Bad planning

Commission chairman's departure leaves panel in weaker hands

Two weeks before Christmas, on a nippy Monday night, there was a party at the Belo Mansion on Ross Avenue downtown. But as I entered the back door, I figured I had come on the wrong night. There was no activity in the back of the house, nothing happening in the bar.

It was so quiet you could hear a cocktail onion drop.
I wandered down a hall, toward the catering office. Two women sat at desks. It was approaching 6 p.m.

"Can you tell me where the party for...," I began.
The women looked up from their work. One, eager to be helpful, cut me off in mid-sentence.

"Oh, you mean the appreciation party for Ron Kirk?" she asked.
I smiled. Well, no, not quite. What I was looking for was the appreciation party for Dr. Ben Clark Jr., the recently resigned chairman of the Dallas Plan Commission.

"Well, the mayor's going to be there," she said excitedly, as though we were talking about, say, Jean Claude Van Damme.

Let's hope Ron Kirk is here, I thought, following the woman's directions to the front of the building, where there were indeed signs of party life (Mexican cheese dip, assorted wines and beers, lots of unclaimed name tags).

Like the opening of the movie Blue Velvet--where director David Lynch takes you below the manicured lawns of a picturesque small town to reveal swarms of lip-smacking cockroaches and other subterranean unpleasantness--this was a typical city of Dallas political party. Just below the hum of idle chitchat and tinkling highball glasses, there were the whispered political realities of the moment--in this case, the apparent beheading of a well-liked holdover from the Steve Bartlett reign.

How had it happened? Why was this beloved Plan Commission chairman of four years, a dignified African-American Dallas podiatrist, leaving a job he so obviously enjoyed and had, by all accounts, fully intended to continue under the new mayor? Had Ron Kirk really forced him out?

And where was Ron Kirk, anyway?
"So, Dr. Clark," I finally asked, "where's the mayor?"
"Oh, I was told he's out of town," Clark said.
"Where out of town?" I asked.
"In Phoenix," Clark said, "at some mayor's thing."

People around him nodded their heads knowingly. Important business. Mayor's things. Can't be helped.

Actually, it's a good bet that if we had turned to our right, to stare out the front window of the Belo Mansion, we could have waved to the mayor. Because as we were picturing hizzoner, out there in the desert somewhere, pondering weighty matters of governance, Kirk was actually rolling through downtown Dallas in the mayoral Town Car, headed for a big Christmas party at Le Meridien, formerly known as the Plaza of the Americas hotel. Two blocks away from Dr. Clark's goodbye party.

A story about the power struggles on the city's Plan Commission--not one of the sexier operations at city hall--might seem like way too much inside baseball for the casual political observer.

Then again, when your friendly neighbor opens an auto-repair shop in his garage, or the pet shop down the street decides to become a sleazy nightclub, or a giant movie theatre chain wants to put the world's largest cinema on your doorstep--remember Cinemark?--you'll suddenly find yourself passionately interested in the personalities on your Plan Commission.

And, let me tell you, they've changed enormously in the last 30 days.
For the past four years, under Ben Clark, if you had a zoning or platting problem, you could be assured of one thing: that you would be given a fair hearing. You would be given every opportunity to air your grievances or make your requests, no matter how many fellow homeowners or powerful developers with high-priced zoning attorneys were there to oppose you.

In the four years Clark served as chairman, he did not allow anyone to tell him what to do--not the politicians who appointed him, not the developers who courted him, not the commission members who tried to play their councilmembers' political games. City employees say he was the best commission chair in memory. Zoning lawyers praised his thoroughness and objectivity. Fellow commission members revered him.

So what happened?
The rumors have been swirling since early November, when Clark abruptly resigned--just two months after Councilman Al Lipscomb nominated him for his third full term on the commission.

Some blamed Clark's heart attack, which he suffered in September at the age of 51, putting him out of action for four weeks. (The heart attack was relatively mild. He was hospitalized for a week and put on a strict exercise and diet regimen. Today, looking at him, you'd never know he had had one.)

Some said Clark was tired of spending one whole day each week volunteering his time to City Hall instead of earning a living doing foot surgery.

But the biggest rumor--and the one that stuck--was that Mayor Kirk would not reappoint him as chair of the commission (causing him to resign) because Clark wouldn't do things the mayor's way. In particular, Clark supposedly had refused to demote three plan commissioners to whom he had just given leadership roles--all of whom were appointees of councilmembers who Kirk doesn't like.

