by Johnnie Belle Reagan
This should matter to everyone that reads this story. Texas Municipal League is now steering this lawsuit and the outcome will directly affect every resident, business, and property owner within a Municipal Government in the State of Texas.
Start with the key players, Texas Municipal League (Lawyers), Palestine Ex-Attorney Ron Stutes and his firm contracted to the City of Palestine, also Lawyers. Every Judge that this case has come before are, yes, Lawyers. Jerry Laza, Lawnmower Man, just a regular Joe with a little something trying make a living and own a little of the American Dream.
This case started with the contract attorney, Ron Stutes, filing a Civil Suit in State District Court June 9, 2016, against Business owner Jerry Laza. Laza owns a lawnmower shop near downtown and near the main street area. Laza lost the District Court case and filed an Appeal. The City moved his counter suit for violations of Civil Rights to the State Federal Court in Tyler Texas. The Federal Civil Rights Violation case is on a stay pending the decision by the Appeals Court.
A decision on the City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza case that was appealed by Laza is expected from the Appellate Court on June 16th, 2022.
Reading the Appellate Brief (link below) the TML attorneys want you and Judges to believe that all contract employees and payroll employees of a Home-Rule Municipal Government are created equal. They want you to believe that all checks and balances should be ignored. TML would like for you to believe that just because an Attorney is licensed by the State of Texas, they have the right to file a lawsuit, hired to do so or not. TML would also like to believe that all City Governments are created equal. They are not. Each is ruled by the form of Government that was voted in by the residents.
The City of Palestine is a Home-Rule Municipality with a City Council-City Manager form of government. The City Council agrees on a hired City Manager to be in charge of the daily running of the City and its employees. All other decisions are overseen and validated by a vote and written resolution or ordinance by the City Council. The City Council is a representation of the residents. A Home-Rule Municipality has an equivalent to a US and State Constitution called a Charter. All powers come from that City Charter and only those powers that have been adopted from the State Codes. The residents never had a say in this case or how the money was spent, now estimated to be over 1 million dollars because the City Council never voted to approve the lawsuit or even knew about the suit until after it was filed.
In 2016, at the time the Attorney Ron Stutes filed the unauthorized original Civil Case against Jerry Laza in the 349th District Court the only section of the Palestine City Charter that allowed for nuisance abatement and civil injunction abatement was fencing around a swimming pool or discharge of waste water. All other violations of City Ordinances are misdemeanors punishable with penalties and fines in the City Municipal Court of Law.
Civil Case the City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza (Lawnmower Man) was filed on June 9th 2016 in the District Court Anderson County, TX. It was filed by Attorney Ron Stutes, a contract employee of the City, who worked for Potter Minton, a law firm in Tyler Texas. According to the Palestine City Charter the Attorney reports directly to the City Council. There is no record of Ron Stutes ever being authorized or given permission by the Palestine City Council to file suit against Jerry Laza. During the State Civil case Stutes took the stand and even testified that he never received authorization. Allowing this case to proceed is painfully obvious that Attorney’s (Judges) don’t go after Attorneys.
Did the City of Palestine qualify as an injured party that could bring a civil lawsuit based on Laza being a public nuisance? A reasonable person might presume that the City brought forth stacks of violation citations and court appearances or even an injured person that had been on Laza’s property. How many were given as evidence? NONE. In the 10 years prior to the ridiculous 28-page violation Laza was issued in April of 2016, no other violation was given by the City of Palestine. Accused of rat harboring and ground polluting, later inspections by both sides found neither to be true. In the matter of the zoning violation also listed in the 28 pages it is a matter of fact, Laza has his own City Ordinance issued to him in 1998 to operate his business with outside storage in its present location.
