The Denton County Jail has been found noncompliant in its inspection for the most recent fiscal year, with inspection notes flagging jail personnel for failure to conduct proper face-to-face observation of an inmate who later died of unknown causes.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards performed the inspection March 8-10. The jail was still listed as noncompliant on the commission’s website Thursday afternoon.
Brandon Woods, the commission’s executive director, said there have been 96 jail inspections conducted across the state for this fiscal year and 26 notices of noncompliance issued.
Assistant Chief Barry Caver has acted as jail administrator for the past 5½ years. He said this is the first time the jail was found noncompliant under his leadership.
The inspection notes deficiencies in six areas. One includes supervision regarding the death of an inmate on Dec. 29, 2021.
Jail staff failed to conduct proper face-to-face observation of an inmate in Holding 1 who died of unknown causes, according to the inspection report.
Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office records identify the inmate as 53-year-old Helen Renee Jackson.
Jackson was booked into the county jail on three occasions. The first was on May 19, 2020, on a charge of assault causing bodily injury to a family member. She was released on May 30.
Less than two weeks later, she was booked again on June 12, 2020, on violation of a bond or protective order regarding the same charge. She was released later that month, on June 26.
Jackson was booked for the final time on Nov. 17, 2021, on another violation of a bond or protective order on the assault charge.
Video footage from Dec. 29 showed staff scanned the electronic sensor to complete the observation check but were not actually observing the inmate in the holding cell, according to the report.
An observation check was conducted at 5:08 a.m. At 5:10 a.m., Jackson lay down in the center of the holdover and stopped moving at about 5:13 a.m., according to the report.
Staff performed an observation check at 5:32 a.m. without actually seeing the inmate, the report states. A staff member checked on the inmate at 5:37 a.m. and summoned medical assistance.
Jackson was pronounced dead at 6:35 a.m. that day, according to the medical examiner’s office, which lists her cause of death as undetermined.
The inspection report notes no follow-up action from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards was required and that the jail administration would take corrective action with staff internally.
Caver said no jail staff members were terminated as a result of the incident. The Texas Rangers are still investigating and waiting on autopsy results, he said. Caver said he could not comment further on the death pending the investigation.
The report notes other deficiencies such as recently expired food handler licenses, a backup generator that failed to operate automatically when power was disconnected, and an inoperable fire alarm panel in Pre-Trial Tower 1. The report states the county was in the process of replacing the fire alarm panel but had not submitted documentation to notify the commission.
Additionally, the main jail facility, pretrial facility and the barracks facility failed the fire marshal’s inspection on May 27, 2021. These areas failed the reinspection again on June 18, 2021. The report states some corrections were made soon after the jail inspection was conducted in March.
Caver said on Tuesday the jail was currently waiting on the city and fire marshal to give a final inspection.
“We’ve made all of the repairs and necessary items that were addressed,” Caver said. “Then the jail commission will come back out after that’s been done to reinspect to make sure all of that has been done appropriately.”
But Caver said high staff turnover has been a challenge at not just the Denton County Jail but at jails across the state. A report from the Texas State Auditor’s Office found Texas had a 40.3% turnover rate for correctional officers in 2021.
“We just need bodies,” Caver said. “We’re running about 190 vacancies on the jail at this point, and it’s just hard to continue to maintain our inmate population with the staffing we’re having.”
The commission’s executive director, Woods, said there are no financial penalties for noncompliance, only legal ones if it comes to that point.
Most county jails are back in compliance within about 60 to 90 days after the notice of noncompliance, he said. Most notices come seven to 10 days after an inspection is conducted. As of Thursday, the inspection was conducted 105 days ago.
A county jail still not in compliance after that time period begins preparing to appear before the commission’s appointed board to provide an update on efforts to become compliant.
Woods said “in an extreme example,” if a jail is still not compliant after six to nine months, the board can issue a remedial order requiring the jail to comply with minimum standards. Continued violation after that would allow the board to refer the county to the Attorney General’s Office for enforcement action. They would file suit in a Travis County district court to enforce adherence and compliance with minimum jail standards, Woods said.
