Bad Blood in Flower Mound

It’s a banner year for small-town backstabbing.
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Posted November 3, 2010 by ERIC GRIFFEY in News

What do phallic vegetables, narcotics passwords, butt-pinching, and gas drilling have in common? They’re all related to a bizarre political melodrama unfolding in the town of Flower Mound.

 


COVERThe community near the Tarrant-Denton county line, like so many of its suburban neighbors, has experienced almost exponential growth over the last several years and is viewed by some as the next Southlake or Coppell — an affluent small town on the verge of becoming a boom town. The tensions in Flower Mound go beyond one or two issues. It is a politically divided city in which bad blood abounds.

The town’s gas-drilling issues should look familiar to Fort Worth residents: Like much of North Texas, Flower Mound is wrestling with concerns related to the Barnett Shale. The town elections in May were interpreted by most observers as a referendum on gas drilling. Amid a record-setting turnout, Mayor Jody Smith, seen by many voters as being pro-gas drilling, was ousted. Mayor pro tem Jean Levenick didn’t run for re-election. The city recently imposed a moratorium on applications for well sites and is expected to consider extending it.

Supporters of the anti-drilling candidates hailed the election as a signal that Flower Mound is finally on the right path. Those friendlier toward gas drillers paint the winners as cynical politicians riding a popular issue into office. The town, by most accounts, has split into those two factions — though the last election showed that the anti-drilling faction, for now, is decidedly in the majority.

Though gas wells may be the dividing line, there are plenty of other divisive and downright bizarre goings-on in the modern-looking town hall. Mud-flinging seems to have become the official town sport. Many of the people interviewed for this story, perhaps with the mud factor in mind, would not speak on the record but conceded that the political climate in Flower Mound rivals the plot of any daytime soap opera. It seems everyone involved has an ax to grind and a target on their back.

The rumors and accusations levied by political opponents vary in degree of merit — partially because many of the players wouldn’t speak to Fort Worth Weekly on the record. The fire marshal was recently sent packing, and some observers believe that his dismissal was politically motivated. (His new job: a prestigious post in Antarctica. Really.) The fire chief has used his city e-mail account to circulate obscene vegetable pictures. And the current police chief filed a sexual harassment suit against Jody Smith and Levenick for pinching the butt of a police officer — though the officer didn’t seem to mind.

feat_1After the fire marshal was ousted, Patsy Mizeur, a politically active citizen who has both supported and fought with Levenick and Smith, filed a series of open-records requests at the request of Levenick, over concerns, the two women said, that the dismissal of the fire marshal might make the city ineligible for certain grants. While that may have been a legitimate concern, it’s also true that the pair already knew about the fire chief’s dirty e-mails.

They didn’t get copies of those in the material the town turned over. What they did get, however, with a price tag of more than $1,300, were dozens of security codes, including gate codes for secure residential subdivisions, apartments, private clubs, nursing homes, commercial facilities, gas well sites, a group foster home, the city’s water treatment plant — which houses an Federal Aviation Administration transponder — and access codes to several neighboring municipalities’ fire stations They also received the Flower Mound Emergency Medical Services password for ordering narcotics.  

The stack of paper included a lot of filler, according to Mizeur. She and Levenick said that they received hundreds of pages of duplicates — in which sensitive e-mail addresses were redacted in some copies but not all, plus dozens of blank pages and six copies of the city of Denton’s fire-safety training manual. What they did not receive, the two said, was most of the information they asked for including the tawdry e-mails forwarded by the fire chief.

“I not only question [the city’s response to] all of the requests I’ve made, but [to] all of the requests ever made,” said Mizeur. “What are they picking and choosing? Maybe we’re being kept in the dark.”

In fact, they already had copies of those e-mails, provided by another town employee. The mass e-mails featured, among other images, a picture of fruits and vegetables shaped like male genitalia and one of a parade float in which a female character is holding onto an American flag being worn by President Obama. The caption reads “What is she holding on to? His stimulus package.”

Levenick said that the botched public information requests, the retaliatory firing of the fire marshal, the fire chief’s dirty e-mails, and a variety of other issues all point to a sloppy and corrupt city government and a complacent and ineffective town manager.

