City Elections: Competitive races for some longtime council members

Fort Worth downtown

City Elections

Competitive races for some longtime councilmembers

Fact Box:

General Election

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Saturday, May 9

Early voting begins: Monday, April 27

Last Day of Early Voting: Tuesday, May 5

Fort Worth voters will see four contested races this year, while the mayor and four councilmembers will return without any serious challenge. But at least a couple of the challengers in the contested races look to be mounting serious campaigns and spending enough cash to have an impact.

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Below is a breakdown of the contested races.

District 4

Incumbent: Danny Scarth

Challenger: Cary Moon

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The winner of Fort Worth’s City Council District 4 race, featuring incumbent Danny Scarth and challenger Cary Moon, likely hinges on whether Moon can turn out the vote in his far North Fort Worth home base.

The problem: Moon and Scarth agree that only about 2 percent of registered voters in the district’s large precincts north of Loop 820 turned out two years ago when Scarth was running against Paul Gardner, also a far North resident and now Moon’s campaign manager. Voters around Scarth’s Woodhaven base turned out far more reliably, to the tune of about 14 percent, Moon estimates.

According to Moon, 75 percent of registered voters in the district live outside Loop 820.

“I’m knocking on a lot of doors, I’m wearing out the soles in my boots,” Moon, a businessman who lives in the Heritage area, said recently, showing off a worn sole in one of his boots.

Moon’s campaign has at least one significantly different wrinkle than Gardner’s, which won 42 percent of the 2013 vote against Scarth: a mechanism to encourage and capture early voting and mail-in ballots.

Of the 2,232 votes cast in the 2013 election, 1,451 were cast before election day, and Gardner lost that count 953-858, including 150 by mail.

Gardner “did not have a mechanism in place,” Moon says. “Now we do.”

Moon is off to a strong start in money raising, bringing in more than $76,000 through March 31, according to campaign finance filings.

That included $49,781.72 from the Fort Worth Police Officers Association Political Action Committee, including in-kind contributions for signs, literature, campaign management, and voter turnout, Moon’s filing said. The Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association also is backing Moon, donating $5,000 in the same period, Moon’s report said.

But Scarth still had the big campaign war chest at $98,977 cash on hand. Scarth reported raising $4,400 between Jan. 15 and April 8. He spent $12,672.37.

Moon reported spending $15,508.53, having $16,298.97 cash on hand, and loaning $6,619.83 to his campaign.

Moon has been campaigning on themes of better budgeting, smarter development that addresses needs of the sprawling, fast-growing North, and better representation. Residents of the far North have long complained that it’s taking too long to secure badly needed infrastructure and other city services.

Moon, 45, who is president of the big Heritage homeowner association, which represents 3,100 homes and a population of 9,000, says the association hasn’t been able to get consistent City Council representation at its meetings, including its big annual meeting in August.

“We want better representation,” Moon said.

Scarth, 54, who owns a video business and has represented the district since 2006, is quick to cite a list of expanded services coming to the far North. A long-awaited sixth police patrol division is in the city’s 2015-16 budget. Voters in the city’s 2014 bond election approved funds for improve the Northwest Community Park in Councilman Dennis Shingleton’s far North District 7 and far North library.

Scarth also cites the Riverside Drive bridge expansion, widening of North Beach Street, and addition of roundabouts meant to east traffic flow, reduce maintenance, and create more liveable, walkable streets.

“I think we’ve been very responsive to the needs up there,” he said.

The police and fire associations, angered by City Council cuts in the employee pension formula for benefits accrued in the future, have been selectively backing council candidates.

Scarth said he doesn’t believe the police association leadership is “necessarily reflective of all officers.”

“The first thing we have to do is make sure that pension is stable and available to everybody,” he said.

Scarth has also linked his campaign to that of childhood friend Tobi Jackson, who is seeking re-election to the Fort Worth school board on the East Side and has the support of a citizens group that’s been trying to turn out trustees it views as ineffective.

Moon has been touting his business credentials. He’s chief financial officer of Castle Development Group, a North Fort Worth-based full-service commercial real estate firm. Moon’s holdings also include Moon Financial, an investment holding company; his first business, a tax preparation firm called TaxTicket; three restaurant-bars, Trinity Tavern in Euless, Daltons Corner in Burleson and Keller Tavern in downtown Keller; and a steakhouse he’s building next to Keller Tavern called Texas Bleu.

Moon says he can help oversee the city’s finances and help it boost building standards, landscape requirements, streetscapes, xeriscape standards, coordination of different land uses in planning.