But Denton County Jail’s noncompliance has not reached the point of appearing before the board or legal action. As it awaits reinspection, the jail is expected to be back in compliance soon, Caver said.
“It’s just a matter of getting everyone on board to give us the final inspection,” he said.
“Hope, one thing I have found to be true in public service. Occasionally someone will disagree with you and instead of getting the facts, they choose to attack and discredit. Please be assured, everyone I know with the municipalities have total faith in you and your staff.” — Quote attributed to the Town of Copper Canyon, Jan. 6
“Working with you (Hope) and everyone in that office has been courteous and professional. I wanted you to know we do support you and think very highly of you and your staff and we wish you the best.” — Utility Tax Service LLC, Jan. 6
“We are blessed beyond belief to have you (Hope) and Don leading DCAD. The job performance of you (Hope McClure) and Don Spencer has been A+ off the charts. Much progress has been made and we just need to keep working together to stay the course and continue this positive trend.” — Quote attributed to a current Denton Central Appraisal District board member, Jan. 7
These are just a few of the quotes from Denton Central Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Hope McClure’s new 10-page rebuttal of 46-year central appraisal district veteran Richard Petree’s report for DCAD’s Board of Directors. In McClure’s document, she accuses the consultant of plagiarizing his own work and does her best to put to rest Petree’s claim about a toxic culture at the appraisal district.
Petree, a consultant with Abilene-based Western Valuation and Consulting, disputed her plagiarism claim and stressed to board members Thursday afternoon at the DCAD Board of Directors meeting that he had written “every word of that report.”
McClure released her written response to reporters Wednesday evening, posted the document on the appraisal district’s website and then presented it shortly after Petree finished his presentation at Thursday afternoon’s meeting to a packed room. Some of those in attendance included Denton County Judge Andy Eads, county Commissioner Ryan Williams, Lewisville Mayor TJ Gilmore and a representative from state Rep. Tan Parker’s office.
Williams, Gilmore, Parker’s representative and several other people were there to request that the board delay its vote on the $2.7 million increased budget McClure’s office is requesting, noting that most appraisal districts don’t start discussing their budgets until August. The board agreed to table it until the July 28 meeting.
“I hope this report can serve as closure on Denton CAD’s past,” McClure wrote in a Wednesday evening email to the Denton Record-Chronicle. “My sole focus is moving forward, rebuilding and rebranding the Denton Central Appraisal District.”
But McClure’s document is more of a 10-page defense of why she is the best person for the top job at the appraisal district. After a one-page description of how the appraisal district works, McClure spends another page highlighting her qualifications, education — an MBA from Texas Woman’s University — and supplemental education — certified tax administrator, 2016; certified chief appraiser, 2015, and registered professional appraiser, 2011.
Eads was upset that McClure had delayed Petree’s report and questioned the language she used in her document when she wrote “DCAD.” (Is it the staff, a manager, the deputy chief appraiser?) He called her rebuttal sloppy.
He also pointed out that in his 16 years of public service, he has rarely had to come to the appraisal district. But since McClure took over in 2020, he’s been there several times, Eads said, because property owners’ requests for exemptions are late and on a nine-month delay.
“This entity has a huge transparency problem and has a huge credibility problem,” Eads told board members.
According to the appraisal district, there’s about a six-month waiting period to get a homestead exemption. The deputy chief appraiser, Don Spencer, said the district has a backlog of about 7,300 requests, due in part to explosive growth in Denton County and understaffing at DCAD.
Both McClure and Spencer praised their staff for their dedication, hard work and willingness to serve the community. A couple of board members asked what else they could do to appease taxpayers, such as returning their phone calls within 48 hours.
“I can only squeeze so much blood out of a turnip,” McClure said.
