By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Two months later, Observer columnist Jim Schutze referred to him as "Judge Jim 'The Accident' Foster" after seeing "block"—without any details about what the time was blocked out for—as a recurring entry in Foster's monthly calendar and discovering that he had been spending time at his alarm company ("In and Out," August 9, 2007).
Foster's bad press continued, as the Observer on its news blog, Unfair Park, in October 2007 revealed his schedule of public appointments and appearances, which took two months to obtain. Foster had requested that the Dallas County District Attorney's Office write a letter to the Texas Attorney General asking if his schedule was eligible as an exception to the Public Information Act because releasing it posed an "imminent credible threat" to him. (Shortly after the blog posting was published, Foster was in the Observer's offices, threatening the paper's editor and managing editor that he had unnamed supporters who would go after the paper's advertising unless we could "work together.")
The blog posting suggested that he wasn't doing much other than attending weekly commissioners court meetings on Tuesdays and visiting the Oak Cliff Lions Club on Wednesdays.
In a recent interview, Foster says he was concerned about an "ambush," but then he suggests that ambush is probably not the right word, replacing it with "security concerns."
"I just didn't feel that the public had the right to know about that, but the AG says otherwise. I'm completely in favor of open and transparent government," he says, contradictorily.
Foster's reputation for cluelessness grew. According to Bob Johnston, Foster's executive assistant for the first eight months of his term, Foster may have never figured out how to do his job, which is actually an administrative position. While other county judges in smaller Texas counties preside over criminal and civil cases in addition to their other duties, the Dallas County judge oversees a $900 million budget and approximately 7,000 employees. Johnston prepared a script for Foster to read during meetings, he says, because Foster was focused on other issues, such as redecorating his office. "That consumed his thoughts for a good while."
Foster, not surprisingly, regrets that he ever kept one of Keliher's executive assistants on his staff. Not replacing Johnston was "the biggest mistake I ever made," Foster says, and Johnston "was a majority of the problem" during the first year of his administration. He claims that Johnston maintained an allegiance to Keliher, hoping that she'd attempt to reclaim the position.
Even Foster's eventual supporters had their doubts about the new county judge. Dallas lawyer John Barr was one of only three contributors who donated to Foster's campaign in the weeks following his election. This earned Barr a spot on Foster's transition team, where Barr at first sized up Foster thusly: "I just thought, 'What a goofball. This guy is out to lunch.'"
Barr's opinion of Foster would later improve, especially when Foster became a key player in keeping the International Inland Port of Dallas on track. The IIPOD is a massive rail, trucking and warehousing hub in southern Dallas County that's expected to bring more than 60,000 jobs to the area.
Foster would have less luck winning over one of the most outspoken and politically influential members of the commissioners court, 25-year veteran of the court and fellow Democrat John Wiley Price.
Admittedly, the two got off to a poor start, with Price endorsing Keliher and six other Republicans in 2006.
Early on, though, any ill will stemming from the endorsement eroded, and the two were able to work together at the beginning of 2007. But it didn't take long for Price to sour on Foster. In May 2007, Foster voted against a motion by Price to allow property in DeSoto owned by billionaire Ross Perot Jr. to be included in a foreign trade zone for the inland port. Perot owns a competing inland port in Tarrant County called the Alliance Global Logistics Hub, and foreign trade zones offer vital incentives to businesses because foreign goods are not taxed or subject to customs tariffs while they are waiting to be shipped. Foster cites this vote as the moment at which his and Price's relationship suffered irreparable damage.
Although Foster allowed Price to mentor him early on, Commissioner Mayfield says the inland port became an issue on which Foster reached a tipping point and stopped following Price's advice.
"He diverged because he wanted to do what the right thing was to do for the citizens of Dallas County," Mayfield says. "And it took a great deal of courage to do that knowing what was going to follow: the wrath of Commissioner Price that he has no qualms about displaying at any time or any place."
Foster eventually found his footing by creating the first countywide Clean Air Task Force, ensuring that mentally ill prisoners at the county jail have access to medication, supporting a tax freeze for seniors and the disabled, assisting in the successful $747 million bond campaign to build a new Parkland Hospital and approving millions of dollars in funding for the beleaguered county jail.
He also became the decisive vote to keep the inland port moving forward when he opposed an 18-month master plan that would have stalled the project. Price favored the master plan, and Foster's opposition further soured their relationship.