mayor Burroughs as someone who doesn’t follow the rules. “Hey, Hotrod, ” Clifton addressed Beltran before chastising him on his need to follow the proper decorum of the forum.
For her part, Kamp maintained her professional composure through it all. She defended her involvement in city boards and local entities as a good thing, as a demonstration of her commitment to the good of the city. Obviously, her experience on council helped her navigate the questions in a more nuanced ways then some of her less-seasoned fellow panelists. She seemed to answer the firefighters’ question to their satisfaction. One of the big questions of the night centered on just what would get cut to maintain a healthy, sustainable budget in light of the recent economic downturn. Kamp claimed that the first step is to hold the current budget where it is and engage in a hiring freeze. She did maintain that when looking for areas to cut, things like libraries and parks would be the first to be trimmed, but was clear that budget designed to ensure the safety and security of the citizens would not be cut.
We will be watching to see what sort of drama Beltran might bring to future forums, but it seems Kamp has a pretty easy campaign to secure her seat ahead of her.
Place 6 At-Large Seat – King, Kregel, Salih, Mach, and Bunch (absent)
This most crowded of all the races in this election, is also shaping up to be the race to watch. Phil Kregel and Hatice Salih are making their second go around as candidates, with Kregel losing to Watts as a write-in candidate for District 4 last year (earning only 63 votes out of 748) and Salih losing to Engelbrecht for the District 3 seat the same year (she earned 32% in a five-way race). James King, though a newcomer to this political arena, comes to the table with some helpful connections. As I reported earlier, he was on Mayor Burroughs steering committed during the 2008 election, a connection that Salih pointed out in her opening remarks, claiming that he was supported by the same “political machine” that is behind four sitting members of the current council. He also spent 2 years on the Planning and Zoning Commission and touts his business connections as an asset to his candidacy.
Perhaps he is taking his connections for granted, but King, though likable and well-spoken, came to the table with very little specifics, very little expressed knowledge of the issues, and very little vision for the direction of Denton under his leadership. It gives me the impression that perhaps he was brought into this race through a request from other interested parties and not completely from his own accord. As of now, he is not displaying the preparation of a serious candidate who “wants” this position.
Contrast that with perhaps the most-prepared outsider candidate of the evening, Hatice Salih. In her opening statement, she claimed “to represent a parallel Denton,” one that wasn’t run by a handful of friends representing only those who vote in city elections. Armed with stats and figures for every question, Salih broke down the specifics of the city budget, questioning just what the city officials were doing with the roughly $5650 per Denton citizen per year. She argued that the city staff is in need of more accountability on what they do with taxpayers money. Asked what she would cut out of the budget, she argued the need to extend the life on things such as city vehicles and to not be so quick to upgrade to the latest technology. She claimed that amenities such as parks and libraries are important enough to the life of the city that they should avoid any budgetary cuts. Based on her performance tonight and her strong showing in last year’s election, Salih has risen as the candidate to beat in in this crowded race.
Phil Kregel proved tonight that, despite his relative youth, he is a candidate worth taking seriously. Claiming his Denton roots that span back generations, Kregel, in his opening remarks, critiqued the current city council for their lack of leadership and their lack of listening to the citizens. He demonstrated an awareness of issues and policies relating to this race, but he also claimed to bring a fresh perspective on old problems. He was the only one of the candidates that, in his answer to the question about budget cuts, responded by saying we needed to look at increasing revenue in creative ways at the same time we address the need for cuts. Citing innovations by Denton ISD in bringing new money to the school district, Kregel argued for a need to seek ways of bringing more money into Denton. The seriousness by which he is taking his campaign is laudable and ultimately beneficial in sharpening each of the candidates for this seat. He and Salih seem to share a similar concern for motivating more involvement among the citizenry in political affairs – regardless of who wins, these efforts are helpful for our entire community.
Eric Mach, a veteran, rental property owner, and former employee of Peterbilt, stated that property taxes, business growth, and questions concerning annexation were his main concerns during his opening statement. Perhaps it is simply a matter of rhetorical skill, but Mach was the least effective at communicating his ideas during the forum tonight. With a field this large, he’s going to need to study up and sharpen up his campaign if he expects much of a showing on May 8.