Scarth, as he did against Gardner, points out his breadth of experience in governing inside the city and region.

During the last redraw of council districts, council members debated whether it was time to go to a 10-1 system, with 10 council districts and a mayor, compared to the current eight districts and mayor.

“We wanted to keep a connection between the central city and the suburbs,” Scarth said. Under a 10-1 map, “I think it would have been easy for (the far North) to be left without a voice.”

Under the current map, three council districts – 2, 4 and 7 – include pieces of the far North.

Scarth says he’s not taking Moon’s challenge for granted, with four or mail pieces expected to drop in the next three weeks.

“They’ll be evenly distributed,” Scarth said. “They’ll go everywhere.”

District 8

Incumbent: Kelly Allen Gray

Challenger: Sharon Mason-Ford

City Council member Kelly Allen Gray, elected to serve her Southeast Fort Worth District 8 in 2012, has already found herself in the middle of several neighborhood fights over economic development.

Her challenger in the May 9 election, Sharon Mason-Ford, is taking issue with Gray’s handling of some of them.

“I’m not giving up,” Mason-Ford, 61, a schoolteacher, said. “We need some changes in District 8.”

Mason-Ford points to last year’s fight over a plan to convert the historic Glen Garden Country Club into a whiskey distillery, a rezoning the City Council ultimately approved. Gray opposed the rezoning, saying she was voting with the consensus of nearby residents, but Mason-Ford says she believes Gray’s opposition was disingenuous.

Mason-Ford also takes issue with the council’s voting down in 2013, on a motion by Gray, of the rezoning of the McDonald YMCA branch to allow apartments. The YMCA would have taken the money and bought a site in the nearby burgeoning Renaissance Square development for a new branch. The Y ultimately committed a year later to building the branch. Virtually all neighborhood leaders around the McDonald site were behind the rezoning, but a pastor whose church is across the street from the site packed the zoning and council hearings with people who were opposed, and Gray said the neighborhood sentiment was split.

Mason-Ford is also worried about city closings that have left the Southeast with no public pool. The YMCA and city are collaborating on an aquatics center at the Renaissance branch.

“I have never voted against the community,” Gray, 46, a former nonprofit executive, says. “There have been times that the community itself was split, but that has nothing to do with me.”

Gray’s relationships with neighborhood leaders are “very poor,” Mason-Ford counters.

Gray touts work on better code enforcement; improved parks; more affordable housing; solutions to reducing homelessness in the district, home to Fort Worth’s social services cluster that serves the homeless; and 2014 bond program improvements that included $1.3 million for street improvements along seven miles of East Lancaster Avenue and $5-$6 million for a new library on the street. The city has a site under control and is moving to close on it, Gray said.

“All you have to do is to take a look at the things that have happened in the last two and a half years,” Gray says. “And that answers its question. The idea of somebody saying we haven’t been very effective is ludicrous.”

Gray is helping advance a bill through the Texas Legislature that would open the possibility of competitive tax credits for affordable housing the Renaissance Square developers plan. Houston and San Antonio are backing the bill, which would affect projects in other cities.

“Everybody is excited about this bill,” she said.

Mason-Ford is up against Gray’s get-out-the-vote mail-in ballot system. Gray defeated Poly businessman Ramon Romero, who has establishment support, in her first run for City Council, and subsequently defeated former Council member Kathleen Hicks in winning re-election.

“I don’t pay attention to anybody else,” Gray says of running her campaign, which includes her sister and treasurer, Phyllis Allen, a longtime community leader. “I run my own campaign.”

District 2

Incumbent: Sal Espino

Challenger: Steve Thornton

Retired Fort Worth firefighter Steve Thornton is wearing a pair of plastic kitchen utensils tied with a piece of string around his neck these days, a symbol of how he wants to “stir things up” at City Hall if he’s elected May 9.

Thornton, a financial adviser, former restaurant operator and developer, and firefighter who retired from the city earlier this year, says he’s bringing a lot of perspective to the city’s table. He’s critical of Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino, who was elected in 2005, saying he thinks Espino has lost touch with the North Side and doesn’t pay enough attention to street maintenance, code compliance, and the city’s relationship with the public schools.

“I just want to do a good, solid grassroots (campaign), knock on doors and say it’s time for a change,” Thornton, 63, who grew up in San Antonio, whose mother was Hispanic, and who speaks fluent Spanish.

