Coppell Chronicle Vol. 1, No. 44
Christmas Trains Keep Chugging Along • Volunteers Take Oath of Office • Council Discusses Attendance Policy • No Changes Yet on Changeable Signs
I hope everyone reading this had a Merry Christmas. If you’re not among my paid subscribers, you missed articles on the following topics this month:
Tracy Fisher is running for the State Board of Education as a Democrat
Putting Mike DeWitt’s eight seasons as Coppell’s football coach in perspective
Coppell ISD teachers will get an extra day off in February
An explanation of the Smart City Board’s recent work
A peek at the Gadget Hall of Fame created by a Coppell resident
Christmas Trains Keep Chugging Along
For the past few Christmases, Mike and Lori Ring have delighted scores of children by putting an elaborate set of model trains on display in their front yard. Families who recently moved to Coppell may not realize that the Rings’ home on Cardinal Lane is not the trains’ original location.
For more than 15 years, the trains looped around a different yard about a mile to the north. Peggy Martin and Jeff Hoogendoorn began the tradition at their house on Coats Street in 2001, just a few months after the 9/11 attacks.
“The world was kind of weird then,” Martin said via phone from their current home in Horseshoe Bend, Ark. “So we decided, what could we do for the community that would keep that Christmas spirit?”
Martin hearkened back to her childhood in New Orleans, where viewing elaborate displays in stores’ windows was a Christmas custom. She thought a trains set in her and Hoogendoorn’s yard would do the trick, and she was right. Before long, the Christmas trains were a Coppell tradition. They eventually had four trains running on three platforms, and the display would draw thousands of visitors per evening. People who used to come every year as children would return and introduce their spouses to Martin and Hoogendoorn.
One of their most faithful patrons was Michael Ring, Mike and Lori’s son. Like a lot of individuals with special needs, Michael — who’s now 23 years old — can get obsessive about certain things, and one of his obsessions is trains. Consequently, he and his dad would drive to Coats Street to see the trains on a daily basis.
“We were over there every single night between Thanksgiving and when they took it down,” Mike said. “And so we got to know them, of course, really, really well.”
Because of their relationship with Michael, Martin and Hoogendoorn began collecting donations for First United Methodist Church of Coppell and other churches that provide respite care for special-needs families. They were eventually raising more than $2,000 annually. The Rings have continued that aspect of the operation, and this year they are collecting donations for Through the Clouds.
Erecting and maintaining the train sets requires an enormous amount of work. Due to various health issues on Hoogendoorn’s part, the couple was ready to pack it in a few years ago.
“I was crying,” Martin said. “We had done it so many years that the thought of giving it up — it hurt.”
Mike said the only reason the couple put the trains up for their final go-around in 2018 was that they didn’t want to disappoint Michael — “and, obviously, a bunch of other kids. But they had grown really close to Michael.”
Eventually, the couple had a revelation: If the trains were displayed in Michael’s front yard, he would only have to go outside his front door to see them. Martin and Hoogendoorn offered to give the trains and all of the accessories to the Rings if they would commit to keeping the tradition alive.
Not long after the Rings agreed to accept responsibility for the trains, Mike was helping disassemble the display. During that process, Hoogendoorn began to not feel well, and his speech became slurred. Martin credits Mike for recognizing the symptoms of a stroke.
“Jeff wouldn’t have been alive if that had happened without Mike there. It was a godsend that he was there,” she said. “At that point, we knew: This was God’s intervention, not ours.”
If you haven’t seen the trains yet this year, you still have nearly two weeks to take them in. The Rings typically keep them on display through Epiphany on Jan. 6. They want to provide plenty of opportunity to visitors from near and far.
When I stopped by the Rings’ house last week, I happened to be there at the same time as my former neighbors Grant and Jill Coss. They moved to Decatur last summer, but they returned to Coppell that night just to see the trains.
“This is one of our favorite things of the season,” Jill Coss said.
Volunteers Take Oath of Office
During this month’s lone meeting of the Coppell City Council, Mayor Wes May swore in several groups of volunteers serving on the city’s boards and commissions, after offering these words of gratitude:
“The work you do for Coppell is invaluable, and it makes the city what it is today,” Mays said. “This City Council could not spend the amount of time that’s required to make the decisions, to use your expertise, for all of the things that you have to consider to do your job. We rely on your knowledge, your experience, and your decision-making to make Coppell a great place to live, work, and play. We really do appreciate what you do for the city.”
