Code Breaker

Mayor's plan commission appointee asked to resign amid ethics complaint

Robert Ramirez, a successful artist and a family man, wants the same thing other business owners in the Bishop Arts District in North Oak Cliff already have: a chance to open a full-service restaurant and capture the dollars of local residents, who clamor for more dining options in the burgeoning business district.

But Ramirez has run into a problem. His name is David Spence, Mayor Laura Miller's appointee to the city's plan and zoning commission, who has led a campaign to block Ramirez's efforts to open his Twilight Restaurant and Club.

As a neighboring property owner, Spence has every right to express his opinion about the proposed business as a private citizen, but Ramirez says Spence's efforts have now crossed the lines of proper conduct for a city official.

On June 6, Ramirez filed a complaint with the city's Ethics Advisory Commission that accuses Spence of using his political position improperly to obtain confidential information about the proposed business and, later, using his political clout to "intimidate" Ramirez in order to advance Spence's personal financial interests in the area. In addition, Ramirez says, Spence resorted to "blackmail" when he accused Ramirez of violating various building codes and, later, intimated that complaints to city inspectors would stop if Ramirez withdrew his application for a late-night alcohol permit.

Last month, Ramirez agreed to withdraw the application, believing the gesture would resolve the dispute, but Spence's attempts to uncover and report various code violations continued.

On the same day Ramirez filed the complaint, his landlord, Amanda Moreno, called for Spence's resignation from the plan commission. Moreno claims Spence's activities are the result of her and her husband's decision to reject Spence's earlier offer to purchase the building.

"He is trying to destroy us and sabotage everything we're trying to do," Moreno says. "He's out of line, and we want his resignation."

Spence, who concedes that he inappropriately included his political title on a questionnaire he distributed to Ramirez and his neighbors, says he will not resign. He also says the allegations that his opposition to Ramirez's restaurant is motivated by spite are "preposterous."

"My worst offense was naïveté and, as a plan commissioner, possibly inexperience," says Spence, who confirms that he unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Moreno's building.

Miller, the architect of the city's ethics code, has received numerous documents relating to the dispute but has not publicly commented on the matter.

Councilman Mark Housewright, who inherited Spence after Miller was elected mayor and he took her place on the city council, says he will not ask Spence to resign. Instead, Housewright says, he will allow the ethics commission to investigate the complaint. But Housewright agrees that some of Spence's behavior has been inappropriate--particularly his decision to use his political title as part of his involvement in the dispute, which does not involve any matters before the plan commission.

"There was no doubt [Spence] made a mistake or two," Housewright says. "Whether they were violations of the ethics package, I'm not going to speculate on that."


On a recent Thursday afternoon, Robert Ramirez stands inside the future home of Twilight, located inside an old auto parts store on Davis Street that sat vacant for years until he leased it from Moreno. The place is just the type of eyesore that local residents say has hampered the neighborhood's renaissance, and Ramirez's planned renovation appears to be an ideal fit for the Bishop Arts District, a diverse collection of homespun restaurants and retail stores.

The menu will offer a selection of soups, salads and sandwiches that is mindful of vegetarians. The limited bar will emphasize imported beers and high-end wines. Ramirez says the place will be an artists' showcase, featuring the creations of artists who work and live at Tobeto, a commercial art studio Ramirez operates near the Dallas Zoo.

"I don't want to have a bar atmosphere," says Ramirez, who will run the place with his girlfriend, Misty. When it's finished, Ramirez says, he'll have invested about $30,000--his life's savings plus business loans. "I feel like there's a heavy burden on me. Yeah, there are problems that come from serving alcohol. There are responsibilities that come with it. I don't want to let anybody down."

As a city plan commissioner, Spence has no jurisdiction over Ramirez's proposed business; the restaurant is not located in Spence's district, and it does not require any zoning changes that would fall under the commission's jurisdiction. In fact, Spence's only interests in the neighborhood are personal; he recently renovated a nearby apartment building and has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to buy other buildings in the Bishop Arts District.

Still, Spence has used his position as a plan commissioner to, in his word, "elevate" the debate among neighboring residents and business owners, whom he claims opposed Ramirez's initial application to obtain a late-night alcohol permit from the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC).

