Local NewsCitizen Removed Multiple Times from Public Meetings for Recording Now in Tarrant County Jail

State law allows citizens to record public meetings, but several governmental bodies in Tarrant County have removed Manuel Mata for doing so.
August 26, 2022
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Manuel Mata, who describes himself as a citizen journalist, is in the Tarrant County jail, charged with Class A and Class B misdemeanors and one third-degree felony.

Mata has regularly recorded interactions between law enforcement and private citizens as an auditor, but recently expanded his efforts to monitor public meetings by using his phone to take videos.

Texas Government Code Section 551.023 allows anyone in attendance at an open public meeting to record it.

Mata has been escorted out or removed from Fort Worth City Council, Tarrant County Commissioners Court meetings, and Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD) meetings.

The last resulted in a felony assault charge.

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On June 10, Mata attended the TAD board meeting and was in large part responsible for revealing a controversy involving a TAD employee filing a grievance against local realtor Chandler Crouch, resulting in suspensions of those responsible.

When he tried to attend the next meeting on June 30, Mata tried to enter as a citizen journalist but was told by TAD employee Julie Wooddell that he wasn’t properly credentialed as a member of the media.

“I’m here to do the same thing as those news people,” Mata told the TAD staff, but was informed that the media entities allowed to enter had “emailed ahead.” When Mata asked how he could be credentialed, no one provided him with the information.

Texas code allows government bodies to adopt reasonable regulations of recording by those in attendance. However, TAD has not done so.

TAD Board President Kathryn Wilemon told The Texan via email, “As there is no restriction on attendance, likewise there is no restrictive policy related to photographing, videography or other recording of meetings. The Tarrant Appraisal District Board of Directors has not adopted a policy under Government Code 551.023.”

Mata agreed to wait outside the TAD building after he was told he could enter the meeting as a citizen participant with the rest of the public.

When he attempted to enter the building with audience members, he was blocked by Tarrant County Sheriff deputies. His video shows him asking why he is being blocked but receiving no reply.

Just a few days earlier, at the June 28th Fort Worth City Council meeting, Mayor Mattie Parker asked Mata to stop recording and sit in the audience, saying she didn’t believe “he was a member of the media” and that his recording was “very distracting.” At the point she did this, Mata had been present and recording for 30 minutes.

When he argued that he had the right to be present and continue recording, Parker asked the city marshalls to remove him from the building. Mata loudly protested, including using vulgar language. Once outside, he was issued a warning for criminal trespass.

Fort Worth City Council has not adopted any rules regulating the recording of meetings by those in attendance, according to its spokesperson Bethany Warner.

Since the incident where Mata was removed from the meeting on order of Parker, Fort Worth is willing to allow him back into meetings, Mata’s compatriot Thomas Torlincasi confirmed.

At the county commissioners meeting on July 26, sheriff’s deputies approached Mata, who was sitting quietly in the audience recording the meeting with his phone, and asked him to leave the room, telling him he wasn’t allowed to record the meeting.

After he and Torlincasi spoke to the deputies and informed them that Texas code allows any person in attendance to record the meeting, Mata was allowed to remain.

“Tarrant County Sheriff’s Deputies often work in areas where public meetings are held where citizens record on personal devices. Recording in those areas is protected under the 1st Amendment. [The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office] TCSO doesn’t have a policy for allowing it, since the U.S. Constitution and case law have already established it’s allowed,” TCSO spokesperson Robbie Hoy told The Texan in an email.

“In the rare case that happens, it might be due to those individuals causing disturbances that violate certain laws related to open meetings or public places,” Hoy added.

The incident that landed him in the county jail came on August 12 at the TAD board meeting. Mata and Torlincasi entered the meeting room and were told by TAD employee Ricardo Aguilera that, as members of the media, they must stand in a taped-off area on the side of the room.

Mata proceeded to stand in the designated area, asking if he could have a chair since the meeting didn’t start for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Torlincasi wandered around the meeting room, videotaping the set-up and who was already present.

The TAD staff member asked Torlincasi to return to the designated area, which he did while complaining that the staff was violating the law.

Then a sheriff’s deputy came and asked both men to leave, grabbing and pushing them out of the building.

Mata’s video is very shaky after that, but he ended up on the ground, accused of assaulting a police officer. Torlincasi said Mata couldn’t have assaulted an officer because his right arm had recently had surgery and was still bandaged, and his left, which is permanently disabled, was where he held his equipment.

Torlincasi was forcibly removed from the building as well, not arrested nor issued a citation but told to leave the premises.

The affidavit in support of Mata’s arrest alleges he was pushing away from the deputies when they were “escorting him” out of the building and then struck one of the deputies with his arm in a cast.

Crouch, who acknowledges that he benefited from having the grievance controversy revealed by Mata’s recording of the June 10 TAD meeting, is concerned that Mata is in jail.

Before June 10, he had never met Mata or Torlincasi.

At the next two meetings on June 30 and August 12, Mata was not allowed to be present to record the meeting. Crouch thinks it is no coincidence and is likely retaliation similar to what he experienced.

Not only had Mata recorded the first meeting that resulted in 300 people coming to speak on June 30, but he and Torlincasi had joined in a complaint filed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation against TAD, Crouch pointed out.

He believes the transparency and accountability that Mata provides in attending and recording these meetings is invaluable and exactly what people want.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a guy dressed in a white button-down shirt with a squeaky clean record like me or a guy who is not stereotypical and doesn’t fit the mold. Anyone who is willing to lawfully stand up for people has a place in the system,” Crouch emphasized.

Mata has filed complaints with the internal affairs departments of the Fort Worth Police Department and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.

Torlincasi also delivered an intent to sue the City of Fort Worth and Tarrant County for deprivation of his and Mata’s First Amendment rights.

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Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.

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