City manager: Open meetings, elections violations rampant in Haltom City

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

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