On April 18, shortly after Ramirez filed his application, Spence called the TABC's Dallas office and, after identifying himself as a city plan commissioner, requested a copy of Ramirez's application, information that is not subject to public disclosure laws but can be released privately to other government agencies, according to Lou Bright, the TABC's general counsel, who recently wrote a letter explaining why the information was released.

"[B]ecause Mr. Spence was associated with the City of Dallas Planning Commission," Bright wrote, "the information responsive to his request was released to him."

Spence, who has never met Ramirez, says he suspects Ramirez is using the restaurant as a guise to open a bar that will only attract drunks to the neighborhood. "We don't want this one to slip through like Billares de Mexico," Spence says, referring to a nearby pool hall that obtained the same type of state permits Ramirez is requesting.

Spence's suspicions came through on a set of questions he distributed to Ramirez's lawyer and his future neighbors shortly after Spence contacted the TABC. The document, which states that it was "Drafted by David Spence, District 3 Plan Commissioner," asks who Ramirez's clientele is, who his chef is, what his construction budget is, whether he will display beer signs on the property and whether his landlord has any "equity or lender interest."

For weeks now, Ramirez says, he has confronted neighborhood rumors that Moreno or some other purportedly shady partner secretly owns the restaurant. "It is my project, and still nobody wants to believe it," Ramirez says.

Spence suggests there are problems with Moreno's "perception" in the neighborhood, but he declined to be specific. Spence, a lawyer, also confirms that he "mentioned" that he was a plan commissioner when he called the TABC, but says he was unaware of any state laws that prohibited him from obtaining Ramirez's application. The document's release, Spence says, was a mistake on the TABC's part.

In hindsight, Spence says, he shouldn't have included his political title on the questionnaire he distributed, but says he was only trying to help Ramirez prepare for a breakfast meeting he unsuccessfully tried to set up with some neighbors.

"I put that on there in order to elevate the situation or to give the questions an impartial meaning," Spence says. "Would I do that again? No. But I did it."

Last month, Ramirez says, he showed up at a meeting with Housewright and Councilwoman Elba Garcia, who represents the Bishop Arts District, and discussed withdrawing his application for a late-night permit. Although he later agreed to seek a stepped-down liquor permit, he says he refused to agree in writing that he would never seek a late-night permit.

Because the neighborhood's other full-service restaurants typically close at 10 p.m., Ramirez believes there is a demand for a late-night restaurant. But Ramirez says he was willing to compromise on the restaurant's hours until after he established his reputation in the neighborhood. More important, he says, he understood that the compromise would resolve the dispute. Housewright confirms that the late-night permit was the central issue.

"That was the whole motivation of that meeting," Housewright says, adding that after it was over, "I thought we had everything settled and everybody was happy with each other."

Everyone except Spence. He continued to call city building inspectors to complain about various city code violations he claims he found when he personally inspected the restaurant's exterior. Spence says he did that because he discovered that it is nearly impossible to convince the TABC to revoke a liquor license once one is issued. So his only option, he says, was to "defeat the application" altogether, and the only way he could do that was by showing that Ramirez is not up to city codes and enlisting the city's help in protesting the application to the TABC.

Ramirez, who provided copies of various city permits that he has obtained, says he has made many changes, including three alterations to his parking lot, in response to Spence's complaints and says he is willing to make any other changes necessary to ensure that the restaurant meets all city codes. In the meantime, he says, "enough is enough."

"He [Spence] is undermining every move I make," Ramirez says. "The concern was the after-hours permit, and we've given that up, but the problem still persists."

Since she formally asked that Spence resign, Moreno says, Miller has not adequately responded to her numerous requests to discuss the matter. (Miller left a brief message on Moreno's voice mail June 11 before flying to Washington. The mayor left a similarly belated message with the Dallas Observer on the same morning.)

Given the extent to which Miller has portrayed herself as a champion of ethics, Moreno says, it is now time for the mayor to live up to her pledges.

"She needs to lay down the law and make sure everybody is measured the same," Moreno says. "Let's just see if the mayor is going to do what she has been preaching all this time."

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