Grab for Privates

Should we turn local government over to a corporation?

Oh, wow. How very Dallas. A certain set of downtown leaders can't get exactly what they want on the Trinity River project or on downtown development schemes, so now they want to set up their own private government.

The same set of moguls who brought us that stupid Palladium project that's never going to get built around Ross Perot Jr.'s peace-sign basketball stadium now are lobbying for a new entity in downtown based on the British East India Company. They want the right to set up a private corporation with the power to build roads, levy taxes, sell bonds and even enforce the law, all under the modern equivalent of a royal charter.

Call me alarmist. I don't care. This is like the old Dallas Citizens Council risen from the sepulchre. Yikes! Where'd we put that wooden stake?

Lord Perotus of Palladium: "We should demolish City Hall and use the space for polo matches, what?" Lord Bieglerbrook: "Splendid idea, old boy. Absolutely topping."
Lord Perotus of Palladium: "We should demolish City Hall and use the space for polo matches, what?" Lord Bieglerbrook: "Splendid idea, old boy. Absolutely topping."

Maybe I'm mis-remembering: Did we not fight a war with the British over this? We wanted to run our own affairs under the system we call democracy, rather than have our lives run for us by private companies owned by friends of the crown. Right?

I have been looking at the powers and authorities that could be granted to this new "local government corporation" or LGC that people are talking about for downtown, and I actually don't see a lot of difference between it and the royal charters we lived under before the American Revolution. I know we all remember the Revolution.

David Biegler, chairman of a private group called the Central Dallas Association, wants to set up a private company that would have control over "all Rovaltyes of Hawkeing, Hunting, Fowleing, Warren, and Chases within the said Province of Downtown Dallas and Premisses aforesaid, Deere of all sorts and all other Beasts and Fowles of Warren and Chase and all other Beasts there and also All Mynes and Oare of Goulde, Silver, Precious Stones, Tynne, Leade, Copper, Sulphure, Brimstone or any other Mettall or Mynerall matter whatsoever within the said Province."

Oh, my bad. That's not Chapter 431 of the Texas Transportation Code setting up local government corporations. I got it mixed up with the 1639 royal charter of the Province of Maine. The two documents have so much in common, it's hard to tell them apart.

Biegler and the Central Dallas Association are talking about a couple of concepts, one of which is an LGC for downtown, and the other is a municipal management district or MMD. The powers of an LGC could include the ability to "construct or improve a transportation project on real property...issue bonds and notes to carry out its purpose" and generally carry out planning for all of downtown.

The Municipal Management District they are seeking, created under the Texas Water Code, could be even more powerful. It would have the power to "incur liabilities, borrow money on terms and conditions the board determines, and issue notes, bonds...acquire real and personal property...construct permanent improvements and provide services inside and outside its boundaries...establish and maintain reasonable and nondiscriminatory rates, fares, tolls, charges, rents, or other fees or compensation for the use of the improvements constructed, operated, or maintained by the district."

And on and on. And that's not the half of it. What we're talking about here is the potential for a group of private interests downtown to acquire almost all of the powers that are now exercised by the Dallas City Council, mainly within downtown but also outside downtown in some instances. Since they would have the same powers as a Municipal Utility District under Texas law, they could even set up their own police force with full power of arrest.

Think about it. Simply by defining their boundaries to include the Trinity River floodway between the levees, this new entity or entities could assume complete control over the Trinity River project.

End of debate on Calatrava bridges. End of debate on toll road. End of debate on park. Why waste time on debate, anyway? The Governor General of Downtown, Lord Perotus of Palladium, will simply confer with Lord Bieglerbrook, the High Commissioner, and things will be arranged. And ta-ta.

You may remember there was a near civil war among downtown interests two years ago when Ross Perot Jr. sought $43 million from City Hall in tax increment financing for a supposed $600 million development around his new downtown stadium. Led by Bieglerbrook, one set of interests pushed hard for the city subsidy.