“A lot of this has happened since this new council came in,” she said. “They talk about how transparent things need to be, but it’s a complete joke,” she said. “There are so many different issues going on in town right now. They are having council meetings twice a week. Every time you open up a newspaper or get on one of the newspaper web sites, you can’t believe what they did the day before.”

The reality, however, is that the town manager, the fire chief, and the law firm that advised the town on replying to the open-records requests were all in place before the May elections — not to mention the $1.9 million budget shortfall that the current council is facing.

Their critics maintain that Smith and Levenick are responsible for the divisive atmosphere in Flower Mound by being rubber stamps for oil and gas companies and not recusing themselves from voting on all drilling issues. Both women, they point out, receive lease checks every month for their mineral rights. They believe that the women’s complaints are just so much sour grapes.

Mayor pro tem Al Filidoro, who is the focus of a lot of the venom of Smith, Levenick, and Mizeur, would not speak to Fort Worth Weekly but did issue a statement about the issues the women have raised.

“It’s unfortunate that a handful of people who were unseated and not successful in the May election continually attempt to cast a shadow upon the progress that the new majority has made since May by dredging up dated and meritless issues that were summarily rejected by voters as having no basis or substance,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Flower Mound voters paid close attention to the candidate debates during the last election and thoroughly rejected the course and direction being followed by the past administration by voting in unprecedented numbers to elect the candidates whom they believe best understood and reflected the will of the community.

“Our friends and neighbors are tired of politics as usual in Flower Mound,” he said. “So it is especially regrettable that those who continue to peddle this misinformation can’t move past their loss in the election and work with us to progressively advance our community forward.  And it is especially sad because they continue to attempt to reach well beyond our … local media in a desperate attempt to spin and justify the reasons for their landslide election loss.”

Levenick and Smith both contend that they are only concerned for the future of Flower Mound.

“This isn’t about sour grapes — this is about the fact that I can’t even keep up with what’s going on in town right now,” said Levenick. Smith wouldn’t comment on Filidoro’s remarks.

Mizeur, who has never been elected to office, responded to Filidoro by issuing a statement that said, among other things, that Filidoro should focus on fixing Flower Mound’s issues rather than questioning her motives.

“This has nothing to do with any election or the town council,” she said. “It has everything to do with the way the town is handling day-to-day business. I have concerns: Are the residents receiving everything they ask for in a public-information request that is required by law? And how safe are the residents of Flower Mound? In addition, I’m starting to question the aptitude of certain department heads.

 


“Characteristically, the response from Mr. Filidoro does not address the issues,” she said. “The fact is, the fire chief is spending his time sending racially insensitive  and sexually suggestive e-mails to town employees. The open-records request dealt with this division head, the fire chief.

“Citizens should [be able to] ask hard questions without having their motives scrutinized,” Mizeur said. “After all, the greater threat to freedom and liberty is not informed citizens but an irresponsible, elitist, and evasive political class that refuses to answer hard questions and make tough choices.”

feat_2In July, Flower Mound Fire Marshal Mike Smith was asked to come to city hall for a meeting with Fire Chief Eric Metzger and the town manager. According to a source close to the situation, the chief claimed not to know beforehand what the meeting was about. The source said the town manager told Smith his position was being eliminated. The dismissal wasn’t being done on the basis of performance issues or disciplinary reasons, he was told, and he would be eligible for rehiring. (In fact, Smith’s evaluations had been glowing.)

He was unceremoniously dropped off in his driveway  and asked to return the keys to his service vehicle. Smith, who was recruited in 2006 from the city of North Richland Hills where he served for more than 22 years, was unemployed.

Smith (no relation to the former mayor) would not comment to the Weekly, other than to say he was surprised by the decision, that none of his actions as fire marshal were politically motivated, and that he has moved on. In fact, he was recently chosen out of a pool of 600 candidates for a position with the National Science Foundation in Antarctica as a fire inspector and operations manager.

