Blowup in City Hall

Councilman Duncan summons city staff for personal errand

"Even if we wanted to work on private cars, we don't have the system set up to where we could handle it," says one employee, who, like others, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "We bill in the computer, through 'org' numbers--organization numbers assigned to the different departments that lease vehicles through us. Individuals don't have 'org' numbers. Councilmembers don't have 'org' numbers."

But they do have clout. Which works especially well with people who are willing to break rules in order to please. Which is why the boss over equipment services, a fellow named Dewayne Jackson, called over to the Canton Street shop that day with such an unusual job assignment.

Jackson, a young, dapper guy, knew better. He had started with equipment services 16 years earlier as a rank-and-file car mechanic. Gradually, he had worked his way up the ladder, to shift supervisor, then to shop manager--and finally, last month, to division manager. Now, for the first time in his city career, he was out of a dirty repair shop, sitting in an office cubicle with pictures of his wife propped up on the credenza behind him, dispatching orders to his former co-workers.

But those colleagues were confused. In going across the street to sit with the big boys, had Jackson forgotten the number-one rule of city car repair? "My shop bosses told Jackson, 'Well, you know, it's a councilmember's car--and we don't do that,'" Nobles said. "But Jackson insisted. And they said, 'Jackson, well, it's going to be on you.'"

Jackson would later tell me, quite proudly, that he had made the decision to service Duncan's car on his own, without conferring with upper management. Asked why he would put his people in the awkward position of doing something they weren't supposed to do, Jackson looked at me defiantly: "I don't work for them. They work for me."

Interestingly enough, Jackson's ultimate boss, ECI director David Morgan, thinks what Jackson did is just fine. When I told Morgan that his rank-and-file employees had told Jackson that it was improper to work on Duncan's car, Morgan smirked derisively: "They also complain about having to work on a garbage truck that's dirty or an inspector's car that has dogs in it." (For the record, changing a flat on a rancid garbage truck crawling with maggots--or an animal control wagon filled with decaying dog carcasses is not amusing, I understand, and certainly a worthy excuse for a gripe or two.)

Ultimately, though, the arrogance of higher management--a pervasive problem at Dallas City Hall these days--is not the main issue here. The esteemed councilman from The Grove should never have put any city employee--including his assistant Diane Harper, who doesn't have tire repair in her job description--in this position.

Ask other councilmembers if they would ever think--for even a fleeting moment--of asking a city employee to do personal work for them, and they will check your head for fever.

One did tell me he might have done the same thing on a bad day: "There are days where you feel like you've given your heart, your soul, your time, and there's something that goes wrong, and you say 'screw it.'"

But most laugh out loud at the thought. "Heavens no," North Dallas councilwoman Halstead told me last week, walking out to the scene of the crime, the City Hall parking garage. "I am so careful about that. I keep a roll of stamps in my desk drawer that I use on anything that is not strictly council business. The code of ethics is so complex, so detailed, I would prefer to err on the side of caution."

The city of Dallas code of ethics, which spells out how elected officials, board and commission appointees, and city employees must conduct themselves, speaks to this issue on a number of levels. It's worth citing--for future reference for any councilmember who doesn't want to slog through the whole code next time he's thinking of having someone from housing and neighborhood services come to paint his living room.

Sec. 2-121(a): "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the city that the proper operation of democratic government requires that: (4) public office not be used for personal gain."

Sec. 2-122(a): "An officer or employee of the city shall not: (1) Accept or solicit a benefit that might reasonably tend to influence the officer or employee in the discharge of his official duties. (2) Use his official position to secure privileges or exemptions for himself or others. (3) Grant any special consideration, treatment or advantage to a person or organization beyond that which is available to every other person or organization."

There are, of course, specific penalties for violating the code. But this is not relevant--councilman Duncan's transgression is minor, far outweighed by his extraordinary hard work and long hours as a council member who only gets paid $50 per meeting.

And Duncan did eventually pay for the air--a stout $25.80. After being informed that a newspaper reporter had witnessed the tire-inflating, Dewayne Jackson asked Duncan to write the check. Duncan insists that he intended all along to pay for the air, though it would have been far cheaper to call Dunlap-Swain Tire Co. at San Jacinto and Routh, which would have sent a guy over to fill the tire for $10.

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