The District Court did order the City of Palestine to revise their original filing to better meet the actual violations. A City Ordinance is considered equal to a law enforced by set punishment. While Laza held his own ordinance, it was ignored by both the City and the presiding Judge. The State of Texas states in plain English that City Municipal Court has exclusive jurisdiction over City Ordinances. Still this case proceeded with the law in Laza’s favor. And in spite of not having an injured party, or being found a danger the case was heard by a Jury that awarded the City $164,000 in damages. The Jury charge is for a whole story by itself. A joke at best… The Jury did not get to see Laza’s ordinance, didn’t hear he had already been to municipal court and found in his favor, or anything that happened before 2016.
A reasonable person might also expect that the City would present numerous witnesses claiming harm. How many? TWO, neighbors of Laza. The two witnesses that testified said they had a rodent (1 unseen rodent) in their house. A picture of a chewed plastic bucket and a hole in a wall were shown to the Jury. The City did not include these two neighbors as injured parties in the lawsuit. A combined 8 hours of searching Laza’s property found no trace of any rodents. The City also brought forth a claim in the original State District Court suit that Laza was polluting the ground with oil. An EPA certified testing company found absolutely no ground pollution on Laza’s property. To be a plaintiff in a Civil Suit that makes you the injured party. Is the City an injured party and if so, how are they injured?
Who benefited from the lawsuit? In most major Cities such as Dallas, the City Attorney is a paid employee on a salary. That salary does not change by the hour or cases overseen by that Attorney. In Palestine the City Attorney is a contract between it and the firm Potter Minton. Ron Stutes is an employee of Potter Minton. How did this benefit Attorney Ron Stutes? Mr. Stutes bills by the hour. The Palestine City Budget averaged an allowance of $75,000 a year for the legal fees. Over the course of the first 3 years of the lawsuit records show that Potter Minton billed an additional $400,000 over budget. It is believed that much of this was to cover the unauthorized lawsuit filed on Laza and another suit the City Council was unaware. It also appears that the City budget amounts were manipulated and changed with no consistency from one year to the next. Ultimately Ron Stutes was fired from the City and no longer with Potter Minton.
The Jury was barred from hearing any information or facts that happened before March of 2016. This wasn’t the first time that Laza owned a piece of property that the City wanted. In 1996 Jerry Laza owned a piece of property in “Old Town” that now houses a popular draft house in a tourist area. Instead of offering a fair market price, the City attempted to take the property by condemnation. All improvements that Laza completed were only met with more demands, he refused to allow the inspectors to continue to search his property unlawfully. The City cut off his utilities. Laza remained in business at that location for 2 years under the power of a generator and water from a well. The City only gave into an equitable property deal after Laza informed them he was opening a homeless shelter on the property. That is how the lawnmower shop came to reside in the present location with its own zoning for outside storage. Would the outcome of the Palestine vs Laza been different if the Jury had heard this or saw the ordinance for variant zoning issued by the City?
During the time that this lawsuit has been active the City of Palestine has increased its scope of “Main Street” project to reside less than one block from the property Laza owns that now is being targeted. The City of Palestine paid $85,000 to an engineering firm to help plan this project. It is also part of projects promoted by the Texas Historical Commission. Laza’s property in question houses the National Harvester Building, 1950 art deco, one of the last salvageable building of its style left in Palestine. The City fails to enforce its Historical Preservation Ordinances on any property owners leaving much of the town dilapidated. He offered to sell the property, make a deal and retire. It is reported that Laza offered to sell the property for $600,000 including 4 acres and several other buildings. Sources have said that after the City Council was made aware of the lawsuit by Jerry Laza himself, Stutes told the City Council he could get it for $20,000 through the court proceedings. It has also been rumored this property could possibly fall into a plan to bring the Texas State Railroad into downtown Palestine. It lies directly across from the Union Pacific railyard.
