Denton Matters City Council Candidate Interviews: At Large Place 5, Deborah Armintor

Question 1: When asked about advancing inclusion and protecting civil rights, a common answer recently given by candidates is a pledge to “meet with local leaders.” What specific plans do you have to meet the needs of our diverse community? What have you done prior to this election to advance these causes?

Response: In my first term on City Council, I’ve become known by supporters and detractors alike for partnering with individual and community victims of systemic injustice and discrimination to propose changes in city policies and practices for a more equitable Denton. I’m not afraid to stand up against bullies and corporate interests in doing so, and unfortunately that is seen by my opponent and his supporters as “divisive” and “dangerous.” I suppose it is dangerous to the status quo, but the divisiveness is caused not by me but by the segregation, selective enforcement, and discrimination I am trying to resolve through better public policy and representation. As for “meet[ing] with local leaders,” I depend on my close working relationships and friendships with leaders in local civil rights and inclusion advocacy and activist groups like the NAACP Legal Redress Team, Movimiento Cosecha, the Denton Disability Inclusion Society, LULAC, PRIDE Denton, local religious group leaders, affordable housing and service providers, and numerous other groups. But when members of the public reach out to me about specific civil rights and inclusion problems in Denton, I turn first not to orgs but to individual victims — listening carefully and empathically to their experience, asking questions, and inquiring what justice, equality, and a solution looks like to them.

My partnership with victims of local injustice for a more just and equitable Denton have been covered extensively in print and tv media in Denton and beyond, in my successful and hard-earned advocacy for:

-municipal water access and respect for the majority Latinx Green Tree mobile home community;

-abolition of decades-old discriminatory segregationist zoning restrictions imposed on the historically Black-owned Southeast Denton restaurant now known as Clara’s Kitchen;

-diversifying city committees in ways that have led to inclusion of long-neglected Southeast Denton road repairs in the bond election,

-calling for the formation of a committee on persons with disabilities intended to advise City Council on policies and practices affecting people with disabilities in Denton, including but by no means limited to capital projects and mobility access;

-my outspoken support of an outstanding city employee who blew the whistle against racism and corruption within Denton PD, and was smeared as a hysterical liar in an unprofessional “internal investigation” before the city settled;

and

-partnering with the community to demand the release of body camera footage in the murder of local college student Darius Tarver, who was having a mental health crisis when he was tased and shot to death by Denton PD in his apartment complex.

My work on these and other civil rights issues in Denton have led to fearmongering against me from defenders of the status quo, and a letter of adversity from the City Attorney and a Council majority for allegedly having interests “adverse to the city’s.” My advocacy in these areas have also earned me the honors of the endorsement of the Texas Working Families Party, the Grassroots Law Network, as well as the Denton County Young Democrats, and the Denton County Democratic Party, who endorse candidates in non-partisan races that represent their values.

Denton still has a very long way to go, and I need your vote to keep fighting for the civil rights needs brought to me by affected members of the public, issues that I’ve been fighting for since Day 1, including:

-Fair Housing training for City Council and the Planning & Development departments to avoid discrimination against group homes, protected communities, and affordable housing.
-an LGBTQ+ Non-Discrimination Ordinance with no anti-trans de facto “bathroom bill” carveouts for bathrooms
-a committee on tenant’s rights
-the abolition of criminal trespass citations on public property and other laws selectively enforced against people experiencing homelessness

Question 2: Did you support the city’s mask ordinance? Yes or No. What in your opinion would be your responsibility, as a city official, in protecting Denton’s citizens from COVID19 or similar threats?

Response: Yes. As a matter of fact, I was the first to call for a mask ordinance on City Council, months before it received enough support other supporters on Council, and ultimately a fourth for a majority win. I was accused of “playing armchair epidemiologist,” which was ridiculous, since I was doing what all responsible laypersons should be when it comes to private health, and what all responsible elected officials should do when it comes to public health, i.e. acting on the data-driven advice of infectious disease specialists worldwide. I had done my homework, and wasn’t waiting for the county or the state to catch on. That (in answer to the second part of the question) is our responsibility. I was proud of the majority vote we eventually achieved on such a contentious issue (even with a public death threat issued against us, which is a tactic I’ve faced before because of my work for local civil rights, unfortunately), and I’m proud to have planted the seeds for it months earlier. But I am also devastated: Had we enacted a mask ordinance back then and sustained it, we would be in a better position now, both healthwise and business-wise. We could have saved more lives.

