Sour Town

You think Dallas City Council is nuts? Well, yeah, but look at Garland.

On May 15, 2004, Garland voters went to the polls to select council representatives, bond issues and charter amendments. On the latter, they chose to shorten city council terms from three years to two. That same day, they elected Terri Dunn, John Garner, Weldon Bradley and Michael Holden. When that group filed their candidacies, they were running for three-year terms. Voters ostensibly elected them to serve three-year terms since that's how the charter read when they walked into the booth. But the amendment that reduced the terms was supposed to go into effect immediately. So, does the new amendment cover the triumphant council members or not?

In October 2005, those four council members, plus Hickey, voted against having an election in May, basically opting in favor of three-year terms. The Garland City Council has nine members, including the mayor. The other four members voted in favor of holding an election. It just so happens that the five who voted against holding the election almost always vote together on other issues, particularly in favor of regulatory ordinances.

"I see their agenda as an attempt to micromanage the citizenry," says Dunning, who is the most outspoken of the other four. His group doesn't always band together, but they put up a unified front on the election issue.

Right-hand man: Garland City Council member Randall Dunning is skeptical of government, particularly the one he helps lead.
Mark Graham
Right-hand man: Garland City Council member Randall Dunning is skeptical of government, particularly the one he helps lead.
The lone wolf: No longer part of the dominant wing of the council, Harry Hickey is thinking about leaving Garland.
Mark Graham
The lone wolf: No longer part of the dominant wing of the council, Harry Hickey is thinking about leaving Garland.

The vote against holding the election didn't settle the matter but rather jump-started the animosity. A group called "Let Us Vote" raised money for a lawsuit and then challenged the city in court.

"This is old-style Garland politics, and now you have people challenging it, and they don't want to see the old way continue," says Douglas Athas, who ran for council and won against Holden's chosen successor and was one of the leaders of the Let Us Vote insurgency. "Not having an election and blowing it off because you can is not acceptable for most people in the community."

A local Web site run by former City Council member Jean McNeal tagged the bloc who voted against the elections "The Gang of Five" and began mocking them relentlessly. McNeal particularly targeted Holden, a smart, affable polygraph examiner by day, who by night reigned as the dark leader of a rogue bloc. At least that's how she sees it.

"Holden has his five, and he can kind of flip the bird at everyone," McNeal says. "He wants to be mayor someday, and after that, he wants to be God."

As if the political atmosphere wasn't charged enough, fliers critical of the Gang of Five were posted inside voting booths in Garland during the Republican primary run-off. With the help of an election judge, Dunning's wife, Karen, distributed the campaign material that ridiculed the five council members who voted against the elections for "turning a deaf ear to the citizens."

Dunning claimed that his wife and the election judge thought they could distribute the fliers because they were not related to the election at hand.

"I think it was a thoughtless mistake," he says. "Let's contrast that with the bloc that wanted to unlawfully suppress an election."

But not everybody felt that the so-called "Gang of Five" was stifling democracy in Garland. Stephen Miller, who serves on the city's utility advisory board, sympathizes with the incumbents.

"People say this is a dumb analogy, but I use it to explain. You're going down a road at 50 mph, and the speed limit is 40, and the officer gives you a ticket for going 50 in a 40. That same night the council leaders change the speed limit to 30, effective that day. Is your ticket now going to be for driving 50 in a 30? I don't think so."

Miller's logic aside, the Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Let Us Vote contingency and ordered the City Council to hold an election no later than July 1, essentially declaring that the two-year term was the rule for all.

That ruling prompted several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to run against the council members they beat up in court. On June 17, three of the candidates who supported holding the elections cruised into office, and now only one of the five council members who voted against holding the elections remains.

The Gang of Five is now a gang of one.

"The ones who didn't want to have an election, they all got beat handily," says council member Mark Monroe. "It's pretty obvious there were five members of the previous council who took the citizens for granted and wrote them off. I think that came back to haunt them."


Even after the elections, many of the more polarizing personalities remain, including Mayor Bob Day, a card-carrying member of the anti-Gang of Five camp. On two occasions last year, he simply walked out of meetings, once after the City Council was prepared to update its rental registration ordinance. While Dunning argued compellingly that the proposal was unconstitutional because it allowed city officers to show up unannounced and inspect rental homes at will--he was later proven right, and the ordinance was amended--the mayor chose to simply depart the council chambers in disgust, shocking just about everyone present. In a way, the mayor wound up, unintentionally, doing the ethical thing. He and his wife own rental property, and by storming out he avoided a possible conflict of interest. Still, the mayor's antics have given his critics plenty of ammunition.
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