conflicts

FORNEY, Texas — Records obtained by inForney.com reveal Forney Planning and Zoning Commissioner Misty Holler has inconsistently taken action, abstained from, and filed substantial interest disclosure forms related to her employer's consulting business on matters before the commission over her nearly three-year tenure.

Chapters 171 and 176 of the Texas Local Government Code (LGC) and the City of Forney's Code of Ordinances regulate matters related to public officials and conflicts of interests but, do Holler's actions speak to avoiding an appearance of impropriety?

Records show Holler took action on a number of matters related to her employer's consulting business which were before the Planning and Zoning Commission; was inconsistent in her abstention on some matters; and also inconsistent on her filing of conflict of interest disclosure forms.

Additionally, Holler failed to file the required conflicts disclosure statement with the city as it relates to her employer, The Forney Messenger, in accordance with Chapter 176 of the Texas LGC.

Most recently, an abstention from Holler on two action items before the Planning and Zoning Commission caused a lack of quorum of commission members.

Background

In early 2018, following ethics concerns arisen about then-newly elected Councilmember Shaun Myers and his social media comments and postings, the Forney City Council debated and ultimately approved an ordinance amending the City of Forney's Code of Ordinances to add “Code of Ethics” Article 1.12 for city officials and employees.

The city's new ordinance codified state law and is nearly identical, with slight variances and additions, to Chapters 171 and 176 of the Texas Local Government Code (LGC) which regulate and include matters related to conflicts of interest, the required disclosures by local governmental officials, and reporting guidelines.

“The overriding interest of the code of ethics is that city officials and city employees shall always strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” states the city's ordinance.

While serving as a Planning and Zoning commissioner, Holler was and remains employed at The Forney Messenger, which is owned by Darrell Grooms since at least August 2018. Grooms also owns, as its name suggests, Darrell Grooms Consulting, LLC.

The Forney Messenger serves, by resolution of the Forney City Council, as the paper of record for the City of Forney. The designation requires, among other things, the City of Forney pay for and publish its public notices in the newspaper.

Chapter 176 of the Texas LGC requires a local government officer to file a conflicts disclosure statement when, among other things, a vendor has a contract with the local government and also has an employment relationship with a local government official who received taxable income exceeding $2,500 during the 12-month period proceeding the date the officer became aware of an executed contract between the vendor and the local government.

Those disclosure statements are required to be filed within seven days of the officer becoming aware of the facts that require such a filing, according to the LGC, and such documents must be maintained for public view on the city's website. The city's ordinances have a similar provision. Holler, nor her employer, have filed those required documents with the city.

Holler, in response to an inForney.com request for comment, says she has no relationship to Grooms' consulting business.

“I am employed by Forney Messenger, Inc., which is owned by Darrell Grooms,” she stated. “Although I have no connection to Mr. Grooms’ consulting business, at the advisement of Mr. Thatcher I felt it prudent for me to file affidavits stating a conflict of interest and abstain from any matters relating to Darrell Grooms Consulting due to his ownership of the Forney Messenger.”

The affidavits filed by Holler however, state a conflict of interest and substantial interest in the respective matters before the board and “Darrell Grooms Consulting” and do not make mention of The Forney Messenger.

The Texas LGC and city ordinance also require city officials with substantial interest in the outcome of a matter under consideration to disclose such conflicts and recuse and/or abstain themselves from discussion and voting on the matter. The city official recusing on these grounds shall “promptly” file an affidavit with the city secretary disclosing the nature and extent of the conflict.

Because Holler purports to work for The Forney Messenger, and not Darrell Grooms Consulting, City of Forney City Attorney Jon Thatcher says she has no legal obligation to file conflict of interest disclosure statements as her substantial interest is limited in scope to her purported employment relationship with The Forney Messenger.

“This notwithstanding, there may be some instance where the official, such as Holler, wants to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” stated Thatcher. “In such instances, where Holler has filed a 171 substantial interest affidavit and recused herself from the discussion and action, such a step was done in an overabundance of caution. In actuality, Holler could simply abstain from the action without need to file the affidavit since there is no substantial interest in the business entity.”

Holler, according to records, began abstaining from matters related to Darrell Grooms Consulting in August 2020 but, did not file her first affidavit disclosing a conflict of interest until April 8, 2021 — a week after an inForney.com request with the North Texas Municipal Water District requesting the same records for her employer, Grooms, who was serving as one of two City of Forney appointees to their Board of Directors.

Grooms has since resigned his position with the North Texas Municipal Water District but, before doing so, had filed at least six conflicts' disclosure affidavits with that agency during his tenure, according to records obtained by inForney.com.

