Text messages show Tarrant Regional Water District security closely monitoring people attending a public meeting and describing one man as “a skunk looking to get kicked.”
Fort Worth resident Thomas Torlincasi said he learned of their actions through a Texas Public Information Act request he made for text messages between district employees he felt were trying to intimidate and monitor him.
The text messages from the board’s July 28 meeting show the employees using poop emojis to describe Torlincasi, calling him a troll and writing, “Don’t give him a reason to spray.”
“It’s middle-school nonsense, but a lot of it has some serious implications and civil rights violations,” Torlincasi, a Fort Worth small business owner, said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report on Thursday. “It’s also real reflective of the culture. It makes you wonder, ‘What are they hiding in general?’
Water District General Manager Dan Buhman could not be immediately reached for comment, but district spokesman Chad Lorance wrote in a statement that visitors are asked to sign in and the police are present for security.
“We are also aware of the text messages, and, as a result, are working with staff to ensure the public we serve are always treated with respect, and have a pleasant experience when they visit any water district facility,” Lorance wrote.
Lorance did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether it was appropriate for the employees to run a background check on Torlincasi and what the threshold is to run a background check on someone who comes to speak at the board meetings.
Board president Leah King had not read the text messages or talked with employees and so could not say if running Torlincasi’s license plate was appropriate. However, she added, if it is standard practice to run the plates on every person who comes to the meetings, she did not know why that would be necessary.
“To me, if you are attending a public meeting, you have every right to be there and every right to expect to be there without being harassed or anything like that,” King said.
District patrol officer Randy Johnston ran Torlincasi’s plate. Records show he is one of seven people who hold the title of patrol officer with the district. One person is listed as a patrol sergeant.
Johnston was getting instructions from David Geary, a reservoir manager. Johnston, Geary, Victoria Bailey, emergency management and security operations coordinator; Adam Lewis, public safety communications specialist; and Rick Odom, a patrol sergeant, had a group text where they discussed the comings and goings of people from the public meeting.
At one point, Johnston shared with the group a physical description of a man not realizing he worked in the district’s IT department.
Torlincasi, who regularly speaks during the public comment portion of Fort Worth City Council meetings, said he decided to request text messages because his first interaction with water district staff was tense. He arrived at the meeting 30 minutes early, told the employee at the front desk who asked him to sign in that the law did not require him to do so, and then Patrol Officer Laramie LaRue ran his license plate, he said.
The text messages show the employees keyed in on Torlincasi from that point on.
“He’s going to be an issue, I think,” Johnston wrote, “already b-tching.”
During the meeting, Torlincasi used his three-minute public comment to push the board to implement a policy limiting when the district enters into no-bid contracts. A lot of the district’s projects are done incrementally and therefore not competitively bid, meaning the work is going to the same pool of contractors, he said.
He also told the board then that he didn’t think it was right that the district’s administrative offices were locked and that people attending a public meeting had to sign in.
“I represent literally almost a million people who can’t get here in the morning at 9 a.m and jump through all these extra layers that are not required at other public meetings. … Once again, it’s this,” he said, holding up fake poop to illustrate his point.
The board is next scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the district’s offices, 800 E. Northside Drive in Fort Worth.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.