McClure has been in defense mode since she accepted the job as chief appraiser in 2020. Over the past two years, she has faced criticism for the way she has been running the office. Eads has called it mismanaged and one mayor called the way McClure and her staff handled protests in 2021 illegal, according to a Jan. 11 editorial in The Dallas Morning News.
The Denton County Commissioners Court considered litigation but instead decided to send the DCAD Board of Directors a letter that outlined commissioners’ frustrations: “We are writing to bring our grave concerns involving the Denton Central Appraisal District to your immediate attention. A series of occurrences in the past two years have exhibited a lack of transparency and mismanagement on the part of the Denton Central Appraisal District.”
On May 13, The Dallas Morning News’ Watchdog columnist dropped a report about how most Denton County homeowners were still waiting on their appraisal notices. He pointed out that the final deadline for protests was 45 days behind neighboring cities and that critics blamed McClure who blamed lack of employees.
“The constant bumbling at Denton CAD illustrates how county chief appraisers face little oversight, only a board of directors,” wrote Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber. “It’s difficult to dislodge incompetent chief appraisers. That’s one more indication of how Texas’ property tax system continues to fail property owners. In this case, local governments that depend on getting good numbers in a timely way are the victims.”
Then came a column about Petree’s leaked 50-page report, which board members had commissioned.
Petree said at Thursday’s meeting that his report is mostly positive and offers several recommendations for McClure to improve as a leader.
At the meeting, Petree claimed he didn’t leak the report and said he normally tries to meet with a chief appraiser before he releases his report on a district, but he simply didn’t have enough time to meet with McClure.
In response, McClure went into attack mode to dispute Petree’s criticism. She delayed the release of his report to board members because she said she didn’t receive it until 3 p.m. Friday, May 27, before the board met the following Tuesday, May 31, which didn’t give them enough time to review Petree’s report.
Since the report had been leaked, McClure told board members she decided to allow Petree to present his original draft and she would prepare her own presentation in the spirit of transparency.
One of the board members asked McClure why she had put together her document, and McClure said she had taken offense to Petree’s claim that he had found “serious problems with the culture that need immediate attention.”
Petree said his claim about a toxic work culture at the district was based on his interviews with current and former employees.
In response, McClure conducted her own anonymous survey of current employees. She said that 75% of the staff responded. Her findings included:
McClure claimed that the toxicity she has experienced is with the three largest taxing entities, whose representatives were in attendance Thursday, and asked them what she could work on to improve their relationships and then invited them to come sit with an appraiser.
She said she was “willing to do anything to help build that [relationship]” because she needs their support.
She also mentioned that she has been wearing many hats and handling all communications, which was why she hired an interim spokesperson, Emer Sanabria.
In his report, Petree warns board members it could be difficult to find good employees because the appraisal district community is small and “hesitant to apply to districts in turmoil.”
In her rebuttal, McClure argued that since she took over, Denton CAD has received more than 500 job applications from applicants at appraisal districts for Tarrant, Collin, Dallas, Travis and other counties.
“I have poured blood, sweat and tears into this district” to make it better over a period of time, McClure told board members Thursday.
She also offered several more arguments in her document that don’t relate to Petree’s report but to her critics, including that her mother, who used to work for DCAD but wasn’t a chief appraiser, had nothing to do with McClure landing the chief appraiser job.
“Denton CAD found numerous other [discrepancies] with Petree’s audit, but it feels repetitive to continue to break apart this report,” McClure wrote at the end of her document. “So we will conclude by saying, Denton CAD was expecting more from this report. We are disappointed with not only the quality of the report, but with Petree’s approach.”
At the end of the meeting, McClure said the culture is good but could be better. All agreed that they should focus on the future. The board thanked Petree and asked McClure to develop a plan for the future of DCAD.
“This is a high-stress job,” one board member said. “People have hated tax collectors for 2,000 years.”
The Denton County Transportation Authority board is a month out from making its final say on Connect bus routes and GoZone pricing, with discussion at Thursday’s board meeting suggesting members are leaning toward additional route cuts and a mixed GoZone fare model.
