The Emperor's Checkbook

Dallas City Hall finances could be our own little Enron

The Dallas system--weak mayor, strong city manager--is supposed to be businesslike. So why is the city in the financial ditch so badly? If Dallas City Hall is so businesslike, why wouldn't it have seen the economic downturn coming and hedged its bets just a little?

Maybe nothing is businesslike about Dallas City Hall.

What I'm going to tell you about is a fascinating lawsuit filed against the city by one of its own top auditors. Anybody can file a lawsuit. But this isn't anybody.

City Manager Ted Benavides is the personification of the Dallas City Hall system--calm, cool, collected, always businesslike. But a major whistle-blower says that's all a façade, and City Hall is a junk pile.
Peter Calvin
City Manager Ted Benavides is the personification of the Dallas City Hall system--calm, cool, collected, always businesslike. But a major whistle-blower says that's all a façade, and City Hall is a junk pile.

First, however, please indulge me for a minute while I discuss my personal issue with the city at the moment--my parking ticket.

Wait, now wait, that's not it: This is not some newspaper hack using his two-bit podium to settle a personal grudge. That's very unfair of you. There's nothing two-bit about my podium. In the end you will see that my parking-ticket problem is emblematic of Global Truth.

So enough about you, let's talk about me for a change: A couple of weeks ago I get a dun from the city of Dallas--"FINAL NOTICE!"--saying I owe 15 bucks for a parking ticket. The ticket was issued June 10, 1999. The car they ticketed was my 1990 Honda, the car that refused to die.

Long practice has taught me to treat all personal transactions with City Hall like invitations to a Mafia wedding: Take it seriously, be respectful, keep good files. But in this case I got swifted. I originally paid this citation on June 23, 1999, by check, just less than two weeks from the date of issue. The city cashed the check five days later.

Six months later, on January 18, 2000, the city of Dallas sent me a dun identical to the one I just received--"FINAL NOTICE!"--telling me that I had not paid the ticket and better hurry up. I called a number. They told me to bring my canceled check downtown for a "hearing." As Tony Soprano said several times at his mother's funeral, "What're you gonna do?"

I dug out the check and went to the "hearing." And here is where I got swifted. This is two years ago, but I remember it pretty well because it was so weird. When I get there, a bunch of people with canceled checks in their hands are muddling around in a corridor outside the locked windowless door of the office to which we all have been instructed to report--the inner sanctum of tickets. After a while this guy comes out and sort of wades into the crowd. We're all waving our canceled checks at him like a scene in the Bible.

When he gets to me, he looks at my check and maybe holds it up to the light or something, then tells me, "It's OK, you can forget about this." No notes, no nuthin'. How can I forget about it, when I don't get how he's going to remember it? I ask for some paper--a receipt, a letter, a note, anything, his thumb print on a bubblegum wrapper, whatever he can manage to show that I came to my "hearing" and was heard.

He leans into me and gets kind of confidential. That's a whole other matter, he says. If I want paper, then it has to go through a whole different process, and that takes a lot of time--oh, a LOT of time--lots of "hearings."

I went for it. I got suckered. He did a gypsy deal on me. I left City Hall without paper. Just get a big felt pen and write "MARK" on my forehead.

Because here it is again, two years later, the exact same "FINAL NOTICE!" So what do I do now? What is the pragmatic thing? I paid it once. Paying it doesn't make it go away. Who knows what goes on inside the inner ticket sanctum? Maybe they're all sitting around in there opening the mail in their swimsuits watching Jeopardy.

"Hey, we got a live one out on Bryan Parkway! Paid his parking ticket twice! Send this chump some more dun letters."

All right, now I will ask you to ride with me out to a pleasant, tree-shaded middle-class neighborhood in Arlington where I spent several hours talking to Robert W. Reynolds. Reynolds is the 65-year-old senior auditor with the city of Dallas who brought suit against the city. In his suit he claims his superiors at City Hall retaliated against him for trying to tell the truth about the kind of disastrous internal financial mess he says Dallas City Hall is in right now.

Think about Enron. Why didn't those accountants tell the truth? What happens to an accountant who does?

Taylor, a CPA with a law degree, went to work for the city of Dallas in 1995. Since then he has handled many of the city's biggest and most important audits. Until his recent problems, his job performance evaluations were not just good--they were glowing.

"This project was about as demanding as any...Bob responded better than expected.

"Bob has a positive out-going personality that demonstrated his self-confidence and willingness to accept challenges...

"Bob is continuously self-motivated...

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