Fort Worth City Council District 9: Race attracts diverse candidate mix

Scott Nishimura

Candidates to replace Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns have often found themselves saying on the campaign trail that they agree with each other on issues, but they’ve spent a fair amount of energy trying to differentiate themselves from each other. Early voting is open for the May 10 election in the district, which starts at Oakhurst, downtown and the West Seventh corridor on the north, takes in the Near Southside, Hemphill Corridor, TCU, Park Hill, University West, Bluebonnet Hills and South Hills, and stretches to Interstate 20. Oakhurst and South Hills are new to the district. Citywide, Fort Worth’s transportation-laden $292 million bond election and re-authorization of a half-cent sales tax for the Fort Worth Crime Control and Prevention District are also on the ballot.  

Margot Garza Age: 43 Home: Ryan Place

Where she comes from: Grew up in Chicago, spent summers with family in Brownwood, moved to Fort Worth when she was a high school sophomore, graduated from Southwest High School and Texas Wesleyan University. Dad Willie Garza ran unsuccessfully for justice of the peace against Manuel Valdez. Founded Texas Latina List, a nonprofit that aims to put more Latinas into public positions. Directs TCU’s student support services, a unit that assists students who are first in their families to attend college. Has volunteered in numerous political campaigns, including State Rep. Lon Burnam. Angered some Latino leaders with support of Burnam and Mac Belmontes in losing bid against Justice of the Peace Sergio DeLeon. Husband works for Texas Longhorn Equities in construction and remodeling. Children ages 18 and 5. Would be first Latina elected to Fort Worth council. Garza likes to compare Fort Worth to her childhood stomping grounds of Chicago – “neighborhoods have character, they’re different from any other place in the city” – and says Fort Worth isn’t doing enough to protect its vulnerable neighborhoods. Linwood, a modest West Seventh neighborhood where Lee Harvey Oswald grew up and that’s now being transformed via market forces into high-end townhomes, is one example she raises. Homeowners there who haven’t sold are “scared,” Garza says. How could the neighborhood have been protected from the big changes? She’s not sure. But “what could have been done was somebody advocating for the neighborhood. You’ve got to have these conversations before, during and after, not just after.” How would she engage neighborhoods? Garza says she’d start by inviting all of the neighborhood association presidents in the district to monthly or quarterly gatherings, in the mold of similar meetings hosted by some other council members. She also wants to introduce term limits to the council, to encourage the flow of new ideas. Garza filed for the race late. She says that was due to a three-week approval process for her candidacy by her employer, TCU. On a controversial rezoning petition in a TCU-area case where a developer wants to put up an apartment building along South University Drive, Garza says she would vote to deny. The developer is seeking a rezoning that would allow it to bump up density from the currently allowed 125 bedrooms to the 175 it wants; opponents say the proposal is far too dense, would overwhelm the neighborhoods, and would funnel virtually all resident flow through an underground garage and thus not promote pedestrian traffic that the neighborhoods say the segment of University between Berry Street and the Bluebonnet Traffic Circle needs. “I’m in agreement with the neighborhoods,” Garza said. “I think we need to protect their homes.” And on the controversial Forest Park “Road Diet” – the temporary restriping of the street between West Rosedale Street and Park Hill Drive to one traffic lane in both directions, a center turn lane, and bike lanes – Garza says the street is “too narrow” for the current striping layout. She says the opening of the Chisholm Trail Parkway should take pressure of Forest Park and allow a revisiting of the Road Diet, which the city put into place at the request of the Berkeley and Mistletoe Heights neighborhoods to pare speed. Park Hill, in particular, objected. With the six-month anniversary of the project nearing, the city will collect new data to determine its effectiveness and decide whether to make it permanent. “If it were to be left the way it is, it would not work,” Garza said. She’s been hitting her home base of Ryan Place and Fairmount, strong voting neighborhoods that have been split by the election; Oakhurst, new to the district; and neighborhoods that haven’t been strong in city elections, such as West Morningside and south of Berry Street. Her dad, Willie Garza, once generated strong participation from those neighborhoods south of Berry in his community activism, and she wants to renew that energy. “Our goal is to get those who vote and have been voting in the past, and engage new people to vote,” she said.

