Thursday, April 13, 2023

Richardson will Elect a New Mayor... and That is a Good Thing.

Anyone following Richardson Politics knows we have an actual Mayor's race now that Paul Voelker is stepping down. It may be early to reflect on Mayor Paul Voelker's legacy for the City of Richardson. The upcoming election will decide who will replace him, with two current council members, Janet DePuy, and Bob Dubey competing for the chair. No matter who wins, I will make this statement: The fact we are getting a new mayor is a good thing.

Tom McKamy - Richardson's First Mayor

Why? Read more after the jump.

Mayor Paul Voelker stepped into the Mayor's seat when Richardson was under a cloud. Laura Maczka (now Laura Jordan) had filed for re-election and ran unopposed.

Then she announced, out of the blue, that she would not accept her seat. These events occurred when revelations appeared that she had taken a job with Mark Jordan of the quite unpopular Palisades development and that they had struck up an affair while the zoning hearings were going on.

She was later charged with bribery, among other things, and convicted a second time. (The case is still in the process of appeal.) I won't rehash all of that other than to say her being charged was not really on the public's radar at that moment, and in that cloud of distrust, Paul Voelker was asked to step in.

Mayor Paul Voelker was a stabilizing force. He was formerly chair of the Chamber of Commerce and possesses an executive telecom background. He was the right kind of face the city needed at that time. As a public face, he has served the citizens and our City well.

It is important to emphasize that Mayor Paul Voelker became Mayor by appointment during a crisis. He was not elected. In fact, during his tenure, he never faced a serious opponent. Much like Gary Slagel - Richardson's longest-serving Mayor - he was appointed. From the 1956 Charter until the election where Maczka was directly elected, the Council appointed the Mayor. (Technically, he was opposed once, but not by what I would characterize as a serious opponent running an actual campaign.)

Incidentally, since we are in the midst of Richardson's 150th Anniversary, let us throw in some history. Dislodging a mayor is complicated and has only happened in times of great controversy. To my knowledge, it has only happened twice. (If I am wrong, then please correct me.) First was Elmer Dabney displacing T.J Jackson in 1947, and the next was Martha Ritter losing to Charles Spann in 1987. Since Voelker had no controversies, why would anyone seek to oust him?

Since Mayor Voelker was appointed and re-elected, the entire city council has turned over. To put it in starker terms, the new Council, to be sworn in this May of 2023, will be entirely different compared to the city council sworn in for the 2017-2019 term. That means there will be a 100% turnover compared to the Council from just over four years ago.

I believe that change in the Council makeup has significantly affected the latter part of Voelker's term, especially the last two years. Three new council members (Arefin Shamsul, Jennifer Justice, and Joe Corcoran) were elected in 2021. These three new council members are willing to bring their ideas to the table in ways that are far different from past Richardson Coalition approved council members. To wit, Corcoran defeated Coalition-endorsed incumbent Kyle Kepner and now runs unopposed.

So why is getting a new mayor a good thing? A few reasons. Right or wrong, these reasons are my opinions, and they come from the informed experience of working with many mayors and councils. I served as a Richardson Heights Neighborhood Association president for five years and on its board for 11. We did the heavy lifting of the Richardson Restaurant Park and Alamo Drafthouse's insertion into Heights Shopping Center, among other things too long to list. I have had to advocate publicly for and against things on many occasions with varying degrees of success.

Reason 1: Land Use. Voelker's land use philosophy fails to serve a city like Richardson well. Anyone who knows me knows I believe that land use provides "the keys to the kingdom" for cities. The prosperity, the subjective feel, the ability for businesses to come, for residents to move about and thrive, first responders, and all manner of things too long to list have a direct connection to land use. Land use's real impact is long-term, and the consequences are known long after elected officials are off the dais. Why is revitalization such a big topic? Because the decline of properties and areas is directly related to past land use policies. It effects everything.

Voelker fashioned himself somewhat a libertarian on land use. He has said so publicly.

It probably won't be a shock to anyone in the audience. I'm a land rights person. We're not starting a district planning effort. When I look at our comprehensive planning strategies and challenges, we will probably look at Arapaho Rd and Promenade as a district prior to considering [Belt Line and Plano Rd.], if at all.  -- Paul Voelker, 7/12/21, as quoted by Mark Steger

Voelker is (or was) happy playing piecemeal with Richardson's outdated Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance. Voelker's "land use rights" stance is selective. He opposed an effort to put housing on the former Owen's Farm site and opposed a student housing proposal at UTD several times.

As Place 4 Council Person Joe Corcoran pointed out once, when the Council was on the verge of approving yet another drive-thru near Plano and Belt Line, 14 were already approved or on the way. After that, the Council approved yet another one.

Corcoran and, to a lesser extent, Jennifer Justice consistently vote against additional drive-thrus. Why? Because they are unproductive. They repel adjacent productive land use, their tax revenue generation falls off, block future productive uses, and push external automobile-related costs onto the taxpayers. Today's fashion is tomorrow's blight and revitalization effort.

To understand why being a "land use guy" can be unproductive, one need not look further than the Richardson Restaurant Park. Voelker favored expanded drive-thru plans for the Richardson Restaurant Park, which was designed explicitly NOT to have them. The developer brought a new proposal to the (at that time) new Council. The vote was 4-3 against with Hutchenrider, Shamsul, Justice, and Corcoran opposing. Voelker was visibly unhappy.

