Thumb Job

At City Hall, it's not called extortion. It's empowerment.

The origins of the ongoing scandal at Dallas City Hall are in a well-intended bill passed two years ago. This bill is a great example: They pass laws in Austin, and it's like two guys kicking a bomb out of an airplane with their feet. They crawl over on all fours to the open bay, and while they watch it tumble away they're both thinking, "Man, I hope that dude goes where it's supposed to."

It didn't.

SB 264 was supposed to protect communities that already had too many subsidized apartment developments. The new law said the state couldn't put new affordable housing projects in communities where there was already a glut unless local elected representatives gave their OK.

Rosemont at Laurelland, a subsidized housing project, straddles the line between two plan commissioner districts. Both commissioners wanted the developer to pay court to them.
Rosemont at Laurelland, a subsidized housing project, straddles the line between two plan commissioner districts. Both commissioners wanted the developer to pay court to them.

But when the new law hit the ground in Dallas, it had the opposite effect. District 8 council member James Fantroy (far south and southeast Dallas) had opposed subsidized housing in his district, but he turned on a dime when Senate Bill 264 put him in the driver's seat. Fantroy actively sought more subsidized apartments, but only after a subsidized apartment developer hired Fantroy's security guard company to patrol apartment complexes outside the city of Dallas.

Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill (District 5 in mid-southern Dallas) was another big drum-beater against apartments and in favor of single-family residential development. But Hill turned, too, and sought more subsidized apartments after a developer gave a cement contract to a woman Hill had recommended.

It remains to be seen whether any of this will add up to the kind of tit-for-tat (no pun intended) needed for federal indictments. But what anybody can see is that the new law reinforced an old tradition--the South Dallas Toll.

First rule: The toll is a creature not of single-member council districts per se but of the single-member district privilege. The privilege is the informal rule, honored by all on the council, that a council member is the unquestioned king or queen on zoning issues that physically touch only that member's district. If I represent District X and I go thumbs-up on an apartment project, then the privilege says everybody else on the council has to go thumbs-up on it, too. If I go thumbs-down, everybody else goes thumbs-down. That makes me the boss.

You're the developer? You want $17 million in state funding for your project? Talk to me. While you talk, watch my thumb.

Rule 2: Zoning requests start with the Dallas City Plan Commission. The plan commission is appointed by the city council. It is a single-member district body as well. I represent District X. I appoint a plan commissioner for District X. You start with my plan commissioner.

Rule 3: You need to meet my plan commissioner in private.

No, no, don't just go down to the city plan commission meeting and start blabbing. Plan commission meetings are public. No, you need to come by, hat in hand, in private. And talk to my commissioner. And watch my commissioner's thumb.

Well, you're talking now about all the social-service programs you're going to provide. My commissioner's thumb ain't movin'.

Oh, now you're talking about how there's a lot of opportunity for new women and minority entrepreneurs in the cement-contracting needs of the project. Thumb's wavin' like Old Glory! Kind of jerking back over the shoulder toward that photo on the wall, which must be of a very lovely cement contractor.

You finally got your thumbs in a row!

Fortunately for us public, the practitioners of the secret art of City Hall Thumbcraft are not clever enough to keep their thumbs from view. Once in a while, the thumbs show, as they did during the April 14, 2005, public hearing of the Dallas City Plan Commission.

Southwest Housing Development, one of the entities recently searched and subpoenaed by the FBI, was before the plan commission seeking a minor amendment--a tweak, a fix, something on the legal punch list--for a project called Rosemont at Laurelland on Camp Wisdom Road just east of Interstate 35.

Plan Commissioner D'Angelo Lee, appointed by Don Hill in District 5, was thumbs-upping the amendment all the way. Fine developer, that Brian Potashnik; terrific project. Ten thumbs up!

But plan commissioner Carol Brandon, appointed by Fantroy in District 8, was sitting on her thumbs. She was way thumbs-down.

Now, long after this meeting, we have learned a few things, haven't we? This is the same project reported on last June by Robert Riggs, Todd Bensman and Jack Fink at Channel 11: They said Lee had collected a $5,000 fee from the Urban League of Greater Dallas for persuading Potashnik to hire the League as principal social-services provider for Rosemont at Laurelland.

That had to be a thumbs-up moment. And, in passing, I'd like to mention a certain satisfaction in noting that even the Urban League has to pay the toll. I think if Mother Teresa had moved to South Dallas, she would have had to dig in her purse, too. In fact, she might have needed a South Dallas toll tag.

Of course, one reason Lee is now the subject of a major FBI probe probably involves the fact that he didn't tell anybody on the plan commission he was getting five G's out of his thumb on this one.

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