The Muckraker of Coppell
Ticketgate was about to unravel in Coppell.
Late one night in early June, Arthur Kwast, the resident gadfly of this shiny suburb northwest of Dallas, was sitting in his house when the phone rang.
The caller, talking in furtive tones, detailed how a prominent merchant in town had gotten a $55 ticket for parking in the fire zone behind her restaurant.
The indignant restaurant owner called a city councilwoman, who phoned the city manager and told him "not to make waves" with the merchant who had done so much good for the city. The city manager dutifully passed the message on to the city attorney, who authorized the ticket to be dismissed.
From that first phone call, Kwast couldn't wait to share the dirty deal with Kent Moore--the scourge or savior of Coppell, depending on your point of view.
For the last year and a half, Moore, a 40-year-old, balding, bespectacled former synthesizer salesman and bankrupt atheist, had earned a reputation for defending Coppell residents' right to know on the pages of his nascent North Texas Community Journal, with its headquarters in the Moore family laundry room.
Moore had taken the city to task on one issue after another--crazy, small-town petty political issues that nonetheless were impeding the city's progress while costing taxpayers a bundle of money.
There was the business of the city firing several firemen right on the heels of their unsuccessful fight for civil service--an action that to Moore and other citizens smelled of retaliation. The firefighters sued the city and settled for $141,000. One firefighter was reinstated, all were cleared of any wrongdoing, and the fire chief and the city manager, not-so-coincidentally, left shortly thereafter.
Moore chronicled a landowner's four-year struggle to get the city to provide an adequate water supply to a restaurant and bar on his property--which the city had annexed years earlier. Stubborn city leaders refused to put in the $45,000 water line, even after a state district court judge ordered them to do so. Then the city turned around and tried to close down the bar on the grounds it was a fire hazard, because it didn't have enough water pressure for a fire hose.
The ensuing legal battle, recently settled in the landowner's favor, cost the city four times the original price of the water main.
So it came as a shock to Kwast when Moore turned down the opportunity to pursue Ticketgate.
Wedged between the General Electric washer and dryer in his makeshift newspaper office, Moore had listened intently to the portly, intense Kwast--an engineer by trade--when he passed on his tip. But a few days later, Moore called Kwast with a surprising response. Coppell's muckraker told Kwast he wasn't going to do the story. Someone inside city hall had told him not to--too many innocent people would be hurt.
"When I asked him, 'What innocent people?' he wouldn't answer," Kwast says. "Then he began philosophizing about the noble lie and relative truths on the planet Mars and how I just wasn't on his intellectual level. So I hung up."
The two men didn't speak the rest of the summer.
To understand Moore's apparent journalistic failure you have to understand the tangled political underbrush of a small but rapidly expanding city, rife with competing interests, withering internecine feuds, and petty power plays.
In Coppell two factions regularly clash. The first is the power elite, citizens who volunteer their time to help the city grow and to improve its quality of life--and make sure that only the city's best face is put forward.
Then there is the Breakfast Club, a Greek chorus of resident cynics and critics. Led by Arthur Kwast, they meet each morning at the local McDonald's to drink coffee, chew over city politics, and sniff out scandals. The power elite sees the Breakfast Club as reveling in the city's blemishes and rejoicing in its stumbles. Worse, the club points them out to the world through press leaks or letters to the editors of local newspapers.
Not surprisingly, the Breakfast Club--composed of disgruntled city employees and older residents who see their activities as the basic duty of a citizen--has not endeared itself to the power elite, which has contemptuously dubbed them "Team Wacko."
"Government never answers criticism, it just ruins the credibility of the critic," says Moore, who learned that lesson himself--the hard way.
It was, in part, to give a voice to people like the Breakfast Club members--groups outside of Coppell's power loop whose concerns were mostly ignored or ridiculed by city leaders and the local press--that Moore decided a year and a half ago to launch his "journal of community voices."
The project was a pretty nervy undertaking for a middle-aged guy who had just filed personal bankruptcy, had no journalism experience, and had a young daughter and wife to help support. Not to mention that he would be starting a monthly paper in a town already covered by three entrenched weekly newspapers--an astonishing number, considering Coppell has only 25,000 residents.