What happened next? Kirk Hermansen, the developer of the Richardson Restaurant Park, had to reset, and the Old-75 Beer Garden was born. That vision of an open "third place" where people could gather and eat outdoors under a tree canopy was much closer to the concept of the original Restaurant Park. I know this because I and now late architect and planner Richard Ferrara drew the idea of a surrounded tree-lined plaza of the Richardson Restaurant Park in response to the City Plan Commission rejecting the original idea. We then brought that to the developer.

The Old-75 Beer Garden is a place that is genuinely a place in the urban planning sense of the word, and came to exist because four council members who were not "land use guys" said no. 

Hopefully a new Mayor will take a better attitude toward land use.

Public input and engagement are the second reason why getting a new mayor might be good.

You may not have noticed this if you don't speak to the city council at public hearings or visitor's sections, but the allotted time to address the Council has been reduced. Speakers were allotted five minutes for approximately 14 years (give or take). Five minutes has now shrunk to three minutes. The message to citizens is: We want to hear 40% less from you. The less we hear, the better.

I have privately asked council members where this change comes from. I received no clear and consistent response.

At least one told me Voelker was responsible. I asked, "So, we have an ordinance or written policy stating this the Mayor decides this?" The response was, "Well, I don't know."

Another told me, "I am sure we discussed this in a public meeting." I asked, "When was that? So it was on the agenda? The public could comment on this?" Response: "Ummm.. I don't know, but we must have discussed this," and on like that. 

Several told me they favor five minutes as opposed to three. I hope a new Mayor brings clarity to this issue.

Voelker opposed moving the discussions on the City Council's goals to an accessible location and recording them, according to sources who attended what Mark Steger called "The Chamber of Secrets."

As I pointed out in a previous post,

[Goals being decided out of public view] is particularly irritating if you believe the first duty of an elected body is to serve the public interest. I emphatically believe that. The Council's sessions that set these goals were largely unavailable and inaccessible to the public. They were unnecessarily in an upstairs conference room and not recorded for later reference. It was behind that gate. There was no signage directing people to go there with no recording of the meeting.

Voelker had an opportunity to change that. He chose not to. I hope a new Mayor puts this in public view.

In one public hearing related to drive-thrus at the Richardson Restaurant Park noted above, Voelker misled the public on the history of the Richardson Restaurant Park after I had spoken against them. Voelker stated that the Council was moving to remove blight, and it appeared his comment was made in direct response to my opposition.

The thing is, the blight, generally speaking, was already removed when the City of Richardson demolished the Continental Inn. What remained was local retail. One of those local businesses was created when a couple emptied their savings to start it. Another was run by a family that lived in the neighborhood, sent their kids to a local school, and invested their money, time, sweat, and love into their local business.

Those local businesses were removed to put in a parking lot utilizing an economic development grant from the City of Richardson. These businesses were and are not blight. Voelker's comments were (to put it diplomatically) misleading and insulting. When a Mayor does that, it does not encourage the public to give input. That leads me to my next point.

The last reason that moving onto a new mayor can be a good thing is the Mayor's relationship to the council and the management of council business.

You might not have noticed that the Dallas Morning News endorsed Janet DePuy for Mayor. (I'll be discussing the Mayor's race in a later post.) Buried in the DMN piece is this paragraph,

[Bob] Dubey said Voelker's "micromanagement from the top down" has deterred some City Council members and residents from speaking at council meetings... DePuy, who has Voelker's endorsement for mayor, disputed the claim that the previous mayor micromanaged, adding that the voices of council members and residents aren't discouraged.

As an active member of the public, having had to address the Council countless times, an outside observer, and as someone who has spoken privately to Council members over the years (including recently for future comments I will make on this race), I say Dubey is correct and DePuy misses the mark. 

On a May 9th, 2022, meeting, Mayor Voelker challenged Mr. Dubey on the issue of a Turkish-style hookah, music, and food establishment when the Council was taking what was usually a routine vote on zoning language. Mr. Voelker peppered Councilman Dubey with questions, including suggesting residents were "stirred up." I have never seen a mayor do this, and I do not think it was appropriate for him to do so.

On November 14th, 2022, the city council rejected a student housing development near UTD (which they later approved in a larger form.) At the end of that meeting, Mayor Voelker launched into a negotiation with the developer's representative. That negotiation was concerning for two reasons. First, it discussed things outside of the piece of land under that zoning proposal. In other words, the discussion bordered on appearing as deliberations not posted on the agenda at a public council meeting. Second, Voelker talked as if he represented the Council itself. He does not. He is one vote and one voice. I spoke to a developer who saw that meeting (and is uninvolved with that project), and he called that negotiation "out of control." A new Mayor should welcome all council members input.

Lastly, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests, Mayor Voelker formed "Mayor's Blue Ribbon Diversity Commission." Undoubtedly, jumping into the breech and starting such an effort was the right move. I am told the committee worked very hard and performed excellent work. I am hearing from various members of the public and (if I read between the lines) from council members' statements that the effort should have been more comprehensive. Dare I say inclusive? In my interviews with council candidates for this council race season (and now one public forum), the message is that this should be an entire council effort, not just the Mayor's office. Congrats to Mayor Voelker for spearheading this. Now a new Mayor can keep it going.

In the next two years, Richardson will form a new Comprehensive Plan. It will have a new Mayor and at least two new council persons. This is a time to set a new precedent to engage the public in what is their business, to let council members bring forth great ideas for consideration, and move into a new phase for Richardson. That starts with a new Mayor.


  1. Provocative arguments. I hope they spur public discussion that will help inform voters before they cast their ballots.

  2. Informative Andrew, as always. You have me rethinking the mayor's race and it's potential impact on the city.