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Staff with the City of Fort Worth, TRWD, Fort Worth school district, and other local government groups are unable to recall any instance of open meeting act prosecutions in Tarrant County, so why is the DA pushing for these unprecedented charges now? Photo by Edward Brown

County prosecutors are afforded wide discretion when deciding whether to accept criminal cases. In 2016, a special prosecutor found that Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson was not guilty of violating Texas election laws when she used her public office resources to solicit campaign contributions from county employees. The decision not to prosecute Wilson wasn’t made due to a lack of evidence but rather because special prosecutor Maureen Shelton found no “criminal intent” behind the actions of the Republican DA.

While that decision struck many as a reminder of the far-reaching power of Tarrant County’s good-ol’-boy system, few would argue that discretion, when employed fairly, isn’t an important pillar of law enforcement and the criminal justice system writ large. Fort Worth police department officers can now write citations for possession of low levels of marijuana, for example.

In April, Tarrant County’s district attorney office used its discretion to seek the indictment of Carroll school board members Todd Carlton and Michelle Moore for allegedly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, a state law that protects Texans’ right to access certain governmental meetings. The board members texted each other school matters that should be discussed only during publicly accessible meetings, according to numerous media reports at the time. The indictments followed a closed-door grand jury deliberation between county prosecutors and 12 jurors.

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The indictments are a political victory for county judge candidate Tim O’Hare, the Southlake resident and Republican who founded a PAC, Southlake Families, that vehemently opposes the ongoing efforts of Carlton, Moore, and other Carroll school board members to expand diversity and inclusion in school policies and practices. Southlake Families raised more than $200,000 to support a conservative slate of board members who oppose diversity initiatives, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Numerous longtime sources we spoke with said the timing of the DA’s push to criminalize the actions of board members who are frequently targeted by O’Hare’s PAC and his conservative supporters reeks of cronyism.

O’Hare’s recent press releases show that he is using the now-maligned Carroll school board as political ammunition against former Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price, who is widely seen as the moderate Republican candidate of choice for the county judge position.

Carroll school board member Sherri Mills is holding a fundraiser for Price, O’Hare’s team said in a public statement. A link to the event page was included.

“How can you determine a person’s values and how they will govern?” O’Hare’s personal statement read. “By looking at the company they keep. In Betsy Price’s case, that’s apparently hardcore Democrats who are hard at work pushing a poisonous and racist curriculum on our children.”

Prosecutions of local open meetings act violations are exceedingly rare in Texas, based on widespread reporting that describes the offenses as hard to prosecute in court. We reached out to staffers and board members with the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD), the Fort Worth school district, Fort Worth city council, and Tarrant Regional Water District for any recollections of open meetings act prosecutions and found none. One open records request we recently submitted seeks examples of any local prosecutions of the open meetings act by Tarrant’s DA in the past 40 years.

Tarrant County’s DA habitually dismisses documented incidents of open meetings act violations, said Daniel “Joe” Bennett, a county politics watchdog who unsuccessfully ran for TAD board four years ago. Bennett described numerous incidents when the Texas law was skirted or outright disregarded by TAD officials and White Settlement school board members before offering this summary of his experience reporting those incidents.

On numerous occasions, Bennett provided information about known violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act to “political subdivisions of the state within Tarrant County,” he told us. “I was rebuked or was never provided a resolution letter. I was placated and dismissed.

Earlier this year, one of our reporters spoke with Keith Lane, former Haltom City chief of police (“ The Untouchables,” Jan 6), who described numerous alleged open meetings act violations on the part of Haltom City councilmembers which occurred after Lane left law enforcement to work as Haltom City’s city manager. After Lane forwarded evidence to Tarrant’s DA office, two special prosecutors were assigned. Four years and no indictments later, Lane said the DA’s office is seeking a “slow death” for the types of violations that Wilson’s office recently pushed for in Southlake. Lane confided at the time that he didn’t have the best professional relationship with Wilson and that may have led to the subsequent bogus investigation into a handful of Haltom City councilmembers.

“I think once you decide that you want to run for office in Tarrant County, you join a good-ol’-boy system,” Lane told us in January. “They support each other. They have the mindset of needing to stick together. ‘If we stick together, we’ll get reelected as many times as we want to.’ ”

The November 2022 elections will decide two county commissioner seats (including that of the county judge, which Judge Glen Whitley will vacate), Tarrant County’s district attorney, and many other elected positions, both at the local and national levels.

Based on his press releases, O’Hare is positioning himself as the “true conservative” (read: racist lite conspiracy nut) who can upset Price’s “leftist” agenda (“ Splitting Hares,” Aug 11).

The gifting of a political Easter egg from one insider Republican to another just as election season ramps up warrants dogged investigation. The Weekly has requested a slew of documents related to the indictments of the two Southlake school board members from the DA’s office, and our readers can expect timely updates in the coming weeks and months.

 

This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not necessarily the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at anthony@fwweekly.com. Submissions will be edited for factuality and clarity.

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