JUSTICE IN EL PASO
Southern California mystery writer Ross
McDonald in his best book, The Goodby Look, has his world-weary private
eye hero Lew Archer lament, “I have a secret passion for mercy … but
justice is what keeps happening to people.”
Richard Wheatley’s justice for filing a misdemeanor complaint
against El Paso Mayor Fred Hervey and Mayor Pro Tern Ruben
allegedly conspiring to avoid a quorum under a section of the Texas Open
Meetings Law was to be fired from his job as a television news reporter
and anchorman on the El Paso NBC affiliate, KTSM-TV.
Wheatley is no bilge of idealism or a firebrand radical. He is
conservative in politics; he likes being a part of the Naval Reserve and
lives at home with his mother who he enjoys and respects.
During the two years he worked for KTSM he won several Associated
Press awards, several local news film awards, and had more than a few
NBC stories aired nationally. The station executives have not used
incompetence as a reason for his dismissal.
The story begins early this year. The new law prohibits elected
officials from gathering in groups of more than two to discuss or
conduct city business without posting a public meeting notice 72 hours
before the day of the meeting, complete with agenda.
Enter the mayor. When the good citizens of El Paso elected Fred
Hervey they got themselves a businessman above all else. President
Richard Nixon once said, “If you think the United States has stood
still, who built the largest shopping center in the world?” The moral
and business philosophy behind that statement would be vigorously
embraced by Mayor Fred Hervey.
Among other things, the millionaire mayor owns a giveaway shopper
newspaper, a radio station, a chain of drive-in restaurants, and started
the Circle-K convenience stores in the West, now 700 strong. His civic
and personal economic philosophies complement one another exactly. The
business of El Paso is business, the pesky press be damned.
On January 4 Hervey allegedly stood in the door of his office with
regional federal transportation official Ed Foreman and said, “We’re
going to meet with you and only one alderman so we won’t have the press
in here. Then we’ll meet at 11 a.m. with the press.”
Wheatley and veteran El Paso Herald-Post city beat reporter,
43-year-old Wayne McClintock, were shut out.
The Herald-Post, over the signature of editor Pete Lee and reporter
McClintock, sent a letter of protest. Hervey responded with a
declaratory suit, calling tor Lee and McClintock to pay expenses should
Then on January 24, during a scheduled city council meeting,
alderman E. H. Baeza brought up an item not on the agenda as prescribed
by the open meetings law. Wheatley protested but the council continued,
saying they were merely going to discuss, not decide. This flies in the
face of an opinion made earlier by City Attorney John Ross, Jr., for the
benefit of the El Paso Civic Center, which specified that any meeting
must stick to agenda items posted 72 hours in advance of the day of a meeting.
At this point Wheatley asked his station to take up the legal
gauntlet. They refused, saying it would destroy their reputation as an
objective news organization. He then made his decision. He would
exercise his rights as a citizen to legally petition the government to
correct what he considered a violation of the law.
On January 28 Wheatley filed misdemeanor complaints alleging that
the mayor and mayor pro tern conducted closed sessions, and conspired to
meet without a quorum.
That afternoon Schaeffer appeared before Judge Robert Galvan with a
covey of the mayor’s “team”— Manny Morales, E. H. Baeza, and Don
Henderson—standing close by lending moral support. The defendant’s
attorney, Joseph Calamia, asked that the warrants be treated as a
summons because of the “exemplary character” of the defendants, thus
assuring the two city officials of not being fingerprinted, mugged, and
booked like common criminals.
Granted, said County Attorney George Rodriguez, after questioning
from Judge Galvan. Unusual, said Sheriff Mike Sullivan, but it had
happened before. Mayor Pro Tern Schaeffer paid his $750 bond and left
Hervey, who had been out of town, surrendered to Sheriff Sullivan
the next day and also bypassed the procedure of booking and
fingerprinting. He paid his $750, said “no comment” to reporters, and
left with an April 9 trial date.
The wheels had been set in motion for the first test of the state’s
open meetings law. Does the public have a right to be informed on
meetings of their elected officials, or not?
The El Paso media apparently doesn’t give a damn. “Give Light and
People Will Find Their Own Way” reads the motto of the afternoon
Herald-Post. To date, no editorial supporting Wheatley, and only a few
letters to the editor praising the newsman’s efforts constitute the
“Light.” The same sorry record is true for the morning Times. To date,
not one El Paso television station has supported, or condemned,
Wheatley’s action. Only in The University of Texas at El Paso’s student
paper, The Prospector, has a thorough airing been given.
Things went from can to can’t for Wheatley. On the evening of
January 29 he received a telephone call from KTSM news director Jeff
Gates telling him his reportorial duties were over. Wheatley was to be
in charge of the news wire and photo-facsimile machines. He was to do
busybody work—cleaning, ripping off the wirecopy, repairs—a job that
could be performed well by a mature Rhesus monkey.
On February 12, Wheatley was fired. To date, no reason has been
given by either Tri-State Broadcasting President Karl Wyler, Executive
Vice-President Jack Rye, or News Director Gates.
In a February 6 memo to personnel, Rye stated that management “felt
that Wheatley had destroyed his objectivity and objectivity is one of
the most important qualities a news reporter must maintain.” Rye further
explained to employees that Wheatley had indeed asked the station to
take the legal action he eventually took, but that, “we refused on the
same grounds that caused us to look with disfavor on his action …
obvious loss of objectivity.”
Richard Wheatley meanwhile ponders his next move, and with flagging
optimism, awaits a further display of justice on April 9.
MAYOR AND THE MUSIC
Not long ago on a Sunday afternoon we accompanied the new mayor of
Houston, Fred Hofheinz, his wife, Mac, and their 11-year-old son, Paul,