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Greg Hughes Age: Will turn 58 day before the election Home: University West

Where he comes from: Longtime community activist. Former chairman, University West Neighborhood Association, former Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) board member and representative to Regional Transportation Council. Founded nonprofit that campaigned against the soon-to-open Chisholm Trail Parkway, arguing it would be an under-used waste of taxpayer money that would worsen urban sprawl and only benefit developers. Touts other environmental creds: founding member, Coalition for a Reformed Drilling Ordinance; vice president, Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area and co-chairman Prairie Fest. Engineer, F-35 program, Lockheed Martin. Undergraduate degree, University of Michigan; MBA, TCU. Three grown children, two grandchildren. Wife, longtime mortgage banker. Hughes says his experience in “large bureaucratic organizations helps me understand the city.” He says he’s a fan of a strong city manager form of government. “You hire a city manager and you give him policies to execute and you hold him accountable,” Hughes said. “My sense is that we’ve been moving away from a strong city manager form of government (in Fort Worth), and it’s been going on for quite awhile.” Hughes says he wants to make Fort Worth’s government more open. With the city moving toward annual budgets that no longer face big deficits, Hughes says one of his top priorities is restoring funding for code enforcement. “I want to see it brought back up to full strength and beyond, because it’s our first layer of public safety,” he said. The city needs to rebalance a revenue structure that recognizes the projected future economic benefit of development and doesn’t fully charge for related infrastructure, Hughes says. The City Council has been raising fees and grappling with how to establish a permanent funding source for infrastructure that catches the city up to its huge needs, but doesn’t hinder development. “We need to grow up,” Hughes said. “The outlying areas are bankrupting the city. There’s no financial plan for the city associated with the cost of growth. A project that costs the city more than it provides is going to have to pay its way in.” On the University zoning case, Hughes says the dispute has exposed flaws in the requested “urban residential” zoning. “It allows for considerations and uses that were not intended,” Hughes said, adding he hopes the city doesn’t approve the rezoning. On the Forest Park Road Diet, Hughes said, “we need real data,” and the measurements need to be taken after the opening of the Chisholm Trail Parkway, he said. The potential dynamics of the council race have changed, with the additions of Oakhurst and South Hills. Hughes said he’s focused much of his block-walking so far on South Hills, “just because they’re new to the district” and vote.

Ed Lasater Age: 44 Home: Berkeley

Where he comes from: Parents Garland and Mollie Lasater longtime community benefactors, Mollie Lasater former Fort Worth school board president. Public school advocates. Wife Ellie Lasater is president of the Lily B. Clayton Elementary School PTA. Lasater upbraided Fort Worth school board for diluting voting power of Paschal High School feeder in a redraw of board districts, then backed a startup political action committee that recruited and got three new trustees – Ashley Paz, Matt Avila and Jacinto Ramos Jr. – elected. Followed parents’ establishment of donor-advised charitable fund with establishment of the Ellison and Edward Lasater Charitable Fund through the Community Foundation of North Texas. Former eight-year Tarrant County assistant district attorney, worked way up through misdemeanor, family violence, general felony, gang and murder cases. Says never tried a death penalty case. Left DA more than five years ago to work in family firm. Three children – second oldest attends McLean Middle School and oldest attends Phillips Academy – Lasater’s mother attended Phillips predecessor Abbot Academy – at Andover, Mass. Lasater says his background as a prosecutor prepares him better than any of the other candidates to deal with the tough situations and tradeoffs that face representatives of the interior city districts. Education – listed by business leaders as one of the region’s top economic development problems, along with water and transportation – is one of Lasater’s top priorities. That’s raised eyebrows of other candidates and their supporters who say there’s little a council member can do about schools. Lasater disagrees, saying the city and multiple area school districts that touch it can do more to lever tax dollars with joint use of facilities and coordination of infrastructure expense. “Our neighborhoods are centers for our schools; the schools also serve as park space,” he said. Lasater worries about the new flow of multifamily infill developments in the district. “You worry about what happens to the big complexes in 10-15 years when the management changes and they get run down.” And he’s raised questions about razing of homes in some parts of the district near TCU and developers building big homes on single-family-zoned lots that they rent by the room to students. “These kids don’t have places to park,” he said. On the University zoning case, Lasater said, “there has to be a balance. You can’t allow the adjacent neighborhoods to influence 100 percent” and the ongoing discussion between the city, developer and neighborhoods has to “recognize that the developers own a business.” On the Forest Park Road Diet, Lasater said, “my sense is it’s a little slower. Let’s see what the (new data) has to say.” On making the striping permanent, “let’s let things settle down a bit and then really see what’s happening to our traffic.” Asked what parts of the district will likely sway the race, Lasater, the early money leader in the campaign, responded, Fairmount, Ryan Place, Berkeley, University West, Park Hill, Bluebonnet Hills and Oakhurst. He also said downtown and West Seventh have an increasing number of new, voting residents.

