In Ferris, small-town divisions bubble to the surface

Ferris, TX - It’s been politics as usual in Ferris.  The mayor resigned three weeks ago. The City Council just hired its third city manager in a year. There’ve been two — or is it three? — water outages.

Not that anyone actually drinks the water here. And by sundown Monday, the tiny town, which doesn’t even have a stoplight, is likely to be without its director of public safety, who oversees both the police and fire departments.

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Ferris police chief Eddie Salazar waits before the city council meeting begins in Ferris, Texas, on Monday, Oct. 8, 2019. Monday's meeting included an agenda item to determine if the resignation of police chief Salazar would be accepted, and many came out to show support for Salazar. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

What Ferris lacks in traffic signals, it makes up for in political drama.

For decades, the city of 2,600 that sits 21 miles south of downtown Dallas has been a sideshow of municipal dysfunction.

Today, the city is once again divided — though allegiances are known to change daily. On one side is a handful of City Council members and their supporters who want to get rid of the public safety director, Eddie Salazar. On the other side is a group of residents and business owners who believe that Salazar is the heart of the community and that getting rid of him would be another win for “the good ol’ boys.”

And yet, the controversy over Salazar is just the latest to rock the town, where everyone seems to be looking over their shoulder and to have dirt on a neighbor. For more than two years, Ferris has been enveloped by a political soap opera that included nearly every City Hall employee. At the heart of the drama were accusations of sexual harassment. At one point, some city workers were so concerned about how their words would be used that they began secretly tape-recording their conversations. Just in case.

Since spring, the town has dealt with ongoing water issues. Ferris has issued at least three notices to residents to boil their water after several outages.

Most recently, residents found their faucets empty for three days starting Oct. 1. The state’s environmental department is investigating. At first, officials suspected that the water hydrants had been tampered with — for a third time. Then it was blamed on a leak at a water tower. Then it was a leak on a fire suppression line at a local school, which flooded the school’s basement.

But this is Ferris. No one really believes that story, either.

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Community members met for prayer before the City Council meeting in Ferris on Oct. 7, 2019. The meeting included an agenda item to determine if the resignation of Police Chief Eddie Salazar would be accepted, and many came out to show support for Salazar. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

Divided city

Ferris, all 5 square miles of it, is bisected by Interstate 45, with most of the city on the west side.

An old train depot that now serves as City Hall and a gazebo anchor the town square. A block of small businesses — a nail salon, a bar and grill, a pharmacy — face east.

Sixth Street’s around the corner, where there’s a flower shop, another bar and the City Council chambers.

The old police station sits at the corner of Sixth and Church. The force vacated the aging building in 2016 after it was overrun with rats, polluted with e-coli bacteria and black mold, and deemed uninhabitable. Now, the police operate out of a modular space a few blocks away.

Once known as the “brick capital of the nation” because of several large brick plants that called it home, Ferris had segregated neighborhoods with African-Americans living in a part of town known as The Flats.

With its blocks of mostly single-story homes, The Flats sit between the city and the dump. The dump’s naked slopes are visible from most parts of town. And depending on which way the wind is blowing, you can smell it, residents say. The expansion of the landfill was perhaps the first modern-day political scandal to divide Ferris. In 1994, the FBI investigated whether Ferris officials took bribes from an out-of-state company that wanted to expand the dump.

The whispers about corruption haven’t stopped since. They just changed topics.

When the townsfolk discuss today’s political muck while drinking Michelob Ultra, they lean in and talk in code. Eyes shift. Each cryptic sentence seems to end with, “ya’ know what I mean?”

Each professes to be the hero, or at least an honest bystander. They say they speak with authority and facts. But when you ask for evidence to back up any claim, they’re hard to come by. And don’t name them, they warn, or else they’ll face retaliation. There are even residents who say they’re afraid to drive through town.

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Mayor Pro Tem Tommy Scott listened to public comment during the City Council meeting in Ferris on Oct. 7, 2019. Monday's meeting included an agenda item to determine whether the resignation of police chief Eddie Salazar would be accepted. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

City Hall culture

What has been well documented is the toxic work culture and sexual harassment at City Hall. In a nearly 300-page bombshell report provided to the council in May 2018, an outside investigator found rampant disregard for city policy and possible violations of state law.

The report, which has become a defining text in the town, was commissioned after police investigator Walter “Gator” Weiss filed an 11-point complaint against then-City Manager Bill Jordan. The 2018 complaint alleged Jordan used his cellphone to send photos of nude women to another city employee, made inappropriate comments about a female employee’s breasts, and at various times used sexual innuendo while discussing city business.

The Bowman Group, an Arlington-based independent investigative firm, spent weeks interviewing key witnesses and compiling evidence.

Ultimately, the report found that Jordan, the top city employee, “significantly contributed and supported the dysfunctional office environment.” It would go on to substantiate six of the 11 claims Weiss made.

Jordan, then and now, has defended his actions. He said in 2018 that he wanted to create a work environment that was fun and relaxed in order to make up for the low wages. And in an interview last week with The Dallas Morning News, he dismissed his actions as no more than a few dirty jokes.