Espino, 48, an attorney who grew up on the old North Side and now lives in the far North section of the district outside Loop 820, rattles off a list of district accomplishments during his terms that include more police and fire service on the North Side, money projected for the 2015-16 budget that will start a new far North patrol division, more Code Blue volunteers, the recent demolition of an old nursing home on Hardy Street to make way for 21 new affordable homes, oncoming development along Interstate 35W, the drawing up of standards for future development in the historic Stockyards, the rezoning of a site for a new Walmart on Jacksboro Highway, construction underway on three bridges for the massive planned Panther Island urban infill redevelopment, money for parks, work on sorting out potential sites for metal recyclers, greater accessibility through tools such as a recent Twitter town hall in Spanish, and the passage of a city budget last year that didn’t have to close a big gap between revenue and expenses for the first time in years.

Espino says he wants to continue his push to find a dedicated revenue source for streets – the council raised transportation impact fees in 2013 – wants to establish a North Side economic development nonprofit like Fort Worth South, and wants to expand the city’s trail system between Buck Sansom Park and Marine Creek Lake.

Espino also wants to figure out a way to re-open LaGrave Field, whose owners closed it last year and want to trade for other land in the Panther Island area.

“Since I’ve been on the council, we’ve moved forward, and I’d like the opportunity to serve another two years,” Espino said.

Thornton takes issue with the City Council’s handling of a major planned redevelopment in the Stockyards, headed by Fort Worth’s Hickman family and their partner, Majestic Realty, suggesting the city is rushing the development of standards through. A volunteer task force is leading the writing of development standards for future development in the Stockyards.

“We have a historic opportunity to get it done right,” Espino says. “In order to do that, our safeguard is the Stockyards design task force. This is an open, public process.”

Thornton also takes issue with the City Council’s reductions in employees’ pension formula for benefits accrued in the future. Members of the city’s police and firefighter associations offered to put more money into the pension to retain their benefit formula, but city staff said that wouldn’t be fair, because general employees didn’t have a mechanism to vote.

“I risked my life” as a firefighter, Thornton says. “I worked 27 years. I put a lot of money into it. I worked for it. It’s mine. I know there were some abuses (with employees who worked a lot of overtime to spike their benefits), but I didn’t abuse it.”

In a twist, Thornton has the support of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association. But the Fort Worth Police Officers Association is backing Espino. Unlike Cary Moon, who is challenging Councilman Danny Scarth in District 4 and has received the POA’s backing and nearly $50,000 so far, Espino says he’s received $5,000 that he’ll report on the his next campaign finance filing.

“We’re proud of the police officers endorsement, because they know I care about public safety,” Espino says. “They know I’m committed to the far North station” and have backed additions through the years of more police and firefighters.

District 5

Incumbent: Gyna Bivens

Challenger: Bob Willoughby

Fort Worth City Council member Gyna Bivens’ challenger in the May 9 race for the District 5 seat, Bob Willoughby, is running a campaign with little or no funding.

But Bivens says she’s running hard anyway, estimated she will end up spending about $45,000.

Bivens, 61, president of North Texas LEAD, a nonprofit that matches diverse job candidates to white-collar openings, says she wants another two-year term to “continue the fight on blight” in her Southeast and East Side district and expand opportunities for economic development. The district has 27,000 acres, including 4,700 available for development, Bivens estimated.

“If a company is looking to expand in Fort Worth, you can tell them you have more land available than any other district,” she said.

Bivens touts statistics showing increased demolitions of dilapidated buildings in her district the last two years. A burned-out Dairy Queen that the city tore down, for one, had stood for years.

Bivens said she wants to help open up opportunities for restaurant and grocery development in her district, which reaches from Stop Six to Handley, Mallard Cove, Trinity Lakes in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, and CentrePort near D/FW Airport.

She touts movement toward the redevelopment of the Fort Worth Housing Authority’s aging Cavile Place housing project in the district, money for park improvements, including in Mallard Cove, and improving the look of East Berry Street to the west side of Lake Arlington, an area she views as a potential development gem.

Willoughby, 57, whose first campaign finance report said he had not raised or spent more than $500, is running on a platform of code compliance reform, eased development ordinances so “you don’t have to run down to the city each and every time you do something,” and construction of a recycling center along East Lancaster that can offer jobs to the city’s unemployed who stay at shelters on the street.

Willoughby has appeared before the council several times to complain about a code dispute with the city, regarding what he said was miscommunication over debris and other items he promised to remove from his East Side property and then was cited on.

“I’d like to see them be a service to us, not a ruler,” he says of the code department.

Willoughby, who makes a living renting binoculars and selling novelties at sporting events including Dallas Cowboys games in Arlington, said he’s running a lean campaign.

“It’s just me,” he said. “I’m spending my own money. I’m not asking for campaign funds.”