If you recognize any of these names, thank them for their service, which officially begins on New Year’s Day:
Animal Services Advisory and Appeals Board: Tracy Allard, Sam Gorgone, Jennifer Holmes, and Rosie Marin
Board of Adjustment: Michelle Anderson, Kenneth Cole, Rhett Hickey, Kyle Rogers, and Dane Salmon
Conduct Review Board: Geordana Dow, Megan Forbes, Daniel Frey, Carole Gray, Sophia Guerra-Metz, Anamika Gupta, Ben Nudo, Seth Phillips, Courtney Rogers, Ashish Vaidya, and Venky Venkatraman
Future Oriented Approach to Residential Development Board: Kimberly Grubb, Seung Hong, Monica Panda, and Peggy Quinn
Library Board: Carly Brenner, Martha Garber, Patricia Graziano, Sekhar Katkam, Priya Kelley, Haridas Radhakrishnam, and Akanksha Subbarao
Parks and Recreation Board: Mary Arnold, Margaret Bryan, Maureen Corcoran, Rhythm Khandelwal, Earl Rogers, and Sidarth Shenoy
Planning and Zoning Commission: Sue Blankenship, Edmund Haas, Ed Maurer, and Glenn Portman
Smart City Board: Erin Bogdanowicz, Patrick Brandt, Kanishka Chaudhuri, Deepak Jayavant, Allison Hewett, Narendra Pagedar, Ramesh Premkumar, Todd Storch, and Paula Waldron
Council Discusses Attendance Policy
All of those newly sworn in volunteers should know that they are expected to consistently attend the meetings of their respective boards and commissions. When City Council Member Biju Mathew served on the Parks and Recreation Board, he missed two meetings in one year. He said the city then sent him a letter indicating he might be removed from his position if he missed a third.
At Mathew’s request, the agenda for the council’s Dec. 14 work session included a discussion of the attendance policy for council members. Here’s what the City Charter has to say on the matter, specifically in Section 3.06.B. I bolded one portion of it for emphasis.
“A member of the City Council shall forfeit his or her office if such person:
During his or her term of office lacks any qualification at any time for the office prescribed by this Charter or by law;
Violates any express prohibition of this Charter;
Is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude; or
Fails to attend three (3) consecutive regular City Council meetings without being excused by the City Council.
The City Council shall be the final judge in matters involving forfeiture of office.”
Mathew wanted more clarity on the bolded portion of that policy. Mayor Wes Mays said he and City Secretary Ashley Owens worked out the following process that, to my knowledge, was not written down anywhere until I typed this paragraph: If a council member misses two consecutive meetings, Owens will inform the mayor (even though he will presumably already know about the consecutive absences). The mayor will then contact the absent council member and ask whether that member wants the rest of the council to excuse his or her absences.
Mayor Pro Tem Brianna Hinojosa-Smith pointed out that a council member is in violation of the City Charter only if he or she misses three consecutive meetings. Hinojosa-Smith was absent for two consecutive meetings, on Oct. 26 and Nov. 9, but she was present on Dec. 14. If she missed the next meeting, she said, the count would start over at one.
“When I think about being a council member, there are so many factors that go into being a good council member and an effective council member, and why we were elected to be in this position, and why many of us have been re-elected to continue to serve,” Hinojosa-Smith said. “And so, I guess I would love to understand what we are trying to accomplish at this time when it has not been a problem.”
Mathew said he just wanted clarity on how the council’s attendance policy differed from whatever policy generated the letter he received as a member of the Parks and Recreation Board. He asked whether there are records of how many total absences each council member has had in the past five years. Owens said such records could be compiled.
Council Member Don Carroll pointed out that if you’re going to follow the letter of the City Charter, then a council member could show up for all of the regular meetings but skip all of the work sessions. That would be within the rules, he said, although that theoretical council member would not be a very effective one. Mays piggybacked on that and pointed out that the City Charter doesn’t say anything about being marked as present for a regular meeting but leaving before it’s over.
Mays said City Attorney Bob Hager told him the language about missing three consecutive meetings was not drafted as a punitive measure; rather it was designed to protect the council from itself, “in case three members decided to boycott a meeting — which you could — and then the city would have no legislative body in action,” Mays said. “So if three members decided to boycott the City Council for three meetings in a row, the other members could remove them from office.”
Mays said Hager shared two other complicating factors with him: A council member who forfeits his or her office continues to hold that office until a replacement is elected, and said member would be eligible to run for the seat that he or she just forfeited.
“I look around here at six other individuals whom I trust,” Council Member Cliff Long said. “I trust that they’re mature, that their decisions are good — I mean, these aren’t people that I worry about. So why in the world would I sit here and vote to kick them off the council after they’ve been elected by the citizens of the city? You’re telling the citizens, ‘You people don’t know anything. This person’s not worth sitting on the council.’ I would be hard pressed — I don’t care what the procedure is or what the rule is — to do that.”
The council took no action on their attendance policy during that Dec. 14 meeting. In the end, Mays said, it’s up to the voters.
“You’re elected by the citizens of Coppell to serve. You’re not elected by this group,” he said, gesturing toward the council. “And it’s the citizens that are going to determine if you’re eligible to remain in office. And if they think your attendance is not worthy of it, after repeated absences, that’s their call.”