“The whole thing was stupid," he said in a telephone interview. “No matter what I did, someone out there was trying to make me the bad guy.”

At the same time, the report shed light on a rift between City Hall and the police department, and how two council members misused their authority to direct criminal investigations.

For more than a year after the report, Jordan and most of the city staff kept their jobs. The investigator had suggested to council members that they would either have to fire everyone involved in the investigation or no one, said Clayton Hunter, a city councilman, referring to the findings of the report.

“There is no one here who is not guilty of something,” Hunter said. “It was all or none.”

Firing the preponderance of City Hall would have been devastating to the town, Hunter said. So the council instead decided to try repairing the culture.

However, after three new people joined the council in May, Jordan left on “mutual” terms, he said.

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Attendees anticipated an announcement from council members during the council meeting in Ferris on Oct. 7, 2019. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

Michael Martinez, one of the three new council members, said it was important for Jordan to leave his post.

"That's what the residents wanted us to do, right away," he said.

Conflict over chief

Dozens of residents filed into the City Council’s chambers last Monday to see if they would learn the fate of Salazar, whom many simply refer to as “chief.” For many in the dimly lit, narrow room, it was a case of déjà vu. For weeks, Salazar’s fate has been up in the air.

Depending on whom you ask in Ferris, Salazar is either a saint or a scoundrel.

The Ferris residents and business leaders who support him like to think of him as the face of the community, the glue that binds them. When it came time to pass out bottled water during a recent water crisis, he was on the front lines, not the City Council, residents said.

“He’s an honorable man,” said Ben LaFleur, who owns a flower and gift shop, as well as the city’s funeral home with his partner. “He’s the best thing that happened to this town.”

LaFleur is also the president of Unity in the Community, a nonprofit focused on boosting the community that Salazar helped start when he arrived in town.

But for those excited to see him go, Salazar has abused his power, spent more time politicking than policing and allowed his officers — especially Weiss, who filed the initial complaint that initiated the Bowman report — to run amok in the city.

Salazar, who joined Ferris in 2015, said he doesn’t know why a majority on the council want him out. Council member Jay Walsh declined to comment specifically on Salazar until after his resignation is official.

“There's a whole lot to this,” Walsh said. “But there’s not a whole lot I can say.”

Critics of the chief include Brenda Hobbs, who said Salazar, Weiss and others harassed her sons, including Johnathan Hope, who accused the Ferris Police Department of planting drugs in his car.

“They would just watch his house,” she said. “They did this daily. They drove my boys crazy. They’re scared to death. They’d sleep with knives next to their bed.”

Weiss and Salazar have denied any wrongdoing. Two investigations — one by the county and one by the state — cleared the police department regarding the allegation that officers had planted drugs in Hope’s car.

Before the council attempted to fire Salazar, a majority of its members took the unusual step of rewriting city policy to put the director of public safety under their supervision. Typically, only the city manager answers directly to the council.

Salazar, who had hoped to retire in a few years from Ferris, maintains he’s only done what he thought was best for the community, including reopening two cold-case murders that are about to be handed over to a grand jury, he said. The photos of the victims sit on his desk.

“I promised the families I’d find who killed their loved ones,” he said. “To me, it wasn’t a job. I loved coming to work. I loved making a difference.”

The council is expected to accept Salazar’s resignation Monday after his severance package was negotiated last week.

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Norma Magness listened in on the City Council meeting in Ferris on Oct. 7, 2019. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. Gonzalez / Staff Photographer)

New development

At any other time, the spectacle unfolding in Ferris could be chalked up to small-town politics of little importance. But as the economy continues to boom in North Texas, developers are running out of places to build pop-up starter homes and McMansions.

That means Ferris could be poised to be the next hot housing market in the southern Dallas suburbs. A huge residential project is slated for 5,200 acres near the town that could more than quadruple Ferris’ population.

“There is a lack of understanding on how to run the city,” said Martinez, the new council member and a small-business owner in town. “To be honest, we don’t have the adequate level of staffing, nor the expertise to really help us grow in a controlled manner.”

Ferris residents weren’t the only members of the audience Monday night when the council directed its attorney to negotiate a severance package with Salazar.

Corey Ford, one of the Dallas-based developers behind the proposed 5,200-acre community dubbed Woodstone, was there.

“We understand that it's a small town that doesn't have the staff and, really, the experience for large development,” he said before the meeting. “We're trying to be patient with the process. We're hoping they can work things out to move forward.”

While Ferris has been sorting out its personnel drama, its infrastructure has been rotting away.

Improving the city’s water, sewers and internet access have been top priorities for the city, dating back to at least 2003, said Jason Crenshaw, president of the Ferris Chamber of Commerce.

Recently, Ferris received a grant from the state to build a new line to connect with the Rockett Special Utility District, which supplies water for other parts of Ellis County. The line is near completion. But the city will need more, better and reliable water, Crenshaw said.

“We should have huge growth,” he said. “But this town can’t get out of its way.”

Source: Dallas Morning News