Moore viewed two of the papers--The Coppell Gazette and Citizens' Advocate--as simply civic boosters, and the third, Metrocrest News--as a bland link in the suburban chain owned by Belo Corp., parent company of The Dallas Morning News.
The monthly Moore created is a hybrid of small town newspaper staples: cute-kid photo contests, fireman-of-the-month features, and a collection of "seen and heard" columns from local residents. Onto that fluffy base, Moore grafted hard-edged coverage of suburban issues and imbroglios that civic leaders would just as soon not see in print--like coverage of a former mayor being sued for slandering a member of the Breakfast Club.
His paper averages 16 to 20 pages a week and has the largest local circulation, with 10,000 delivered--to every home in town. Though the paper has a good chunk of advertising--from local realty companies, restaurants and stores--Moore has yet to make any money. He just about breaks even.
Since starting the North Texas Community Journal, Moore works tirelessly six days a week--stopping briefly on Saturdays to allow a few loads of laundry to be done. For his efforts, he has received the wrath of local politicians, the scorn of other journalists, and threats of libel suits. Several elected officials even tried talking businesses into pulling their ads from the paper, Moore claims.
Last spring, Moore awoke one morning to find a hundred issues of his paper dumped on the front lawn of the house he and his family rent. And, in what would became part of one of his infamous crusades, he also discovered 50 of his newspapers purloined from city hall just an hour after he delivered them. The only people on the premises at the time had been the seven city council members and the mayor, meeting in executive session.
Then came the ultimate indignity: Last May, an outgoing councilman presented Moore with a gimme cap embroidered with "Breakfast Club a.k.a. Team Wacko."
"I worked for 14 months to improve my community and all I get is a hat," sniffs Moore, still smarting.
So when Arthur Kwast came along in June with his Ticketgate scoop, Moore was ground to a nub, discouraged, and ready to quit. Kwast put Moore in a personal dilemma: did he protect the city he loved or print a juicy scandal?
At first, to Kwast's astonishment, the muckraker decided to go with civic pride.
Moore wrestled with the conflict all summer. Then, finally, he got some powerful validation for his past muckraking efforts. The national Society of Professional Journalists, the business' heavyweights, awarded him its prestigious Sunshine Award, "for important contributions in the continuing fight for open government." The wood and brass plaque hangs proudly over the G.E. dryer.
Sandy Ryder, a former journalist from California and relative newcomer to Coppell, where she works in corporate public relations, had nominated Moore for his doggedness.
"What this guy was doing was really wild," Ryder says. "He was the only one writing about local government in depth. And only when he started publishing it, did people start talking about it. No one has had the courage to do what Kent has done, to take on all this stuff.
"And bless his heart, he is trying to do it from his laundry room. What a scream."
Moore received the SPJ award in September at its annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee. It was an impressive gathering of journalists, including NBC's Jane Pauley, the guest speaker. Moore returned to Coppell a reconstructed muckraker.
After being admonished by a colleague at the conference for caving in to the Coppell mayor on Ticketgate, Moore ran with it as soon as he came back. It was a juicy story that would get even juicier amid allegations of a cover-up and demands for an investigation. The mayor hired a Dallas lawyer, who determined no illegal activity had taken place. Nevertheless, the ticket was reinstated.
But by then, the $55 parking ticket wound up costing the city of Coppell $15,000 in outside legal costs, most of which was spent fighting Arthur Kwast's open record requests.
In early October, Moore sits at his desk in the cramped laundry room and makes endless, mind-numbing, highfalutin references to philosophers Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, Alexis de Tocqueville and Socrates--whose books he keeps on a nearby shelf--to explain his mission.
He talks about the free press being the only guarantee of democracy, about how the press must defend democracy from autocratic leaders who, because they are human, can't help being "ambitious, vindictive and rapacious," he explains, quoting Alexander Hamilton.
"To which I might add paranoid and dictatorial," he says.
