PLANO — As Plano voters face the decision of whether to permit liquor stores in their city, one question keeps being asked: Who is bringing it up?
“I don’t know why we need liquor stores,” said Carolyn Owens, a Plano resident for 17 years. “Who’s pushing this? Are there outside interests?”
Camps from both sides try to paint the upcoming election as locally-driven, organized by concerned residents in Plano. But the reality is, groups far beyond Plano’s borders are heavily involved in shaping voters’ perceptions of whether the Dallas suburb should allow full-service liquor stores.
Campaign finance reports and numerous interviews reveal that consultants and companies — some with financial interests — are organizing, managing, and funding the campaigns.
It’s a sensitive issue in Plano that has led both camps to hurl accusations that the other is driven by questionable motives.
“The opponents? I can’t tell you where they’re from,” said outgoing Plano Mayor Phil Dyer, who supports the effort to allow liquor stores. He suggested competing liquor stores in nearby towns may be behind opposition efforts.
“They are definitely not from Plano,” Dyer said.
Similar accusations have been advanced by the opposition, yet both camps are certainly profiting from outside influence.
Plano Citizens for Economic Equality initially raised the question of liquor stores in the city. Months ago, it collected 20,000 signatures to force the issue to the ballot on May 11.
The mayor — along with several other city leaders — have actively supported the group’s efforts by saying liquor stores would bring more jobs and money to Plano.
But the entity that is doing much of the heavy lifting for PCEE is a consultant group called Texas Petition Strategies, which has offices in Arlington and Austin.
“They’ve been involved in elections like this and have a history,” said David Doyle, who is PCEE's campaign treasurer.
Doyle lives in Plano and has been a central leader in forming the group. Yet he also works for Brinker International, owner of several restaurant chains, including Chili’s. He admits his employer has an interest in seeing liquor stores allowed in Plano.
“This will help with our distribution costs,” Doyle said, since Plano restaurants presumably will be able to buy liquor more inexpensively.
Despite Doyle’s central involvement in PCEE — and his handling of the finances — he couldn’t explain how Texas Petition Strategies became involved.
“I don’t know how they were engaged,” Doyle said, adding that decision was made before he joined the cause in November. He insists local, concerned residents are the ones who saw a need for liquor stores and grouped together to try and make it happen. They simply turned to experts to help execute their wants, Doyle maintains.
“We’re a group of local supporters that got extra help to make it happen,” he said.
He added that the consultants they hired have collected nearly every dollar of the $243,000 the PCEE movement has raised.
Much of that money was donated by two groups: Texas Hospitality Association (an Austin-based industry group), and the parent company of Total Wine & More, a Maryland-based chain with retail stores in Dallas and Fort Worth.
“There's not been one dollar contributed to the organization that’s promoting liquor stores in Plano that has come from anybody in Plano,” said Billy Horton, who is fighting the liquor stores. “Nobody in Plano stood up and started screaming, ‘We want liquor stores in Plano!’”
Yet questions also have been raised about Horton’s involvement in Save Plano, which was formed to counter efforts to bring liquor stores into Plano.
Horton has largely managed the campaign. He serves as a spokesman and bought a billboard ad with donations the group has raised.
Yet Horton lives in Austin and runs a consultancy called Hard Count, Inc. that has resisted liquor laws in other towns. He says he was hired months ago by Mary Hernandez, Save Plano’s founder, although Horton admits he has not been paid... and possibly never will be.
“It’s my prerogative to get involved with an issue if I care about it, and I think somebody is being harmed, and I want to come use my professional services to assist them,” he explained. “I certainly hope I'll be paid something. I didn't enter this not thinking I would be paid a nickel.”
Save Plano has only raised about $5,000 — all small, individual donations, Horton said.
Campaign finance documents list the founder, Hernandez, as living in a small East Plano home. Her phone number listed on the form has been disconnected, and News 8 was unable to reach her on Wednesday evening.
Although outside consultants do much of the campaign work, both sides insist it is Plano residents who are calling the shots. And — of course — it is Plano voters who will have the final say.
“Every candidate that runs for office hires a consultant,” Horton said. “Does that mean they're not going to be a good public official because they hired a consultant?”