Dallas County Judge Jim Foster's Motto: "Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity!" But Thoreau He Ain't.
We always kind of knew Dallas County Judge Jim Foster didn’t do a whole lot, but now we have proof. Last week, the county belatedly released Foster’s 2007 schedule of public appointments and appearances, and, as it turns out, one of the top elected officials in North Texas puts in as many hours as a stunt man in a Merchant-Ivory movie.
Let’s take the week of April 23, when Foster had a total of seven events planned -- including the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting, which he kind of has to go to -- and a Wednesday gig with the Oak Cliff Lions Club. On the week of March 7 Foster again had only seven events planned, including a trip to the dentist and an appearance yet again at the Oak Cliff Lions Club. Then there was the action-packed week of January 26, when Foster had only three events listed on his schedule, including the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting and -- wait for it -- an appearance at the Oak Cliff Lions Club.
Looking at Foster’s schedule, I know what he did last summer, and it wasn’t a whole lot. For the first four weeks in July, for example, the judge had 25 scheduled appearances. Total. And, of course, that figure includes three meetings with the Oak Cliff Lions Club, where Foster should simply get it over with and relocate his office.
Foster told Unfair Park today that early in his term, he didn’t include all of his appearances on his schedule. Of course, the judge was thorough enough to list his trips to the dentist and to the mechanic on his schedule and also included a one-hour block of time in February to “go to showroom to look at furniture.” So what pressing matters of public business did the judge leave out?
“Give me some time to look back,” Foster said. “Off the top of my head … can we go off the record?”
So we did. I don’t think I’m breaching any journalism ethics when I tell you that nothing of value was discussed. And the judge never could explain why he might not put a meeting or appointment on his schedule when every other elected official included just about everything on theirs.
I originally requested a copy of Foster’s schedule to see if the judge spent any time lobbying the state to bolster its anemic smog plan for North Texas. Turns out, not so much. Not to bring up ancient history, but there was a time when Democrats used to care about environmental issues. But Foster’s schedule reflects the barely visible role he’s played in the region’s desperate fight for cleaner air. This is a landmark battle to get the state finally to force polluters like area cement kilns and East Texas power plants to clean up their acts.
Although Foster was finally pressured into echoing Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley’s plea to the EPA to reject the state’s industry-friendly air plan, Republicans such as Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, along with Whitley, have been far more aggressive and eloquent on why we need to adopt tough measures and regulations immediately.
Foster’s schedule shows that he didn’t try all that hard to make a difference in the region’s smog problem. That’s in stark contrast to Foster’s Republican predecessor, Margaret Keliher, who I have now written about 429,324 times. But let’s recap it once more: Not only did Keliher co-chair a committee of regional politicians and business leaders on figuring out ways to reduce pollution, she also personally lobbied the state to be tougher on dirty industries and, when that failed, she went to the cement kilns herself and got them to agree to a few concessions.
Foster, meanwhile, took only one or two trips to Austin and never testified before the Legislature or the state’s environmental agency on why we need tougher regulations for the smokestack boys. While the state was debating its clean air plan, a time in which Foster needed at the very least to get up to speed on our smog problem, he didn’t meet with any leading environmentalists either, and while I did spot a one-hour briefing on “environmental issues” in January, that pretty much covers his attention to the issue.
“I had nothing on my agenda at that time on clean air,” Foster told Unfair Park. “I have several programs working on that now.”
That’s great, but the judge was needed during the legislative session when the state’s environmental agency was gutting its smog plan for all of North Texas. There was nothing coming out of Austin more important than that. If Foster cared as much about the region’s ozone levels as he does about the Oak Cliff Lions Club, we’d have cleaner air than the Yukon.
A judge in a urban area like Dallas is supposed to be the face of the county, if not its chief lobbyist in Austin. Foster says he lobbied on behalf of the county on several legislative issues, but when we first spoke he wouldn’t tell me what they were.
“If I would have known in advance I would have had a list for you,” he said.
Name just a few, I asked him.
“If I leave something out … hang with me. I’ll get that list to you.”
Later on in our conversation I asked him again what exactly he lobbied for when he went to Austin.
“I can give you a list, and I can give you that list shortly, but I’m concerned I’ll omit something if I answer right now.”
Really. So the judge has a reporter on the line who is openly questioning his work ethic and dedication, and Foster can’t assure him just a little by offering so much as a vague description of what he did in Austin.
Two hours later Foster answered my tremendously difficult question.
“The three items we talked about were issues pertaining to the jail, there were some other issues pertaining to the jail that we were concerned about,” he said. “Transportation issues, there were several issues there and there were also some appraisal caps.”