The fire marshal’s dismissal seemed curious and troubling to many people. He is certified as a master inspector, also served as a police officer, and was considered the most experienced person in the town at inspecting gas-drilling sites. Smith also created the city’s online permitting program for gas drillers and wrote the justification for doubling the price of the permits. Based on online permit sales alone, his work netted the town more than $300,000 — though the town will continue to benefit from that revenue stream without him. He also served on several boards and committees, including the legal practice team, quality of life committee, and appeals board review committee. Because of his position, he attended dozens of meetings every month.

City officials said that Mike Smith was a victim of the budget shortfall that the new administration inherited. The city did eliminate 12 full- and part-time positions, most of which were already vacant. But it also hired 29 new fire department employees.

feat_3The ex-fire marshal was recruited while Jody Smith and Levenick were in power, and both said they believe his dismissal was politically motivated.

“In my mind, yes, it was political, especially considering it was a month after the election,” said Levenick. “Smith told it like it is — he wouldn’t sugarcoat anything.”

On one occasion, Mike Smith and Levenick were seen having lunch together and were photographed by a supporter of Filidoro.

“While we were having lunch, someone took our picture and gave it to the town manager,” said Levenick. “He [Mike Smith] was brought in and told that he couldn’t have lunch with a council member anymore because it looks too political.”

Whatever its motive, Mike Smith’s dismissal opened the door on a debate about the fire-safety inspections of buildings and gas wells he had been in charge of, how they are being done now, and whether the result has been a city that is safer or less safe than before.

Critics of the current council and city administration say that the loss of Smith’s knowledge, especially regarding gas wells, is a problem, and that while inspections of both buildings and gas wells are being done at a faster clip now, that is more indicative of cursory inspections than it is of more attention being paid to the task. City officials say that, to the contrary, the city is actually safer now.

A memo from Filidoro brags that during the first 100 days of the new administration, the fire department completed 204 annual inspections, “more than the total for 2008 and 2009 combined.”

Critics say that just means the inspections are being done shoddily. In July, for instance, a city inspector completed a check of Flower Mound High School in one day and also had time to inspect a commercial building and an elementary school. By comparison, the same school took Smith and two other inspectors three days to inspect, and the trio found multiple violations.

If the city is less safe than it should be, however, it’s probably due to longer-running problems than the firing of one experienced inspector. Smith himself conducted a study two years ago that determined the city was understaffed when it came to fire inspections. The study compared Flower Mound to 15 other similarly sized cities and concluded that the town needed eight fire inspectors, based on its growth and the services it offers. The town never had more than three. Every month for almost two years, according to documents obtained by the Weekly, Smith asked for more staff but never got any.

Ironically, the city has now beefed up that staff considerably. Tracy Knierim, a spokeswoman for the town, said that the town is doing more inspections now and is much safer.

“The reduction in force was part of an overall effectiveness and efficiency initiative that included staff reorganization, position transfer, and other cost-saving measures,” she said. “The fire marshal duties are being handled by the fire chief and fire prevention officer and a temporary fire inspector. Additionally 29 positions have been added to the fire department over the past year, including three battalion chiefs, allowing other personnel to assume additional duties.

“Eliminating the fire marshal position actually allowed the town to streamline our processes, become more productive, and better serve the community,” she said. “The town has realized an unintended benefit in the form of an increase in inspections and work product.”

Smith created the town’s emergency response plan, and managed the hazardous materials permits and inspections. He also dealt closely with oil and gas companies  and supervised the permitting process for pad sites.

“The fire safety issue is a big deal with me,” said Levenick. “We’re putting out this façade that we’re safe. [Gas drilling] is the most controversial subject going on around town, and we got rid of the one guy who knew the most about it.”

After Smith was let go, the fire chief officially took over his duties. According to a source familiar with the fire department, others in the department are not happy with the inspection style that the town has now adopted.

Levenick said that she believes that the fire chief’s sexually explicit e-mails compromise his ability to lead.

“I know just from talking with guys in the fire department, he doesn’t have a clue what he is doing,” she said. “I go back to the e-mails he sent out — the guy who is the head of five fire stations — how do you get respect from your subordinates if you do that?”

 


Knierim pointed out that no town employee who received the e-mails complained about them.

