Candidates for mayor and City Council addressed issues of special interest, economic development and cooperation to a large crowd of residents Wednesday night in Keller.
Three candidates running for mayor and four for Place 6 on City Council took questions regarding their plans for the city and its leadership at a candidate forum at Keller Town Hall, put on by the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County.
The position of mayor and two at-large council seats expire in May after three-year terms. Current mayor Mark Mathews, who survived a recall election a year ago, chose to not seek re-election. Place 6, one expiring City Council seat, is currently held by Rick Barnes, who is now running for mayor.
The other seat on City Council that expires in May is Place 5, where incumbent Bill Hodnett and challenger Christopher Whatley filed for election. Immediately after the deadline to file in February, Hodnett withdrew from the race, leaving Whatley unopposed. Though invited, Whatley did not attend the forum Wednesday night.
Early voting ran from April 24 - May 2 and Election Day is Saturday (May 6). As a reminder, on Election Day, residents may only vote at their assigned precinct locations, not Keller Town Hall. On Election Day in November, hundreds of misguided voters went to Keller Town Hall, only to be redirected to their assigned precincts, according to the city.
To win, the top vote-getter must receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the race. If no one gets more than half the votes in either race, the top two vote-getters will face off in a runoff election in the next few months.
Rick Barnes, a 53-year-old leadership speaker and consultant, said his first priority as mayor would be giving tax relief to residents. Barnes currently serves as Place 6 City Council member and Mayor Pro Tem. He was first elected in 2014.
“I got involved three years ago because I did not like the direction the city was headed,” Barnes said. “We had no vision, we had allowed ourselves to become a fast-food destination, we were overriding our zoning regularly and it did not appear we were giving much thought before making most of our decisions.”
Barnes said he hopes to work with everyone on City Council to make the best decisions for the city.
Kris Jara, a 33-year-old private investigator, said he wants to bring tax relief to residents and accountability to the city leadership. He wants the city to use smart economic development practices to bring higher quality and a greater variety of businesses to the city.
Jara spoke against special interests, saying it’s the citizens’ city, not the mayor’s or the council’s.
“It’s a shame that there’s a small group of people that want to run it for everybody, but I think if we just work together and try to get all the information out there, we can hopefully get more people involved,” Jara said.
Pat McGrail, a 71-year-old retired airline executive, said his first priority, and one of the main reasons he is running, is improving high quality commercial development in Keller. He doesn’t want to keep seeing residents drive to Southlake for a nice sit-down dinner.
McGrail often referred back to his experience and success as a city council member and mayor, pointing out that he helped bring, among others, Moviehouse & Eatery, several high-quality restaurants and he was involved in the preliminary plans to bring Sam’s Club, which recently opened in the city.
“I feel like I was a big part of making Keller what it is today,” McGrail said.
McGrail is a former city board member, city council member, mayor from 2007 - 2014. He lost to Mathews three years ago, but recently he came to support the outgoing mayor. He said he met with Mathews a few months ago to convince Mathews to seek re-election, but after the meeting it was McGrail who had been convinced to run again.
McGrail pointed out during the forum that he and Barnes actually agree on a lot of issues.
“Pat and I agree on end results, but not on how to get there,” Barnes said.
One issue where they strongly disagreed was on the council’s watershed decision on Gean Properties — 105 acres of land between Johnson and Bancroft roads, just north of Keller High School. In February 2015, a 4-3 split council — including Barnes — denied a controversial residential development proposal that would have put 112 homes in medium density zoning and would have donated 35 acres of undeveloped park land to the city. Instead, the developer went ahead with a plan for 104 homes that met the zoning requirements for the property, most of which was low density. McGrail spoke of it during the forum, saying the park land would have been a benefit to the city and should have been accepted.
Multiple times during the forum, Barnes referenced criticism and comments from other people, apparently partially in response to Mathews’ letter to the editor in the Star-Telegram.
“Any suggestion that I do not know anything about leadership is simply ignorance,” Barnes said after listing several management positions he’s held before his current job.
After the forum, Barnes confirmed he was responding to Mathews.
“I’ve been very surprised by what the mayor has said about me,” Barnes said.
Mathews wrote in the letter that he supports McGrail “because he’s independent, experienced and the most qualified candidate.” He said Barnes, as a professional speaker, leads “no one” and is supported by the group of residents that led the recall effort against him.
City Council Place 6
Three of the four candidates for City Council Place 6 do not have political experience, and they are facing one man who has won and lost multiple Keller City Council elections.