Indeed, those three commission members--Mitchell Rasansky, Betty Wadkins, and Carol Scott, appointees of Donna Blumer, Larry Duncan, and Paul Fielding, respectively--say they were all told as much by Clark. "Ben had been telling me for two months that his coming back as chairman depended on his being able to work some things out with the mayor," says Scott. "Ben said the mayor told him he had appointed all his enemies' appointees as chairs of the committees. But Ben said he told Kirk he'd been very successful in running the commission, and he wanted us in those positions."

It is no secret to those who spend their days at City Hall that things are operating differently under Ron Kirk. Suddenly, the mayor of Dallas isn't just a figurehead. Unlike Bartlett, Kirk has a voter mandate, a city manager who's a personal friend, a city council that's generally on his team, and a law firm willing to pay him well just to go off and play mayor. On top of all of that, the man gets almost as much press coverage as Princess Di.

All of that can make you feel pretty omnipotent, and make you act like you own the joint, which can irritate the hell out of people who have been operating on autopilot for four years.

Like Ben Clark.
Last week, I sat down with Clark in the doctor's lounge at the Dallas Family Hospital in Oak Cliff. Clark is not a talker. He's a very private person who, by all accounts, is hard to get to know. He's not interested in participating in a story on why he left City Hall. On the other hand, he's not adverse to putting some rumors to rest.

His sudden departure was the culmination of several things, he told me. Sure, the heart attack was sobering and forced him to slow down. And, yes, the loss of income to Clark--who previously practiced medicine four days a week--was noticeable. "One day a week is 25 percent of my income," says Clark. "And when you start to have little hassles, it's just not worth it."

And there have been hassles lately, Clark says--including his committee appointments. "In a roundabout way, it was suggested to me that when there are three people on the council who are always against the mayor, you don't need to be doing things to embarrass him--it's an insult to him. Ron didn't say that, but someone close to him called to say that. And I knew where it was coming from." Clark wouldn't name the caller.

Kirk says he didn't even know the names of the commission members in question, and, as far as he knows, no one has called Clark on his behalf.

But Clark says he saw the writing on the wall. "I felt the change was there. Ron likes to be on top of everything. He likes things cleared through him, and I'm not ever going to do that. If I'm in charge of something, I'm in charge. You don't have to agree with my decision, but you have to respect that."

It would be a great end to this story--the political appointee stands his ground to be his own man, away from the slimebucket of politics. That, though, is not the whole picture.

Unfortunately, Clark owed a lot of money to the city in unpaid taxes--which Clark didn't tell me about until I asked.

The truth is that Kirk had been riding Clark for several months to pay the 1994 property taxes on his home, office, rental properties, and cars--all of which were delinquent as of February 1, 1995. Not only did Kirk think it poor form to appoint a person with unpaid tax bills as chairman of a powerful committee, it was a direct violation of Sec.8-1.4 of the Dallas City Code, which clearly states that board and commission members can't serve if they are in arrears on city taxes.

And Clark's unpaid taxes were huge by mere mortals' standards. City records show that, for 1994, Clark owed $29,750.59 in city and DISD taxes on his North Dallas home. That's a lot of money. But then Clark, a successful doctor with other investments, has one heck of a home--a new, 9,773-square-foot, 10-bathroom, three-fireplace, massive, brick thing valued at $1,169,740 on the tax rolls. He built it in 1992 on a 1.5-acre piece of land, worth an additional $472,560, near Northwest Highway and the tollway.

As of last month, when he resigned, Clark owed an additional $12,331.61 in penalties, interest, and collection fees.

But that's not all.
He also owed 1994 taxes on a few other things, including the Oak Cliff building where his doctor's office is located; the contents of that office and a second office; a rental home in Oak Cliff; and three cars--a Lexus, a Jeep Cherokee, and a Mitsubishi.

It seems that Clark, for reasons unknown, has a severe aversion to taxes. He pays them, but he usually pays them quite late, which means he incurs enormous penalties, which is a very expensive way to live. Under normal circumstances, that would be his own problem.

But for the chairman of a city commission that holds other taxpayers to task on many other issues, it's a very public problem.

Dallas County tax records show a similar pattern--it was only last week that Clark paid 1994 county taxes on his home, due last January. Last January--when those 1994 taxes were due--he paid his 1993 taxes, one year late at the time.

In our interview, Clark insisted the taxes were a non-issue. He had just built a new home, he explained, and the value the Dallas Central Appraisal District had put on it, compared to the other, older homes in his neighborhood, was way too high. He had wanted to contest the value this year, he said, but started the appeals process too late--right about the time, actually, that the city filed suit against him for the taxes. Which was apparently the last straw for Kirk.