Another COVID emergency measure I called for early on that a Council majority came around to only months later was providing hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness to mitigate COVID spread. It was an ideal temporary solution: hotel rooms are self-contained pods, which provide your protection that traditional temporary shelters can’t. Local hotels are struggling, and partnering with them on emergency shelter solutions would help alleviate that loss, while boosting hotel tax revenue, which funds many of our local nonprofits that serve the community. The hotel rooms have been working, but there are too few of them, only 70 or so out of hundreds of homeless individuals and families.

COVID measures I called for early on that still don’t have majority consensus to become a reality include:
-ending residential utility shutoffs;
-reducing utility rates for struggling residents and small businesses
-providing more rental assistance and better tenant protections to safeguard against evictions
-In the absence of hotel rooms and safe shelter for everyone, at the very least making encampment safer by providing a legal camp ground with running water, soap, toilets, and trash & recycling disposal and collection (instead the city is shutting down encampments and providing no alternative)
-releasing all non-violent offenders from the Denton City jail and partnering with the Denton County jail (which is county jurisdiction but located in the city of Denton) to help them do the same.
-creating a new position for a public health official for the City of Denton so we don’t have to rely on the County if they don’t want to do their job for public health.

Question 3: Council Members pitch ideas for initiatives to have city staff research. At your first work session, after this election, what will be your first pitch to help the citizens of Denton?

Response: There are many legislative and policy measures I’ve been fighting for, measures that reached a standstill without a Council majority to back them up and get them on a work session agenda. It will be hard to decide which items to bring forward first once we get some local election results that finally tip the scales towards the people. That’s a problem I look forward to having. When we get there, I will leave it up to the public to decide which stalled policy to put forward first, from abolishing the regressive overcharging of low-income people in the form of “credit based utility deposits,” to ending utilities shutoffs; from reducing small marijuana possession to lowest priority enforcement to strengthening our weak and developer-vetted tree ordinance and mobility plan; from removing cost & zoning prohibitions on affordable housing to reallocating excess police spending into Community Development to empower the local communities that have historically been the most policed and the least represented on Council, to the establishment of a tenants rights advisory committee to Council.

But before we do any of those things, we must first change the process itself by which Council gets items onto the work session agenda so as to make the process more democratic and more accessible to Denton’s many Spanish speaking residents, to parents of young children, and to people with disabilities. That would start by:

-Requiring only 2 council members to agree to move an item forward (not a 4-person majority, as is currently required and which I consider a straw vote), to better serve democracy, and to better represent the interests of all voters and the members of the public each individual council member was elected to serve

-Having all work sessions and regular meetings closed captioned for accessibility (and to produce written transcripts of every meeting available online)

-Having all work sessions and regular meetings translated live into American Sign Language for accessibility

-Having all work sessions and regular meetings (and powerpoints live & online) translated live into Spanish for accessibility

-Having paid qualified childcare available on site at all work sessions and regular meetings for members of the public and staff members who are parents of young children, for accessibility

-Allowing members of the public to speak live to Council, up to 3 minutes per person, on all items at Council work sessions (as well as at regular meetings where the public can already comment), to better serve democracy and the public we’re elected to serve

-Allowing participation by phone at all work sessions and regular meetings for members of the public who can’t be there physically (and for staff members who are not giving presentations, but who are just on standby to answer possible questions if necessary). It works under COVID, so it will work post-COVID too, for accessibility.

-Allowing the public to comment on items at regular meetings in work sessions even after the item has already been called (currently, the public must sign up to speak prior to the item being called), to better serve democracy and the public we’re elected to serve

Question 4: Our city will be facing a budget crisis due to reduced tax revenue. What, specifically, will you do to bring home recovery funds to assist Denton residents and businesses who are struggling with Covid-19 related economic challenges?

Response: The city budgeting process has become more transparent and fiscally responsible, but we still have a long way to go. The people of Denton demand and deserve a fiscally and environmentally Zero-Waste budget plan for Denton that puts the essential needs of our most vulnerable residents, locally owned small businesses, local workers, public health, housing, and the environment first, and that doesn’t equate public safety with expanded broken windows police patrols. Our city budgeting process is still over-reliant on counterproductive old habits like de facto incremental budgeting and rubber-stamping instead of open-minded zero-based budgeting; too protective of sacred cows and resistant to thinking outside the box to focus on goals & outcomes; too defensive of top-down budget recommendations; too quick to shut down or respond defensively to skeptical questions from council members and members of the public; too reliant on consultants instead of local advocates; too deferential to developers of unaffordable housing, the Denton police association, and corporate interests over the greater public good; and insufficiently representative of working class and low income people’s needs, seeing those needs as charity issues to be budgeted only with federal funding and not with general fund tax dollars. Low income and working class taxpayers are still paying for rich people’s wants, while their own needs are going intentionally underfunded to meet their needs.

