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.

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Ann Zimmerman