It looks as if Dallas City Hall may finally get itself out from under a billion-dollar sword of Damocles by resolving a bundle of police and fire back-pay lawsuits. After two decades of failure to get it done, what has changed?
People on both sides of the dispute, speaking to me off the record because the lion’s share of the litigation is still unresolved, tell me a big part of it is the lawyer. Dallas finally has a city attorney who can do that thing that apparently is even harder than speaking truth to power: Larry Casto, they tell me, can speak truth to clients.
This stuff should never have happened. The police and fire back-pay lawsuits could have been settled 20 years ago for pennies on what the settlements are costing us now. Various sources close to the litigation have told me for years that every time the city sent the litigation to outside lawyers, the outside lawyers came back and said, “Settle.” Then they sent their bills.
But for some reason, that lesson never got to the City Council. Either somebody couldn’t stand to say it, or somebody couldn’t stand to hear it, or somebody couldn’t understand it.
The police and fire lawsuits are based on a 1979 citywide referendum in which voters told City Hall they wanted the city’s first responders to get a raise. Reflecting a certain distrust of the way the city often manages its affairs, the referendum got down to specifics about how the raises were to be handed out.
So City Hall handed out the pay raises the way the referendum said. It waited a few years. Then it began violating the provisions of the referendum. The city manager’s top staff testified under oath at one point that it forgot about the referendum.
The Observer's Stephen Young told you yesterday that the city appears to be on the verge of settling the smaller portion of the lawsuits for $62 million. I confirmed from knowledgeable sources yesterday that the City Council has approved a total settlement package for all of the lawsuits that's between $200 million and $225 million, depending on who’s talking.
The theoretical value of the claims against the city, now consisting mainly of interest, is north of $1 billion. As I told you a month ago, the city recently rejected a settlement offer for all of the lawsuits at $300 million.
If the figures quoted to me for the recent settlement authorization by the council are accurate, that means Casto has between approximately $140 million and $165 million to offer to settle the larger portion of the litigation still outstanding. Ted Lyon, attorney for the remaining plaintiffs, declined to discuss the case with me yesterday other than to say his clients will have to approve whatever the city may offer.
According to sources on both sides, the two main change agents who have brought the matter up out of the swamp are Casto and City Council member Scott Griggs. Griggs is given credit for insisting that the council receive honest information about the cases.
But Casto is given even more credit for providing those honest assessments. That’s new. Going back to the days when Sam Lindsay, now a federal judge, was city attorney, Casto’s predecessors devoted most of their energies to making sure the council never knew who was on first base, where the game was being played or what baseball is.
With the settlement of the first portion of the back-pay litigation, Casto already has amassed the beginning of a record for cleaning up old messes. A month ago, he settled a long-simmering dispute over rates with an East Texas water authority — another case in which Dallas had turned a simple disagreement over dollars into a blood feud by treating the other side with personal disrespect.
I don’t know Casto. Spoke with him a few times on the phone. People who have known him for a long time suggest part of what he brings to the table, in addition to being a good lawyer, is a lot of serious political experience.
As a young man in the early ‘90s, he was chief of staff to state Sen. Temple Dickson, a tall, white-mustachioed lawyer often described as the quintessential West Texas gentleman-rancher. From 1993 until recently, Casto was chief lobbyist and director of legislative affairs for the city of Dallas.
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I know people who aren’t used to politics think people in politics lie all the time. I think they lie some of the time. But I also think the smart ones learn how to tell people the truth when those people don’t want to hear it but need to know.
With people like Griggs insisting the council be told the truth about these drawn-out disputes and with Casto apparently willing to tell it, the pieces seem to be in place for resolution. Getting the rest of the police and fire pay dispute off the books will be a huge step.
You also have to wonder. How many times have you seen somebody turn what could have been a fairly civilized divorce into a bloodbath just because he or she couldn’t manage to treat the other side with simple courtesy and respect? How many of these agonizing City Hall disputes that go on for years and years could have been resolved cheaply and quickly if City Hall had been a little bit less arrogant, a little bit more honest with itself and a lot more respectful to the other side?
And then when it’s your firefighters, medics and cops — the people who come to save your bacon? Now that is dysfunctional.