The Tarrant County district attorney has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that former and current elected officials violated the Open Meetings Act and the city’s charter by retaliating against firefighters and police officers involved in political activities.
Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, wrote in an emailed statement, “I can confirm that a special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate this complaint.” Jordan said she could not provide additional details because of the investigation.
City manager Keith Lane said he could no longer stand by quietly after observing numerous Open Meetings Act violations when council members talked about personnel matters and other items that were not listed on the agenda as executive session discussion items.
“I want to be ethical and follow the damn law,” Lane said.
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Lane said that on May 2, he gave a letter to Police Chief Cody Philips to hand deliver to the district attorney and to the Texas Rangers alleging the council members’ violations and unethical behavior, and the next day gave the same letter to Mayor David Averitt and city council members.
On July 30, he sent a letter to the Texas attorney general’s office requesting an investigation.
Lane said that since becoming city manager in 2016, he received numerous phone calls and emails about council members having conflicts of interest and other ethics violations.
But things came to a head in April when former councilman George Trae Fowler insisted on discussing activities of firefighter Jayson Steele, who is also president of a political action committee, Haltom City Firefighters for Responsible Government. The PAC supported candidates who ran against Fowler, who lost his bid for re-election in May.
Lane said that Fowler called for a discussion of Steele and his activities during executive (closed) sessions on April 23 and May 3 although personnel matters were not listed on the council agenda.
Lane said Fowler produced documents showing that Steele had filed a lawsuit against the city of Southlake, his former employer. Fowler also asked the personnel director if a background check was done when Steele was hired, according to Lane’s complaint.
“This was clearly against our charter and clearly against our code of ethics,” Lane said.
“It was a repeated attempt on his part to get me or the council to take some action.”
Fowler said he is aware of the investigation and said it is “all political.”
Describing himself as a “true conservative,” Fowler said that he opposed last year’s bond election to build a new fire station and police department, but that he supported pay raises for firefighters and police officers previously.
“We are not able to do that, (suport a bond package) as our citizens are strapped right now,” he said. He cited high water bills and property tax rate increases.
“Only four of our police officers and firefighters live in town, yet they can dictate and control all that goes on here. Our city manager supports that,” Fowler said.
“The allegations against me are unfounded,” he continued. “Lane is protecting Mr. Steele at the expense of our city. It’s a shame that he is doing that.”
Asked to respond to Fowler’s statements, Steele said Fowler has bullied people. “They don’t want to mess with him,” he said. “We took an oath to protect our citizens which is why we supported other candidates.”
Steele also said he believes that Lane is not going to ignore people who are breaking the law.
“I think the latest complaint to the AG’s office was filed out of sheer frustration that nothing is getting done,” he said. “If they don’t publish what the meeting is about they can talk about anything they want. They did it to me.”
Mayor David Averitt said that he fully supports the city manager.
“It is regrettable that a former city councilman continues to muddy the waters,” he said.
Meanwhile, the subject of Lane’s employment came up during a budget workshop Monday night. Averitt added an executive session item to discuss the city manager’s job performance, but Lane insisted on having the discussion in open session.
Averitt said he put the item on the agenda in order to discuss an email from the city manager sent to council members on the complaint filed with the attorney general’s office.
Councilman Walter Grow read a letter aloud to make sure Lane’s complaint was part of the record.
Lane said he is not concerned about his job and is working hard to improve Haltom City.
“I am really lucky right now I do have some ethical, moral, law-abiding council members,” he said. “Thank God.”