Council names themselves as city crime board

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by A.C. Hall

After being discussed off and on for several years, Tuesday afternoon the White Settlement City Council voted 4 to 1 to replace the current Crime Board with the council.  This means the citizens previously named to that board will no longer serve with the council acting as that board from now on.  This action came after a contentious meeting that saw Mayor Ronald A. White, council member Steve Ott, and several citizens voice their disagreement with the move.
Council member Danny Anderson was in favor of the move, and spoke early on about the reasons he feels make this action necessary.  
“There’s been some concerns about some expenditures within the Crime District fund,” Anderson said.
He elaborated on some of these expenditures a few moments later.
“We’re seeing expenditures on stuff like trucks for private use; we’re seeing the dog that hasn’t been working for nine months, the SWAT team, travel expenditures for questionable items let’s just say, and we’ve given the City Manager a directive to try to find out why this is happening,” Anderson said.
According to Anderson, City Manager Jim Ryan has run into some issues while trying to get to the bottom of these issues.
“Upon his questioning or discussions with the Chief of Police, it’s been rough going.  Because he (Chief Jack Ely) doesn’t want to respond, he doesn’t want to participate,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the reason this becomes such a major issue is due to what he called the take it or leave it nature of the crime board budget.  Unlike other budgets that the council considers each year, this one must either be approved in full or rejected in full.  He later expanded on this, suggesting that it has led to issues in recent years where the crime board has leveraged that take it or leave it nature of their budget and the major budget deadlines of the council into making the council approve budgets they otherwise wouldn’t normally approve.
“I’m sorry for the board members that if you think we’re short sheeting you or trying to kick you out.  There’s always opportunities on other boards,” Anderson said.
He said  council has made multiple attempts to work out these issues with the crime board, but it has been unsuccessful, driving them to name themselves as the crime board instead.
Despite the early hour of the special meeting at 4 p.m., many citizens showed up to voice their disapproval of this item.  Current crime board member Gunnar Rasmussen said he feels the reasons given for this action were weak.  He spoke about a time when the crime board was active and had regular involvement with the police department as opposed to the current schedule that only has a few meetings per year.  Rasmussen went on to say that citizen input is valuable, and that the citizens who serve on the board bring a different perspective to things than the council members have.  He closed by saying he believes this was always meant to be a citizen controlled board.
David Mann, another current crime board member, also voiced his strong disagreement with this item.  He praised the White Settlement Police Department and the crime board, saying he feels nothing out of the ordinary has been requested in the recent crime board budgets.  He stated that the budgets have been conservative and accurately represent what is needed to run a police department.
One citizen said  ultimately the council approves all budgets and  if the crime board budget is so flawed, then it was a failure by the council.  Another citizen spoke about the crime tax that helps fund the crime board’s budget, saying that the intent of the tax was to have a citizen board that controls the police budget.  They stated that people like the fact that regular citizens are involved in the police budget process via serving on the crime board.
Anderson was not the only council member in support of this item.  Council member Clements stated that he has wanted this for years and has always felt the crime board budgets have too much in them.  Clements said this is the reason he always votes against approving the crime board budgets.  He also stated that the nature of the crime board budget allows them to mask items like personal vehicles by making it seem like they’re for police use when they’re really not.
Council member Paul Moore also spoke in favor of this item.
Against this action were Mayor White and council member Ott.  White spoke multiple times about his strong disagreement.
“I do not agree with this in any way, shape, or form.  None whatsoever.  I think it’s wrong, and I think that if any city council gets to the point where they start removing citizens from citizen advisory boards and start taking over that function for themselves, you dwindle government down to a few people.  And that’s a bad thing to do,” Mayor White said.
Ott also spoke passionately about his disagreement with this item.  He questioned the notion that the crime board budget is take it or leave it, saying that if there’s a disagreement between the crime board and council, a special meeting can be held to work it out.
“I trust the crime board to present a budget that’s viable and feasible for this city,” Ott said.
He went on to question the legality of naming the council as the crime board, saying it’s supposed to have seven members but there are only five council members, meaning the council doesn’t fit the criteria.
City Attorney Warren Spencer weighed in on this, saying that a resolution to name council as the crime board should override the seven member requirement.  As for if the Mayor would be on the board, who would break ties, and other technicalities, no answer was immediately available.
“You have issues you’ll have to figure out,” Spencer said.
Several surrounding cities have crime boards that are made up of the council members.  River Oaks and Lake Worth both do this, as does the City of Fort Worth.  While the precedent does exist, Ott continued to voice his belief that this wasn’t the right move for White Settlement.  He also continued to question the legality of the move, trying twice to get a motion to do away with the item.  One of those motions died for lack of a second, with the second motion to vote down the resolution failing 1 – 4 with Ott for and Anderson, Arnold, Clements, and Moore against.
Anderson continued to drive home his belief that this action was necessary.  He said the current set up offers no oversight and accounting on how the crime board money gets spent once approved.  When challenged by Mayor White to prove some of the crime board budget misuses he was speaking of, Anderson said the information was available for White to read at City Hall.
“There are facts that back up everything we’re saying,” Anderson said.
The discussions between the two sides and at times even between council members and audience members were heated, but ultimately a motion was made by Anderson to approve naming the council as the crime board.  That motion passed 4 – 1 with Anderson, Arnold, Clements, and Moore for and Ott against.
“Ya’ll just opened yourselves up to a lawsuit, I guarantee you,” Ott said.
A motion was also passed to cancel the scheduled April 2 crime board meeting.  That motion also passed 4 – 1 with Ott against.
Before this meeting even got underway, a first special meeting was held to challenge the legality of the 4 p.m. meeting.  Mayor White stated that the new ordinance says two council members request a special meeting, but that 4:00 meeting had four different council members requesting it.  He said this could be construed as discussing city business as a quorum outside of a meeting and that as such the 4:00 meeting should be canceled.
Ott followed up on this, saying that the process of gathering four signatures to hold the meeting constituted a “walking quorum,” something he described as multiple council members discussing something one at a time.
“That’s done every day here,” Clements said.
Clements stated that the council members speak one on one often, and that if this is wrong, then it happens all the time.  Mayor White worked to clarify this, saying that just speaking to each other is okay, but if it’s about city business that ends up on an agenda, it becomes a problem.
Spencer got involved in the discussion, saying that a walking quorum generally involves details and lengthy discussions of city business and that a simple comment about an agenda item doesn’t fall under that definition.  He said that it appeared the council members requesting the special meeting followed established procedure in doing so.
White continued to voice his belief that the 4:00 meeting should not be held, but a motion was passed 4 – 1 to end the early workshop and start the 4:00 meeting.  Ott voted against that motion.