DCTA’s fixed-route bus system in Denton and the pricing structure for the GoZone rideshare service are arguably the two most pressing issues facing the board, excluding its ongoing search for a new CEO. The topics have dominated meetings for months, Thursday being no exception.
For Denton’s bus system, board members were essentially given seven options and asked for clarification on which ones to bring back next month. DCTA staff have worked with consultants — including Via Transportation, the contractor for GoZone — to analyze the bus routes, with the ultimate goal to combine the services into one fluid system.
The seven options differ, but all involve either changing or removing routes altogether. For example, Alternative C would see the agency cut Routes 4 and 5 but keep 2, 3, 6 and 7. Route 4 runs between the Unicorn Lake area and the Rayzor Ranch shopping areas, while Route 5 runs from the Downtown Denton Transit Center to Nottingham Drive.
Every option would remove Routes 4 and 5, with some cutting additional routes on top of that. In alternatives D through G, the agency would put “reinvestment” funding into certain routes to improve their service.
By the end of the presentation, a longstanding ideological split reared its head again. Some board members have argued since last year that the bus routes simply don’t carry enough people and aren’t efficient enough to warrant their cost. Others, particularly Denton representative Alison Maguire, have opposed that thinking.
“All of these alternatives are sort of based on an underlying assumption that the appropriate response to this disparity between Connect and GoZone in the ratio of cost per ride to productivity is to eliminate less productive routes or times of day,” Maguire said. “I’m just wondering why … we’re not focusing more on trying to bring that Connect ridership up as a way of addressing that disparity.”
Maguire was referring to data from the presentation showing that buses cost over twice as much per hour to operate than a GoZone van but aren’t getting enough ridership to make up for the difference. However, she said the system will only get more difficult to use if more routes get cut.
“I’m just very concerned that any alternative that involves cutting routes is only going to address the cost part of it,” Maguire said. “Ridership will go down if we cut routes. The system will get harder to use.”
As board members went down the list of options, Maguire was adamant no routes should be removed. She showed support for Alternative D — which includes upgrades to Routes 2, 3, 6 and 7 — but only on the basis Routes 4 and 5 be added back.
For the most part, though, her efforts failed to reach a consensus. Lewisville Mayor TJ Gilmore was the most vocal board member on the other side of the aisle, after being an advocate in December for the removal of his city’s Connect routes.
“This entity has had over a decade of professionals planning routes, of putting every bit of money we can into a fixed-route service that just doesn’t line up with the build patterns of the municipalities,” Gilmore said. “If it did, we would have better ridership.”
Gilmore suggested focusing on specific routes and maximizing their ridership. He said the agency is “financially constrained” and that other routes’ money could be used to provide more accessible service to more people.
“I’m not against a bus route; what I’m against is inefficient spending of dollars between modalities,” Gilmore said. “If I were absolutely militant on data, I’d be saying [Route] 6 needs to go away. But I think there are some synergies … that could actually increase ridership across that.”
The board didn’t take formal votes on the bus route options but did collectively decide which ones to move forward with. Ultimately, alternatives A and B were scrapped, but the other five will be brought back next month for a final decision. That essentially spells the end of Routes 4 and 5, with others potentially on the chopping block.
“If the board makes its decision in July, this service change would go into effect in a November, December timeframe,” interim CEO Paul Cristina said. “Then, it would be at the board’s discretion as to when the bus service is revisited again.”
When it came to GoZone costs for riders, the board narrowed its options down even further. The current promotional cost for every GoZone ride is a flat 75 cents, but that will likely double moving forward. Instead of a flat fare, board members settled on a $1.50 base price plus either 25 or 50 cents per mile, starting at 4 miles.
Put simply, that means rides under 4 miles will cost only $1.50. Rides longer than 4 miles will cost $1.50 plus an additional charge for each mile traveled. From DCTA’s perspective, that’s meant to discourage long-distance rides, which are highly inefficient for GoZone.
Finer details on the pricing proposals will come back to the board next month, along with the proposals for the bus system.