Shining a Light

An ex-city offical’s lawsuit shows how closed Mike Moncrief’s city hall was.
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Posted May 22, 2013 by JEFF PRINCE in News
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The Fort Worth City Council settled a lawsuit in April for $99,000 plus $1,125 in mediation costs. The decision served as a six-figure reminder of the not-so-distant reign of former Mayor Mike Moncrief, who ignored the city charter when it suited him, refused reporters’ requests for interviews, and tamped down on open government. As the leader shunned scrutiny, the troops followed suit. His long shadow is just now fading two years after his retirement.

Moncrief had a winning smile when he needed it. He’s tall and some might say handsome. And he could turn on the shmoozy charm.

“He did the LBJ treatment,” a city official said, referring to the good-old-boy lobbying techniques deployed by former president Lyndon Baines Johnson. “He would do the high-five, the ‘I need you,’ and it was very effective.”

Moncrief is also benevolent when he feels like it. He and his wife, Rosie, have donated millions to social causes over the years. And Moncrief led a strong push to help the homeless in Fort Worth with the Directions Home program.

But he’s not a man to get crossways with. Just ask his Uncle Tex, whom Moncrief sued years ago over money tussles. Ornery oilman Tex dubbed his nephew an “ingrate” who “never worked a day in his life outside of being a county judge and a politician,” a 1998 article in The New York Times said.

How rough can Moncrief play? Ask Cecilia Jacobs. Then again, don’t. She can’t legally answer.

In 2007, Jacobs, then head of communications for the city, disagreed with Moncrief’s desire to revamp the communications department. He wanted a communications employee to report directly to his chief of staff rather than being part of the communications department. Jacobs and then-City Manager Charles Boswell didn’t think it was in the city’s best interest to have more than one official spokesperson.

Jacobs had made an enemy of the mayor and would eventually be demoted, laid off, and — she alleged — blackballed. Last month’s settlement was no financial windfall, particularly after attorney fees were subtracted. It served as an inglorious finale to her 12-year career with the city.

“The release I signed with the city will not allow me to discuss the circumstances of my claims or settlement,” Jacobs wrote in an e-mail. She declined to discuss her lawsuit on or off the record, but the lawsuit paints a clear picture.

Other current and former city employees were also hesitant to discuss the case or the chilling effect Moncrief had on transparency. Former Assistant City Manager Joe Paniagua, now an adjunct professor at Texas Wesleyan University, recalled Jacobs as a dedicated city employee.

Price: “It’s your Fort Worth; get engaged and help us shape it.” Jeff Prince

Price: “It’s your Fort Worth; get engaged and help us shape it.” Jeff Prince

“She knew her stuff on the communications side,” he said. “That was her forte. I never had a problem with her.”

Beyond that, he clammed up, even though he is under no legal obligation to remain quiet.

“I’d rather sit on the sidelines on this one,” he said.

Moncrief enjoyed recognition and power as judge of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court and then state representative and state senator. He unleashed that clout quickly after being elected mayor in 2003.

Early discussions about natural gas drilling inside Fort Worth city limits occurred at the tail end of Kenneth Barr’s tenure as mayor. But Barr stepped aside and made way for the oil-and-gas wealthy Moncrief, who gladly kicked open the door for urban drillers.

Politicians and city employees who got along well with Moncrief don’t want to lose his support. And many of those who have raised eyebrows at his methods still don’t want to speak against him on record.

Moncrief’s selective concealment of inconvenient facts and his willingness to bully, aided by a complicit city staff, helped quash dissension and turn Fort Worth into a driller’s playground. Drillers were allowed to vote on influential task forces designed to oversee the industry. He pushed through industry-friendly ordinances long before impact studies were done.

During city council meetings, he would sometimes peer over the top of his glasses and berate people who had sat through entire meetings just for their chance to speak for three minutes at the end.

