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Fort Worth Board Votes To Remove Member For Inflammatory Social Media Posts

Christopher Connelly

Fort Worth's anti-discrimination board Monday night passed a resolution calling for one of its members, Mike Steele, to be removed. Steele has drawn broad criticism for inflammatory social media posts that target immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people and the political left.

The vote comes after Steele's posts came to the attention of Emily Farris. a Texas Christian University political science professor.  She said she was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago and saw a post from Fort Worth’s Human Relations Commission. The anti-discrimination board had tagged its members, including Mike Steele, a former Watauga city councilmember now in his second term on the commission.

“I just happened to click on his profile, which was set to public, and just a very quick look at it immediately these posts came to light,” she said.

Among a lot of innocuous posts, she says, she found posts that mocked people from a number of marginalized groups. 

“I was appalled,” she said. “They were bigoted, discriminatory, they targeted immigrants, calling for people to stockpile ammo and weapons against them, they targeted Muslims and LGBTQ members, and I thought this was completely antithetical to the mission of the HRC.”

According to the City of Fort Worth website, the Human Relations Commission was set up to advise the city “on matters involving racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination,” and to recommend ways “to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.”

So Farris started tweeting about Steele’s posts and posting to Facebook. She challenged Fort Worth city council members and the mayor to respond and boot Steele from the board. She reached out to reporters, and she launched an online petition calling for Steele’s removal. It now has more than 600 signatures.

Steele didn’t respond to KERA’s requests for an interview. He told the Dallas Voice he’s a disabled war veteran and the proud father of an LGBT son who sees his service on the anti-bias board as a calling.

At a special meeting of the commission on Monday, there was only one agenda item: A resolution calling on the city council to remove Steele from his position. The meeting was short, and Steele didn’t attend, but he did forward a complaint he’d filed about another commission member who’d made left-leaning political comments. He also sent two letters from supporters. After a few people spoke – all wanted Steele fired – the commission voted unanimously to approve the resolution.

Zeb Pent from the conservative political action committee Stand for Fort Worth thinks they got it wrong. He knows Steele personally, and says his comments are being taken out of context. 

“I wouldn’t post comments like that or content like that, but my issue is these posts are political in nature, and who is the arbiter of who is right and who is wrong when it comes to social media content?” Pent said.

Pent characterized as “edgy” Steele’s comment to “buy ammo” while sharing posts about immigrants and the political left. Pent thinks Steele is being judged differently than liberals on the board, and he launched his own petition calling for the removal of the commission’s chair, Eva Bonilla, for her support of Planned Parenthood and other liberal causes. That petition has 161 signatures.

“To have certain people equate speech with violence, I think, is a slippery slope,” he said.

For Daniel Garcia Rodriguez from the progressive group United Fort Worth, it was the right move, but not enough.

“I’m thankful that the HRC made a decision to remove Mike Steele from the commission because of his hateful rhetoric on social media that’s nasty to people of color and immigrants, women and our LGBTQIA and transgender community,” he said, adding that Steele’s rhetoric is indicative of larger issues of racism, discrimination and inequality within Fort Worth that he says the city should work proactively to address.

Emily Farris, the TCU professor, also praised the decision, but says she thinks the episode shows a city council detached from the board’s anti-bias work and mission.

“I still have concerns about how much the council knows about what’s going on on the HRC and how much they care about these issues,” she said. “I’d like to see the council take a closer look and see what are the ways that they can empower the Human Relations Commission and make sure the right people are on these boards and commissions in the future.”

The board’s resolution will be considered by the Fort Worth City Council when they meet next month, and councilmembers will decide whether or not to remove Steele from office.

“I would anticipate it being a unanimous vote since it was a unanimous vote from the commission,” says Fort Worth Assistant Manager Valerie Washington. “Considering comments from our mayor and councilmembers on the disappointment and just really the inappropriateness of a citizen serving on the board that does not understand the mission or will go against the mission.”

This whole episode has made it clear that the city needs a more proactive social media policy Washington said. She added the city is rethinking the role of the Human Relations Commission, and has plans to build a diversity and inclusion team within the city manager’s office.

“I think when something like this happens, you do say well wait, we do need to spend some more time together,” she said.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.