Ironically, Moore's critics use the same words to describe him. His detractors--mostly other journalists and politicians--complain that his attacks on city hall and competing news outlets have been irrational and mean-spirited. Their biggest criticism is that he is on a self-important mission to slay dragons, but he bags only dragonflies.
And now, despite his change of heart on Ticketgate, Moore is being battered with criticism from a new direction--the Breakfast Club. Kwast, once his staunchest supporter and best source--complains that Moore is backing off his watchdog role.
"The guy is like a paranoid chameleon, running back and forth on a checkerboard," says Kwast, who says he's never sure what side Moore is on--the people or the power elite. "It's funny watching him change colors."
Kwast was angry that Moore wouldn't print a column Kwast wanted to write explaining why Ticketgate wasn't a frivolous issue. "Kwast just doesn't know when to quit," explains Moore.
Moore argues his aggressive paper has forced the city government to clean up its act and has put the other newspapers in town on the right track. "The war is over and the people won," is Moore's answer to the Breakfast Club.
It seems that Kent Moore can't win. One camp is angry at him for hunting dragons. But the other camp denounces him for not swatting gnats.
But Coppell's muckraker accepts it all philosophically. People in government are going to make mistakes, he figures, and you can't call them on every one.
As his wife Linda, an English teacher at Coppell High, points out, "If both sides are mad at you, we must be doing something right."
Moore can take some solace in the fact that Coppell, which has taken as a motto, "The city with a beautiful future," has a way of taming its critics and tidying up its muckrakers.
The city with a beautiful future also has a bright, shiny present. Coppell, with its population of relatively young professionals, boasts high student test scores and a low crime rate. Then there's Coppell's dark side. Many of its residents see Coppell as an embattled haven, the critics say, so much so that the town allegedly manipulated its zoning to block the construction of a government-funded low-income housing project.
"We're the Vidor of the suburbs," complains Kwast.
The project's developers slapped the city with a $13 million lawsuit.
Bounded on all sides by natural and man-made barriers, such as Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Coppell is a city whose sprawl is naturally limited. As a result, it has managed to keep a unified community feel, unlike many of the suburban cities nearby. The tony east side is chock-a-block with new, large brick homes--the average price of which is $200,000--shoehorned onto tiny lots.
In the early 1980s, when Coppell's population started to increase and developers began sniffing around, then-mayor Andy Brown, now a GTE executive, saw the opportunity to create what he called "a dream city," modeled after Scottsdale, Arizona.
From its paving-stone intersections, white-banistered bridges, and lamp posts to its large community park, many of Coppell's amenities are the legacy of the Brown regime.
But Brown left a murkier tradition as well. He ran city hall with an autocratic hand, making many public decisions behind closed doors. His critics also accused him of being too cozy with the largest developer in town, Univest. Just when the leading newspaper at the time, The Coppell Star, began to dig into these issues, it underwent an ownership change. Later, residents learned it had been bought, in part, by Univest.
Jean Murph was a reporter for the Star back then. After trying to buy the paper herself, she quit to start her own crusading newspaper, the Citizens' Advocate. The daughter of former Texas Governor Price Daniel--a fact she did not publicize--Murph set out to take on city hall. She wrote about the mayor's myriad violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act and about the city firing all its police officers in one fell swoop, and then exposed all of the special deals the mayor had cut with Univest--behind closed doors.
In a spectacular scoop, Citizens' Advocate also uncovered the fact that a certain parcel of land the city had inexplicably slated for an industrial park, thereby qualifying it for tremendous tax breaks, was partly owned by Mayor Brown.
The Advocate's stories helped turn Brown out of office in 1984.
Ten years later, Jean Murph's Citizens' Advocate is the official paper of Coppell, the one in which the city places its bidding notices and legal advertising. To many critics, it has become a part of the problem. Kent Moore claims that the Advocate over the years has become too protective of the local power structure and has become complacent--an allegation Murph steadfastly denies.
On one thing everyone agrees: there is no shortage of political intrigue in Coppell.
As Kevin Shay, a journalist who covered Coppell for two years as a reporter for the Metrocrest News and is now an editor with the Arlington News, puts it: "It's a weird little town. There is always some issue for people to get riled up about in Coppell."