Mayoral Race – Mark Burroughs v. Bob Clifton
Though he has been a frequent critic of the current Mayor, this is the first time Clifton has directly challenged him in a council race. He ran unsuccessfully against Perry McNeil for the Mayor spot in 2006 and against Charyle Heggins for the District 1 seat in 2009. His frequent and public challenges against city policies and spending, along with his recent lawsuit against the City Secretary over the 2008 campaigns of Burroughs and Kamp, have earned him a sort of rabble-rouser persona in this town. Ironic then, as was stated earlier, that Clifton was the only candidate on the panel who stood up to the antics of Beltran, arguing that he needed to follow the proper procedures of the forum.
With a carton of eggs in hand serving as a prop for the financial situation of the city, Clifton made the budget his number one issue of the evening. He argued for an executive pay reduction starting with the top of the city staff food chain and working down. Though often couched in rough rhetoric, I am starting to realize that Clifton is not the whacko that some would paint him as – he is on to some serious financial questions that ought to be addressed. Whether his demeanor is what Denton needs as the figurative head of the city, however, is an important question citizens will need to ask. But I do make this observation: a person like Bob Clifton, despite how much he might annoy the council and city staff, is ultimately good for the city. Gadflies are needed in a healthy democracy and it serves the leaders well to figure out how best to utilize them. Sidelining and ridiculing them, as Clifton has been, only serves to magnify their polarizing rhetoric and increase their frustration – in other words, the leaders get more of what they are creating. If I were on council, I would find a way to positively channel his energy and time spent on Denton issues – give him a position on a board, bring him into think tanks and committees, and actively seek his input. Otherwise, you’ll be swatting at this fly for a long time…
Burroughs displayed his depth of knowledge provided by his experience as a three term councilman and his recent two years as the city’s mayor. His ability to engage the nuances of city, county, state, and federal connections to local issues is comforting to us, yet even humbling to him. During both his opening and closing remarks, Burroughs discussed the difficulty of the mayor’s job in a city with such diverging interests and entities. He touted his varied experience as a business owner, a parent of children who are in the local schools, and his various civic commitments as the key to giving him a broad range of understanding regarding the issues. He expressed pride over his desire to look at old problems in new ways, even saying that he often “drives the city staff nuts with all his proposals.” While recognizing the economic problems facing the city, Burroughs claimed that “Denton has fared better than most.” His answer to a question concerning budget cuts centered around the need to comb through expenditures with an eye to spending that is higher in proportion to comparable cities.
In his closing remarks, Burroughs began by asking the question, “How do you represent an entire city?” This is not the first time I have heard Burroughs ask a question like this in a public setting. His manner of asking it and his approach to its answer shows that this is an ongoing question for the Mayor. Besides attempting mastery at the nuts and bolts of city affairs, Burroughs at times steps back in an almost philosophic aside, raising enduring political questions that are rarely raised by politicians. I sense a sincere intellectual struggle in him that seems to take a reflective turn over enduring questions – that is nice to see for a change in a day of sound-bytes, slogans, and bumper stickers.
In the end, Burroughs is fighting an easier race than last time when he confronted an incumbent mayor. But the fact that he has to come back to the table to justify his record, his vision, and his candidacy is ultimately good for the city and good for him as a leader.
Denton Firefighters Association Endorsements
Following the forum, the hosting association met to vote on their endorsements for the positions. Burroughs was endorsed in the Mayor’s race, Kamp was endorsed for the At-Large Place 5 seat, and King was endorsed for the At-Large Place 6 seat.
This is only the first of several candidate forums – make time to educate yourself and attend one of these. And if you haven’t yet checked out our own interviews with the candidates, you can find that here. We are busy scheduling interviews with all the candidates and will post them as soon as we have them.
March 24 at 11:30am – Dallas Apartment Association Forum – El Guapo’s
March 26 at 6pm – Denton County NAACP Forum – MLK Center
March 29 at 7pm – Denia Neighborhood Forum (PLACE 6 CANDIDATES ONLY) – Denia Recreation Center
April 15 at 7pm – Denton Neighborhood Alliance Forum – City Council Chambers at City Hall
April 27 at 11am – League of Women Voters of Denton Forum – UNT Union Room 411