Monday, April 27, 2015

About the “Independent” Investigator

I have heard about this article, but, some else did find it and sent it to me. Thank you XX. XXXXXXX.

A North Richland Hills fable

By Dave Lieber

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

In a well-known children's story, an acorn falls on Chicken Little's head, and she shouts: "Help! Help! The sky is falling! I have to go tell the king!"

Suzette Christopher, president of North Richland Hills Citizens, which monitors City Hall, has researched whether city officials violated state law by using city resources to promote a vote against a property tax freeze.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the tax freeze for senior citizens and disabled homeowners on Sept. 11.

City Attorney George Staples said the city did nothing wrong and presented only factual information to voters before the election.

"I think we have a Chicken Little thing going on here," Staples said.

I'm not so sure. My research indicates that the city's strategy to inform voters before the election may have been a little too Foxy Loxy.

Christopher, who lost the mayor's race in May by 189 votes, said: "Chicken Little starts out as a story of this little bird that doesn't do any investigating before she acts. It certainly isn't a story about me. I've done my research.

So the story doesn't relate. I'd like to think I'm dealing in more serious issues than nursery rhymes."

Under Texas election law, local governments may not use resources or spend public money to advocate a particular vote in an election. The law "does not apply to communication that factually describes the purposes of a measure if the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure," according to the election code.

Violations are punishable by a fine up to $4,000 and up to one year in jail.

North Richland Hills officials published a flier titled Frequently Asked Questions. It was mailed to residents with the city's fall newsletter. A copy was included in water bills, and the contents were posted on the city's Web page.

According to an order issued by the Texas Ethics Commission, the government board that enforces the law after complaints are made, a communication that purports to be factual "when considered in its entirety" may ultimately be interpreted as advocating a specific vote.

Christopher said she believes that the city flier, when considered in its entirety, did this.

The flier asks, "Is the freeze permanent once enacted?" The answer is yes, but the flier goes on and underlines the words "it cannot be revoked."

The fact that seniors receive a homestead exemption is similarly underlined for emphasis.

Christopher said she believes that the emphasis was a scare tactic.

The flier also asks, "How will this impact city services if approved?"

The city informs potential voters that revenues will decrease "approximately $890,000 in the next five years and over $4.5 million in the next 10 years." The rest of the answer explains that property taxes support police and fire services, street maintenance, the library, Municipal Court, neighborhood services "and most other departments in the city that provide services to citizens."

I agree with Christopher's contention that this was a loaded answer. The question about how city services will be affected was never answered. Further, mentioning police and fire services without offering any specifics was another scare tactic.

In answer to a question about how the loss of revenue will increase in the future, the city said baby boomers will age and become eligible seniors. What was not said was equally important. Homes will be vacated as people retire and move away, buy smaller homes or enter other living situations. Those homes may then be bought by younger adults not eligible for the freeze.

City Manager Larry Cunningham said the flier's purpose was to provide unbiased information.

"We were getting a lot of phone calls," he said. "We encouraged our staff to be careful not to say anything about whether you think it is good or bad or whatever. Just answer the questions as best you can. Just give the facts to them."

In comparison, Watauga held a similar tax freeze election the same day. The city newsletter included a brief announcement to voters that Watauga would conduct a special election "to vote for or against a tax freeze on ad valorem taxes paid by senior citizens over 65 years of age and disabled citizens." The only other information was a list of polling places.

A Watauga official said the city did not want to include anything that would leave it open to accusations of violating state law.

The anti-tax freeze political action committee NRH Citizens for Tax Fairness was led by Ken Sapp.


Sapp is secretary of the North Richland Hills Planning and Zoning Commission. He was a panelist at an Aug. 24 city-sponsored public forum at the North Richland Hills Recreation Center. He spoke as a leader against the tax freeze proposal. The forum was repeatedly shown on the city's Citicable NRH station.

Christopher said she believes that Sapp, as a planning and zoning commissioner, should be considered a public official under Texas law. Because the forum was in a city-owned building, sponsored by the city and shown repeatedly on the city's cable channel, she said she believes that city resources were used in violation of state law.

Sapp said: "I am a city official but also a private citizen. I'm only a planning and zoning member when I'm sitting on that board. I have always been cautious to let people know that my political activity was in an unofficial capacity."

I believe Sapp is mistaken. A city official cannot declare himself to be speaking as a private citizen in an unofficial capacity when it best suits him.

The city attorney said he did not believe that Sapp's appearance and the city's decision to televise the forum was a violation.

Christopher said, "If they had someone other than a city official and it was held in a building other than one owned by the city, I think it would have been fine."

How do other area cities handle similar situations?

The Benbrook City Council voted unanimously in August that if any residents at a council meeting spoke for or against the tax freeze before the Sept. 11 election, their remarks would not be shown on the city's cable TV station.

Mayor F.T. Herbert told me: "I saw where there was a possibility of misusing city funds. You can't keep them from talking, but you don't have to broadcast it. You've got to be careful how you spend public funds. You can't spend funds for political purposes."

Christopher said, "If the sky is falling, it's falling on the city officials who need to start following the laws that govern the election process."

Maybe one part of the Chicken Little story accurately applies to Christopher.

Chicken Little tells Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey and Henny Penny: "I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears."


  1. Staples corporate website "... practice limited to the defense of cities and public officials... "

    Read the rest of the bio, of course, but he's not hiding the fact that he is a defender of city officials.

    Also, just saw on a statement that Staples has been paid by COR since Jan 2015 to work on group and community group home issues.

    Not bad nor good but he does not fit this Duck's definition of "independent".

  2. The Special Report regarding possible misdeeds/illegalities of Mayor Maczka or other members of the Council surrounding the Palisades development will be presented at a special meeting of the Council tomorrow, Tuesday. The report will be made by Mr. Staples, an attorney hired by the city.

    There has been comment casting doubt that the report will find anything wrong or illegal perhaps because Mr. Staples belongs to a Ft. Worth firm which represents cities - as Mr. Pete Smith's firm represents Richardson and other municipalities.
    Or, doubt has been cast on the thoroughness of the report simply because the City of Richardson hired
    Mr. Staples.

    Those and other negative speculations will be proved right or wrong by what the report findings are.

    Whatever those findings show, it is clear that the Richardson Code of Ethics needs to be considerately strengthened. Some suggestions will follow after Tuesday night's disclosures.

  3. And will it be Mayor Maczka who will lead the conversation about ethics improvement?

  4. Just saw Shipp tweets on the next group of emails. Maczka is making me long for the good old days of Gary Slagle.

    Wonder if Staples will have any of the Shipp emails that he has discovered on his own?

  5. COR website Special Called meeting:

    Complaints from:
    Will Silverthorn
    William P. Hardeman
    Sharon K. Hardeman
    Sherri Herring

    Hope they post the specific complaints prior to the meeting.

  6. Wonder how many complaints they disregarded or lost?

    1. After watching on cable, I think the answer is 100% of them.

  7. Who'da thunk. They've been doing that crap for so long it seems like they passed an Ordinance allowing it.