Good fences

Don't always make good neighbors, especially in exclusive Flower Mound, where a nasty feud between the mayor and a newspaper publisher has blossomed into all-out war

Somewhere amidst the bad blood between Morris and DeLuca, a few Voters United members took it upon themselves to strike at their greatest irritant: The Messenger. Several Flower Mound workers and business owners reported to Morris that VU was on a mission to shut down the newspaper.

Bobbye Meek, former marketing director of Southwest Land and Title in Flower Mound, says some well-known members of Voters United--whom she declined to name--contacted area businesses and indicated that they would, as a group, boycott businesses that advertised in The Messenger. The intent, she says, was to undermine the paper's income and force it to shut down.

"The Messenger, regardless of how controversial it is, has proven to be a very effective vehicle for advertisers as it tends to be very well read," Meek says. "It is Flower Mound information and news, so as a business person, you look to communicate with the citizens."

Attorney Donna Morris, publisher of Flower Mound's bimonthly newspaper The Messenger, uses her editorial space to take frequent potshots at the mayor and her allies in Voters United, a political group that wants to control growth in Flower Mound.
Attorney Donna Morris, publisher of Flower Mound's bimonthly newspaper The Messenger, uses her editorial space to take frequent potshots at the mayor and her allies in Voters United, a political group that wants to control growth in Flower Mound.

Most VU members, Meek says, don't care much about politics or support the boycott concept. But she remembers having a conversation with Voters United member Steve Webb at a local deli. It was a casual encounter, but he did hint at some strange stuff. "He simply said, 'Heads up. This is coming down the pike. They're going to boycott advertisers.' I told him I advertise in The Messenger. He said, 'I know.'"

Webb refused comment when asked to tell his side of the story, and instead directed all questions to his lawyer, Kent Hofmeister, who didn't return phone calls from the Dallas Observer. But Mayor DeLuca and court records confirm that Webb, acting on his own, made threats to the business community, claiming he represented Voters United as a whole.

When Morris found out about the threatened boycott, she was furious. Morris didn't want anyone tampering with the paper's revenue, and she had good reason: She'd already sunk more than $100,000 into her project. She fired off a letter on behalf of Covenant Publishing, publisher of The Messenger, to Voters United, stating that: "Demand is hereby made that the organization and each of its members cease and desist from any further contacts. In the event that you fail to do so, rest assured that suit will be filed."

Voters United-aligned town Councilman Jim Cook took Morris' letter and wrote on the bottom: "Do you want your business to be associated with this sort of thing?" He then mailed it to all of The Messenger's advertisers.

Morris' own actions, DeLuca says, were less than aboveboard. "She sent the letter pretending to have been hired by Covenant Publishing to represent them and everything, pretending like she wasn't the owner," DeLuca says. Morris, however, is Covenant Publishing--the name for the company that puts out The Messenger. She printed her letter on Morris and Morris stationery and stated she represents Covenant, which is a sly way of saying she represents herself.

Morris did make good on her threat to sue Voters United, claiming the organization unlawfully interfered with her business relationships with advertisers. In late March, Denton County Judge Donald R. Windle granted a temporary injunction against Steve Webb, who is prohibited from approaching advertisers about the boycott. The judge said in his ruling that Webb "went over the line" by threatening a boycott and claiming that he represented Voters United as a whole. "It's terrible," the judge said. "...It's over the line. He ought to know it." VU President Vikki Fulfer was ordered to write a letter to the members of Voters United and warn them about the injunction against Webb. As for Councilman Cook, the judge deemed his actions basically harmless.

The judge didn't find any evidence that Voters United, the organization, acted outside of its First Amendment rights as a political action committee. He even expressed a bit of sympathy for DeLuca and her fellow elected officials. "Flower Mound...has been a hotbed of controversy for a long time," he said from the bench. "The way you can get seriously criticized is get elected mayor of Flower Mound or be on the city council or anything else, because there are huge divergences of opinion in that town."

Both Morris and DeLuca insist their sides won. DeLuca points out that Voters United is basically off the hook; Morris points to the injunction against Webb as her victory and gloats about Fulfer's letter of penance.

Lost amidst the recriminations is the irony that Morris, so vigorous in exercising her First Amendment rights to publish what is, in fact, a rather sophomoric newspaper, quickly took severe measures to counteract the efforts of Voters United members to express their displeasure with The Messenger. The judge noted this clash of First Amendment interests in his ruling.

Morris is, at best, a problematic poster child for a free press; she admits she's declined to publish in her newspaper either of the two letters to the editor she's received from Voters United supporters.

Bad feelings remain as Morris' lawsuit grinds on, with the attorney watching to see whether she suffers any real damages from the threatened boycott. Meanwhile, most Flower Mound residents opt to keep their distance from the feud. "People are funny," Bobbye Meek observes. "They are creatures of habit, and they do business with people they want to do business with. Because the mayor and the editor of this paper don't see eye to eye politically is not going to cause the average citizen to discontinue their daily business."
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