I should have been able to write about Foster’s appointments back in August, but the reclusive judge refused to provide a copy of his 2007 schedule. Instead, he asked the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office to write a letter to the Texas Attorney General asking if he was eligible for an exception to the Public Information Act. Read that sentence again. The highest-ranking elected official in one of the biggest urban areas in the country wasted the time of the top lawyer in Dallas and the top lawyer in the state on a question that a pre-law student, or Alberto Gonzales, could have answered: Are the public appearances of a public official, um, public record? If you answered yes, congratulations. You’re now qualified to hold a six-figure job in county government.
In its letter to the state asking for the exception, the District Attorney’s Office gamely argued that releasing the judge’s schedule posed an “imminent credible threat” to Foster. They should have explained that the threat was to his reputation.
As you might have guessed, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sided with this lowly scribe and rejected the county’s appeal last week, telling them, “You have not demonstrated the existence of special circumstances, other than the fact that your top elected official seems to be operate under a dark cloud of ignorance and confusion.”
OK, I made up everything after the comma, but you get the point.
I asked Mayor Tom Leppert’s office to e-mail me his schedule for the last few weeks, and somehow they managed to do this within an hour or two without appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. That guy does more in a day than Foster does all week. Seriously, that’s not a joke.
Leppert regularly puts in 11 to 12 hours a day in meetings and appointments before turning to a slacker on Saturday where he may only work for eight hours. A quick glance at Leppert’s schedule has him appearing with the Log Cabin Republicans, homeowners' associations, local environmentalists, Bishop T.D. Jakes, the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce and, well, Mikhail Gorbachev. Obviously it’s easier for Leppert to schedule 10 to 12 events a day because he’s a robot, but it would be nice if Foster could represent the human race a little better and narrow the gap. Perhaps he is simply following the advice of Henry David Thoreau.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand … and keep your accounts on your thumb nail … Simplify, simplify.”
Well, that’s Foster’s philosophy of leadership in a nutshell.
It’s been a tough year on the job for the new county judge, marked by his failure to show up for a Commissioners Court meeting dealing with sexual harassment allegations against his friend, then-Dallas County Constable Mike Dupree. You may remember Foster had a pair of excuses explaining his absence that morning, claiming first that he had to attend a funeral and then that he had a headache. Foster’s absence delayed the court from dealing with Dupree, prompting the judge’s lone Democratic colleague, Commissioner John Wiley Price, to issue an apology to the audience.
"The failure of one court member to attend today's meeting...can either be seen as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the court's efforts to govern...or as an indication that this member does not comprehend the significance of today's scheduled meeting," The Dallas Morning News quoted Price as saying.
Recently, Darlene Ewing, the chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party, tried to spin Foster’s on-the-job performance in an interview with the Dallas Voice. "Clearly he had a learning curve, as would anybody who comes in cold to that situation," she said. "I think people are going to be surprised because he really has tried to learn the issues."
Well, as low as Ewing has set the bar, Foster hasn’t really tried to learn the issues or the broad, interesting swaths of people he represents, other than the folks at the Oak Cliff Lions Club. We’ve all heard the story by now -- first reported by us, actually -- about how Foster only decided to run for county judge at the last hour before the filing deadline. Then, after a meager, shoestring campaign, Foster won election after county voters, fed up with President Bush, opted to vote for a straight-party Democratic ticket. We’ve called him “The Accident” ever since, a moniker Foster hasn’t worked hard to shed.
Smart, engaged people tell me that Foster really is trying to make a difference. They say he’s a good listener and his heart is in the right place. Actually, it sounds like his heart is in the Oak Cliff Lions Club every Wednesday afternoon, if nowhere else.
“If anything negative comes out on that issue, they’ll swarm your office," Foster says when I asked him why he spends so much time with the Oak Cliff Lions Club and not with other civic groups from across the county. “I was involved with that group for 10 years before I was elected to this position.”
And now I think it’s time to end this column the way I think most conversations should conclude. With some profound dialogue from The Fast and the Furious, particularly from the two young would-be lovers, Mia and Brian:
Mia: Every day for the last three weeks you've been coming in here and you've been asking me how the tuna is. Now, it was crappy yesterday, it was crappy the day before and guess what? It hasn't changed.
Brian: I'll have the tuna.
Mia: No crust?
Brian: No crust.
We’ve written a lot about Jim Foster since he’s taken office, both at Unfair Park and the Dallas Observer. I still think there's a chance he can grow into the jobn and if he does, we’ll be the first to salute him. Until then though, may we recommend the tuna? --Matt Pulle
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