Kickin’ and Screamin’

A local newspaper helps drag Glen Rose out of the Stone Age.
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Posted October 13, 2010 by STORY AND PHOTOS BY JEFF PRINCE in News

An hour southwest of Fort Worth, Glen Rose isn’t exactly Mayberry — there are more tourists, plus those dinosaur tracks, and a nuclear power plant just out the back door. But it does have a small-town feel and a town square complete with a barber-and-beauty shop that’s a center for local gossip.

Still, Mayberry’s Floyd the Barber never delivered lines like the ones Barbara Mitchell, salon owner and former city council member, was letting fly a few weeks ago.

“It’s a bunch of shit,” said Mitchell. “She has destroyed my son’s life with that article.”

coverMitchell was referring to newspaper editor Kathryn Jones’ aggressive reporting style in covering city politics in the weekly Glen Rose Reporter.

Unprecedented scrutiny by the Reporter has stirred up the townsfolk, leading Mitchell to resign recently. A few years before that, a couple with high-tech backgrounds moved to the area, created a web site and hard-hitting blog, and began videotaping city council meetings and making people nervous. The couple besieged town hall with open records requests, and city officials groused that providing the information was causing too much work for the small staff.

Nepotism and favoritism so common in small towns is now being hotly debated. The Reporter developed a family tree of city employees, a hand-drawn list of names with arrows connecting various relatives on the payroll.

“It looks like a bowl of spaghetti,” Jones said.

It’s been that way for a long time. Predominantly white and conservative, Glen Rose has been a tight-knit community for 150 years, a burg where bloodlines run deep. On weekends, tourists arrive, drawn to Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Dinosaur Valley State Park, music festivals, and gorgeous camping spots along the Paluxy River. The activity energizes the town and its small businesses. Then the tourists head home, and the 2,200 or so locals settle back into their routines. Many commute to places like Burleson, Cleburne, and Fort Worth for work, and the town is languid during the week.

Locals now wonder how long this leisurely existence will last. For the second time in its history, Glen Rose is poised to become a boomtown. A planned expansion at nearby Comanche Peak nuclear power plant is expected to create thousands of new, albeit temporary, jobs.

“When it happens, it’s going to be huge,” Glen Rose Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Billy Huckaby said.

There’s something else big on the horizon as well: The long-planned Southwest Parkway toll road stretching from Fort Worth to Cleburne, slated for completion in 2013, could shave as much as 20 minutes off the commute from Glen Rose to Cowtown, sparking a wave of new homebuyers seeking elbow room outside the Metroplex.

And if the population hits 5,000, Glen Rose could become a home-rule city, which would increase its annexation powers. Currently the city can annex property only if the landowner is agreeable. Some residents welcome the increased tax base that development and growth could bring — up to a point. The most oft-repeated worry is that nobody wants to become another Granbury with all its strip malls and box retailers and 9,000 population just 17 miles to the north. 

A small-town vibe rules here.

“I love it,” said Kelly Hoodenpyle, who moved to Glen Rose from Chicago four years ago and recently opened a souvenir shop on the town square. “I like the close atmosphere, even though it sometimes gets old with everybody in everybody’s business.”

Some residents want to hire an experienced, full-time city administrator to lead the town into the future. But a slim majority of elected officials aren’t ready. They say the town is doing fine, and they don’t need a professional manager telling them how to run things.

In fact, Glen Rose doesn’t really cotton to newcomers. At The Green Pickle restaurant on the town square, a man drinking iced tea and enjoying a hamburger was asked his views on the city’s looming growth. He hemmed and hawed.

“I’m not from Glen Rose — I didn’t grow up here, so I’m not the best guy to talk to,” he said finally.

How long has he been in Glen Rose?  “Fifteen or 20 years,” he said.

It was a common response to a reporter’s questions for this story. People here for less than a generation still feel like new kids on the block.

Only after the noon rush faded and the dining room emptied did the burger-eating fellow feel free to talk. “There’s no industry here,” he said. “Everybody leaves town to go to work. We don’t have a tax base. Without Comanche Peak this town would blow away.” And indeed, the economic fabric of Glen Rose was pretty thin and blowy before the nuclear plant came along 35 years ago and changed everything. The plant just outside of town employs more than 1,000 workers.

Opinions can get personal in a hurry when almost everybody’s got a dog (or a nephew or cousin) in the fight. “The politics are terrible in this town because everybody knows everybody’s business,” the man said.

Who needs Jersey Shore when you’ve got this kind of drama playing out in the Somervell County seat?

“We could very easily be a reality TV show,” Huckaby said.