Kent Moore went through some sea changes on his way to becoming an award-winning muckraker. When Moore moved to Coppell in 1989, to become the southwestern United States district manager for a synthesizer company, he found a city that welcomed civic involvement. A business and music major from Kentucky, he jumped right in. He served on the local cable board, started a community band, was president of his homeowner's association and worked on several political campaigns.
In the early 1990s, though, he lost his job due to corporate downsizing. While he tried several different professional ventures, he also began writing a column, "Moore on Coppell," for the Coppell Gazette, owned by the Harte-Hanks chain. By Moore's own admission, he was anything but critical. "Moore on Coppell" was an upbeat, rah-rah kind of column that toed the power elite's line. For instance, Moore sided in print with the city in its fight against the local firefighters and police officers' campaign for fairer personnel practices through establishing a civil service.
The city at the time was under attack by the Breakfast Club, which included firefighters in its informal membership. Kwast and others were sending letters to the local papers berating them for not reporting another embarrassing lawsuit the city had lost, this one to a home builder who accused Coppell of double-billing for sewer hookups.
In response, city leaders launched their own letter-writing campaign and enlisted Moore and his column to discredit the Breakfast Club, which they considered a fringe element interested only in bringing the community down. In an effort to discredit Kwast, always the most vocal of the Breakfast Clubbers, the mayor erroneously told the council during its weekly meeting at city hall that Kwast was just a bitter man who had been removed from the Board of Adjustment several years earlier, after his actions on the board got the city into a lawsuit. Kwast had in fact been removed from the board, ostensibly for having a belligerent attitude. But the lawsuit in question had been filed before Kwast ever served on the board.
Through the battle, Kent Moore was city hall's mouthpiece. But when the three firefighters settled their lawsuit with the city, he had an epiphany. Going back over the events, Moore says he realized that the city line had been wrong and the firefighters had been mistreated.
Moore went down to McDonald's and apologized to the firefighters and to the Breakfast Club. He wrote a column about the city's inability to admit mistakes.
"I quickly learned that government doesn't apologize," he says. "I learned that what they were telling me about the Breakfast Club wasn't true. All they [the Breakfast Club] wanted was open government, for city officials to obey the law and to treat people right. Our city council had a hard time doing that."
In April 1993, two weeks before the city election, a councilman introduced a prayer resolution, which Moore considered an act of demagoguery. An avowed atheist, Moore spoke out against the resolution at the next city council meeting. His change in status in the eyes of the city leaders became clear when two council members told him they voted for the resolution just so people wouldn't think they were agreeing with him.
Shortly thereafter, Moore says, the Gazette began waffling on its support of his column and he quit. (Moore believes his editors were under pressure from the city council but offers no proof. His editor at the time is no longer with the Gazette and could not be reached for comment.)
By then, Moore had been out of a steady day job for three years. He became a stockbroker for a while, then worked for a musical instruments store--but couldn't make enough money at either to support his family and make his house payment.
On July 4, 1993, while watching the annual Coppell Fourth of July Parade, Moore turned to his wife and told her he had decided what to do with his life--start his own newspaper. He had already filed bankruptcy and sold his Mercedes; what did he have to lose? The North Texas Community Journal was born--with a $600 investment of Moore's personal savings.
"There comes a time in life when you get to do something significant--and I did it," says Moore. "Some would say it was foolish."
Moore wasted no time ruffling feathers. In his second issue, he chronicled a slander suit that Arthur Kwast filed, without an attorney, against former Coppell mayor Mark Wolfe, for erroneously claiming Kwast had caused the city to be sued when he was on the Board of Adjustment. Digging out the minutes of old city council meetings, Moore quoted the former mayor suggesting during one meeting that the council members silence their critics by boycotting newspapers that continued to run Kwast's letters.
Then Moore published the saga of the Longbranch and the Lone Star, two bars on land the city annexed a decade earlier. Johnny Thompson, a mechanic and decorated Vietnam War veteran, owned the land under the Longbranch. When the city wouldn't give him the water main he needed to be in compliance with the law while attempting to get him shut down, Thompson filed a suit to disannex his part of the city.
