Farmers Branch Pulls in the Welcome Mat
An artist's work is deemed inappropriate and yanked from the walls of the public library.
An 82-year-old woman faces jail time because she can't afford to pay $1,900 in code enforcement fines.
Hispanic activists scramble to educate parents after the city demands the names, addresses and phone numbers of every child enrolled in the local schools.
Welcome to Farmers Branch. One year after the city council landed in the national spotlight for efforts to ban illegal immigrants from apartments and declare English the official language, the aging suburb is evoking comparisons to Pleasantville, Beaver Cleaver's America or 1930s Germany, depending on your point of view.
While the illegal immigration ordinance passed by voters last spring is tied up in the courts, the city council is pushing ahead with other measures focused on such things as home maintenance, overcrowding and library conduct. At the helm of the agenda are Tim O'Hare, the council member who forced the immigration issue to the forefront, and his two new allies on the council, Tim Scott and David Koch. They say their goals are to protect homeowners' property values and ensure residents' safety and quality of life. But critics see an all-white, all-male city council hell-bent on purging Farmers Branch of any shred of diversity—be it racial, economic or philosophical.
"All of these activities seem to be directed toward the Latino community," says Travis Carter, who was involved in grassroots efforts to oppose the immigration ordinance. "At best, they are not in any way embracing the richness and diversity in that community and others like it in Texas. At worst, they're trying to take an entire community back in time."
David Koch calls such claims "hogwash." The councilman says the "same cast of characters" who opposed the immigration ordinance is vilifying separate measures that in any other town would be considered commonplace.
On October 11, as the council considered regulating paint colors on homes and discussed barring library access to "entertainment" Web sites such as YouTube and regulating library behavior—Koch said at a meeting that noisy children and videogames conflict with the council's "conservative and traditional values"—Scott sent out a mass e-mail to supporters. "Please know," he wrote, "that this city council and the city manager are hard at work carrying out the agenda that the voters overwhelmingly endorsed in the May election." The capstone of that agenda, which voters indeed supported at the polls, was the ordinance targeting illegal immigrants.
In late September, City Manager Gary Greer ordered several paintings removed from Manske Library's gallery. Ironically, the works, by Carrollton artist Alex Trevino, were inspired by the immigration debate and assembled in an exhibit titled "Clash of Cultures." Trevino was not available for comment, but he told The Dallas Morning News that the paintings related to personal experiences of racism as well as what he considers public resentment of Hispanics. One of the paintings showed a lion fighting an eagle, its claws and mouth dripping with the lion's blood.
Mayor Bob Phelps said people had complained about the works and that they weren't appropriate for children because of violence and nudity. "I think if it's offensive it shouldn't be in our library to start with," he said. "I heard from a couple people it was freedom of speech, but it's a matter of opinion."
Elizabeth Villafranca, a Farmers Branch business owner and activist, says the efforts to control self-expression through art, activity or language are an example of the council's overzealousness. She recalled that a little more than a year ago, council member Ben Robinson suggested banning all foreign language materials from the library. In an e-mail summarizing an August 2006 work session, he wrote: "Remove all foreign language books, CDs and periodicals. We should encourage use of the English language, not discourage it."
Council member Jim Smith takes issue with a number of the city's recent decisions, including the removal of Trevino's art. "I didn't care for it. I'm a Remington and Russell guy," he says. But, "I think it's a form of censorship." As for efforts to limit the library to local residents, monitor activities and deny access to certain Web sites, he says, "I think they oughta back off on the library, frankly."
Smith also has concerns about the city's stepped-up code enforcement, another of O'Hare's main priorities. Farmers Branch has hired an extra enforcement officer, bringing the total to six and making for more efficient and frequent inspections. Smith and other critics say poor and elderly people are being unfairly impacted. He's trying to work with the city to set aside $1,900 in penalties for an 82-year-old woman who can't afford to pay the fines because she lives on a fixed income of $1,000 a month, he says. There's a warrant out for her arrest. "They tell me the fine is because she had a shed in her yard that's not allowed and a light shining into someone else's home," Smith says. Meanwhile, the local Rotary Club is seeking help for an elderly couple who can't afford to paint their front porch posts as required in an enforcement notice.
To Villafranca, the city council seems to be trying to expel not only illegal immigrants but anyone it considers "undesirable."
In late September, she and representatives of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund were alarmed to find out the city council had requested the names and addresses of all children enrolled in local public schools, reportedly to address overcrowding in apartments and private homes.
Smith said he considered the request unnecessary. "I hear lots of concerns about the number of cars in the driveways—that's a problem," he says, "but I don't think the fact someone has four kids in the house with them is much of a problem."
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