Another arguably larger group downtown fought just as hard against it, claiming the Palladium deal would subsidize a mall-style development to compete unfairly with revitalization efforts in the real downtown.

So if this entity being proposed now, Biegler's LGC/MMD, had been in place back then, the interests opposed to Palladium would have been completely shut out. Their recourse at the time was to the city council. Perhaps not coincidentally, the proposal from Biegler, et. al., would cut the council out of such debates in the future.

One of the ways in which this deal is being pitched to our city council is by the argument that Houston has made good use of such entities in the past decade. But if we're talking about the Houston I know, that's a totally different deal than what is being proposed here.

I had a long talk last week with Bob Eury, the executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District and also president of Central Houston Inc., the equivalent of our Central Dallas Association. Eury had only good things to say about LGCs, MMDs and downtown Dallas, which he seems to know a thing or two about. But I gleaned from our conversation at least a couple of key differences between the way these things are being done in Houston and what seems to be going on here.

For one thing, Houston doesn't have a single Über-LGC or MMD for the powers that be, as seems to be the notion here. There are dozens of LGCs and MMDs in Houston. And Houston has carried out some creative marrying of these various types of entities to make sure each one is squarely footed in a geographic area and is tightly accountable to the interests in that area.

In fact, the Houston way of making this work depends on complete transparency, diversity, inclusion and accountability: everybody at the table; everybody's hands up on the table. "I love having boards of directors as diverse as we can get them," Eury said, "because it makes it so much easier to come to consensus on what we should be doing. If that board wasn't like that, it would make it very difficult. It gets real divided at that point."

By contrast, look how the downtown Dallas thing is being brought along. There was one brief story in The Dallas Morning News a week ago by reporter David Flick, providing sparse details of the deal. Flick scored by getting the story in the paper at all: Biegler declined to provide details, and his quotes all sounded like bad oral surgery. He and others had been presenting a PowerPoint on this idea to chosen insiders but obviously had hoped to take it much farther down the line before sharing the details with the public or the city council.

What does that tell you about how they will run things if they ever get their hands on the wheel? (I tried to reach Biegler last week but was told he was out of town.)

We have to remember that representative democracy is still a fairly recent development in Dallas. It wasn't all that long ago that a small coterie of businessmen ran the city on a tight leash through the mechanism of the Dallas Citizens Council, a private, secretive society that used to have the ability to name the city council and mayor.

We still suffer a certain amount of hangover from that era. It's why we have this weird system of city government in which no one is really in charge. City government here was set up that way, because the Citizens Council used to be in charge from behind the scenes. The Citizens Council lost its power in the 1980s when its members lost their money, but that left nobody at the wheel at City Hall.

Since then we've been struggling along, slowly figuring out how to run a democratically controlled city. But we have gone awry whenever the city's old penchant for oligarchy has re-emerged. In the 1980s the business leadership bollixed up the Central Expressway project by trying to take it back behind closed doors.

In the 1990s the Trinity River project was steaming along pretty smoothly until former Mayor Ron Kirk, recruited to be mayor by the old leadership, deliberately derailed the consensus process that had created the project in the first place.

The danger in this Biegler/Central Dallas Association proposal for a royal charter company downtown is that it, too, will poison the well of downtown revitalization. It's exactly the wrong direction, away from consensus, away from solutions, back into the hands of the old gang that wanted to double-deck Central Expressway and now wants to deck the entire Trinity River.

In Houston, these mechanisms have been used to bring logic and focus to a well-developed culture of community politics. In Dallas, where we don't yet have a culture of constituency politics, these same tools may be used to throttle its development in the cradle.

This is not to say there couldn't be some creative use of mechanisms like LGCs and MMDs in Dallas. But not if it means surrendering the destiny of downtown to one small clique of moguls.

You know, every three years or so, we just have to bring out the wooden stakes, the crosses and the torches, swarm back into the streets and drive the monster to its crypt. And I hate to tell you, but lately I've been hearing some really eerie howling downtown at night.

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