No Changes Yet on Changeable Signs
Before swearing in the aforementioned members of the Coppell Planning and Zoning Commission on Dec. 14, Mayor Wes Mays had some extra words of praise:
“Before you stand 38 years of experience on the Planning and Zoning Commission. We added it up. And this is just half the commission. So these guys have been doing a phenomenal job for a very long time, and it’s the work they do that makes the city what it is, and we appreciate your service.”
Two days later, the commissioners used all those years of experience when city planner Matt Steer asked them to consider some amended language to Coppell’s ordinance regarding monument signs. Here’s the relevant portion of the ordinance:
“A monument sign shall contain only the name, logo, address, product or service of the establish except as provided herein:
i. In the case of gasoline service stations only, the price per gallon of gasoline;
ii. In the case of governmental and religious organizations only, information concerning forthcoming public events.”
Steer proposed striking the phrase “information concerning forthcoming public events” and replacing it with “changeable letters are permitted.” Steer said he proposed that change because, per a Supreme Court ruling, the city can’t regulate content on such signs.
“With changeable letters comes changeable content, and this could be funny to some and offensive to others,” Steer said. “So this should really be something that’s analyzed when making this decision.”
At that point in his presentation, Steer showed the following examples from El Arroyo, the Austin restaurant whose ever-changing sign should be familiar to anyone who’s been on social media in the past several years.
None of the commissioners audibly reacted to those images, which led Steer to say, “I expected a little more of a laugh with that slide.” That comment earned him a chuckle from Commissioner Jim Walker, at least.
Steer also proposed adding “seasonal businesses” and “public and private schools” to the list of organizations that could have changeable letters on their monument signs. None of the commissioners had an issue with adding the schools, because such signs have been in place for years per a signed agreement between the city and Coppell ISD. I’ve personally been involved in changing the letters on the sign in front of Coppell Middle School East:
(When I posted that photo on Facebook, I captioned it with this quote from Ron Burgundy: “I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal. People know me.” I hope Walker chuckled at that too.)
However, the commissioners took issue with adding “seasonal businesses” to the ordinance, because Steer said it would affect only one business in the city: Trinity River Kayak Co. Steer said changeable letters would allow Jeff Varnell to indicate when his kayak business is open to the general public and when it is closed for private events. The commissioners worried that revising the law for the benefit of only one business would be like opening Pandora’s box.
“I find it odd that we’re changing an ordinance for one business, when that could be granted by a variance or other means,” Commissioner Sue Blankenship said. “There’s other ways for him to operate his business instead of changing the ordinance for the whole city, where we don’t know what that opens up for us.”
Steer proposed defining a “seasonal business” as one that has a certificate of occupancy and is open for 16 consecutive weeks but fewer than 36 consecutive weeks.
“If we could identify more than one business that it would apply to potentially, or if we had multiple businesses that were seasonal businesses that were, you know, clamoring for the change, then that would be one thing,” Walker said. “I think we could do a better evaluation of the ramifications of it.”
Steer said Varnell has permission to erect a yet-to-be-built monument sign as part of his property’s planned development district. Commissioner Glenn Portman estimated that amending the regulations to allow for changeable letters in only that district could be handled in a two-minute hearing.
Ultimately, the commissioners sent Steer back to the drawing board to revise his proposal on monument signs, as well as a companion proposal regarding 40-foot pylon signs for shopping centers near highways. I’ll break down that proposal in next week’s Coppell Chronicle. Until then, you’ll just have to quiver in anticipation.
• Speaking of signs, New Year’s Eve is the deadline for Coppell businesses to remove any of the temporary banners, feather signs, and inflatable signs I last wrote about in Coppell Chronicle No. 32. I like to imagine that Council Member Kevin Nevels will be patrolling the city on New Year’s Day, karate chopping any straggling signs into oblivion.
• In Coppell Chronicle No. 35, I provided a few reasons why you should avoid driving on Belt Line Road for the foreseeable future. Last week, the city issued an “OK, now we’re serious” warning about the reconstruction project.
• Regarding Belt Line: I recently noticed that the 7-Eleven at Belt Line and Royal has been shockingly shuttered. Gas stations with convenience stores are generally foolproof businesses. It probably didn’t help that the stretch of Belt Line between State Highway 114 and I-635 also features a Quick Trip, a Race Trac, and another 7-Eleven.
Interactive Screening of Frozen: Whether your favorite character is Anna, Elsa, or Olaf, Frozen fans are encouraged to sing, dance, and wear costumes when the movie is shown at 2 p.m. on Wednesday at the Cozby Library.
Animal Services Supply Drive: Friday is the deadline to donate food, litter, and treats to the shelter pets at Coppell Animal Services.
Twelve Days of Coppell: If there’s a deadline for this city-promoted contest, I’m not seeing it. Submit receipts from 12 different types of Coppell businesses, and you could win a prize.
Holiday Scavenger Hunt: You have until Jan. 7 to find five holiday ambassadors hidden around town, pose for a photo with each, and then upload the photos to social media.