Question 5: What in your history/record qualifies you, above your challengers, for the seat you are seeking election?

Response: That’s an easy answer: I’m a public activist for the people; he’s a private advocate for developers of unaffordable housing and the Denton police association. My opponent talks a good talk about trees and roads, but if you peer behind the thin veneer of his vague campaign rhetoric, if you check out who’s funding and endorsing him, and if you research his role in the tree ordinance process and his philosophy of road funding and developer impact fees, you’ll find that whereas I have fought to preserve our urban forests as a member of the public and on Council, he has represented the interests of the developers who line his pockets in defending a tree ordinance that allows over half of mature urban forests to be razed by right, and ensures that individual trees or any kind can be killed for a price. When it comes to roads, he correctly sees, as everyone does, that our roads need repairs; but he doesn’t want developers of unaffordable housing to pay their fair share for new roads in impact fees. Furthermore, at a recent Southeast Denton forum, he dismissed the well-documented history of the city’s longstanding under-servicing and under-funding of Southeast Denton roads, which is not only an infrastructure problem but a discrimination problem as well. I have fought to repair and fund Southeast Denton roads, while he has advocated for dangerous road expansions elsewhere and for 85% percent speed limits that are bad for neighborhoods and public safety.

Furthermore, my opponent has allowed his supporters to run a sustained and anonymously funded (and therefore illegal) negative campaign, which he has done nothing to stop, only to weakly claim ignorance with one hand, while benefiting from it with the other, mirroring its rhetoric of my being a “loud,” “divisive,” and “dangerous” woman, while presenting himself as “a quiet and reasonable man” who will make meetings shorter. He is definitely quiet; but the under-served majority doesn’t need a quiet rubber stamper who serves the privileged few. They need an outspoken, time-tested, incorruptible advocate.

Question 6: The DEC Net projected Income is in the Red year over year and citizens have been informed that our energy rates will go up as a result. What are your plans to help resident ratepayers keep costs lower? Do you have any ideas or plans in place to assist with this?

Response: Long before my election to Council in 2018, I was a leader in a grassroots movement of activists and communities citywide starting advocating against the $225 million-dollar natural gas plant (plus up to $1 billion in O&M, interest, substations, and legal fees for sound mitigation and fending off groundless lawsuits against the city by the liability’s creators), which was greenwashed to the public as “Renewable Denton Plan” because it came with some solar and wind contracts that we were told required a municipally owned fossil fuel power generation source to back it up (that’s not true; ERCOT backs us up, although we would need a generation source of some kind, any kind, to replace the coal plant to chip in our part to the ERCOT potluck). We warned of what an environmental and financial liability it was, and three out of four Council members: Keely Briggs, Sarah Bagheri, and even Mayor Chris Watts, voted no. Had I won the first time I ran in 2016, I would have been the fourth vote against the gas plant, and could have saved ratepayers all that debt, liability, and air pollution. I missed a runoff with the yes-voting incumbent by about 30 votes, which just goes to show how much your vote and your friends votes matter in Municipal elections.

We can’t go back in time though, only forward, and are stuck with debt no matter what; so here’s how I’m working to help clean up after the messes of others who are long gone, while doing everything I can to protect ratepayers and airbreathers from additional harm: I want to decommission the gas plant, incentivize cheap rooftop solar, consider outsourcing our EMO, and getting independent guidance on building solar and wind generation sources in Denton and elsewhere, perhaps in coordination with other cities. I am open to anything that will work, including getting rid of DME if that’s what it would take — or preserving and improving it, which I would strongly prefer.

Denton ratepayers deserve better than to have my inquiries about various possibilities moving forward mocked and gaslighted by a rubber-stamping Council majority. We need to consider all the possibilities for the ratepayers’ sake, and not turn our noses up at anything or shut down questions. The sunk cost fallacy applies here: Don’t continue throwing more money at a bad investment.

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