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Bernie Scheffler Age: 35 Home: Ryan Place

Where he comes from: Former Houstonian who moved north, graduated from Richardson High School. Got into bicycle business as employee at Bedford shop, moved to Fort Worth. Co-founded Panther City Bicycles on West Magnolia. Sold interest to go to work for State Sen. Wendy Davis as communications director, left 2009. Streetcar advocate who started Trinity Bicycles shop in 2010 on South Main Street betting on a streetcar line to downtown that the City Council subsequently voted down. Subsequently moved bike shop to Sundance Square downtown in 2012. Says sales will likely hit $1 million this year, compared with first-year’s $150,000. Has pledged to leave his bicycle business – he has three employees, including himself – and hire another employee to help manage it if elected. Ran 2007 for council seat, saved as many as 80 signs from that campaign and recycled them for this one, giving him a jump on other candidates in visibility. Parks board member appointed by Burns. First campaign finance filing reflects numerous small donations from Near Southside residents and members of bicycling community. Wife is a public school teacher. Two young children. The candidates say the race is too small to do any scientific polling, but Scheffler’s recently ran “ID calls” to 2,300 voters it had just sent a mailer to, asking if they supported him. Twenty-four percent said they did, and 21 percent either said they supported someone else or “weren’t prepared to say,” Scheffler says. To him, that means there’s a large percentage of undecided potential voters. Candidates’ estimates of potential voter turnout vary widely from 1,000 to 4,000 or 5,000. Scheffler says he thinks the turnout may be better than normal, given that the city is also running the bond and crime control elections at the same time. “The bond was vetted so extensively that the people who normally vote in municipal elections know it’s there,” he said. Scheffler says his previous experience in the legislative arena as a Davis staffer put him ahead of other candidates. Compared to two of the candidates who have full-time jobs, he says he has significant flexibility and time to represent the district. He says water and transportation are top priorities and he also wants to help move the city’s public data much more accessible online. On the TCU zoning case, he says he would stick with the current zoning. “I don’t think we should get away from the comprehensive plan.” On the Forest Park Road Diet, he said he rides his bike regularly on the street. “There’s no doubt they’re going slower. I feel the data will show it’s working.” Scheffler is working areas such as Oakhurst, downtown, and the Near Southside for votes. “Seven years ago, I might have concentrated on the Southside, but I don’t think it’s that way anymore,” he said. Ann Zadeh Age: 47 Home: Bluebonnet Hills

Where she comes from: Native Californian, moved to Fort Worth after college. Bachelor’s in environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. Master’s in city and regional planning, University of Texas at Arlington. Ex planning consultant, Municipal Planning Resource Group. Served three terms and six years as mayor’s appointee to Fort Worth Zoning Commission – appointed and re-appointed by Mayor Mike Moncrief, re-appointed by Mayor Betsy Price. As commission chairman, voted with 7-2 majority against rezoning for a Walmart neighborhood grocery at Hemphill and Berry streets. Assisted Mayor Price’s SteerFW young leaders group for Better Block Bluebonnet Circle project. Helped restart Bluebonnet Hills neighborhood association. Secured Star-Telegram endorsement of her candidacy. Two sons ages 16 and 12. Husband Jim is a Fort Worth lawyer. Zadeh says her background in urban planning and service on the Fort Worth Zoning Commission puts her in best position of the candidates to understand how the city works. On the TCU zoning case, she says she understands the business proposal – “you do need density to make these things happen” – but says the developer’s proposal for 175 bedrooms is “a lot.” On the Forest Park Road Diet, “I believe in a more comprehensive approach. I think maybe we didn’t take a comprehensive approach on all the people that were affected by this. At this point, I think undoing it would be a silly thing to do.” On the Walmart zoning case – Walmart said it couldn’t comply with the urban village guidelines that call for street-front buildings with parking in the rear, because of a small strip shopping center held by another property owner that’s notched into the Hemphill-Berry corner – Zadeh said she would have liked the city to hold out until a developer was able to assemble the whole corner. “We typically have taken into account public input,” Zadeh said during the zoning hearing. “I have a hard time telling them that this was all for not.” Zadeh, who was second behind Lasater in the campaign’s early money race, said she focused her initial block-walking on the stalwart Fairmount and Ryan Place neighborhoods.