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Ort faces censure, ethics committee

Granite Shoals City Councilor Phil Ort

Granite Shoals City Councilor Phil Ort sits quietly during the council's special meeting Monday, Sept. 19, while being presented with evidence that he fabricated comments from residents to support his Dark Skies Ordinance. On the screen behind him is the Facebook profile of his pet parrot, Prissy. Ort was accused of using Prissy’s Facebook page to create falsified conversations. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Granite Shoals City Council voted unanimously during a special meeting Monday, Sept. 19, to draft a letter of censure formally expressing its condemnation of Place 6 Councilor Phil Ort and to form an ethics review committee to investigate allegations against him that could result in his removal from office.  

Deadline to apply to serve on the three-member committee composed of three voting Granite Shoals residents is Friday, Sept. 23. 

Ort was not allowed to vote on the matter.

The councilor was accused of fabricating dozens of complaints from residents about lighting in support of his proposed Dark Skies Ordinance as well as violating the Texas Public Information Act during the special meeting. He reportedly used the Facebook account of his pet parrot, Prissy, to send himself numerous messages posing as aggrieved residents and then refused to fulfill a public information request from a constituent who wanted to see evidence of the complaints.

Ort became the center of controversy over the past few weeks after resigning and rescinding his resignation on Sept. 12. Initially, he said he was resigning because of conflicts between his personal and public responsibilities. He then rescinded his resignation, he said, because of an outpouring of support. 

At the end of the following council meeting the next day, Sept. 13, fellow Councilor Ron Munos requested that a discussion of disciplinary action against Ort be added to the next agenda. Munos said he was told Ort made derogatory remarks on Facebook directed at fellow councilors and residents. Those remarks have since been removed from the social media platform.

Ort’s remarks stemmed from a conflict between himself and Kiel Arnone, a Granite Shoals resident and 2023 mayoral candidate. Ort proposed a Dark Skies Ordinance during an Aug. 23 council meeting, which was tabled after residents, including Arnone, expressed fears of government overreach.

Conversation concerning the Dark Skies Ordinance reportedly continued on a closed Facebook group called Residents of Granite Shoals in the days and weeks after the Aug. 23 meeting. In an Aug. 29 post, Ort claimed he had received 41 comments from residents supporting the Dark Skies Ordinance. Arnone filed a public information request with the city asking to see those comments. 

Ort is said to have attacked both Arnone and Councilor Samantha Ortis in written rants on Facebook, then ultimately refused to fulfill the public information request, claiming he was protecting the privacy of his constituents.

The Sept. 19 special meeting was called because the council did not want to wait until the coming Sept. 27 regular meeting to address the issues, said Interim City Manager Peggy Smith.

Councilor Munos spoke first at the Monday meeting, addressing his concerns about Ort’s behavior and possible violation of the public information request.

“I’ve had a couple of friends come up to me and say they really enjoy Granite Shoals because we’re so entertaining,” Munos said.

He referred to Ort’s criminal mischief arrest in October 2021 in which he was accused of keying a car in the Marble Falls H-E-B parking lot. He also mentioned ongoing online arguments over Granite Shoals issues, most of which involve Ort, he said.

“The common factor in all of those was you,” Munos said directly to Ort. “You were the one that was arrested, and you were the one that was arguing on social media. I just think it was embarrassing to the city and to the City Council.”

Munos said he was shown a screenshot of a message that Ort sent referring to a Granite Shoals resident as a “psycho.” He then recalled an instance in which Ort wanted former City Manager Jeff Looney fired for insulting a resident. Ort did not deny this.

Munos then read aloud a Facebook post made by Ort:

“To the residents of Granite Shoals,

I have prayed on this matter and put a lot of thought into it. I will not comply with Mr. Kiel Arnone and his sidekick Samantha Ortis FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. I will not betray the trust of the residents of our city just to appease a narcissistic egomaniac. I will probably be removed from the council and possibly go to jail for this decision. If that is the price I have to pay for it, then so be it.”

In an interview with DailyTrib.com, Arnone said he was suspicious of Ort’s claim that he had received 41 complaints in support of the Dark Skies Ordinance.

“I could care less who these people are,” Arnone said. “I just wanted to see if there were really 41 complaints.”

The Texas Public Information Act states that public information includes all personal correspondence and written content made through email, social media, and text messages by a public official if it is in reference to public business. Ort had 10 business days to fulfill Arnone’s Aug. 31 request for copies of the comments. By deleting the information and refusing to hand it over by Sept. 13, Ort consciously violated the TPIA, Arnone said. 

Councilor Ortis introduced a series of screenshots to the council, claiming they proved Ort had fabricated most of the 41 complaints.

Social media posts made by Phil Ort
The Facebook profile of Granite Shoals City Councilor Phil Ort’s pet parrot, Prissy, and two screenshots of Facebook Messenger conversations were presented as evidence against Ort during the council’s special meeting Monday, Sept. 19. Ort is accused of fabricating the conversation shown in the screenshots using the parrot’s Facebook account and sending himself messages posing as a variety of Granite Shoals residents concerned about intrusive lighting. Courtesy images

Dozens of heavily redacted screenshots of supposed conversations between Ort and “anonymous” residents were put on the large screens that surround the dais where the council and staff sit during meetings. 

Most of these interactions took place on Facebook Messenger. Ortis explained the basic mechanics of Messenger, stating that messages received are gray and messages sent are blue. She also pointed out that the profile photo of the sender appears on the righthand side of a Messenger conversation.

“You’ll see that same profile picture over and over again on sent messages,” Ortis said.

One screenshot displayed on the screen was for the Facebook profile of “Prissy Ort,” Ort’s pet parrot. According to the screenshots shown to the council, almost all of them were sent from the same Prissy Ort profile, which includes a small photo of the bird.

“It’s my opinion as an avid Facebook Messenger user that these messages were fabricated,” Ortis said.

Mayor Skinner asked Ort to comment on the accusation.

“She’s entitled to her opinion,” Ort replied.

After Ortis’ presentation, the council moved forward with the discussion, searching for the best way to deal with Ort’s conduct and violation of the TPIA. 

“Again, very offensive, very unprofessional, and behavior unbecoming of a City Council member,” Councilor Aaron Garcia said. “Absolutely ridiculous. I am ashamed and embarrassed by that behavior.”

The newest member of the council, Garcia serves as mayor pro tem. He is a Marble Falls police officer and the officer who signed the warrant when Ort turned himself in on the criminal mischief charge on Dec. 1. A hearing was set on that charge earlier in the day Monday in the Burnet County Court of Law but was moved to Nov. 14. 

During the special meeting, Ortis asked Ort to resign, but he refused. The letter of censure involves no actual punishment but acts as a recorded account of the council’s disapproval.

According to City Attorney Joshua Katz, a complaint must be filed with the district attorney or Texas Attorney General’s Office to pursue charges of violating the state’s Public Information Act.

Katz also said it was possible the city would have to pay for Ort’s legal defense in such a case. The entire council could be put on trial for Ort’s actions in a PIA case, he continued.

“The Public Information Act does allow for criminal or civil penalties against a city or against an elected official,” Katz explained. “Hypothetically, if a prosecuting attorney believed that the conduct of the city gave rise to civil or criminal penalties because an employee or an agent of the city was intentionally violating the PIA, that could be something that the city would absolutely have to defend.”

dakota@thepicayune.com

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