“The e-mails in question were sent in June 2009, and of the employees who received the e-mail, one of them left his service to the town in June 2010,” she said. “During that one-year period, neither the town manager nor the human resources division were made aware of these e-mails nor received a complaint from the employee, or any other recipient, indicating they found any of the material in the e-mails offensive.” 

feat_4In July, Mizeur made a public-records request for “all e-mails from Chief Eric Metzger’s town account from March to the end of April.” In a later request, she asked for all e-mails — incoming, outgoing, and forwarded — from four other town accounts, including that of Mike Smith.

Levenick and Mizeur said the purpose of the requests was to determine whether Mike Smith’s firing would disqualify the city from receiving what’s known as a federal SAFER grant (for “staffing for adequate fire and emergency response”). But the e-mails provided no evidence of anything that would keep the city from obtaining such a grant.

The pair also knew about — and were hoping to get — the fire chief’s raunchy e-mails, which had nothing to do with the grant.

However, the information provided did not include the raunchy e-mails. Mizeur received copies of only two e-mails that the chief had originated and nothing that he had received or forwarded. The visual vegetable jokes apparently fell into the latter category.

Mizeur and Levenick have said they believe that the town’s law firm, Brown & Hofmeister LLP, instructed the city staff not to provide that material. A letter to them from Brown & Hofmeister states that  “all documentation pursuant to your request has been provided to you.”

The two also said that 45 percent of what they did receive they had not asked for. In addition to the security codes, narcotics password, and safety manuals, they said, they received six copies of a medical protocol book distributed to Flower Mound fire department employees, 45 blank pages, and hundreds of pages of duplicates.

Mizeur said she thinks the town was trying to scare them off with the $1,300 price tag for all that stuff. But she and Levenick paid the asking price.

The two women said they believe the city’s attorney and town manager are covering up more than a couple of dirty e-mails. They and their supporters allege that city officials have been settling some matters improperly behind closed doors, with handshake agreements.

“What are they trying to hide?” asked Levenick. “From my perspective, being a former mayor pro tem of the town, if they’re not going to give me everything, what are they going to give to the average citizen who doesn’t necessarily know what to expect?”

Critics of the two women believe that their information request was nothing more than an attempt to see whether the town would send them the fire chief’s e-mails  and a search for dirt to fling at the new administration.

Those observers also point out that the officials Mizeur and Levenick are complaining about  — the fire chief, town manager, and the city’s law firm — all were hired by prior administrations.

Knierim said that a lot of the apparently sensitive information that Levenick and Mizeur received was included in April 2009 e-mails that the women had requested  and that the release doesn’t compromise the safety of the town. Most, if not all, of the passwords they received no longer work, since they are changed once or twice a year, she said.

feat_5“These codes are not generally for public distribution, but the list is carried in every piece of fire apparatus as well as police and public-works vehicles. Dispatch will also give the codes to responding units over the open radio when responding to calls,” she said. “Some of the codes may have been active on the day we released them. However, most of the codes are changed every six to 12 months, dependent on the owner’s choice.”

She cited a recent Texas attorney general’s opinion that concluded that the codes received in the request put in by Mizeur and Levenick are public information and must be released.  

Flower Mound columnist and blogger Ladd Biro finds it ironic that the former mayor and mayor pro tem would allege that the current administration is corrupt. He believes that the two used their positions to help out oil and gas companies. Both receive checks for their mineral rights, and he believes they should have recused themselves from voting on issues that could potentially line their pockets.

“I was very much opposed to Jody [Smith],” he said, “not only because she is a mineral owner, but her views were completely compromised by her relationship with the drillers — most notably Williams Production.

“She never should have been involved in those debates because she is a lease holder,” he said. “But she was able to slither through a loophole and was able to steer the debate her way, which I thought was unethical.”

Smith and Levenick did recuse themselves from voting on issues that dealt specifically with the companies from which they were receiving checks. The issue to which Biro was referring involves Williams’ request to conduct seismic testing on town roads and to pipe drilling wastewater to a centralized facility.

Smith, who as mayor would have voted only in the case of a tie, did not vote on either measure, but was involved in the discussions. Levenick voted against the seismic testing but in favor of the pipeline. Both women said that there was no conflict of interest, because the measures were proposed by the town, not the drillers.

