Dallas: Illegal immigrant rental ban blocked

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Jan 13 14:36:05 UTC 2007

Illegal immigrant rental ban blocked

Judge issues temporary order after claims that FB council violated open
meetings act

12:00 AM CST on Friday, January 12, 2007

By STEPHANIE SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News

A state district court judge has temporarily blocked Farmers Branch from
implementing a controversial ordinance banning apartment owners from
leasing to illegal immigrants. The action Thursday came amid a flurry of
legal activity involving the city ordinance that was scheduled to take
effect today. Judge Bruce Priddy of the 116th District Court issued the
temporary restraining order in response to a request from resident
Guillermo Ramos.  Mr. Ramos sued the city in December, alleging the City
Council violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by conducting all of its
deliberations on the immigration ordinance behind closed doors, then
voting before residents could see the text of the ordinance and comment on
it. On Monday, the council agreed to let voters decide in May whether to
keep the ordinance but planned to enforce the measure in the interim.

Accompanying the request for the restraining order was a sworn affidavit
from Mr. Ramos alleging that city officials debated the ordinance and
discussed their potential votes outside the public eye. An affidavit from
another resident alleges that Mayor Bob Phelps said he tried to persuade
council members to vote against the ordinance and that two of them were
pressured to vote for it by council member Tim O'Hare, the driving force
behind the city's measures against illegal immigrants. Mr. Phelps denied
the allegations in the affidavit on Thursday. "I didn't tell him any such
thing," Mr. Phelps said before declining to speak further about the
restraining order or the allegations in the affidavits. Mr. O'Hare denied
pressuring his fellow council members to support the ordinance.

New lawsuit

Also on Thursday, a group of merchants filed a fourth lawsuit against the
city over the ordinance, adopted Nov. 13. The new suit alleges the
ordinance and a companion resolution making English the city's official
language have made Hispanics afraid to go to Farmers Branch and are
hurting the merchants' businesses. The suit seeks damages for loss of
revenue and future profits. On Wednesday, representatives of the American
Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Mexican American Legal Defense and
Educational Fund also petitioned a court for a temporary restraining order
blocking the ordinance. The two civil rights groups have sued the city,
saying the ordinance is unconstitutional. Marisol Perez, a staff attorney
with the defense fund, said Thursday that the two groups were awaiting a
hearing on the request but did not expect the federal court to issue a
temporary restraining order since the state district court did.

Another suit involves three of the city's largest apartment complexes. It
also charges that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it targets an
ethnic group Hispanics and interferes with the ability of the apartment
complexes to conduct business. The restraining order issued Thursday is
effective until Jan. 22, when a court hearing is scheduled on a request in
the same case for a temporary injunction until the case goes to trial.
"We're obviously gratified," said William Brewer III, partner in the
Bickel & Brewer Storefront, the attorneys representing Mr. Ramos and the
three apartment complexes that have sued the city.

"We allege and believe the ordinances were fully deliberated upon and
discussed over a period of many weeks by City Council members, drafts were
exchanged back and forth, etc., all in a back room, all in back channel,
not in front of their constituents," Mr. Brewer said. "Rather than just an
unwitting violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, what occurred here was
an intentional disregard of the obligations imposed on [public officials]
under that act." City Attorney Matthew Boyle didn't return phone calls
Thursday but has said he can't comment on pending litigation.

Alleged conversations

Mr. O'Hare said he wasn't surprised by the restraining order. "It's only a
14-day order, or until a hearing is held, so I will defer to the judge's
wisdom and would hope that at the hearing on Jan. 22, the stay will be
lifted so the will of the people of Farmers Branch can be carried out,"
Mr. O'Hare said. He was concerned by some of the mayor's alleged
conversations outlined in the affidavit by resident Tony Salerno. Mr.
Salerno said the mayor told him the day after the council adopted the
apartment ordinance that the mayor had attempted to get council members to
vote against the ordinance. The affidavit stated Mr. Phelps told Mr.
Salerno that he thought the vote would go 3-2 against the ordinance, but
that council members Bill Moses and Charlie Bird "were ultimately
pressured by fellow Councilman Tim O'Hare to vote in favor of the

Mr. O'Hare said Thursday that he never pressured anyone to vote for the
ordinance. "These guys are grown men, fully capable of making their own
decisions,"  he said, "and they did what they thought was right after
listening to multitudes of residents ask them to pass it." Mr. Salerno
also said Mr. Phelps assured him that as mayor he did not have a vote on
the council and that Mr. Salerno should not hold the passage of the
ordinance against him or take his insurance business elsewhere. "I have no
idea if Mayor Phelps said any of the things that are contained in the
affidavit," Mr. O'Hare said. "But if he did, I'm extremely disappointed."

English language policy

The affidavit also notes a conversation Mr. Salerno said he had with
council member Jim Smith on Saturday, two days before the decision to put
the ordinance to a public vote. Mr. Salerno said Mr. Smith told him he
voted for the ordinance only after other council members agreed not to
make the English language policy apply to libraries and recreation
centers. "I don't remember that," Mr. Smith said Thursday. "I don't know.
I've just got to consult an attorney before I say anything more." Spanish
signs have since been removed from city libraries, and a Spanish-language
TV channel in no longer available to rec center users. The affidavit from
Mr. Ramos also cites several media reports that he says indicate the
council has continued to debate issues related to the ordinance before
meetings or only during closed session.

E-mail ssandoval at dallasnews.com



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