Violations of open meetings and elections laws are flagrant in the Fort Worth suburb of Haltom City, Haltom’s city manager told The Texas Monitor this week.
The problem is so pervasive that City Manager Keith Lane asked the state attorney general’s office, the Tarrant County district attorney, and the Texas Rangers to investigate violations by Haltom City officials of Texas’ open meetings law, election code, the city charter, and other laws.
The alleged violations include times when city council has discussed matters in executive session in ways that violate state law, even after being warned against it. Lane also said some council members and others in the past year have sought to illegally retaliate against police and firefighters who were active in local politics
Lane thought being a whistleblower might cost him his job on Monday night, after Mayor David Averitt added an item to the agenda of a routine budget work session that could have allowed the council to reassign or fire him.
“I don’t care if they fire me, if it’s for doing the right thing,” Lane said in an interview before the meeting.
However, nothing happened at Monday night’s meeting except that, following a brief executive session, one council member read into the record a memo and email by Lane outlining the problems. Lane made a short statement explaining his frustrations with the situation.
Mayor David Averitt told the sparse crowd that Lane has his “full faith and confidence.” After that, the council returned to business as usual.
That kind of almost non-reaction by the council to allegations of repeated criminal conduct helps explain why Lane is so frustrated.
“I just want them to be ethical and follow the damned law,” he said.
In addition to numerous instances when he said the council has discussed matters in executive session in ways that violate state law, Lane also said:
- Some council members and others in the past year have sought to illegally retaliate against police and firefighters who were active in local politics.
- Some council members have sought to interfere with open records requests made to the city, and with his personnel decisions in violation of the city charter.
Many of the violations that Lane has alleged, particularly those that occurred in April and May, are connected to George “Trae” Fowler, who was on the council then but did not get re-elected in May. His re-election was opposed by the political action committee representing Haltom City firefighters.
In his May 3 memo to the mayor, Lane recounts an incident near a city polling place in late April, when Fowler reportedly became so aggressive in complaining to one firefighter about another PAC member — Jayson Steele — that the firefighter threatened to call the police. Lane also describes Fowler as being insistent on talking in a council executive session on April 23 about Steele’s alleged conduct, although no such item had been posted for discussion on the agenda, as required. Lane said in the memo that Fowler and three other council members continued to make all sorts of allegations against Steele and the fire department as a whole, even though Olson repeatedly told them that such discussions should not be happening. Steele filed an ethics complaint against Fowler.
In a May 15 memo to fire and police chiefs, Lane recounted those same incidents and also described a call he received from a firefighter, recounting conversations with Fowler in which Fowler threatened “retribution and payback” against the fire department because the firefighter PAC was supporting candidates he opposed. The city manager said on Monday that the same alleged threat of retribution by Fowler was repeated to him by several other people as well.
Fowler said Monday that if his actions had violated the open meetings act, it was a case of going “just a little over the line” and suggested that the importance of dealing with some important problems, including problems in the fire department, should give the council some leeway. Some of the things he sought to discuss should be legal to address in closed session, he said.
Lane, who served as Haltom’s police chief for almost seven years before moving to the city manager job, said in a July 26 letter to the Criminal Prosecutions Division of the AG’s office that during his tenure he had witnessed current and former officials violate various city and state laws. “I have also witnessed a complete failure on the part of these elected officials to hold each other accountable for any of these violations,” he added.
In May, Lane sent documents related to those violations to the Tarrant County DA’s office. In the letter to the AG, he said he was told that the DA’s office was hiring a special prosecutor to look into the allegations, but that he has heard nothing since.
“I truly feel the short- and long-term reputation of our employees, our honest and ethical elected officials, and our entire community is at stake,” the city manager wrote.
DA communications officer Sam Jordan on Tuesday confirmed that a special prosecutor has been appointed, but said she could provide no other information.
City Attorney Wayne Olson said after the Monday meeting that he “absolutely” shares the city manager’s concerns about what has been happening.
“I absolutely concur that they need to be mindful of the limitations of the Open Meetings Act in what they talk about,” he said.
Averitt told The Texas Monitor after the meeting that he had added the item about the city manager to the agenda “not so much to talk about the city manager specifically,” but to give the council “a forum for discussing the email” from Lane that explained he had sent information to the criminal prosecutions section of the AG’s office. However, the council decided not to discuss the topic, either in executive or open session.
Asked whether the council had been violating the Texas Open Meetings Act over the past months, Averitt said that the council relies on the advice of the city attorney in such matters.
Told that Olson had said he shares Lane’s concerns, Averitt said that perhaps the city council needs to become better educated on the law.
“If we are breaking the law, I don’t want to do that,” he said, and neither do other council members.
“Maybe we need more information on what is and isn’t appropriate,” he said.
Averitt also said the council had addressed Lane’s concerns about the open meetings law, election law, and city charter violations after Lane sent his memo in May regarding those problems. Averitt said those deliberations were done in closed session, although he did not recall exact details
He acknowledged that the problems clearly hadn’t been addressed to the city manager’s satisfaction. The mayor said he would “make sure that we do everything necessary so that we are in compliance.”
For inquiries on this story, please contact editor Trent Seibert at [email protected].