Fort Worth

For years Fort Worth officials knew of anti-racism commissioner’s offensive posts

Mayor Betsy Price on Fort Worth’s Human Relation’s Commission

Mayor Betsy Price speaks about her relationship with the Human Relations Commission, an anti-racism group, after a member used an open Facebook page to share content criticized as racist and offensive.
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Mayor Betsy Price speaks about her relationship with the Human Relations Commission, an anti-racism group, after a member used an open Facebook page to share content criticized as racist and offensive.

Fort Worth Human Relations Commission member Mike Steele’s offensive and demeaning Facebook posts created a stir as early as 2016, but he remained on the commission designed to create inclusion.

Mayor Betsy Price called for Steele to resign Tuesday from the post he’s held since March of 2015 after posts made to his public Facebook profile drew criticism on Twitter. Steele, a prolific Facebook user, frequently shared content attacking transgender people, Muslims and immigrants and seemingly called for civil war.

A single formal complaint was made regarding Steele in 2017, assistant city manager Fernando Costa said Wednesday. But interviews with current and past Human Relations Commission members and Fort Worth residents show Steele’s social media behavior was well known for years.

“I could tell years ago he was not open minded,” said Eva Bonilla, who has served as the commission chairwoman for two years.

Steele said Tuesday he would not resign from the post, despite Price’s urging. His current term ends in October.

“As a proud father of a LGBT son, I vehemently reject the defamatory comments posted about me on social and local media,” he told the Star-Telegram in an email. “Some may not agree with my message, but I followed the policies and procedures set forth by the City. I do not intend to resign. I have fought foreign enemies, and I will fight domestic social media mobs. “

If Steele does not resign, the city council can remove him, or the commission, with a two-thirds vote, could recommend ousting him. Both would require a special meeting as the council is on recess until August and the commission’s July meeting has passed. Bonilla said she plans to call a special meeting July 15 if Steele does not leave on his own.

The city’s guidelines for board and commission positions are limited, lacking even a social media policy. Beyond conflict of interest, the expectation is that “those who serve in these positions conduct themselves in a civil manner,” the city said in a statement.

In 2017, the city received a complaint about Steele’s Facebook and investigated, Costa said. The was post was political in nature, but staff determined it didn’t violate any city rules, he said.

Costa said he called Steele on Tuesday to “admonish him that he should be a model citizen and represent the values of the city.”

Before Tuesday the 2017 complaint was the only formal notice the city received. Costa said a copy of it would be available pending a legal review.

Rafael McDonnell, an east Fort Worth resident who now serves on the zoning commission, was passed over twice for a position on the Human Relations Commission — once in the fall of 2015 after Steele was selected and again almost exactly a year later. McDonnell works in Dallas as the communication and advocacy manager for Resource Center, a LGBTQ health and advocacy nonprofit. He has made a career training and advising about policy on LGBTQ issues.

McDonnell raised issues with Steele’s posts in 2016, sharing screen shots with the late David Mack Henderson, the then president of Fairness Fort Worth. In one instance, Steele shared a post from Milo Yiannopoulos that described questions about gender identity on a job application as “cancer.”

The posts seemed to defy the commission’s goal of advocating against discrimination, McDonnell said.

“Anytime you want to enforce something like equality, it’s concerning when you have a post that is frankly hostile toward the community,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said he didn’t raise the issue directly with city staff, instead taking it to Henderson to alert commission members, because he didn’t want to taint his chances at being chosen for the commission. He believes Henderson and a former commissioner took his complaint to staff.

“I didn’t want to come across as disgruntled,” he said, adding that he just wanted to alert people to Steele’s views.

McDonnell may have been one of the first to complain about Steele, but he would not be the last.

Former Human Relations Commission member Sharon Herrera recalled concerns about Steele’s Facebook posts, and said Steele’s comments during meetings didn’t align with the commission’s mission, which includes eliminating prejudice and discrimination. She left the commission partially because of Steele, she said.

“I did resign shortly after for I felt uncomfortable,” she wrote in a Facebook message to the Star-Telegram.

Bonilla, before taking her position as chairwoman of the commission, recalled receiving messages, including screen shots of Facebook posts, from members of United Fort Worth and from Fort Worth’s LGBTQ community in 2017 regarding Steele.

At the time, the city was debating whether to support or join a lawsuit against SB4, known as the state’s “sanctuary cities” law. Members of United Fort Worth and others advocated for joining the suit and Bonilla’s memory matches their accounts of complaints made about Steele.

Bonilla said city staff told her Steele was meant to represent conservative, pro-Trump view points.

That answer struck her as odd, she said, because the Human Relations Commission was nonpartisan. Apart from Steele, whom she described as “sensitive about being a Republican and Trump,” she was unaware of other commissioners’ political views.

Following the complaints, she encouraged Steele to join other commissioners for sensitivity and equity training. He did not.

“You can’t make someone do something, but I really wish he had joined us,” she said.

Steele posted on Facebook sometimes dozens of times a day. Most posts are photos of animals and pro-Donald Trump links. But peppered through the benign posts advocating for pet adoption, Steele shares content that seemingly advocate for civil war, demean transgender people and make fun of Mexicans.

On Feb. 27, Steele shared an opinion column from the Federalist website titled “It’s Time For The United States To Divorce Before Things Get Dangerous,” advocating for splitting the country along party lines

In other posts, he advises people to arm themselves ahead of some pending conflict. In May he shared a photo of a firing pin with the text, “People who don’t know what these are should not instigate a new civil war with those who do.” That same month he shared a Fox News story regarding Pelosi by saying, “Civil War is coming folks...”

Some posts insult Mexicans and immigrants, others ridicule transgender people.

Steele’s Facebook page was publicly available until sometime Tuesday night or early Wednesday.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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