Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Denton replaces its mayor

What has turned out to be a surprisingly long, controversial and expensive mayoral election has finally come to an end:

Voters ousted Denton Mayor Perry McNeill on Saturday, handing the city’s top elected position to rival Mark Burroughs.

Burroughs won decisively with 62 percent of the vote, capping an unusually costly and bitter race between two former City Council colleagues.

“I’m just so pleased and so proud,” Burroughs said. “I hope that I live up to the trust that’s been placed in me today. I’ll try very hard to do so.”

McNeill, 72, a retired professor and engineer, is the first Denton mayor to lose a re-election bid in nearly two decades.

“The people have spoken,” he said. “I guess I’m going to have a little more free time.”

A runoff election was required because no candidate won a majority of votes in last month's first round. The fact that Burroughs came very close to winning that four-candidate election, however, seemed to suggest that McNeill's stint as mayor was in jeaopardy.

Interestingly, turnout for this runoff was over 500 votes higher than for the first round; a total of 3,866 voters, or seven percent of Denton's typically apathetic base of registered voters, cast ballots in the runoff.

The election itself was one of the nastier ones in Denton's recent political history. McNeill and Burroughs were both targets of an unsuccessful attempt to remove their names from the ballot on the basis that their candidacies violated the city's term limits. The election itself was rife with other charges and conflicts:

Burroughs also faced questions over potential conflicts of interest. His law firm, Sawko & Burroughs, collects delinquent taxes for many local governments, including the city of Denton.

Burroughs has repeatedly said the contracts aren’t a conflict because his firm’s payments come from fees levied on taxpayers’ past-due amounts, not from government coffers.

Local activist Bob Clifton distributed several mailers criticizing Burroughs’ government contracts and level of spending on the race. Together, Burroughs and McNeill spent nearly $84,000 on their campaigns, with Burroughs’ spending accounting for more than 60 percent of the total.

Last month, Burroughs sued in an attempt to stop Clifton’s mailers, arguing that Clifton was violating state law by not disclosing who was funding them.

Clifton denied wrongdoing but faces a possible contempt-of-court ruling after he failed to meet a court-ordered deadline Tuesday to turn over his financial records.

McNeill also faced controversies, including over whether his mailers exaggerated his accomplishments and included names of people who weren’t supporting his candidacy.

The mayor also drew fire for an automated phone survey that critics called a thinly veiled attack on Burroughs. The survey, which did not identify its source, asked respondents whether having a “part-time mayor” or one who collected overdue taxes from “struggling” families and businesses would bother them.

McNeill, who campaigned as a “full-time mayor,” admitted funding the survey but said he was simply trying to measure public opinion.

I never would have guessed that an election between Perry McNeill and Mark Burroughs would turn out to be such a nasty and expensive affair. Both McNeill and Burroughs were on the "pro-business" side of the "neighborhoods versus businesses" divide that has historically characterized local politics, and when I worked for the City of Denton I thought both of them to be generally pleasant and level-headed. There might be a political backstory here to which I am not privy, but the ease with which Burroughs unseated an incumbent mayor suggest there was a lot of dissatisfaction with McNeill's administration. Elections under these circumstances can get ugly. McNeill probably realized early on that there was a tide of dissent against him and felt it necessary to create as many doubts about Burroughs as he could in order to retain his seat in the mayor's office. Ultimately, it did not work.

Burroughs will be sworn in as mayor at tonight's city council meeting.

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