When the city’s Ethics Commission showed a bit of backbone over the question of drilling industry reps serving on those oversight bodies, he got rid of independent-minded members and replaced them with friendlier faces — and he didn’t bother to follow the city charter’s direction on how to do that.

City insiders say Moncrief wanted no lightning rods, nobody speaking out of turn, nothing left to chance. He wanted his staff, the city council, and employees in all departments to “stay on message,” as one former employee put it –– the message being Moncrief’s vision of a drilling-friendly city that catered to downtown interests and tolerated little opposition.

In other words, he became a “heavy-handed control freak,” said one local reporter who asked for anonymity.

Others besides Jacobs felt that heavy hand. Kathleen Hicks’ unwillingness to toe Moncrief’s line preceded her ouster as mayor pro tem in 2009.

Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Dave Lieber regularly sought public information from Fort Worth City Hall as the newspaper’s Watchdog columnist. (He begins writing his Watchdog column this week at The Dallas Morning News.)

Lieber’s job became more difficult during Moncrief’s reign.

“Mike Moncrief’s Achilles heel, his fatal flaw, was he didn’t believe the preamble of the state Public Information Act, that the government doesn’t own the records, the people do,” Lieber said. “The government is just a custodian of the records.”

Along the way, Moncrief decided he wanted his thumb more directly on the city’s communications program, even though the department reported to the city manager.

Fort Worth’s council-manager form of government is designed to let the city council make policy, set the budget, and oversee the general administration. All employees except the city manager, city attorney, city auditor, and municipal court judges are hired by and answer to the manager or to lower-level city officials –– not to the mayor. As the city’s website defines it, the city manager’s office exists “to keep the city running, regardless of who wins an election.”

Moncrief wanted a communication officer to report directly to him and council members. One was hired in 2005 but reported to the head of communications, not to the mayor and council, ensuring that personal political agendas were not promoted.

Jacobs still saw this as a potential ethical conflict. The city’s public information officers are paid with taxpayer money to provide information to residents, reporters, and others. According to court documents, Jacobs worried that an officer reporting directly to elected officials would be required to write political speeches, help on campaigns, and feel unduly influenced to spin information.

She paid for that concern with her career.

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11 Comments


  1.  
    Yikes

    Wow, this sounds eerily familiar like in a kinda of ISD-ish way! I used to be a Mike supporter for years, but kept hearing way too many stories like the one posted here. That’s a shame, because Rosie is such a nice person to be married to someone like that. Great story Jeff.




  2.  
    Louis

    I truly wish that any of this news from Jeff Prince was a surprise or even a mild revelation to me or to many of the people I know that have been involved with Fort Worth civic volunteerism over the past 20 years or so.

    Without question Moncrief will go down in our city’s history as the worst mayor we have ever had. I don’t think that even those who supported him (that is except for the gas drillers) knew, or even suspected, what he was capable of doing to our city.

    That doesn’t excuse the blatant tolerance of the city council members and city staff in allowing him to go unchecked for almost a decade. Some of those same city council members are still in elected positions and I can say without hesitancy that they don’t possess a set of balls among them. The inaction of city staff and the city council members is more heinous that even Moncrief’s actions, in that they could have prevented him from doing any of the things described in this article…..and more.

    This man ran roughshod over the city staff, city council members and citizens (who dared get involved), violated our city charter with the help of the legal department and council members, violated city ordinances and please don’t forget he violated open meetings laws. When citizens complained, their voices were ignored by the Fort Worth legal staff, city management and the Tarrant County DA’s office.

    I hope this article can get out to enough people, and cause them to take the blinders off where our city council and mayor’s office is concerned. What should really occur is that we should insist on a forensic investigation into Moncrief’s eight years on the council and bring some people up on criminal charges!




