A majority of emails and phone calls to Mayor Betsy Price and four councilmen urged them to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s “sanctuary cities” law, but all five voted against the measure.
Price, Jungus Jordan, Cary Moon, Brian Byrd and Dennis Shingleton received decidedly more correspondence in favor of Fort Worth joining Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio in litigation against Senate Bill 4, according to documents obtained by an open records request.
The division of the 5-4 vote on Aug. 15 has led to some concern that partisan politics has crept into a nonpartisan city council.
Reflective of that concern is an Aug. 22 email that Tarrant County GOP chairman Tim O’Hare sent to Price and the four council members who voted against joining the litigation. O’Hare thanked the five for their “courageous stand” and labeled those in favor of joining the lawsuit as the “radical left.”
Phone logs reveal that 87 percent of more than 400 calls to Price’s office went in favor of joining the lawsuit. Yet Price’s office said that phone calls against joining the lawsuit not reflected in the documents brought the split closer to 60-40.
The mayor’s office also received approximately 65 emails that were 9-to-1 in favor of joining the lawsuit, according to documents.
“I fully acknowledge this law has created an incredible amount of pain, fear and angst,” Price said in an email response. “I am not a state representative or state senator, and I didn’t vote for this legislation. Instead, I am the mayor for the entire city and I have a responsibility to weigh very difficult decisions every day, think about the various positions and ultimately try to make a balanced decision.”
TCU political science professor Emily M. Farris, who closely monitors city politics, said she’s noticed a suspiciously partisan division on this issue of immigration and last month’s failure to vote on a proposal to use property tax revenue to expand bus service, which would aid lower-income and disabled residents.
That effort failed when Moon and Jordan, the two council members most opposed to the plan, were no-shows to the meeting. With three council members already slated to miss the meeting because of conflicts, Price declared a lack of quorum.
“Partisan concerns should be removed from our city politics,” Farris said. “It certainly seems like a [partisanship] creep into local politics.”
Figures not what they seem?
O’Hare’s “radical left” comment was likely referring to United Fort Worth, a grassroots organization that formed around SB4, a state law that allows police officers to ask immigration status during routine traffic stops, raising fears that anything from speeding to a broken taillight could turn into an arrest.
United Fort Worth, which made the open records request and shared the documents with the Star-Telegram, targeted an email and phone campaign at the mayor and the four council members expected to vote no. Because of his conservative Christian platform, Byrd was targeted by activists as the most likely to be swayed.
“After much deliberation, which included input from many District 3 constituents via phone calls, emails and personal conversations, I concluded that the majority of the residents did not want tax revenues and city resources used in a manner which would not influence the outcome of a judicial matter,” Byrd said.
His office received the most emails from residents, approximately 70, according to documents, of which more than 50 favored joining litigation.
“Mayor Price, councilmen Byrd and Moon, as well as staff representatives for these individuals stated on multiple occasions that they were receiving as much or more citizen feedback opposing litigation as in support,” said Mindia Whittier, United Fort Worth organizer. “The responsive results from the open record requests do not support this. Was this an attempt to intentionally mislead constituents with inaccurate information? Or did they really not know that support of litigation outpaced opposition?”
District 2’s Flores, who represents the city’s largest Hispanic district in northwest Fort Worth, said he implored his colleagues to view SB4 as an issue that extends beyond just the Hispanic community.
District 9’s Zadeh said she voted the will of her constituents.
“It’s unfortunate they would vote against the wishes of their constituents. I find that concerning,” said longtime Fort Worth resident Jennifer Dyess, 46, who works in commercial real estate and phoned Price’s office with a vote to join the litigation. “I would hope they would take their constituents’ views into consideration and it sounds like they didn’t.”
The rationale behind the no votes aligns around three points: A commitment from Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald that his force will not racially profile Hispanics under SB4; an unwillingness to pin lawsuit costs on taxpayers; and that many calls came in against joining litigation. The mayor and councilmen said the calls aren’t reflected in the open records request because they were not officially logged or were received before July 15, the specified date in the records request.
Parts of the law have been blocked by a federal judge. A hearing on the state’s appeal is scheduled Monday. It would have gone into effect Sept. 1 and could have punished so-called sanctuary cities and fined local officials who were uncooperative with federal agencies.
A silent majority?
Moon, whose district includes east Fort Worth and stretches into far north Fort Worth, echoed his colleagues who voted against joining litigation despite the results of his own Facebook survey. Those results went 210 in favor of joining litigation to 77 against.
He said the survey represented opinions from residents in districts throughout the city, and that a substantial number of “hidden” votes from people who did not want their vote made public went largely against joining litigation. Moon, however, has declined to release those hidden votes because he said the survey was part of his campaign data conducted on nongovernment computers, and therefore he is not required to comply with open records requests.
He said he will keep those figures sealed unless forced to release them by Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“In the end, I’m going to look at the folks in District 4, how they completed that survey,” Moon said. “The survey is not the sole piece of data I use. I talk to 25 to 50 constituents daily through phone calls, emails and personal interaction.”
The discrepancies found in the open records documents between those who favored joining litigation and those against it also mirrored the number of residents who spoke directly to the council. On the night of the vote, 71 people spoke in favor of joining litigation and 12 spoke in opposition.
Travis Christal, a 31-year-old Fort Worth accountant, said he urged the council in person and by phone to join the litigation. He was surprised to learn that a document from Byrd’s office had him listed under the category “not join” as opposed to “join.”
Several inaccuracies were found in Price’s call log as well, which United Fort Worth’s Whittier believes was likely a sporadic mistake made by the call-taker in distinguishing between being “against” or “for” SB4 as opposed to “against” or “for” joining litigation.
“When I called, I could not have been more clear,” Christal said. “I’m a conservative Christian and I believe in liberty, therefore join the lawsuit.”