Ladd paints a very different picture of the political landscape in Flower Mound than Levenick describes. He believes that the town is divided over the gas-drilling issue — but not down the middle.

I think it’s more fractured, with a lopsided majority in Flower Mound being anti-urban drilling,” he said. “The other side makes a lot of noise, but the vast majority of us, whether we are mineral owners or not, are very much opposed to the idea that the drillers have to come so close to our neighborhoods, schools, parks, and water; and we just don’t think that the risk is worth any amount of money.”

He said the current town administration is slowly turning the ship around on those issues and that new policies are heading Flower Mound in the right direction.

One of the issues that Biro believes the new administration has handled well is the drilling moratorium. Last year a petition for the moratorium circulated around the town, and more than 6,000 people signed it. When it was presented to the previous council, Smith said publicly that she hadn’t known it was in the works. And the council never acted on it while she was mayor.

Biro doesn’t buy that excuse. He believes that the petition was a key reason that Smith wasn’t re-elected.

“The petition … was completely ignored by the previous mayor and town council,” he said. “But we were successful in booting out those guys and putting in people who are much more open to everyone’s views.”

He believes that the new city government is far less corrupt that Smith’s and that now everyone is getting a seat at the table.

I wouldn’t characterize them as being completely on our side, because they have to walk a very fine line. They do a good job of respecting the views and rights of all citizens. But at least we are getting a hearing now, and they’re taking action to toughen our ordinances, which the previous administration was telling us were so great and the envy of other communities. And as we’ve looked closer, we’ve realized that’s not even close to being true.”

Biro likes Filidoro and said he is a strong voice on the council, trying to do the right thing.

Former Mayor Smith believes just the opposite. She said that when she and Levenick proposed an ethics committee for the town, Filidoro literally screamed at her in defiance.

“More and more communities and governmental bodies are looking toward ethics commissions or committees or ordinances, and it’s a shame that we couldn’t move forward with our own,” she said.

There is one issue in which Biro believes the council has not done its job, and that is on a particular gas well in the center of town, on the property of Ron Hilliard.

The application for the Hilliard site was turned in the day before the moratorium was announced. Biro and others believe that the drilling on that site violates the town’s ordinance because the company has never received the necessary variance to the 1,000-foot setback required under city ordinance requirements for all of the tanks and equipment. (The setback itself is another contentious issue. The town attorney ruled that the intent of the setback clause was 500 feet, though the language in the ordinance clearly states that it is 1,000 feet.)

Titan, the company doing the drilling, tried four times to get variances through the town’s oil and gas appeals board last May but was denied each time. One of the variances they applied for was to drill a well within 500 feet of a stand of trees that qualified as habitat to be protected.  When the appeals board denied the variance, the property owner cut the trees down.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Biro. “It’s unbelievable to me that we have an ordinance that protects upland habitats, but if you’re denied a variance the solution is to cut them down?”

The drilling required other exemptions because the pad site was too close to a water well, too close to a habitable structure (a shed), and too close to some houses. The drillers moved the pad site away from the homes, and the landowner capped the water well and tore down the shed.

“They are within half a mile of hundreds of residents, and within 1,500 feet of two schools,” Biro said. “If something major goes wrong, it could be catastrophic for the people who live around there and the children who go to those schools.”

In one of the more bizarre examples of the political theater in Flower Mound, last January the police chief filed a sexual harassment case against Smith and Levenick for simultaneously pinching the backside of a police officer. The case was eventually dropped.

The pinch felt ’round the town took place in the town hall lobby before a council meeting last November. The town hired an outside law firm to investigate the incident. According to the firm’s report, the then-mayor and mayor pro tem “approached the officer from behind as he stood at the reception counter in the lobby area of Town Hall.” When they reached the officer, “both women suddenly pinched or poked” him on the butt, and walked away to greet other people in the lobby.

The town hall pinchers acknowledged to investigators that they’d done the deed and that their actions were inappropriate. The report also said the officer “has known both women for many years, and he was not offended, intimidated, or humiliated by their conduct.” The officer “had no intention of filing any criminal or civil charge related to the incident.”


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