The Texas Municipal League attorneys presently representing the City of Palestine in the lawsuit with Jerry Laza, Lawnmower Man, would like you, the Federal Judge and the Appellate Court to believe that none of the above information matters. It should matter to you. It should matter because if it does not matter it means that your vote means nothing, the policy and procedures set in place for checks and balances of your City Government mean nothing, the official you elect to represent you have no power, and the taxes you pay is money that does not deserve any form of scrutiny. Texas Municipal League, tax funded lobbying, will always be behind any Municipality supporting it squeezing as much money out of property owners and teaching Cities how to raise tax and supply less services for more money and advocate for less accountability. They use your money to lobby against your rights.
Most Cities are members of the Texas Municipal League and use them to advise best practices. Also, many Cities purchase liability insurance through TML. This is how TML has now slithered its way to represent the City of Palestine in the Laza case. If you gather anything from what you have read, it can be easily assumed that they stand to lose a lot of ground if Laza wins. While rulings in the case by every Court that has heard it seem to protect the illicit brotherhood of Attorneys, doesn’t make them right. What is being protected or ignored is that the City of Palestine never hired or authorized Attorney Ron Stutes to represent them or file a lawsuit against Jerry Laza. Once Ron Stutes filed the suit there was no other way to settle except through Attorneys. Laza could only speak with Ron Stutes as the City Council and all employees were now represented by an Attorney in a lawsuit they never asked to be filed. By filing suit Ron Stutes severed all other avenues to settle other than a lengthy legal battle in which he profited. When you are sued in Civil Court you have two options. Either defend yourself or the other side win by default.
Did it feel personal? The local newspaper even reported on the behavior of Attorney Ron Stutes as he was taking Laza to Court in December of 2019, just before Christmas for contempt of the injunction even though it was being appealed. Ron Stutes leaned into Laza and said “Merry Christmas”. If found guilty Laza would have been sentenced to 7 days in jail. The Judge postponed ruling based on the fact Laza had already been found not guilty of the same offences in Municipal Court. A criminal charge for violation ultimately being double jeopardy weighed heavily in Laza’s favor as it pertained to the Injunctive Relief.
The question must be asked that if the law is on Laza’s side how can he still be defending himself against what is clearly wrong? Why does the law continued to be ignored by the Courts? Do we really want the outcome of this case to lessen ability to be treated fairly by the elected officials meant to represent what is best the residents and business owners? It should not cost you your entire life’s work, livelihood or retirement. Reported that the City expected that Laza would have run out of money by now. The City never will, they are not using their personal money and the City budget is obviously fluid and unlimited.
What if they decide they want your property and don’t want to pay for it? They can file a suit, obtain a judgement and take it. It happened to Jerry Laza. The difference was he leveraged everything to defend himself. It appears he plans to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, if needed. We should all hope for the sake of residents, business owner, property owners and prosperity he can and he wins.
No. A city may act only by and through its governing body, and acts of the mayor or individual councilmembers are ineffectual without express authorization from the governing body. City of Bonham v. S.W. Sanitation, Inc., 871 S.W.2d 765, 765 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 1994, writ denied); Alamo Carriage v. City of San Antonio, 768 S.W.2d 937, 941 (Tex. App. – San Antonio 1989, no writ). The governing body may act officially only through resolution or ordinance. The statements of individual members of the governing body, including the mayor, do not bind the city. City of Bonham, 871 S.W.2d at 765; Alamo Carriage, 768 S.W.2d at 941-42.
The governing body of a city is authorized to delegate by resolution or ordinance the right to perform acts and duties necessary for the day-to-day operation of the city. Stirman v. City of Tyler, 443 S.W.2d 354, 354 (Tex. Civ. App.—Tyler 1969, writ ref’d n.r.e.); Central Power & Light Co. v. City of San Juan, 962 S.W.2d 602 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1998, rev. dism’d w.o.j.). Therefore, the governing body could delegate the right to file a lawsuit on behalf of the city to the mayor, a city councilmember, or a city staff member. In the case of delegation of authority, any action taken beyond what has been authorized by the city council is void. Foster v. City of Waco, 255 S.W. 1104, 1106 (Tex. 1923).