Standing in a small Lake Dallas City Council room, Julie Mathews raised her right hand to take the oath of office as the newly elected mayor of the growing city on the shores of Lewisville Lake. It’s a familiar scene for the 40 residents gathered on this Thursday evening in late May, one that Mathews herself had experienced as a newly elected council member in June 2015 before the dark times when her fellow members turned against her and removed her from office just a week after she took her oath.
Mathews, a government teacher at a local community college, had sought her council seat nearly a year ago because she felt her city leaders had failed. Running on a ballot of change, she won the election by a landslide, bringing her running mates — Andi Nolan and Steve Forgey — with her to the council to make a change that voters sought.
Their partnership would not last, and Nolan and Forgey soon joined former Mayor Anthony “Tony” Marino, former council members Mike McCaleb and April Estrada and Nick Ristagno, who once ruled Lake Dallas as both the police chief and city manager, and quickly forced Mathews out of office and, some say, killing democracy in the process.
“What I saw was an attempt by my city to disregard the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” Mathews told the Denton Record-Chronicle. “That shows the ignorance of my government leadership and should be wholly frightening to every citizen in Lake Dallas. It was a witch hunt.”
Ristagno and his cohorts charged Mathews with violating the Lake Dallas charter for issuing directives in an email to city employees (Ristagno and Joni Vaughn, the city secretary). But they had planned her removal before she took her oath of office. Shortly after Mathews took her oath, McCaleb read a prepared statement, which the city later posted on its website:
“Mrs. Mathews has, for a period of nearly two years, waged personal and malicious attacks on members of the Lake Dallas government and its administration that were nothing more than calculated lies intended to turn public sentiment against the City in order to aid her bid for an elected office.”
Before seeking office, Mathews dared to evoke her right as a private citizen and create a Facebook page called “Citizen Chapman” in early 2014. Evoking the ol' town crier, she began posting documents, images and videos that highlighted the incompetence of city leaders from the former mayor’s drunken antics that led to a 911 call to his use of city staff and equipment to offload his commercial waste. She also began uploading caricatures of Ristagno wearing a diaper and Marino’s head on the body of a large brown rat.
Mathews also pointed out that Ristagno was basically serving as his own boss since he worked as both the city manager and police chief. In a home-rule city like Lake Dallas, the city manager hires and fires the police chief. The Texas Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion stating that this type of dual role isn’t allowed since the City Council only meets periodically, leaving the city manager/police chief to run things as he sees fit, but the decision by the city led Mathews to resign her position in the city's communications department in October 2013.
Residents soon started reading and posting comments to her page, urging their “town crier” to delve further into Ristagno’s past, which revealed old Dallas Morning News articles that highlighted multiple accusations of misconduct against Ristagno when he worked at The Colony Police Department in the '90s. Other residents took to posting their disgust with their city leaders on local newspapers' websites.
"Lake Dallas is a corrupt municipality and has been for years," one resident wrote. "The city has been boycotted. They rely on fictitious speeding tickets and other civil rights violations from people passing through their city. What a bunch of leeches!!! Disgusting people!!!"
Not everyone agrees that Ristagno and other city leaders were a bunch of bloodsuckers. Some residents pointed out that their police chief/city manager had helped to pull the city out of debt. They claimed that Mathews didn’t really win by a landslide since hardly anyone showed up to vote; yet voters rarely turn out to vote in local or state elections.
“Your caricatures of him [Ristagno] in diapers are sickening,” one resident wrote. “He has helped more folks in his life than you will ever know.”
Ristagno couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mathews filed a lawsuit against the city soon after her removal but later dropped it because she could no longer afford to fight against an entity with a "taxpayer purse" at its disposall. When election season rolled around earlier this year, Mathews wasn’t sure if she wanted to seek a bid for mayor. In February, she created a Facebook page called “Elect Julie Mathews.”
“How much more can I be beat up?” was never too far from her mind as she hit the campaign trail.
In late May, Mathews’ former running mates, Nolan and Forgey, watched silently from the dais as she repeated each word of the oath with conviction. It’s unclear what Nolan thinks about Mathews' election, but Forgey can’t be happy. He didn’t support her bid for office and even went so far as to support a former council member, James Harper, who was seeking re-election.
Forgey, whom residents tried to recall in January, also took to Facebook to post his disgust with his former running mate, calling her a liar and his supporters claiming that she and her supporters were trying to divide the city.
Most of the former council who sought Mathews’ removal are no longer on the council. The former mayor, Tony Marino, resigned shortly after Mathews was removed from office. Ristagno, who now serves as police chief and interim city manager, is the only member of the old guard still remaining, and he’s set to retire sometime between July and January 2017.
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Once she finished her mayoral oath, Mathews gave the oath of office to two newly elected council members before she took her place among her colleagues in the center of the dais. She looeds comfortable and confident as she moves forward with city business, following agenda items as if she’s done this duty a hundred times before.
Ristagno is unusually helpful as he assists newly elected council member who’s struggling to understand one of the agenda items. It seems as if the past year of discord has evaporated, as if everything is as it should be in Lake Dallas.
Or as one resident put it — the people’s voice was finally heard.