Glen Rose, named America’s Dream Town five years ago in a national survey, wants to keep that dream alive. Tourism spurs the economy, and tourists prefer the quaint, sleepy feel. But opportunity is knocking for other kinds of development. As the prospects heat up, officials are jockeying for power, natives and newcomers are eyeing each other warily, and a city known for dinosaur bones is trying to ease into the 21st century without losing its identity.

Rodeo announcer Terry Starnes and a friend were leaving Hollywood & Vine, one of Glen Rose’s newest and hippest restaurants, when they saw a familiar face.

“Hello, Kathryn!” Starnes said enthusiastically.

Kathryn Jones gets recognized frequently. The tall brunette became managing editor of the county’s oldest newspaper earlier this year, and her picture is printed alongside an opinion column. Opinions get noticed around here, especially when they’re in print and run counter to those of elected officials.

One of her columns cited nepotism in hiring at the city-owned Oakdale Park, a historic playground with a public pool, cabins, and RV spots that hosts an annual bluegrass festival. The city bought the park a year ago, and the city employee in charge had hired his brother-in-law to help with park renovation. His wife gets paid as part of the cleaning crew. And a cousin also worked there. Favoritism is “so blatant it creates the perception that the city government is an employment service for certain families,” Jones wrote.

She also noted that park employees have charged expensive lunches at Hooters and other restaurants in Fort Worth to the taxpayers’ tab.

“This situation at Oakdale Park smells kind of like the shrimp at Hooters — fishy,” Jones wrote.

She gets plenty of feedback while out in the community. Most people tell her to keep up the good work.

“It was something that needed to be brought to the attention of the public,” Starnes told Jones, referring to the column about nepotism and Hooters.

“We sold more copies of that paper than we’ve ever sold,” Jones replied. The paper’s circulation is about 3,000.

 


Starnes has lived in Glen Rose all his life. He didn’t hesitate to go on record with his comments. His lunch companion, however, did not want to comment for the newspaper or have his photo taken. Being outspoken can earn you enemies.

Jones and her then-husband moved to a ranch outside of town about seven years ago, which makes them newcomers in the eyes of locals. But Jones is no tenderfoot when it comes to journalism. She’s established solid credentials over the past 30 years, writing for The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, and Texas Monthly.

As an adjunct journalism teacher at Tarleton State University, she sometimes used the Glen Rose Reporter as an example of how not to write stories and headlines. It wasn’t uncommon, she said, to pick up the paper at Easter and see an exciting headline like “Holiday Scheduled.”

feature1“It was just awful,” she said. “The town was changing, there were more people moving down here from the Metroplex, and they were used to having quality media. A lot of people just felt like there was this dearth of information.”

In February, she surprised herself by taking a job as managing editor at the Reporter, the oldest business in town but not what anybody would call a bastion of excellence. The previous editor phoned it in — literally. Many people in town said he wrote stories without leaving the office. One official who served on numerous committees and boards for years said he never met the former editor. Jones vowed to change that. She was going to get her hands dirty out in the trenches.

She wouldn’t get rich — her salary is comparable to what she’d earned 25 years earlier as a reporter in Dallas. But she felt compelled to delve into controversial issues that the civic-minded Reporter used to ignore.

“We would hear all this interesting stuff going on in the town, but you’d never see it in the newspaper,” she said.

A small-town editor must multi-task, and Jones is the sole news reporter, headline writer, community liaison, and chief bottle-washer.

“It’s a hell of a lot of work, but you also feel like you touch people’s lives every week,” she said. “We don’t have the problem of people getting all their news on the internet. They get their news in the paper. Print journalism here is still viable and still making a difference.”

Indeed, Glen Rose supports two newspapers: the Reporter and the Glen Rose Newspaper, another weekly commonly referred to as The Rose. Both newspapers have been fairly tame and often served as city cheerleaders over the years, at least until Jones arrived with her years of big-city experience.

“People here aren’t used to having a real newspaper,” she said.

Billie Jones (no relation to Kathryn) is editor and publisher of The Rose, which was started four years ago. It focuses on uplifting stories and positive angles.

“I’m not going to say anything negative about my competitor … but it’s a whole different thing when you start digging and trying to find dirt,” she said. “If you want to be hurtful with it and sensationalize it, I guess that’s fine, but I’m not going to do it.”

Kathryn Jones introduced herself to readers in a column on Feb. 10 and within a few months was a town figure. She criticized the city council, advocated for a city administrator, pointed out potential conflicts of interest, and generally ruffled feathers among town leaders.

