City vs. Citizen

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

Jim Bryant is 75 years old, walks with a cane, sometimes suffers a dry throat from medication. He gets tired. But Jim Bryant is stubborn about principle. Today he has taken his cane in hand and come downtown to City Hall yet again to continue his quarter-century-long battle with the bureaucrats.

He will fight them to his last breath, if that's what it takes. He knows he's right. He knows they are wrong.

Let me tell you the end of this story at the beginning. Jim Bryant is right. The bureaucrats are wrong. They are also lazy, self-serving and callous. But we'll get to that.

Right now Bryant is standing at the microphone before a little-known body of city government called the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board. The URSB meets in the grand chamber of the city council, with names of the URSB board members printed in block letters on cardboard plaques taped over the engraved names of the council members who appointed them.

In a room that sometimes holds hundreds, the audience today consists of me and half a dozen worried-looking supplicants.

Bryant's voice is raspy but insistent. The city employees who occupy half of the seats at the horseshoe are silent and chilly of eye. The only thing I can think of that might add to the poignancy of the scene I see before me would be for some solemn functionary to come out, wrap Bryant's head in a black blindfold and then supply the city staffers with rifles.

"I do not own this property," he tells them again. "If I ever did own it, I don't own it now. I don't want to own it."

Here's the drill. When a building is in such bad shape that the city wants to tear it down, the case winds up before the URSB. Today's situation concerns the sorry, burned-out, fallen-in, rotting remains of what was once a cute little novelty-siding bungalow, 1,300 square feet built in 1911 at 319 Starr St., three blocks from Lake Cliff Park in Oak Cliff. Jim Bryant's father bought this house on June 4, 1951, as a rental property.

The staff wants the URSB to order Bryant to demolish this house or repair it. If he refuses, the city will demolish it and place a lien against the property for the cost of demolition.

But Bryant says he cannot and will not demolish this house because it does not belong to him. He says ownership of this and other properties passed to his father's last wife, Elizabeth Bryant, who was not his mother, when his father died of a stroke and without a will on February 2, 1963.

Later that same year, a lawyer approached Bryant and his sister and informed them that an interest in these properties also had passed to them. The lawyer, who represented the widow, asked if they would sign their interest over to her.

They said sure. They considered the property hers. Her only income was rent from this and another small house and Social Security. This was all about cleaning up deeds. So on September 12, 1963, Bryant and his wife and his sister and her husband signed "quit claim deeds," turning over their interests to their father's widow.

Elizabeth Bryant died November 18, 1977, without a will and without known heirs. Jim Bryant told other family members they could pursue ownership of the house at 319 Starr if they wanted. They didn't, and neither did he. Bryant figured that was the end of it.

But in the early 1980s, the city began dunning Bryant to fix up the house on Starr Street. In big black type at the top, the notices said "Repair or Correction of an Urban Nuisance within a Specified Time" and gave Jim Bryant's name as the miscreant who had allowed the house to fall into disrepair.

These, by the way, are criminal offenses in Dallas. A lot of people don't know that. If you get one of these notices, you're not just looking at potentially stiff fines. You could be looking at some jail time, at least in theory. That's enough to make many law-fearing citizens fold their cards and do whatever the city tells them.

Not Jim Bryant. "I'm a pretty stubborn guy," he tells me. "I don't give in very easy."

Bryant began writing to the city, at first directly to Aquila Allen, the official whose name appeared on the notices, then to other officials whose names he gleaned from various notices. For a decade he wrote letters telling Dallas city officials he did not own the house on Starr Street.

"Not one of them ever answered a single one of my letters," he told me.  

Today at this hearing, the city staffers are cold and confident, but the citizen appointees to the board obviously are troubled. Board member Jim Rogers, an attorney, puts pointed questions to Tyrone McGill, the top city administrator.

"Do you have any muniment of title or affidavit of heirship to show that this man owns this property?" Rogers asks.

The answer is no. But McGill and his staff are adamant that Bryant does own the property. They shrug off his quit-claim deed, saying they have been unable to find any official record of the deed recorded with the county clerk.

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?

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.

I have to add something here--a little detail that tells me a lot about the mentality of the city employees in this case, all of whom work for the notorious Code Compliance division. You remember: That's the unlovely city agency in which 70 employees were fired or reprimanded recently after citizens complained about receiving citations on property that either wasn't theirs or didn't remotely match the descriptions on the tickets.

OK, I asked the city staff to let me come listen to their tape of the URSB hearing I had attended so that I could verify a few things. They went through this enormous review involving everybody from McGill on down, because they believed that a tape recording of a public hearing could be construed as a secret document that they might not have to release.

I tried to point out that public hearings, by their nature, are never secret. Public. Secret. Two different things. But McGill and his people just weren't sure about it and apparently wanted to get a legal opinion.

I have a legal opinion for you. You're idiots.

A week later, long after my deadline, they decided I could hear the tape. I have no idea if the deadline thing was deliberate. That may give them too much credit.

What this experience reinforced was that these are people whose existence is hermetically sealed and self-serving. They come to work only to take care of themselves and each other. A guy like Jim Bryant is an object, a nothing. That's why you don't care if you've been causing him misery for 25 years unfairly.

Most people would have caved long ago. The only reason Jim Bryant was standing in front of this obscure panel the day I happened to look in is that's he's an unusually determined man. And smart. He summed it up for me in the corridor.

"I believe they did not respond to my letters or look into any of this over the years because they did not feel it was in their interest to do so."

This makes me very, extremely, exceedingly angry. Maybe you could tell. Maybe you agree.

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