Dallas Council Member Vonciel Jones Hill: 2014's Awful Person of the Year

Vonciel Jones Hill demonstrates the difference between being educated and wise.
Vonciel Jones Hill demonstrates the difference between being educated and wise.
Mark Graham

"2014: The year in Vonciel Jones Hill." That is my title for this essay. Why? Because I firmly believe that if you can understand what's wrong with Vonciel Jones Hill, you can understand what's wrong with our city. No, wait. You can understand what's wrong with the universe.

At some point in the distant past, any City Council member in Dallas who was a truly divisive force pushing the city centrifugally away from shared purpose was likely to be some big, old, golf-ball-whacking white man using elective office in the city to push his real estate interests in the suburbs, betting his own bucks heavily on the decline of the urban core.

We have moved beyond that. Now the role of intolerant, cantankerous, self-serving misanthrope is open to all comers regardless of gender or social, religious and ethnic identity. Vonciel Jones Hill, an African American woman in her late 60s, is proof that in the new Dallas anyone who really sets his or mind to it can become the problem.

But first a few caveats. It isn't possible to comprehend what's wrong with Hill without first acknowledging what's right. Her deficiencies have nothing to do with disadvantage or lack of personal accomplishment. She is one of the better educated persons ever to serve on the council.

Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Hill earned a bachelor's degree in history and English from the University of Texas in Austin in 1969, a master's in library science from Atlanta University in 1971, a master's in history at Rice in 1976, a law degree from UT Law School in 1979 and a master of divinity from the Perkins School of Theology at SMU in 1990. Tough schools, one hell of a lot of degrees, a higher-education student for a quarter century.

A scan of her political contributions reports since being elected to the council in 2007 turns up plenty of usual suspects -- big PACs with interests in zoning and regulation, The Linebarger Goggan law firm whose bill-collecting contract with the city she long defended, Yellow Cab, public works construction interests -- but no real demons.

Those people contribute to almost all of the incumbents. Maybe they expect a vote. Maybe they just want their calls taken. The financing of City Council campaigns in Dallas is not a pretty picture generally -- serious money from the same dozen sources, peanuts from the roots -- but as long as everybody's in more or less the same situation it's not a smoking gun. As far as I know, there has never been a hint of financial impropriety connected to Hill.

She's well educated. Not a crook. Deemed by her constituents to be the right person to represent them. So how can she stand for all that is wrong with the universe? By working at it.

And since I started off limiting this discussion to the year, 2014, it would be unfair for me to refer all the way back to 2013, when Hill likened former council member Angela Hunt to Haman, the killer of Jews in the Bible's Book of Esther, because Hunt had criticized the city manager. So I won't dredge it all the way up, just sort of mention it, Haman, killer of the Jews in the Book of Esther, because maybe it will give you some hint where we are headed.

That, by the way, was during a debate over gas drilling in city parks. Word to the wise: You can't get into a debate over gas drilling in city parks with Vonciel Jones Hill without risking being likened to Haman, the killer of Jews in the Book of Esther.

In September 2014, council member Scott Griggs learned that a city contractor had sucked almost all the water out of a pond in a fragile natural setting in the Trinity Forest. This came shortly after the discovery that the city was also allowing contractors to bulldoze and excavate another vast tract in the forest for free dirt to build a golf course and horse park.

And please understand the context. City Hall had been preening and yodeling for years about its sacred trust to protect the Trinity Forest from depredation. So the people who took them at their word -- naturalists and people who believe in words -- were pretty shocked to find City Hall itself as the No. 1 Depredator, and Griggs demanded it stop.

City staff almost immediately conceded its mistakes and invited an ad hoc group of naturalists to visit the forest and show the staff what it was doing wrong. During that exercise, top staff members conceded to the naturalists that their instructions had always been to do everything the cheapest way possible and that preservation of nature was something they didn't really even know how to do.

But Hill fired a memo off to Griggs telling him she was "appalled and offended on every level" by his actions and that his accusations were "inaccurate, incomplete and insulting to the work of more people than I can name -- including myself." She went on to make preposterously untrue claims to the effect that minimal damage done to the pond had already been fully restored, which it had not, at all.

Here is what strikes me most about Hill. It's the complete lack of self-awareness in an otherwise smart and very accomplished person. If I were Hill, I would have been especially chary of entering into any debate involving a body of water barely three months after the Dallas Observer's intrepid and tall Eric Nicholson reached up over the privacy fence behind Hill's house and snapped an appalling photograph of her swimming pool, which, at the height of West Nile mosquito unease in the city, was a squirming seething cesspool of larval horror.

You know? If you were her? Wouldn't you look at the pond-sucking situation in the forest and say to yourself, "Hmmm, ponds, pools, maybe don't go there just yet." Instead, Hill, who has likened her own oratorical voice to that of Martin Luther King Jr., summoned all of her intellectual powers, which are considerable, to accuse her colleague of complete awful perfidy for saying somebody sucked the water out of the pool. And somebody did suck the water out of the pool. She should have taken their name and asked them to come suck the water out of her own pool.

The fight over the bill-collecting contract was another example of Hill's unique disconnectedness on issues in which she has a personal interest. The Linebarger law firm, which had held the contract for years, regularly shows up in Hill's campaign finance reports as the author of $1,000 checks, a serious amount in these campaigns.

The competitor that ultimately won the contract, MSB Government Services, offered an incredibly better deal. MSB guaranteed the city almost $22 million in collections versus $300,000 from Linebarger. Wait, make sure you get that right in your head -- $22 million versus $300,000. And if anybody wanted to make it an issue of minority participation -- although for an extra $21.7 million they could have all been Finnish -- MSB had a higher percentage of minority employees.

But Hill did it anyway. She drubbed the MSB people, demanding to know how many of the company's owners were black, never offering numbers on how many black owners there were at Linebarger, a company that was started by a bunch of white guys.

Hill occupies a strange position in the local body politic. When she compared Angela Hunt to the killer of Jews for criticizing the city manager, she was playing to approving nods from Donna Halstead, former executive director of the Dallas Citizens Council, philanthropist Mary McDermott Cook and other pillars of the old establishment who were in the peanut gallery that day.

Her memo attacking Griggs for complaining to the city manager about the pond was the same kind of appeal for approval from the old elite, who love the strong city manager/weak mayor system of government. It's impervious to popular control on big issues. It leaves the old elite to run them with puppet strings and money.

On those kinds of issues, Hill is a faithful handmaiden to the old establishment. But on her own issues, especially when defending cronies, she race-baits even people who have better racial credentials than her cronies.

Bottom line? It's not just that you can't win with Hill. You can't even talk. She's going to summon all of her considerable powers and try to nuke you, no matter what.

When I started out, I claimed I was going to show that understanding Hill is the key to understanding everything wrong with the city right now but also everything wrong with the universe.

Face it. There has to be some appeal to logic, some effort at reasonableness and mutual respect for people to succesfully communicate with each other, let alone work out any kind of plausible compromise. Politics really takes more than mere vituperation.

Hill operates from a complete lack of interest in or respect for the positions and interest of others. In the end, her background and education matter little. She won't even fake being reasonable, almost as if she doesn't know how. And the worst part is, she's not the Lone Ranger. If anything, Hill is emblematic of the mentality to be found in all those nodding heads in the peanut gallery.

The best news is that she's gone after May, forced out of office by term limits. Wouldn't it be wonderful if she could take the nodding heads with her?

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