“Conflicts of interest seem to be the name of the game in this town,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many. This couldn’t happen in Fort Worth or Dallas, or people would be marching on city hall and screaming.”

In turn, Mayor Pam Miller tried to strip the paper of its status as the city’s official newspaper (the publication that prints the city’s various announcements, advertised bids, and public meeting notices). The Rose and the Reporter typically alternate as official newspaper with one-year terms.

Miller said the paper’s “negativitism” was upsetting residents, and in July she put an item on the city council agenda to strip the Reporter of its official-paper status. Mayor pro tem Barbara Mitchell noted that the Reporter is no longer locally owned. Erath Publishers Inc., based in Stephenville, 25 miles away, bought the paper a couple of years ago.

But the council majority stuck by the Reporter and voted down Miller’s request.

“Because of citizen comments, I brought it up,” Miller told the Weekly. “It failed and that’s fine.” But she tried the same move again a few months later, again unsuccessfully.

To Jones, both the good wishes from readers and the knee-jerk reactions from the mayor and other city leaders are proof the paper is doing its job.

“I’ve gotten a huge, positive reaction from people — except the people at city hall,” she said. “Glen Rose is in transition, and there is a tug-of-war between these newer people and the people who have been here a long time. The newer people want transparency. The older people say, ‘We’ve been doing it this way all this time, and why change it now?’ I’m caught in the middle of that.”

It was in this shaky middle ground that Jones penned perhaps her most notorious article. Her August investigation into the backgrounds of city employees determined that the city’s head of construction, the person overseeing renovations at the beloved Oakdale Park, had failed to reveal a criminal conviction on his resumé. According to various police and court records, he had been arrested multiple times for misdemeanor offenses in three counties, convicted of theft by check and arrested for indecent exposure, for which he was given deferred adjudication.

The employee was the 40-year-old son of Mayor pro tem Mitchell.

Police reports said the man was living at a Stephenville apartment in 2005 when other residents complained about him masturbating while naked in front of a window and an open door.

Jones justified publishing the employee’s mug shot on the front cover next to the article by saying, “This is another example of what’s wrong with the city government: Too much cronyism. Too little oversight. Too many double standards for friends and relatives.”

In September, the city council discussed how to handle the situation, and put the question of the man’s continued employment to a vote. Mitchell abstained. The other four council members split 2-2. The mayor’s vote would determine the outcome. She sided with the employee, who was allowed to continue working as a city supervisor without being disciplined.

Jones penned a column entitled “Double standards persist in disciplining city employees.”

Mitchell was incensed.

 


A rumor spread around town on the morning of Sept. 29 that Mitchell was quitting the city council. Supposedly she’d submitted a resignation letter effective immediately.

Jones heard the rumor and starting asking questions at city hall. Residents gossiped and wondered.

The rumor wasn’t hard to prove.

Mitchell, owner of His & Hers Salon on the town square, was cutting a woman’s hair when a Fort Worth Weekly reporter walked inside, introduced himself, and asked if she’d quit the council.

“Yes,” she replied.

Why?

“Personal reasons.”

What reasons?

“Dirty politics,” she said.

feature2After a few more vague answers, Mitchell finally unwound and went off on a long, curse-filled, and highly entertaining diatribe about serving the community, protecting one’s children and priorities, and standing up to an overly aggressive newspaper. She didn’t like the Reporter printing a front-page story on her son’s troubles from five years earlier when he was going through a painful divorce and drinking too much.

The final straw had landed that morning when the Reporter published an article about the city council once again declining to hire a city administrator. Mitchell had voted against the hiring.

In an accompanying column, Jones wrote how most of the “people inside Town Hall don’t want things to change. They want to continue doing things the way they’ve always done them, with no one — especially an outsider — watching over their shoulders, holding them accountable, or questioning their decision.”

That accusation wasn’t particularly controversial — Jones had said the same thing in previous columns. But the column also revisited the situation involving Mitchell’s son and how he wasn’t reprimanded despite lying on his job application.

“She’s an evil bitch as far as I’m concerned,” Mitchell said of Jones. “It was unnecessary to print that.”

Mitchell worried that serving on the city council might provide endless opportunities for the newspaper to keep dredging up the story about her son, who was still reeling from the earlier coverage and was mired in depression.

“He went to the doctor, and they put him on antidepressants,” she said. “My job is to take care of him and his family, not to be on the city council.”

Her 10-year-old granddaughter, too, was feeling the heat, Mitchell said. Some of her friends were no longer allowed to visit because parents were concerned about her father’s indecent exposure arrest.

