On April 20 at the Richardson Civic Center, the LWV-Richardson hosted a candidate forum for the Richardson City Council. Six candidates for the three contested places took part: Cory Montfort, Mabel Simpson (Place 4), Marta Gómez Frey, Kashif Riaz (Place 5), Jared Weadon, Paul Voelker (Mayor).
A few of the questions plowed old ground from forums on March 21 and April 13, but there were some novel and interesting questions (and answers) as well.
On the inevitable question about apartments, the three challengers all voiced some form of opposition to apartments. Riaz cited the need to manage traffic and schools. Montfort recognized the need for diversity in housing but added that we should not offer financial incentives and we should insist on quality construction. Weadon went farthest, saying growth puts a strain on police, fire, traffic, water, and schools and came down on the side of no growth. Mayor Paul Voelker gave a full-throated defense of Richardson's recent growth. He said apartments are a key component to Richardson's housing stock. He said the majority of approvals for new apartments in recent years have been to support UT-Dallas, a valuable asset to Richardson. The worst thing would be to end up with a failed development, and sometimes density is key to the success of a real estate development. The city council looks at every detail to make sure projects will be successful. The other incumbents, Frey and Simpson, pointed out that many properties in Richardson have entitlements that were granted as far back as the 1950s. Richardson can't forbid apartment construction on those without inviting expensive lawsuits the city would likely lose. [Clarification: none of the candidates mentioned lawsuits in their answers.]
A new question asked candidates their opinion on Richardson as a sanctuary city. Let me preface my comments by saying I am not a lawyer, but I don't think "sanctuary city" has a single, agreed legal definition. That's why I found the certainty in some answers to be curious. The three incumbents stated flatly that Richardson is not a sanctuary city, without defining what they mean by the term. They all said Richardson follows the law. Simpson emphasized that requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain individuals are not court orders and police can't hold someone beyond a certain time without a court order. I think for some that makes Richardson a sanctuary city. We really need a definition of terms. Riaz said he agreed with Simpson and Richardson should remain a non-sanctuary city. Frey said Richardson is protective and inclusive of all residents, without going into the tension between that statement and the claim that Richardson is not a sanctuary city. Weadon said the city should honor requests to hold someone who commits a crime, adding a nuance. He didn't explain how that would work. Montfort probably had the best answer, whether she understood the legal niceties or not. She said the issue is more complicated than time allows. That it is.
Another question that dealt with city/state/federal roles had to do with payday lenders. Riaz said he was in favor of tighter regulation on these businesses by the city. Montfort said, "yes, yes, yes." Simpson said no, stating her philosophical objection to such regulation. She said she's "not a fan" of legislation to command behavior. This is logically indefensible without Simpson also opposing laws against, say, speeding. Besides, regulation doesn't have to forbid payday lending. It could strengthen truth-in-marketing laws to ensure customers of these businesses have better information about the cost of these loans, thus encouraging lenders to compete on the quality of their product, not on their ability to deceive customers. The other candidates all had practical arguments to keep Richardson out of this legal thicket. Frey said no state law allows cities to prohibit such businesses, but Richardson uses special use permits to do what we can to control payday lenders setting up shop in Richardson. Weadon says it's not feasible to solve this at the city level and attempts to do so would invite expensive lawsuits. Voelker says there are already state laws regulating these businesses that are not being enforced. He believes in "staying in your own swim lane." No one said what other cities are doing in this regard.
Some random observations about the forum...
Weadon really wants the city to "go out to the neighborhoods." He says that means more than meeting with HOA/NA groups, as millennials, seniors, and ethnic groups don't participate. Simpson seemed to agree, calling for what she called "front porch" communication, although that might have simply meant face-to-face communication beyond Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Frey added something about engaging citizens in yoga classes, although she didn't explain how that would work.
I've called Riaz the out-of-the-box candidate and he lived up to that billing in this forum. He wants to promote tourism in Richardson. One of his ideas is to build fountains in the city. He didn't say it, but this could be a novel way to make use of all of that water Richardson is paying for and not using. Maybe the threat of wasting water in fountains during droughts might be leverage to get other NTMWD cities to negotiate better terms for our city's current take-or-pay water contract. Or fountains would just beautify the city, which is what I think Riaz had in mind. Speaking of beautifying the city, how about planting more trees? No one brought that up, but I thought of it when Riaz was speaking. Those were good times.
I want give shout-outs to several candidates for putting in a good word for pet causes of The Wheel. Riaz called for more mixed-use development, meaning retail on the ground floor with residential above, thus promoting a walkable lifestyle that appeals to millennials. Riaz didn't say it, but I thought, yeah, "real" mixed-use, not the faux mixed-use Richardson is building in places like CityLine. Music to my ears. Although Montfort expressed reservations about more apartment construction, she was in favor of developments that offered "walkability." More music to my ears. And Simpson, to a question about bridging the east-west divide in Richardson, said she supported punching holes through Central Expressway (my words, not hers) to better connect Richardson's network of trails. Oh, joyous sounds.
The crowd size was not disappointing, but nothing to brag about (about 120 people). There were no fireworks. But fireworks increases crowd sizes for the wrong reasons. What was disappointing was the lack of diversity. I counted six people of color. How do we achieve civic engagement as beautifully diverse as Richardson itself?
There are seven places on city council. Only three were contested races. That's a big disappointment. Richardson may be a great place to live already, but we need more diversity of ideas at city hall. Otherwise we risk, like LSU football, reaching a plateau and needing to fire our head coach, no matter how much success he might have brought to the team in the past (h/t to any LSU fans on our council ;-).