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Fort Worth elections follow contentious year

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter: Fort Worth political insiders like to distance themselves from their counterparts in Dallas. They describe city council meetings east of the Trinity River as raucous. And, they take pride in "the Fort Worth way," which, by reputation, is a more agreeable style of governing.

Bud Kennedy, columnist, Fort Worth Star Telegram: You know, the Fort Worth city council usually goes along and people go along and get along.

Sprague: Bud Kennedy is a columnist with the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

Kennedy: And as long as the trash gets picked up and the dogs are caught and the crime rate's down, which it has been in Fort Worth, then things at city hall are pretty quiet.

Sprague: But this past year, citizens organized to stop a city-owned hotel from being built and prevent Fort Worth from annexing unwilling rural residents. They packed town hall meetings on relocating public housing, and they created websites to track the council's moves - making for a rather intense year at city hall.

Madeline Rice Gibbs, president, Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods: You could say that in a big way.

Sprague: Madeline Rice Gibbs' day job is running an independent shoe store off of South Hulen street, but when she's not fitting toddlers for their first pair of sneakers, she volunteers as the president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods. Last year, she fielded scores of homeowners' complaints, especially about the council's decision to replace trash bags with trash bins.

Gibbs: I've never seen people get so upset and so personal about trash.

Sprague: Gibbs says council members fumbled the trash debate - and other controversies - by appearing to ignore the objections raised by residents.

Gibbs: And they seemed to listen and they seemed to ask questions, but then they went totally against and voted, of course, to implement this particular program. And I'm out in neighborhoods basically three days a week, and the neighbors basically say, "Well, Madeline, we went down and said what we wanted, and they still went against us - what are we going to do?"

Sprague: Steve Hollern has an answer to that question. As chairman of Citizens for Taxpayers' Rights, Hollern got enough signatures to delay the financing of the convention center hotel, which the council wanted to secure immediately. And he believes that level of activism will unseat some of the incumbents who voted for the hotel and other issues like involuntary annexation.

Steve Hollern, Fort Worth CPA and chairman, Citizens for Taxpayers' Rights: The issue on the hotel hasn't gone away. The issue on annexation hasn't gone away. They've just been deferred. I think, because those issues are still hanging out there, we can stimulate that kind of turnout, by getting the voters to vote on the issues, rather than on the individual.

Sprague: Paul Geisel, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, says potential city council challengers have one big factor working for them: the city's dramatic growth over the past 10 years.

Paul Geisel, professor of urban affairs, University of Texas at Arlington: There are a large number of people who have no allegiance to the present candidates. They don't know them. Also, you have to realize that we're close to half of the population being outside Loop 820. They're not part of what's considered the Fort Worth reality, and so someone who can appeal to that electorate - which is a fairly well-educated, fairly sophisticated group - is going to go places.

Sprague: City council members are feeling the heat. Jeff Wentworth, whose district has the largest number of new, forcibly annexed voters, has decided not to run for re-election. And Wendy Davis acknowledges the Fort Worth Public Housing Authority's decision to relocate low-income residents to a neighborhood in her south side district could cost her some votes.

Wendy Davis, Fort Worth city council member: I think it definitely will be a factor.

Sprague: Neither Davis nor the city could stop the housing authority's plans, which were approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, but many residents assailed the two-term councilwoman for not disclosing the decision earlier.

Davis: There will be accusations probably that that was purposeful, but it wasn't. It was just a failure, I think, from us on how to communicate. We've tried to communicate on these large issues that have faced us, but it has been clear in terms of the response we're getting from the community that we're not doing a good enough job.

Sprague: In the last ten years, only three Fort Worth city council members have lost a re-election campaign - each time by less than 100 votes. And some parts of Fort Worth, like the east side, weren't even that involved in many of last year's controversies. Residents like Joe Epps, who lives in the Woodhaven neighborhood, are happy to see the council unchanged.

Joe Epps, Fort Worth resident: Everything I would say about the city has been very favorable. They work with us. We've dealt with crime issues, crime prevention problems; we're working with the city right now on ways to develop economic development for our community, so my support has been fantastic.

Sprague: For his part, mayor Kenneth Barr urges voters to put last year's political turmoil in perspective. Crime fell. The budget deficit paled in comparison to Dallas's. And the city negotiated with Radio Shack and Pier One to keep their corporate headquarters in downtown Fort Worth.

Kenneth Barr, Fort Worth mayor: I tell ya, I wouldn't want to be mayor the year two of the largest businesses in the downtown area said that they were leaving. I think it would have taken us at least a decade to recover from that.

Sprague: The Star Telegram's Bud Kennedy says that's an important point. Over a cup of java at a west side coffee shop, Kennedy predicts there's enough of a groundswell to defeat at least one incumbent, but not enough momentum to really change the council's voting dynamics.

Kennedy: Almost everything right now on the city council is decided by a seven to two vote. I think with one change over, it will be decided on a six to three vote. But I think the mayor has been severely weakened, and he'll have to do a lot more salesmanship and show a lot more political skill to bring the hotel and other downtown ideas into reality.

Sprague: Several people, including former state senator Mike Moncrief, have emerged as potential challengers to Mayor Barr. But so far, only Cathy Hirt has confirmed she's running. The former city councilwoman describes the current dynamics at city hall as "growing pains."

Cathy Hirt, candidate for Fort Worth mayor: I think the key word in that is "growing." I think ultimately there comes a time in the evolution of a city when issues hit and people have to make conscious decisions about the type of leadership they want and the type of interaction they're willing to play. That's maturity.

Sprague: And that's the question voters in Fort Worth will face as the campaign season starts to take shape. The filing period begins February 17th and ends in mid-March. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.


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