Tarrant County residents’ frustrations with property tax appraisals boiled to the surface June 30 when so many people showed up that officials locked the doors to a public meeting.
A special meeting of the Tarrant Appraisal District’s Board of Directors was supposed to start at 9 a.m. But by 8:45 a.m., a line of people wanting to attend wrapped around the district’s offices at 2500 Handley Ederville Rd., Fort Worth. Several hundred had shown up to speak in support of Chandler Crouch, who says he is being targeted by the appraisal district for helping people protest their property taxes pro-bono. The boardroom had seating for only 14 members of the public.
Crouch, a real estate broker, said the appraisal board had “weaponized” the First Amendment.
“In a government building, when we have the constitutional right of free speech, the media should be let in and these guys are hiding inside behind the First Amendment in situations that actually don’t protect them,” he said.
Joe Larsen, a media attorney and a Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, said the meeting was a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act because a large majority of the public wanting to attend was not allowed in. When the board realized its meeting room was not large enough for the public, it should have recessed the meeting and rescheduled at a later date in a larger venue, he said.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the foundation, said, “A government public meeting must be held in a place accessible to the public. So if they’re holding the meeting in a place where the doors are locked, and the public can’t even get in — that’s not OK.”
Appraisal district officials shut and locked the doors at 9 a.m. as the meeting started. No one was let in to wait inside the lobby. Officials later closed the blinds near the front doors to prevent people from taking photos and videos inside the lobby.
Several elderly residents and residents with disabilities said they had to ask staffers multiple times for seating to be brought outside to accommodate their needs.
Although a few chairs were brought out, Ricardo Aguilar, communications officer for the Tarrant Appraisal District, responded to people outside asking for chairs or to be let in from the heat by saying the appraisal district would call an ambulance if it came to that.
Gary Losada, a former Tarrant Appraisal District board member, said he was kicked out of the building and told to wait outside. Losada, who walks with a cane because of an upcoming hip surgery, said no accommodations were made.
“I went in the building, and they asked me to leave. They said that I had to wait in line. And I said, ‘I can’t stand’… And they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. No exceptions,’” Losada said. “There are some major issues going on. No. 1, you’re trying to silence people. No. 2, they’re not accommodating people according to the (Americans With) Disabilities Act. And they are not allowing people to participate in the meantime.”
Thursday’s controversy start-ed when Crouch, who has been helping people protest their appraisals free of charge for years, received a letter from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations about a series of complaints filed by Randy Armstrong, director of residential appraisal.
When Crouch brought this up to Chief Appraiser Jeff Law, Law said the complaints were not submitted on behalf of the appraisal district. The board also said it did not know about the complaints until Crouch brought them up at a June 10 meeting.
Losada served on the board of directors in November 2021 when Armstrong submitted the complaints to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations. Those complaints prompted Crouch and his supporters to say the governmental body was improperly targeting him.
Armstrong’s signing of the letter with his official title was “illegal” and a clear violation of the 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’s a lot of people here that are upset about this, because this is clearly an attempt to silence a tax agent who represents 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 don’t get to speak, we don’t get to speak, but there’s enough people seeing what’s going on and videoing it and everything. I think there’s going to be an outcry to the way the public is handled,” Hoffman said.
Speakers who had the chance to address the board repeatedly asked why a larger venue was not selected to accommodate the large number of people signed up for public comments.
The 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, chairwoman of the board, reiterated several times to speakers that board members decided to meet rapidly to discuss the letter sent by Crouch’s attorney, Frank Hill. That prevented them from getting a larger room, she said.
“We apologize to everyone who stood in line. It was beyond our control,” Wilemon said. “Someone said, ‘Well, you should have gotten a bigger place.’ You know, you don’t just order a bigger place overnight. And we want to address this immediately. We do not want to drag it out.”
Resident John Schletter said he hopes to see action from the board to discipline the appraisal district employee.
“Public officials can’t harass people that are standing up for citizens’ rights,” Schletter said.
George Dodson, Colleyville City Council member place 4, was among the Tarrant County residents present at the meeting. He said he plans to present a resolution to the Colleyville City Council about this matter.
“The situation basically, the entire organization has attacked one individual, and it’s not appropriate,” Dodson said.
After meeting for almost four hours, the board unanimously approved a motion to send a letter to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation distancing themselves from the complaints filed by Armstrong against Crouch.
However, Larsen, the media attorney, said any action taken during an illegally held public meeting would not be valid.
When asked if he was satisfied with the action taken by the board, Crouch said he respects the board and that the board “received the message.”
“The urgent thing was to try to get the board to do something before it got out in the media so we can avoid this,” Crouch said. “Now that we’re here, whatever pace they want to take, whatever criticism happens, it’s not up to me to determine. I just want everything to happen out in the open and let the people judge: ‘Are they doing a good job?’”
This story was originally published by the Fort Worth Report, a nonprofit news outlet, at www.fortworthreport.org.