"It was almost like a theme with the tax thing," Clark says. "Ron would say, 'If you don't take care of it, I'll appoint someone else.' I said, 'Listen, this is only a volunteer position. I have to take care of my family and my business first.' I needed more time to deal with it, but he wouldn't cut me any slack."

(Most of Clark's taxes have now, in fact, been paid--although city records still don't show a payment for his office in Oak Cliff. Clark drove to my home on Monday night to show me the papers on a $69,446 loan he got from his bank at the end of November to pay off all his taxes. He says a title company handled the matter. The county received its share last week. The city shows payment on the cars and the office contents November 27, and payment on the house last Friday.)

As far as Kirk is concerned, it's Clark's business at this point. "He resigned, and upon his resignation I asked and appointed Hector Garcia to be chair, and I have every confidence that Mr. Garcia will bring the same integrity and intelligence to the commission, and that's all I really have to say," the mayor says. "I think Dr. Clark did more than a commendable job--he provided a terrific balance between homeowners and developers. I understand he has business ventures he wants to pursue."

What's sad about all this is not that a rich man can't stand to pay taxes. It's not even that he had to step down from the plan commission for that reason. What's sad is that the taxpayers lost a very good chairman for a pretty stupid reason, and as a result, the plan commission is being chaired by a lightweight--specifically, a restaurant ma”tre d'.

"I am not a ma”tre d'," Hector Garcia snapped last week to someone else who identified him that way. "I am a captain." Meaning, instead of escorting you to a fine table, Garcia will come to your table after you're seated, lay your napkin on your lap, and check to see that your flowers are fresh and your wine menu is on the way.

I am not belittling his job--not by any means. Garcia has been the captain at the very tony Riviera on Inwood Road at Lovers Lane for 11 years now, and he's very good at it. Trust me--my food tastes better just knowing that he is watching over it. However, it gives me the willies to think about him lording over the future development of a major city on the verge of an economic comeback.

The simple reality is that his experience is weak. On his commission application, Garcia states that his worldly experience consists of living in Dallas for 14 years, being a restaurant captain, a part-time actor, a precinct chairman, a Democratic Party activist, and a board member of the Turtle Creek Chorale, the gay men's chorus. When specifically asked on the application what experience he brings to planning and zoning, Garcia states, among other things: "Concerned about mental health, AIDS, children's services, public health, etc."

True, you don't have to be a real-estate maven to be a good chairman (Clark says he would have promoted another commission member, Rob Richmond, a straight-shooting developer with impeccable credentials, over Garcia). You do, however, have to be strong of will, objective, and apolitical.

None of which describes Garcia. This is the man, after all, who spent most of his first year on the commission trying to help freshman councilman Craig McDaniel keep open four low-rent apartment buildings he owned: McDaniel's neighbors wanted to shut them down because of the drugs and crime they attracted. While Garcia was scrambling around for clever ways to save McDaniel's rear end, McDaniel made the grave mistake of trying to influence Clark directly on the matter. Clark simply stared him down--fellow commissioners know the look well--causing McDaniel to scurry away in a flurry of apologies.

Garcia has an intensely political agenda. He has been telling fellow commission members--in the five minutes he's been chairman--that he wants more gays and lesbians on the commission and its committees. This is a rather strange priority, since sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with ability to do basic planning and zoning work--and there's no dearth of gays on the commission now.

Of the 13 people on the plan commission (there are two vacancies), three, including Garcia, are openly gay. One, Oscar Monsibais, served six months probation in 1992 on a misdemeanor public-lewdness charge for feeling up an undercover cop in a city park. He, too, lists membership of the Turtle Creek Chorale board as an important experience on his commission application.

Couldn't Chris Luna, the councilman who inexplicably appointed this guy to the plan commission, find anyone--gay or straight--better suited to the job? Isn't there a better job for Monsibais--say, on the parks and recreation board?

What's happening here, quite frankly, is that Ron Kirk, by making Hector Garcia chairman, has lowered the standards of the City Plan Commission. He has allowed Craig McDaniel and Chris Luna--so busy trying to get the plan commission to lay off the strip bars that fill his campaign coffers--to take the reigns of an organization that has been blissfully above the political fray.

Ben Clark's goodbye party was a sad occasion for the people who wished he wasn't leaving and for Clark, who couldn't even garner a proper goodbye from the mayor (who insists he was never invited.)

Mostly, though, it was sad for Dallas--and all the people who will come before the Plan Commission and not know what they're missing.

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