Before her first abstention in August 2020, records reveal Holler took numerous action on Darrell Grooms Consulting-related matters before the Planning and Zoning Commission dating back to August 2018 when she started at The Forney Messenger.

Lakewood Trails Planned Development

Multiple times in 2018 and 2019, Holler took action and voted on items related to the Lakewood Trails development. Grooms provided consulting services for the development, according to discussion during a September 5, 2017, meeting of the Forney City Council. Holler did not abstain from or recuse herself from discussions or action items related to Lakewood Trails, nor was a conflict of interest affidavit filed with the city secretary.

Adams Ranch Planned Development

In October 2019, Commissioner Holler motioned and voted to approve matters related to the Adams Ranch PD. She would later recuse herself from discussion related to Adams Ranch during the May 6, 2021, Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. An affidavit wasn't filed until the most recent abstention.

Trailhouse Park Planned Development

Holler abstained from matters related to the Trailhouse Park PD beginning as early as August 2020 but, ultimately did not file an affidavit until April 8, 2021. Grooms had secured a $2.5 million grant for the Trailhouse Park PD. More on that story, here.

Chipotle and Leon Capital Group

In December 2019 and January 2020, Holler made motions and voted on matters related to the Chipotle site plan. Darrell Grooms Consulting had secured an approximate $600,000 economic incentive from the City of Forney and the Forney Economic Development Corporation for Leon Capital Group (LGC), which developed the Raising Canes site and was proposing what would be the Chipotle site. A condition of one of the agreements with LGC was securing the second restaurant pad site on the development and the issuance of the building permits for the restaurant — approval of those building permits triggered a $250,000 payment to Grooms' client, LGC, according to the agreements obtained by inForney.com.

Oak Creek Planned Development

In October and December 2020, Commissioner Holler recused and abstained from discussions and action related to the Oak Creek PD. No conflicts of interest disclosure affidavit has been filed by Holler as of the last records request by inForney.com on May 21, 2021.

Oak Creek is additionally of note because now-twice-resigned Councilmember Myers defended the development after area residents raised concerns the Forney City Council had traded small lots for a 1.1-acre dog park. In doing so, Myers referenced a new House Bill, HB 3167, which sets in place a timeline for local municipalities' action on previously approved developments or land owners wishing to develop land which conformed to local zoning regulations.

“If this process is not adhered to, the plans are then considered approved,” stated Myers, in part, while referencing a 30-day time requirement.

The new development, however, had not been previously approved by the city council and, with the developer proposing zoning changes which would require approval from Forney City Council, the development did not fall under any developmental timelines established in HB 3167, Thatcher confirmed with inForney.com at the time of its approval.

The former land owner, Chestnut Meadows, had initially designed a layout on the property for 75 lots and later filed a letter of intent to discuss a possible variance for 89 lots with a reduction in the lot square footage but no reduction in the lot widths. When the project was ultimately brought before the P&Z Commission and the Forney City Council by Grooms, 117 lots were proposed and subsequently approved.

Wellington Ridge Planned Development

In 2019, Holler took action on the Wellington Ridge PD but, in 2020 and 2021, Holler reversed course and abstained and recused herself from action items related to the development. She ultimately did not file a conflict of interest affidavit for Wellington Ridge PD until April 8, 2021.

Following inquiries by inForney.com on the project, former Councilmember Mike Thomas, who also twice resigned from the council in 2020, sent a text message to inForney.com.

“Before you spend a lot of time on this, give Bryan Beavers a call,” that message stated, in part. “Rick Wilson already had Bryan investigate this deal and Bryan's investigator found no wrong doing associated with any council members and Mr Flowers, his organization, or his consultant [Grooms].”

When contacted by inForney.com at the time, Beavers, who serves at the Kaufman County Sheriff, says his office never investigated claims related to the Wellington Ridge PD because investigators had no alleged offense, therefore an investigator had not definitively determined “no wrong doing” had occurred, as alleged by Thomas.

Thomas also alleged Wilson and a former council candidate had sought to profit from information gained from doing the city's work but did not voluntarily provide statements on Grooms' involvement or economic benefit in the project.

The FOIA request made by inForney.com which prompted Thomas' statements was related to an email sent by Councilmember Robbie Powers to the Wellington Ridge developers in 2017. The City of Forney, in response to that request, and approximately 25 days after the records release deadline, stated no records existed. inForney.com however, obtained a copy of that email on Friday.

“PatI appreciate the work you've done on this project but I don't believe I can support the approval at this time,” Powers wrote (sic) to Pat Akins, a representative of the Wellington Ridge PD. The email was also copied to three Dollar-Flowers partners.

