DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

He didn’t like his appraisal district, but unlike the rest of us, he did something about it

“If you don’t like the law, change it.”

How many times do you think a public official has said those words to a Texan complaining about the property tax system?

Two years ago, Randy Armstrong, the leader of the residential division at the Tarrant Appraisal District, said that to taxpayer Daniel Bennett of White Settlement.

Bennett was upset because he missed the property tax protest deadline by one day. His grandfather, a World War II hero, was on his deathbed.

Daniel Bennett

Daniel Bennett

Bennett asked for a hearing to get an extension. But during the hearing, Armstrong burst into the room and shared his opinion: Bennett shouldn’t get a second chance.

When Bennett complained, Armstrong threw out those eight words.

“If you don’t like the law, change it.”

That pushed the matter to Bennett’s boiling point.

Guess what? Bennett took Armstrong up on the offer. Bennett lobbied lawmakers. This year, large portions of the property tax law were changed. Now Armstrong is out of a job.

Research leads to shock

When looking at the major changes in the state’s property tax law that passed in the Texas Legislature this year, the credit goes to senators and state representatives, along with the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.

But let’s not forget Daniel Bennett.

After that incident, Bennett got involved. He announced his candidacy to run for director of the appraisal district. That would have made him one of Armstrong’s bosses. Bennett lost, but he ran a strong race.

He wasn’t done.

He’s been watchdogging Armstrong and the appraisal district ever since.

“I did a little research,” Bennett told me. “I was shocked to find he was president of the White Settlement ISD school board.”

Randy Armstrong

Randy Armstrong

What an obvious conflict of interest. Wearing one hat, Armstrong leads the division that sets appraisals for all residential property in Tarrant County. With the other hat, Armstrong leads a small school district’s board since 2012 that sets the school property tax rate in his district. This unholy setup was allowed under state law.

At this point, let me briefly inject myself into this story. I know exactly how Bennett felt because Armstrong did the same to me.

At my 2018 property tax protest hearing, Armstrong sat in the corner, a mysterious visitor whose presence confused me. He sat there flipping through his phone, watching the review board hear my protest and scowling. When I asked who he was at the hearing’s start, he gave his name, not his title.

After my hearing, out in the hallway, I quickly did a web search on his name.

Like Bennett, I was surprised an appraisal district leader sat in on my hearing. That seemed odd. But I was more surprised to see he’s a school board president wearing two hats. Why is this allowed?

Faulty election

Bennett began to dig. He found a major flaw and a minor flaw in Armstrong’s public life. Both are a bit humiliating.

The major flaw: White Settlement ISD doesn’t know how to run a proper school board election.

State law requires all candidates to be listed on an election ballot, even if they are unopposed — if there are other contested races.

Last year, when Armstrong ran unopposed for reelection, his name was not on the ballot, even though other races were contested.

Bennett complained to the Texas secretary of state.

That office told Bennett that Armstrong was never properly elected.

The same happened with two other active school board members.

The upshot is the elections of the board president and the other two were faulty. Quite an embarrassment.

The secretary of state’s office told Bennett that when it comes to Armstrong’s seat, “There is now a vacancy.”

The school district appears to be ignoring that ruling.

In a statement to The Watchdog, spokeswoman Desiree Coyle told me: “White Settlement ISD received a concern from a citizen as to why the unopposed candidate was not listed on the election ballot during the recent school board election.

“After consultation with the secretary of state’s office, and recommendations from district attorneys, the understanding by district officials is that failure to list the unopposed candidate on the ballot does not create a vacancy on the school board. No other board action is anticipated.”

Bennett also filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency that White Settlement’s school election was illegal. That complaint is active.

I tried to interview Armstrong, leaving messages on his home, office and cellphone. He did not call back.

Wrong job title

Remember the minor point Bennett dug up? Turns out that Armstrong’s title at work is wrong, too. He’s called the director of residential services.

But according to state law, only actual directors on an appraisal district’s board can use the director title.

They can’t even get his job title right.

‘When people have power’

So how did Bennett help change the law?

He pestered lawmakers about this two-hat conflict. He questioned why state law allowed an individual to serve on a city council, county commission or school board and also have a paying job in an appraisal district.

Set the appraised value of a property, then preside over the board that sets the tax rate based on that value. Two hats. Looks bad.

This year, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, introduced a House bill to ban the practice. It was inserted into the big property tax bill. It’s now law.

By year’s end, Armstrong must resign one of two jobs.

Same goes for Lewisville Mayor Rudy Durham, who is also chief appraiser at the Denton Central Appraisal District. Durham says he will step down as mayor by Dec. 31 to keep his other job, which pays around $184,000 a year. A mayor in Lewisville gets only $50 a meeting.

“It’s just what happens when people have power,” Durham said about the change in state law.

Give credit to Daniel Bennett for his citizen power.

Bennett says he’s not done.

In the 2021 legislative session, Bennett wants a law passed that requires chief appraisers to be elected.

He has a strong ally with a track record. Krause says he will be more than happy to introduce and push that bill.

As for Randy Armstrong, he needs to think twice before he pops into any more protest hearings. It doesn’t turn out well for him.

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