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Fort Worth mayor facing two challengers quietly

FORT WORTH — The debate among the mayoral candidates began before the cameras even started rolling.

Clyde Picht walked into the city cable TV studio where the League of Women Voters was videotaping its election forums.

"Only two chairs?" he said. "I thought we had three candidates running for mayor."

About an hour later, the third candidate — Mayor Mike Moncrief — was in the same building, attending the dedication of a newly remodeled gallery.

That has been the pattern for the last two elections. Moncrief, who is running for his third term, essentially ignored his opponents for much of those campaigns and then won handily.

This time, he has two opponents, both dogging him with questions about ethics, gas drilling, the decline in city streets and what they call Moncrief’s highhanded management style. So far, Moncrief hasn’t responded, except for an hourlong interview with the Star-Telegram.

"I cannot spend the amount of time that I would like to on a campaign because I am too busy doing the job required of me as mayor," he said.

Moncrief, 65, was elected to the Texas House of Representatives when he was in his 20s. In his early 30s, he was elected Tarrant County judge. He stepped down in 1986, then ran for Texas Senate in 1990. Over 12 years in the Senate, he won plaudits for legislation protecting the mentally ill and establishing the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

In 2002, Moncrief’s Senate district became a Republican-majority seat, and he announced he would not seek re-election. Meanwhile, Mayor Kenneth Barr was also stepping down. Moncrief ran for the mayor’s seat in 2003 against six opponents and got 61 percent of the vote.

Louis McBee, 60, an Army veteran of Vietnam who runs a medical-billing service, ran for City Council in 2005 and 2006 and ran against Moncrief for mayor in 2007. McBee has been a frequent critic of tax abatements for big businesses and filed an ethics complaint against Moncrief in 2004.

McBee alleged that Moncrief and two other council members violated the ethics code by accepting a ride on a Hillwood corporate jet to tour a Cabela’s store in Kansas City, Kan., shortly before a vote on tax breaks for a Cabela’s in the Alliance development in far north Fort Worth. The case was dismissed, as was a lawsuit by a taxpayer-rights group challenging the deal.

Picht, 75, is a retired Air Force pilot who later worked for American Airlines as a flight attendant. He served on the City Council from 1997 to 2005, when he resigned to run for the Tarrant Regional Water District board. He lost that election to a well-funded opponent and lost to another well-funded opponent when he ran for the City Council again in 2007.

Moncrief intervened in Picht’s last council race, sending out a last-minute mailer that questioned Picht’s qualifications and accused him of instigating the 2004 ethics complaint. Picht said that’s "a lie" and has used it as a reason for wanting more enforcement of the city ethics rules.


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Informal authority

On paper, the mayor has one vote among nine City Council members. The council is supposed to set policies and let the city manager conduct most of the city’s daily business.

In reality, mayors have a lot of informal authority and can shape the public debate. And Moncrief, who mastered politics in the rough-and-tumble Texas Senate, is adept at getting his way.

"It’s just a matter of communication, " he said. "Having my facts straight and knowing my subject matter."

 

There’s more to it, of course. Moncrief is physically imposing — he’s well over 6 feet tall and works out with a personal trainer three times a week. He makes quite an entrance into a room, trailed by aides and security guards. His glare is famous.

That has served him well on some issues — the city’s bond elections have passed overwhelmingly despite protests about spending on the Trinity River Vision project. When plans for the Southwest Parkway were threatened because of a dispute over right of way in the Union Pacific rail yard, Moncrief personally negotiated with railroad President Jim Young

Moncrief also organized a coalition of nonprofit groups, government agencies and volunteers who drew up a long-term plan to combat homelessness.

Moncrief has also drawn some bad reviews for both his style and his tight control over public meetings.

When the city appointed a task force to write its gas drilling ordinance, Moncrief named the chairman. When Jeff Halstead was hired as police chief, Moncrief personally pinned Halstead’s badge on his chest. That didn’t happen when the last two chiefs were hired.

Moncrief shut down a speaker during a council meeting in March, when more than 100 people packed City Hall for a vote on drilling at Greenwood Cemetery. Speakers are supposed to stick to the topic and can’t attack individuals.

Billy Bradbury, a frequent speaker on gas drilling, started talking about "dirty drillers." Moncrief switched off the microphones and made it sound as if he would cut off any other speakers if Bradbury continued.

Moncrief has other levers, too. He has worked behind the scenes to get friendly faces on council committees, and he took away a ceremonial title from the late Councilman Chuck Silcox. W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman, who’s running for Silcox’s spot, said Moncrief "bullied" council members.

Moncrief shakes off the criticism.

Gas drilling

One thing that has changed since the last time the candidates tangled is the slate of issues. The Barnett Shale gas boom was under way in 2007, but it reached a fever pitch in 2008, prompting debates about how the city should regulate drilling sites, pipelines and other issues.

Gas drilling is "probably one of the toughest challenges I’ve had since taking this job," Moncrief said.

Picht and McBee both say Moncrief’s involvement in the oil and gas business has made him blind to the problems the industry has caused in neighborhoods.

Moncrief’s family has been in the oil business for three generations, and he has business deals with 56 oil and gas companies, earning a minimum of $628,000 in 2008. He said he has no interests in any wells in Tarrant County, although he has business relationships with most of the big players in the Barnett Shale.

"I think my knowledge of the oil and gas business has probably been more helpful than harmful," he said.

Transit

Two years ago, the city was grappling with a backlog of street construction and trying to get the Legislature to pass a funding bill for mass-transit service in North Texas. As the election approaches, the city is still trying to get the Legislature to act on mass transit, and the street backlog is still there — perhaps worse.

"If we’re attending to these issues, how is it we’re $1 billion behind on neighborhood streets and arterials, and it’s doubled since Mayor Moncrief has been in office?" McBee said.

Picht said Moncrief has focused too much on downtown development and the Trinity River Vision project instead of listening to the concerns of neighborhoods.

"Every time we had a substantial increase in revenue, we spent it on something else," Picht said.

Picht wants to see power in the city decentralized — not only by opening satellite offices in suburban areas but also by creating council seats in those areas.

Moncrief said the downtown projects broaden the tax base. "It benefits the people out in the neighborhoods by bringing people to those hotel rooms," which produce sales taxes, he said.

Meanwhile, the city has spent $315 million on streets in the last two years — $150 million in certificates of obligation, $150 million in a 2008 bond election and $15 million in revenue from gas drilling on city property. But Fort Worth’s population has grown by 28 percent since 2000, and its road network hasn’t caught up. And construction costs rose so fast during the last five years that the city’s buying power deteriorated.

With early voting just over a week away, Moncrief said he’s planning to attend one forum, although the exact timing hasn’t been determined. He’s also sitting on about $185,000 in campaign contributions, compared with $12,000 for McBee and $4,000 for Picht.

 
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