City vs. Citizen

One man's stand against the bureaucrats from hell

What does all that mean? I have to call my own legal adviser on such matters, Daniel Edwin McDonald Jr., a Dallas attorney whose name appears in my Rolodex under "Tar-Heel Hierophant of Probate." He knows this stuff.

Quick to the issue as always, McDonald says on the phone, "Title vests at death."

Hmm. Translation, please?

City officials have hounded Jim Bryant for 25 years to repair or demolish the house at 319 Starr St. He says he can't, because it's not his house.
Mark Graham
City officials have hounded Jim Bryant for 25 years to repair or demolish the house at 319 Starr St. He says he can't, because it's not his house.

He lays it out: Since Bryant's father did not have a will, the house went to his wife and to his children, in shares, the minute he died. The only way Bryant could have divested himself of this ownership interest would have been by legally renouncing it, as he says he did with the quit-claim deed.

"But if the quit-claim deed was not properly recorded with the county clerk," McDonald says, "then the city was correct in continuing to treat this man as an owner or the owner of the property."

Aha! If the city can show that Bryant's 1963 deed was never presented to the county clerk, stamped and entered into the official county deed records for 1963, then the city is right, and Bryant is wrong.

Later on the phone, McGill, the city administrator, confirms all this for me.

I tell McGill I heard his staff research person answer Jim Rogers' question by admitting that she had not been able to find any document that proved Bryant was the owner. I ask if I heard her correctly.

"Not necessarily," he says. "She stated that she didn't find anything that said that he was not the owner."

Aha! An important hair is split. Not that she found nothing to make him the owner. But she found nothing to make him not the owner.

"Because of the heirship laws," McGill tells me, "the records indicated that he was the owner, because he was the son of the deceased owner."

More like the hairship laws.

So it's like this: Bryant says he's not the owner. Waves his 1963 quit-claim deed at them, copies of which, by the way, he has mailed to the city with other correspondence. City people have these copies in hand. But city people say they have searched county records and have not found the quit-claim deed in the official records. So it doesn't count.

Bryant has told the staff in the past and tells them again today that other people have been able to find the quit-claim deed in the county records. The copy he holds in his hand bears seals and numbering showing that it was recorded. But the staff insists they have searched and the deed is nowhere in the recorded county deed records.

Because Jim Rogers and other URSB citizen board members don't quite buy the staff's version of things, Bryant is given another 90-day reprieve at the end of this hearing. The staff is instructed to use these three months to go back and make sure the quit-claim deed can't be found in the recorded deed records.

I hope it won't take them the full 90 days. The day after the hearing, I found it. It took me an hour.

It was right there in the official records of Dallas County. I'm not claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I can tell you exactly why the city people did not find it. They looked in the computer only. Which is all you can do from your desk at City Hall.

But if you look in the computer, and if you look at the top of the first page in the computer property records, it tells you plainly that the computer records go back only to 1964. Bryant's quit-claim deed was dated September 12, 1963.

Here's what you have to realize: 1963 comes before 1964.

So what do we think here? All records that date before the beginning of computerization have been vaporized? All property not in the computer ceases to exist? Come on.

You get up from your desk. Come with me, I'll show you how we do it. We go down to the Dallas County Records Building to the second floor. Now, way over here in the back is a big dark room full of dusty old volumes.

Come on in, now. Don't be shy. These are public records, and you and I are the public.

Wow, look at all these shelves piled with old-fashioned-looking books. Cool. It's like a scene in a movie from back when people could read.

Now, look here in this big dusty volume called "Grantor Index, 1963." See! Here it is on page 112: quit claim deed, from Bryant, James M. and Ceola, to Bryant, Elizabeth, on 9/12/63, for lot 13 in block 74/3055, Oak Cliff, in volume 148, page 672.

That's 319 Starr St.

Ain't his house. He deeded his interest to his father's widow 41 years ago. She died without heirs. You know whose house this is? You know who's responsible for allowing this house to deteriorate into such a shameful condition?

The city of Dallas.

You know who was supposed to figure out that this was the city's house? The people who have been warting Jim Bryant about it for a quarter-century. It was their job to figure this out.

But instead, they have a guy who's 75 years old leaning on his cane at the microphone down here, waving the legal papers at them, which he has already provided copies of by mail. They've hounded this man for almost 25 years. And they can't behoove themselves to get up from behind their damn desks and hike on down to the Records Building to see if maybe, just possibly, by any chance they may be hounding him unfairly.

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