Judge orders mediation for Duncanville officials in Open Meetings Act feud

By Lloyd Brumfield
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published June 17, 2014

A Dallas County district judge has ordered two feuding factions of the Duncanville City Council into mediation — the latest development in the long-running political turmoil in the city.

District Judge Emily Tobolowsky on June 6 called for a mandatory but nonbinding settlement conference for District 5 council member Johnette Jameson and council members Stan Smith, Cliff Boyd, Mark Cooks and Patrick Harvey.

Jameson sued the city and the four council members on March 28, alleging violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The four filed a counterclaim on May 15, claiming Jameson repeatedly violated the city charter by interfering in city employees’ duties and running a campaign of intimidation against them.

They also said Jameson has played a role in the departure of three city managers and made it hard to hire a new one. The city currently has an interim manager, Lynda Humble.

Jameson’s lawsuit is not the only one involving council members.

In March, City Attorney Robert Hager — acting on behalf of the city and Boyd, Harvey, Smith and Cooks — sued Mayor Deborah Hodge in district court. The four sought to bar the mayor from requiring a two-thirds vote for approval of a motion to amend or repeal the council’s rules.

Hodge, Jameson and council member Stephen Jones sought the two-thirds vote, while the four others say the city never operated that way before Hodge was elected in 2012 and instituted the practice.

Election consequences

Meanwhile, the warring council factions could see some turnover in Saturday’s runoff elections.

Hodge is in a runoff with former Mayor David Green, whom she defeated in 2012.

Cooks, who represents Place 4, ran for mayor and lost on May 10. He remains on the council until a runoff election decides his Place 4 successor Saturday. Grady Smithey, a critic of Hodge and Jameson, and physician Ronald Dotson, who is considered to be an ally of Hodge, are in that runoff.

Jones lost his seat in the May 10 election to Steven Rutherford, a certified public accountant who voted with the majority after he was sworn in, giving it the two-thirds majority that Hodge has been requiring. In the June 3 meeting, Rutherford voted with the majority in a 5-2 decision adopting new Rules of Procedure that call for majority vote.

Suit alleges violations

In her lawsuit, Jameson asked the court to void a resolution adopted by the council that called for an investigation of all council members for potential violations of the city charter. Jameson took issue with the decision on Feb. 18 to hire former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins to lead the investigation. She said that decision was made after an open meetings violation.

The resolution was proposed after a series of ethics complaints were filed between council members, including one by Harvey against Jameson. The council members named in Jameson’s lawsuit typically make up the council majority and voted to pass the resolution.

In her suit, Jameson claims that Hager, the city attorney, failed to provide her with a copy of Harvey’s ethics complaint, saying the matter was brought up at a council meeting before Jameson knew a complaint had been filed against her.

Jameson’s lawsuit said that Hodge, who also had a complaint lodged against her, removed the discussion of the ethics complaint from the agenda because the two had not been notified.

Jameson also claims Harvey’s complaint didn’t cite a specific section of the city’s code of ethics that was violated, making the complaint invalid.

Jameson returned a phone call placed to her home but said she didn’t want to comment at this time, while Harvey replied to a phone call with a statement sent via email.

“At this point, unfortunately, there is very little I can say about the Johnette Jameson situation, other than we have had more than one executive session concerning her suit and our counter suit,” Harvey said in the statement.

The mediation ordered by the judge requires that the parties involved inform the judge if the case has come to a resolution. If not, then the case continues in court. Tobolowsky gave the parties 30 days to select a mediator or she would appoint one.

The counter claim against Jameson said that every decision the council made followed state law. It alleges that over a period of years, Jameson “has systematically violated Duncanville’s Home Rule Charter in a campaign of threats and retaliation designed to instill fear among the city’s employees and coerce them to do her bidding.”

“We didn’t pick this fight, and for our councilman to sue the city and then the four of us, we had no choice but to respond,” Boyd said.

Long-running dispute

In the suit against Hodge over the two-thirds vote, Hager later sought summary judgment, asking the court to declare that Hodge didn’t have the authority to require a two-thirds vote. District Judge Eric Moyé ruled in favor of Hodge on June 9 in a two-sentence order denying summary judgment.

Hodge, who was in attendance when the decision was made, said the process took about 30 minutes.

“All along the city has claimed that I did not have that right, but [Moyé] heard the arguments and made his decision,” Hodge said. “I don’t think it ever should have been filed in the first place and it was filed to take advantage of the [May 10] election.”

“In our view, the court’s decision confirms that Mayor Deborah Hodge’s interpretation of the Duncanville city charter — that a supermajority vote was required to amend the Rules of Procedure — is correct,” said William A. Brewer III, partner at Bickel & Brewer Storefront and counsel for Hodge. “We are pleased that the court denied the city’s request for summary judgment and are hopeful that the City Council will appreciate that its argument is ill-founded.”

A trial date has been set for next March.

Boyd said that the judge’s ruling didn’t surprise him and that the council probably wouldn’t decide what to do next concerning the case until its first meeting after the election, scheduled for July 1.

“I don’t know of any judge that would grant summary judgment based on political matters,” Boyd said.