“In April myself and councilwoman Penn voted against the newest residential project in Forney. I am not speaking for her or anyone else but the two newest members campaigned heavily on slowing growth and they won their elections by a large margin,” continued Powers. “Forney ISD is experiencing tremendous problems managing their skyrocketing enrollment numbers..Thank you for your interest you and your group has shown Robbie~~”

With Powers presenting a quorum of opposition to the project's developers, Wellington Ridge filed a notice of withdrawal for the project the following day, June 1, 2017.

Ironically, during the most recent Forney City Council meeting on May 18, 2021, and following a swing in the Grooms-backed Powers-Myers-Cooper majority voter block during the May election, Powers and Myers showed disdain to four other council members who voiced their concern separately to city management about a holiday lights display and exorbitant costs associated with the project.

“Seems like something we would want to have a discussion on as a council not as individuals coming to the city manager,” stated Myers.

As for the Wellington Ridge PD, the Dollar-Flowers developers dropped their former development consultant, hired Grooms, and ultimately their project and subsequent change requests were all approved.

Bellagio Planned Development

In December 2018, the same development consultant who was denied progress on the Wellington Ridge PD represented a client who proposed a single-family development, Whaley Farms PD, on what is now the Bellagio PD. That project was denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

P&Z Commissioner Anthony Shimkus, who resigned from the commission earlier this month, made a motion to deny the Whaley Farms PD citing an abundance of residential development in the surrounding areas, an increase in traffic, and limited land in Forney. Thomas, who was chair of the commission at that time, and Holler, were among the 6 votes denying that project.

The project returned to the Forney City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission during a special-called joint-workshop in September 2020 — this time represented by Grooms and subsequently approved with 600 multi-family units, short-term rentals, and 1,100 single-family units on reduced lot sizes, and a lagoon proposed.

In December 2020 and March 2021, Commissioner Holler recused herself from those matters related to the Bellagio PD. An affidavit wasn't filed until April 8, 2021.

The Bellagio PD drew public interest after its developmental plans were released and it was revealed that a number of city officials took a private jet chartered by Megatel Homes to tour lagoon projects in Florida and Houston, Texas.

Holler was among her fellow commissioners, city council members, Grooms, and Megatel representatives on one of two flights chartered. Her participation, however, wasn't disclosed by the City of Forney or documented in flight reimbursement records obtained inForney.com.

Myers alluded to the flights in a social media statement pitching the Bellagio PD on November 5, 2020 — two days after an inForney.com request seeking the flight details through a FOIA request with the City of Forney.

“Due to concerns about COVID it was suggested that we fly privately in order to limit exposure, which was interesting,' he stated.

Once the records were released, however, there was no mention from Grooms to former City Manager Anthony “Tony” Carson about COVID-19 and limiting the virus' exposure. Instead, Grooms said the developer had opted to fly via private jet to save time away from the metroplex.

Lack of quorum

The latest issues raised concerning Holler's conflicts of interest were during the most recent Forney Planning & Zoning Commission and Forney City Council meetings.

Due to two absences on the P&Z Commission, and Holler's abstentions on two items on the commission's agenda, the commission no longer had a quorum and was unable to take action or make a recommendation on the Adams Ranch PD preliminary plat or the Bellagio PD's final plat. Both items were subsequently approved by the council.

Response

inForney.com reached out to the City of Forney and Holler for comment prior to publication of this story.

In addition to her statements on her employment, Holler stated, “As is the goal of the City as a whole, I strive to adhere to every legal requirement I am aware of as I serve the city and maintain transparency.”

Asked whether she thought she could effectively serve as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission given the numerous conflicts of interest and recusals, Holler responded, “I do believe I can effectively serve as a member of the Commission, as is reflected by my attendance and involvement record since my appointment as well as by my voting record on matters not pertaining to those from which I have elected to abstain.”

Holler did not respond to our request for comment as it related to her inconsistent actions during her tenure on the commission.

inForney.com asked both Holler and the City of Forney for comment as it relates to offered training and best practices for incoming board members.

“Mr. Thatcher has provided training opportunities for the Planning & Zoning Commission during my time on the board, and I have attended and completed all offered trainings,” stated Holler.

“Staff for the City of Forney works to assist the individual public officials on the Council and its Boards and Commissions with the proper training and guidance to ensure that the local government processes are conducted properly and with open government and transparency in mind,” Thatcher responded. “It is a good practice to implement training opportunities for our local public officials as much as reasonably possible.”