"They didn't like me because they thought I was just a dumb mechanic," says the gravelly-voiced Thompson. "But hell, after you've played Russian roulette with a gook, you sure aren't afraid to take on city hall."
Johnny Robinson, a wealthy landowner who owned the property on which the Lone Star bar sits, joined the disannexation lawsuit. He was particularly furious at the city, because he had learned the city police had him under surveillance for several months, which one disgusted officer labeled a witch hunt.
Thompson went on to settle his suit in his favor--the city is supposed to put in his water main by January 1, for free--and Kwast went on to extract $22,000 in a settlement from the former mayor. Kwast's settlement agreement also required the former mayor and a city councilman to make a public apology. While the other three papers buried the apologies in the legal notices sections, Moore printed them prominently in the Community Journal.
Accompanying the apology was a scathing editorial. Moore wrote that the lesson of Kwast's lawsuit and other similar incidents, was "the tyranny of the majority cannot vote to slander a man, nor deny him his right to disagree...May the city leaders come to know that they have lost $400,000 [including money the city spent in firefighter and Thompson suits] to a bunch of guys who wear bib overalls. They weren't attorneys, and I'm not a journalist. We were only armed with the freedom of speech."
"I think what Kent Moore was doing was good for the city," says Kevin Shay. "He helped make the government more open. He advocated for a new way of thinking within city government. And I think he made the other papers more aggressive."
Not everyone, however, agrees.
Last spring in particular, many people think Moore went too far. On the pages of his newspaper, he called for the city to create a task force to develop an ethics ordinance, a way to keep officials in check--without turning to the costly lawsuits that had dogged the city.
When the city council deferred a decision to study creating an ordinance, Moore outlined in his monthly newsletter, which he sent to a limited number of Community Journal subscribers, a litany of city hall injustices, many of which he believed were directed at him. Foremost was the so-called purloined newspapers incident. He also wrote that landowner Johnny Robinson was considering bringing a federal racketeering suit against the city for the police surveillance of him.
When the council got hold of the newsletter they were furious, and many members threatened to sue. The backlash was covered in the Citizens' Advocate, whose publisher, Jean Murph, was also contemplating suing Moore for libel for things he had printed about her.
"I've tried to ignore the petty jealousy and juvenile comments but the attacks have become irrational," Jean Murph was quoted as saying in her paper. "I don't want to take any chances with this person."
In his May issue, Moore struck back. He printed a two-page parody of the Citizens' Advocate, renaming it the Ragovate, Official Mouthpiece of City Hall. The mock articles were bylined "Jean Burph (Excuse me.)." The parody mocked an article The Advocate ran about the council defeating Moore's ethics ordinance--an article Moore alleged was inaccurate since he was just calling for a task force to study it and it wasn't actually defeated; the council deferred taking any action. Moore chastised Murph, who he depicted as wealthy and trading on her influence as the daughter of a former governor, and her paper for not filing a single open records request in the previous year.
In a series of personal letters Murph and Moore exchanged in the following months--which Moore published--she called his charges and logic "paranoid."
"It is truly pitiful how very low you have sunk seeking to hurt another person," she wrote. Murph called Moore's attacks on her libelous, and warned him to stop writing and phoning her, to not set foot on the premises of her newspaper or home, nor to approach her in person--or she would notify the police.
Moore replied: "All I have asked of you is to correct false statements in your journalism...I consider your inference that I am the type of person who would approach you in a violent or harassing manner as ridiculous and unfounded."
Kent Moore admits now that the parody went too far and that he probably came on too strong his first year in the news business. "I wrote with arrogance to reflect the arrogance of the people in power," he says. "The individual in society is sovereign, not city hall. But I'm done with being belligerent and arrogant."
He is now trying to find a middle ground, between being a complacent civic booster and being a cynic. "What you need is a balance between the Breakfast Club and city hall. I'm going to try and help the people and the politicians understand the issues. If the leaders break the law, I will have to tell the people.
"I'm learning," he says, "how to become a newspaperman.
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