“You can dig up dirt on anybody,” Mitchell said. “[Jones] did it deliberately to destroy him. He shouldn’t keep paying for it.”

feature3Another customer walked into the salon, a gray-haired and stooped woman who looked to be in her 70s, ready to get her hair dyed and cut. Mitchell was just finishing up her diatribe and asked the Weekly reporter to read her quotes back to her.

“Are you sure?” the reporter asked, eyeing the elderly woman who was just settling into the salon chair.

“Oh, don’t worry about her,” Mitchell said. “She cusses more than I do.”

After hearing Mitchell’s quotes read back, a couple of customers and a salon employee began discussing the situation. All of them backed the former councilwoman. The salon employee mentioned that the newspaper editor was “an outsider,” not even from Glen Rose.

Had Mitchell’s son screwed up on the job, he’d be fair game, they said. But putting his mug shot on page one for a few misdemeanor arrests from years earlier had crossed the line.

Besides, they said, Jones’ article focused on nepotism at city hall. Mitchell wasn’t even on the city council when the city hired her son, so there shouldn’t be any complaints. Bringing up unrelated arrests amounted to tabloid journalism penned by a newspaper reporter who doesn’t have any children of her own and obviously lacks a mother’s compassion, Mitchell said.

“You destroy a life to prove a point?” she said.

Adorning the walls of her salon were several pithy, humorous signs. Coincidentally, they fit the current debate perfectly.

“No One Is Listening Until You Make A Mistake,” one of the signs said. Painted on another was, “Tequila Makes My Clothes Fall Off.”

If anyone thinks Mitchell is going to ease into the sunset, focus on her salon, soothe her son, and forget about politics, newspapers, and the town’s growing pains, they don’t know Mitchell. Everybody’s got skeletons in their closet, Mitchell said with a sly smile, alluding to Jones’ own recent messy divorce. Mitchell’s message was clear: This is war, and reporters aren’t the only ones who can smear a reputation.

A week later, the city fired Mitchell’s son for alleged absences from work.

Somervell County officials clearly support the Comanche Peak expansion, which, if approved, will more than double the nuclear power plant’s current production, cost upward of $20 billion, and inject millions of dollars into the local economy. The expansion is being billed as the “largest potential economic development project in Texas history” in full-page newspaper ads purchased by a pro-power plant group.

The plant sits about four miles outside of town. The original construction in the 1970s brought the first population boom to Glen Rose, and Somervell County found itself flush with tax revenues.

“We were just a small, struggling community,” Miller, the mayor, said. “Our schools, if they weren’t the poorest in the state, they were close. We just didn’t have what we do now.”

Tax revenues from the power plant helped pay for an exposition center, amphitheater, and 36-hole golf course, all currently debt-free. In 2008, Luminant, which owns the plant, filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two new reactors. Should the approval — and financing — come, the power plant is expected to draw about 5,000 new workers and fuel the local economy. The expansion has many opponents in the North Texas environmental community, but not so many in Glen Rose.

Commercial and residential developers are sniffing around, eyeing property, waiting for the right time to break ground.

“There are a lot of people gambling on the nuclear power plant,” said the convention and visitors bureau’s Huckaby.

He and others figure that another boom will also bring change at city hall — and not just on account of the Glen Rose Reporter. Debbie Harper, the citizen journalist whose Salon.com stories preceded Jones’ in spotlighting problems at city hall, has been attending city council meetings for five years, videotaping meetings, submitting open records requests, and generally being a thorn in the side of city officials.

“What will have to happen with the city, we need to change hands and get another mayor and city council and a city administrator,” she said. “They are not prepared now. They are not running things professionally.”

Miller has been mayor for six years. She wouldn’t say whether she will run for re-election next year. But things can change in a hurry. In Glen Rose, elections can be decided by fewer than 100 voters, which means it wouldn’t be that hard to change the town’s leadership and direction.

Nowadays the stakes are higher, and people are watching more closely.

“People seem to be coming around to this idea that they want their government to be open,” Jones said. “I see more people coming to city council meetings, just average citizens coming in because they’re interested. That’s good. If they see things they don’t like, they should be able to speak out. For too long they’ve been afraid to.”

Large, vibrant, growing cities can’t tolerate nepotism, favoritism, conflicts of interest, and behind-doors political maneuvering, Huckaby said (though there are plenty of city hall critics in, say, Fort Worth, who might disagree with him).

“Going forward, the city will be a lot more aware of those kind of situations,” he said. “Glen Rose isn’t always going to be that quaint little town we’ve been for all these years. We’re going to be under the magnifying glass.”


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