Sour Town

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

"They're saying we're the dysfunction, but we're not the ones getting up out of meetings and wearing bulletproof vests," Holden says.

The rental ordinance is one of those measures aimed to clean up the pockets of Garland that perpetuate the (mostly) unfair stereotype of the city as a redneck outpost. The city's housing standards office has pictures of rental homes with trashed backyards, broken windows held together by duct tape and ramshackle rooms plagued by peeling paint and badly cracked floors. There are also stories of rental homes that don't have running water, with buckets serving as toilets. Many of these dilapidated properties anchor otherwise well-kept middle-class neighborhoods, where everyone else manages to mow their lawns, take out the trash and clean up the graffiti on their sheds.

Other than the mayor and Dunning, the rest of the City Council voted in favor of the rental ordinance, which required annual inspections by Garland code officers. (After a lawsuit, the inspections are now done by appointment.) But it was the Gang of Five that pushed for this legislation, as well as an earlier measure that sought to upgrade minimum housing standards for rental property.

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.

But now that the elections have upended the balance of power, the members of the once-dominant council cadre are worried that much of what they accomplished will be undone. Already, they've speculated that the mayor will look to repeal the rental registration ordinance in the coming months, which they seem to view as the centerpiece of their efforts.

"I believe their goal of getting us out of office is to repeal much of what we've done to improve the quality of life in Garland," Holden says.

But Dunning says the Gang of Five has tried to tap into the power of government to make over their city. In a way, he's right. Holden's group has tried to spin Garland into more of a traditional suburb where at least some degree of conformity is the law.

"Using the power of positive legislation, they may believe that they can transform Garland into something like Frisco," Dunning says.

You could forgive the Garland City Council if its confrontations and debates stemmed from deep philosophical divides. Fighting over the soul of a city of 225,000 people can tend to amplify the latent tensions that run through any political body. But the stakes alone don't explain the bitterness or the tendentious behavior of the players.

Incredibly, Mayor Bob Day, the same guy who walked out of two council meetings, ordered the Garland Housing Finance Corp. (GHFC), a public agency that uses tax dollars to build affordable housing, to withhold the minutes of its meetings from council member Terri Dunn, one of his political adversaries.

"He screamed at me and said I didn't have the authority to have this information," she says.

After the City Council allowed the agency to partner with private developer Southwest Housing, which is at the center of the FBI investigation into alleged bribery at Dallas City Hall, Dunn wanted to learn more about GHFC. Although it's regularly involved in million-dollar transactions, the agency was a bit of a mystery to Dunn. So she asked for the minutes of their meetings.

But when she called one of the top officers at the GHFC, he refused to provide what are clearly public records. Her answering machine recorded their conversation. On the tape, Ed Jackson, who has served as both the president and vice president of the housing authority, deferred to the mayor's wishes. "You're putting me in a bind, Terri," he said uneasily.

Dunn asked how in the world could she, as an elected official, be denied something as routine as the minutes of a public body. "I've been told by the mayor not to do that," Jackson replied.

Jackson belatedly provided Dunn with the minutes after the city attorney told him to.

Mayor Day did not return repeated requests for comment, but his caginess on the housing authority and its dealings with Southwest Housing only add to the controversy surrounding the company. In December 2004, a divided council--surprise!--approved a zoning change for Southwest Housing that would allow it to build an $13.8 million development for senior citizens called the Primrose at Crist. Holden and Dunn voted against the development, in part because they believed they were being rushed to approve something they knew little about. In addition, many of the nearby residents opposed the design of the development, and the debate had become rancorous.

After the council finally approved Southwest's plan, resident Lee Lutz, who had pushed for the company to decrease the density of its project, went up to congratulate Jack Potashnik, the father of Southwest CEO Brian Potashnik. (The FBI has been investigating Brian Potashnik and his company for more than a year.) By Lutz's account, neither Brian nor Jack Potashnik received her graciously.

"They attacked my character and threatened to bury me," Lutz says. "I think one of them called me a bitch." She would later mount a losing campaign against Dunning, who supported the project.

Even after the council gave its tentative approval, Southwest Housing was staring down a funding deadline from the state to complete financing on its property. Garland's top planning official sent a letter to Wachovia Bank saying the company had not yet satisfied the city's demands. But an employee at Southwest Housing changed the letter to indicate that the company was fully compliant. This forged document ensured that Southwest would not lose the investment it had already made in the project.

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