Tag Green, a 58-year-old broker, said his first priority is building relationships with city leaders and residents. He said he is all about integrity and leadership, and hopes to ensure the city runs fiscally responsibly.
“We’re not running the government like the way I have to run my household,” Green said.
Green said he is no politician, but while he expects to disagree with City Council members on some issues, he thinks they can make it work.
“I don’t expect to agree with everybody, but I can work with anybody,” Green said.
Mitch Holmes, a 58-year-old civil engineer, said his first priority is making the city leadership more transparent.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to get through to these important issues as a cohesive council until we deal with our issue of transparency in representation,” Holmes said, adding that the Place 5 unopposed election is “deceitful” and not truly open or transparent.
Holmes was elected to Keller City Council five times and served from 2003 - 2011 before moving to West Texas for a business opportunity for a few years. He returned a few years ago and unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2015 and 2016.
Brenden Leavitt, a 21-year-old student at the University of Texas - Arlington, said he started going to City Council meetings about a year ago and saw the divisiveness among council and thinks he can do better. The No. 1 issue to him, the main reason he decided to run, is the issue of water in Keller. Residents can expect a double-digit percentage increase in their water bills this year, he said, and the issue of water will be a big one in the state for a long time.
Leavitt, born and raised in Keller, studies criminal justice and intends to attend law school. He said if he doesn’t win, he’ll still be at every council meeting and hopes his participation will have had a positive impact on the race.
Ryan Martin, a 39-year-old real estate and construction manager, said his first priority if elected will be committing to a future land use plan and zoning plan, whether that means sticking to the current ones or revising them and committing to them.
Martin said he doesn’t have political experience and is “beholden to no one but the citizens of Keller.”
Martin agreed with Holmes about the Place 5 election, how it was not good for the city to not get a choice in that race. Martin said he chose to run for Place 6 instead of Place 5 simply because he liked the incumbent, Bill Hodnett, who then pulled out of the race after the filing deadline.
“Place 5 wasn’t talked about enough,” Martin said.
One topic that kept coming up throughout the forum was an under-construction upscale climate controlled storage unit on Keller Parkway that was approved by City Council about a year ago with a 5-2 vote, Barnes being one of the votes against it. Everybody in the forum seemed to agree that the “prime location” on Keller Parkway in the heart of town was not the right place to put this storage place, which several candidates called a “zit” on the city’s landscape.
Special interests and division
Several people submitted questions about special interest groups, the moderator said, but each candidate was only given one minute to discuss the issue, a hot-button topic in Keller recently.
Talk of special interests heated up early last year, when Mathews accused the group of residents leading the rcall effort against him as a small anti-development special interest group. He said they supported him in 2014 and helped him get elected, but when they didn’t like how he voted on some City Council matters, they tried to recall him.
Linda Taylor, spokeswoman for the group of residents, said last year that, yes, she supported Mathews when he was running, but withdrew her support after learning of claims of Mathews’ unethical behavior and not disclosing conflicts of interest. Mathews survived the recall attempt, but believed the special interest group remained an issue for the city.
Martin said the divisiveness risks making Keller “the laughingstock of Northeast Tarrant” and an “embarrassment.”
“We can disagree without being disagreeable,” Martin said.
Barnes said he’s participated in many meet-and-greets during this campaign and the issue of special interests comes up every time.
“I think it’s our job to serve all,” Barnes said. “You’ll never hear me call a group any names simply because I disagree with them or they disagree with me. I despise the use of the term at all.”
McGrail said the group essentially “hand-picked” the mayor and council about three years ago, and echoed Mathews’ belief that they simply didn’t like the way Mathews voted on City Council matters.
“It’s really sad because our city has become divided because of this small group of people who feel like they need to control a city of 45,000,” McGrail said.
Leavitt said that based on what he’s observed, the special interest group is able to have so much influence on the local government because “they’re the only ones that vote.”
Holmes said the special interest group’s top priority is “minimizing residential development north of Johnson Road.”
“When your interest is that narrowly-focused, special interest isn’t name-calling, it’s a descriptor, and an accurate one,” Holmes said.
Green said he’s not a part of a special interest group, but he, like Barnes, does not want to label anyone.
“I’m an independent thinker, driver and leader,” Green said.
Most, if not all, candidates felt that the one minute allowed per answer was not long enough to discuss important and complicated issues, though they understood the time constraints of having seven people answering each question.