Tarrant County residents’ frustration with the property tax estimate boiled to the surface on June 30, when so many people turned up that officers locked the doors to a public gathering.
A special meeting of the Tarrant Appraisal District Board of Directors was scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m., but by 8:45 a.m. a line of attendees formed to the district’s offices at 2500 Handley Ederville Rd. Fort worth Several hundred had turned up to speak for Chandler Crouch, who says he is being targeted by the assessment district for helping people protest their property taxes pro bono. The boardroom seated only 14 members of the public.
Crouch, a real estate agent, said the review panel “weaponized” the First Amendment.
“In a government building, when we have the constitutional right to free speech, the media should be let in, and these guys are hiding behind the First Amendment in situations that aren’t actually protecting them,” he said.
Joe Larsen, a media attorney and board member for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the meeting violated the Texas Open Meetings Act because a large majority of the public who wanted to attend were not admitted. When the board realized its meeting space wasn’t big enough for the public, the meeting should have been rescheduled and moved to a larger location at a later date, he said.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the foundation, said: “A public meeting of government must be held in a place open to the public. So if they hold the meeting in a place where the doors are locked and the public can’t even get in, that’s not okay.”
The officials from the evaluation district closed and locked the doors at 9:00 am when the meeting started. Nobody was allowed to wait in the lobby. Officials later closed the blinds near the front doors to prevent people from taking photos and videos in the lobby.
Several elderly residents and residents with disabilities said they had to ask staff several times to move seating outside to accommodate their needs.
Although a few chairs were brought out, when asked from outside for chairs or to be let in because of the heat, Ricardo Aguilar, communications officer for the Tarrant Appraisal District, responded by saying that the Appraisal District would call an ambulance if the need arose would come
Gary Losada, a former Tarrant Appraisal District board member, said he was thrown out of the building and told to wait outside. Losada, who walks with a cane due to upcoming hip surgery, said no adjustments have been made.
“I went into the building and they asked me to leave. They said I had to wait in line. And I said, ‘I can’t take it’… And they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. No exceptions,'” Losada said. “There are some important issues. #1, you’re trying to shut people up. #2, they don’t accept people under the (Americans with) disabilities. And they don’t allow people to participate in the meantime.”
Thursday’s controversy began when Crouch, who has been helping people protest their reviews for free for years, received a letter from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations about a series of complaints filed by Randy Armstrong, the director of home evaluations became.
When Crouch brought this up to Chief Assessor Jeff Law, Law said the complaints were not filed on behalf of the adjudicating district. The board also said it was unaware of the grievances until Crouch brought them up at a June 10 meeting.
Losada was a member of the board of directors in November 2021 when Armstrong filed the complaints with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations. These complaints led Crouch and his supporters to claim that the government agency had improperly targeted him.
Armstrong’s signing of the letter with his official title was “illegal” and a clear violation of Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation rules, Losada said.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do about it. But the bottom line is there are a lot of people here who are upset about this because this is clearly an attempt to silence a tax officer who is representing people for free,” he said.
Sally Hoffman, a Mansfield resident, was at the front of the line and said people were physically pushed out of the lobby before the door was locked.
“If we can’t speak, we can’t speak, but there are enough people who are seeing what’s going on and videotaping it and everything. I think there’s going to be an outcry about how the public is being handled,” Hoffman said.
Speakers who had the opportunity to address the board repeatedly questioned why a larger venue wasn’t chosen to accommodate the large number of people who had signed up for public comment.
Board members responded that they were not prepared for the crowd. Rich DeOtte, one of the board members, said the turnout at the meeting was “unprecedented.”
Kathryn Wilemon, chair of the board, reiterated to speakers several times that the board members decided to meet quickly to discuss the letter from Crouch’s attorney, Frank Hill. That prevented her from getting a bigger room, she said.
“We apologize to everyone who stood in line. It was out of our control,” Wilemon said. “Someone said, ‘Well, you should have gotten a bigger apartment.’ You know, you don’t just order a bigger seat overnight. And we want to tackle that immediately. We don’t want to drag it out.”
Resident John Schletter said he hopes the board will take action to discipline the assessment district staffer.
“Officials cannot harass civil rights advocates,” Schletter said.
Colleyville City Councilman No. 4 George Dodson was among the Tarrant County residents who attended the meeting. He said he plans to submit a resolution to the Colleyville City Council on the matter.
“The situation has basically taken a toll on the entire organization, and that’s not appropriate,” Dodson said.
After a nearly four-hour meeting, the board unanimously approved a motion to send a letter to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation distancing itself from the complaints filed by Armstrong against Crouch.
However, Larsen, the media attorney, said any action taken during an illegally held public meeting is not valid.
When asked if he was happy with the board’s actions, Crouch said he respected the board and that the board “got the message.”
“The urgent thing was to try and get the board to do something before it became known in the media so we can avoid that,” Crouch said. “Now that we’re here, whatever pace they want to take, whatever criticism comes, it’s not up to me to dictate that. I just want it to be open and let people say, ‘Are they doing a good job?’”