  3.  
    katiedidit

    I find it very odd that people think Kathleen Hicks owned the Mayor Pro-Tem title. It’s supposed to be a 1 year term but due to other issues on the council at the time, her’s stretched into over 2 years. Also few of the people who found themselves on the wrong side of the former mayor told the truth when they spoke at city hall. Most of his detractors had their own venues for gas pipelines that they took easement money for or groups that still fight city hall over animal issues while they themselves do nothing. If the facts are in place and the story is correct instead of twisted as the weekly rag frequently does, you wouldn’t have anything to write about would you????




  4.  
    Hmmmmm

    Before the Hicks thing, Moncrief also engineered the ouster of Chuck Silcox as mayor pro tem when Silcox starting asking too many questions.




  5.  
    Java Joe

    Betsy Price talks alot but does she say anting?




  6.  
    Just Waiting

    Price: “It’s your Fort Worth; get engaged and help us shape it.” Too bad Price’s role with Judy Needham in the FWISD disaster is about to unfold.




  7.  
    Jerry

    Nice story, Jeff. But I think the history is more about what the moneyed interests needed at the time than about the difference in the styles of Moncrief and Price. The gas drillers could not have raped this city without a strong alliance with a dictatorial mayor. If Price had been mayor from 2003 to the blessed end of Moncrief’s reign she would have had to be as arrogant and fascistic as Moncrief was or they wouldn’t have been able to take over.

    Now they’ve got everything their way, and it can’t be undone, and there’s no other rapacious power wanting special treatment rapping on the mayor’s door at the moment. If there were, either Betsy would have to behave like Moncrief or she couldn’t remain in office.




  8.  
    Jim Harris

    Jeff, this is just half the story. The ctiy reposted Cecilia’s position as chief communications officer under a different job title last spring. Whoever ranked the final candidates didn’t score her skills correctly. If they had, she would have been the top choice. Instead, the powers that be simply pulled the job and put it on hold.

    There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happened to this valuable and dedicated lady. Even though Moncrief may have set her downfall into motion, those who allowed it to happen are just as guilty. They, too, should be made to answer.

    If Mayor Betsy Price is truly the woman she claims to be, and I think she is, she needs to invite Cecilia back to the city and allow her to fulfill her service in exchange for her full retirment benefits. As an exempt employee, Cecilia probably put in enought extra time to make that happen anyway.

    Someone who stands up for taxpayers and what’s best for the city should be awarded, not demoted and layed off. Let’s see if Betsy, unlike Moncrief, does the right thing.




  9.  
    RightWay

    Ditto, ditto, ditto, Jim! I don’t understand why the city spend taxpayer money to search for a new communications officer when it already had one of the best. Best I remember, taxpayers voted the city’s communications efforts the best ever in 2008–during Ms. Jacobs’ leadership. If taxpayers were happy with Jacobs, why not Moncrief and others? Look like Betsy Price needs to make ammends on behalf of previous leadership.




  10.  
    RightWay

    Ditto, ditto, ditto, Jim! I don’t understand why the city spend taxpayer money to search for a new communications officer when it already had one of the best. Best I remember, taxpayers voted the city’s communications efforts the best ever in 2008–during Ms. Jacobs’ leadership. If taxpayers were happy with Jacobs, why not Moncrief and others? Looks like Betsy Price needs to make ammends on behalf of previous leadership.




  11.  
    Troubled

    When is it ever right to impact the lives of good employees like what’s been done to Jacobs and others like Carl Smart, Lena Ellis, etc.? Moncrief is gone, but his “style” in leadership is still alive and kicking. If it wasn’t, Lena Ellis would still be employed by the city. Just like Jacobs, city leadership — like Mayor Price and councilmembers — allowed this injustice to be done so that someone else could have her job. Now, that the dirty deed has been accomplished, Ellis’ replacement (former budget director Horatio Porter) has gone to the NTTA. Huh? Another misuse of good taxpayer money to search for a replacement.

    Fort Worth prides itself on taking care of its own and doing the right thing for the right reasons, so prove it, Mayor Betsy. Bring back these talented people. Prove you’re not hiding in Moncrief’s shadow.





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