Taxpayers expect elected officials to spend tax dollars wisely and to be good stewards of the public's money. When Fox 4 got a tip that Precinct 1 in Tarrant County was working on private property, Fox started asking questions.
Every county commissioner is responsible for maintaining and improving the roads and bridges in his precinct.
In late April, Fox watched a Tarrant County crew work for hours along a rural county road. To a passerby, the crew appeared hard at work removing a fence and trees. An insider told Fox 4 the crew was working on private property and it was not the first time.
"Was that a county fence?" Reporter Becky Oliver asked Commissioner Roy Brooks of Precinct 1.
"No, it was the landowner's fence," Brooks replied.
"So why would the county remove a landowner's fence?" Oliver asked.
"Because our trees had become entangled in the fence," Brooks said.
Commissioner Brooks told Fox 4 the trees were county trees because some were rooted on the public right-of-way. But the county did not just trim the trees back. After the fence and trees were bulldozed, the debris was piled up on the private property. The crews were out there all day. Brooks told Fox 4 there was no problem. He had permission from the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office to do the job.
"Before we undertook the project, we cleared it with the District Attorney's Office. They cleared it, so we went out and did the work we are paid to do as road maintenance people," Brooks said.
Fox 4 had been at the ranch the day before the fence removal. The public right-of-way was not obstructed. It was neatly mowed and maintained. Some of the fence was clear and most of the trees and brush were clearly growing right along the fence line.
"Why was the entire fence cleared?" Oliver asked.
"Because that was the recommendation," Brooks responded.
"From the DA's office?" Oliver questioned.
"Uhuh," said Brooks, indicating yes.
"Was to clear the entire fence?" Oliver asked.
"Uhuh," Brooks said.
Brooks told us he had documentation from the DA but he didn't have it with him. Fox asked him if you could provide a copy of that documentation and recommendation.
"It is not up to me to write your story for you by calling you back and providing you with information," Brooks said.
Fox 4 was certainly not asking Brooks to write the story, just asking for what this elected official assured Fox he had.
Fox 4 filed a Texas Open Records Request seeking the information and waited the 10 days for the response. The DA's office got back with Fox but there was no documentation and no recommendation about fence removal on the ranch. The DA only released emails between the ranch manager and the commissioner's office that show the ranch was building a "new fence" and was asking the county to consider "assisting" the ranch to "take down" the fence and "pile up the trees" on the ranch property.
"The county does not assist private individuals on private land," said David Brooks, an expert on Texas County Government. David Brooks wrote a 3 volume series that is used by civil courts and the Texas Attorney General's Office. He was referred to Fox by the Institute of County Government at Texas A&M University. Fox showed Brooks photos of the work being conducted by the county.
"Trees grow along fences all over the state," Brooks said.
"I have never heard of anybody saying a private fence has to be taken down because county trees are growing into the fence. It borders on the absurd. If I were the auditor of Tarrant County, I would not approve the checks for this piece of work."
Brooks told Fox there has to be a public purpose to use public money.
"It is a private fence. If that fence is going to be improved or taken down or repaired, it has to be done at private expense," Brooks said.
The Winscott Ranch is located in Southwest Tarrant County. Records show it is owned by billionaire Ed Bass. The State Ethics Commission also shows Bass made two contributions to Commissioner Brook's campaign for $5000 each in 2012. Bass did not return Fox 4's call.
The day the Fox 4 photographer took the video of the crews working, he was sitting on the county road. Around noon, Fox 4's tipster told Fox the commissioner's office had spotted the truck and called the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office. The Fox 4 photographer left before deputies arrived at the scene. Later that day, the Fox 4 helicopter noticed an asphalt crew nearby that wasn't there earlier in the day.
A county worker, who didn't want his face shown for fear of retaliation, told Fox he was working miles away when a supervisor called the crew and told them to stop and quickly move over to that rural road and start putting down asphalt.
"Was there a sense of urgency to get over there?" Oliver asked.
"Very, very urgent," said the worker. "We did not even bring all the tools with us. The roller drove about 5-6 miles on the highway where they are going 60 miles per hour.
The worker told Fox the crew never even prepared the road.
"It wasn't level at all. It was not done in a professional way. It was all just sloppy, sloppy work," the worker said.
We asked the commissioner what was going on.
"I am going to look into it. I may or may not get back to you about it," said Commissioner Brooks.
"Why would you not get back with us about it?" Oliver asked.
"Because it is an internal matter as far as I am concerned," Brooks said.
Commissioner Brooks never got back with Fox 4 about the asphalt crew but he did send an email saying he needed to "clarify" his statement regarding the communication with the DA's office. Turns out, there was no documentation and no recommendation from the DA's office about his specific project.
He told Fox 4 his office had consulted with the DA on another project involving trees and private property on April 1st but in that case the DA's office told the commissioner if a tree is a "danger or threat to some private property improvement, it would be best to remove the branches" but only if the tree "poses a real problem" or if it could cause damage, "like hypothetically, if the tree fell."
There is no advice about removing an entire fence.
"Again it is absurd to think that the county is obligated because there are trees that may be rooted in the county right of way growing into the fence," David Brooks said. "That is not an obligation of the county."
"Someone needs to step up to the plate and do something about it. We are sick of it," said the worker.
Commissioner Brooks told Fox 4 clearing brush along fence lines is a well-established process that is used throughout Tarrant County.
He told Fox 4 his office called the sheriff because it was after the Boston bombing and he thought our photographer, parked on a county road, might be a terrorist.
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