Does City Hall Really Have to Search Its Soul Just to Hire New Lawyer?

Maybe if the old guard wants less divisiveness at City Hall, they could stop trying to stick knives in people's backs.
Maybe if the old guard wants less divisiveness at City Hall, they could stop trying to stick knives in people's backs.
Daniel Fishel

Apparently now everybody on the Dallas city council has seen a copy of the email a lawyer sent to a recruiter explaining why he doesn’t want the job of Dallas city attorney – too much trouble, too much controversy – so now some members are calling for soul-searching on the part of the council’s 14 members.

The purpose of the soul-searching, one assumes, would be for the council to amend its behavior — less trouble, less controversy – so it can recruit a better lawyer. And, please, I have never been opposed to soul-searching in the proper context. I just never thought it was something you had to do to hire a lawyer.

For one thing, the email itself was weird. A candidate named Miguel Rivera wrote to the Houston recruiter charged with finding us a new city attorney and said he wanted his name withdrawn because the Dallas city council had too many “sharp practices and deep divisions.” He also said the way the incumbent city attorney, Warren Ernst, got pushed out of office was “Machiavellian.”

So we assume, I guess, that lawyer Rivera created this discoverable public document with his name on it insulting the Dallas city council because he never wants to be considered for another job at the city of Dallas – no, wait, never wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for a major post at any city in the nation, given that due diligence in this day and age begins with Google and never forgets.

But let’s say he just wants to represent me when I get sued for a car crash. Am I going to hire a lawyer who withdraws from the field of battle because he sees sharp practices and deep divisions? I thought sharp practices and deep divisions were what you hired lawyers for. If I need somebody to help me with soul-searching, it won’t be a lawyer.

And let’s get real about the underlying issue. All of this maundering about soul-searching and the need for less divisiveness is the old guard’s way of saying they don’t want to be challenged. This town has operated on the same basic political divvy for the last half-century or more.

The good old boys downtown get tax breaks and zoning for their Wal-Mart deals; the black community gets a slice of cherry pie; the middle class gets screwed; everybody sings hosanna, and the tent meeting keeps on keeping on.

The first thing to stop the tent meeting, briefly, was the election in 2002 of Laura Miller as a maverick mayor. The hymn-singing really did grind to a halt for a while in 2007 – everybody was looking out for lightning bolts – when Angela Hunt, a 35-year-old novice member from East Dallas, organized a referendum against the good old boys’ favorite boondoggle, the Trinity toll road project.

When the toll road referendum failed narrowly, the music started up again, but somehow the old divvy was never quite the same. Hunt had put fear in the hearts of the traditional players – fear that something was changing, fear that they had come so close to losing their toll road – and, after that, things just got, well, more divisive, sharp-practicing and Machiavellian.

What if we search our soul as a city and we find Rhett Butler in there?
What if we search our soul as a city and we find Rhett Butler in there?
Employee of MGM

Now the parts that Miller and Hunt played as mavericks on the council have been taken over by a solid quartet of new blood – Scott Griggs of North Oak Cliff, Adam Medrano of downtown, Mark Clayton of Lake Highland and Philip Kingston of East Dallas. These four often have been able to recruit the additional four votes they need to win important 8/7 council votes.

And here is the thing that absolutely scares the socks off the good old boys downtown and their clients in Dallas black elected leadership: on any given Wednesday when the council meets, this new center of power and influence comprised of the four young bloods, together with floating alliances, can begin to look like a whole new dominant axis at City Hall.

That’s the one thing that the old axis cannot allow to happen. And that’s exactly where the sharp knife-play at City Hall over the last couple years comes from. The young bloods are not the attackers. They’re the victims.

Who knows what this interrupted suitor for the city attorney’s job really meant by citing Machiavelli, but if he was really talking about the end of the current city attorney’s tenure he should have invoked Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski of Mafia fame. Incumbent city attorney Warren Ernst announced his retirement after documents revealed he had engaged in a protracted back-corridor campaign to get Councilmember Griggs indicted on felony charges for a shouting incident that all of the so-called witnesses said they did not witness. Ernst’s efforts followed a series of revelations forced to the surface by Griggs and Kingston revealing that city officials have been lying to the public about important issues.

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez announced at the end of May he will retire next January, following months of scandal. Facts revealed by the new quartet showed Gonzalez had accomplished none of the major reforms he had promised when he took the job three years earlier. The city’s housing department, we now know, spends hundreds of millions of dollars with less bookkeeping or oversight than a mom and pop convenience store.

So, yes, there has been a bit of tension. But what alternative would you suggest?

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Like most situations where people get really and truly angry with each other, the situation at City Hall is almost never about white hats and black hats, villains and saints. The battles we are seeing more and more of at City Hall are about a culture clash.

We talked here Tuesday about this incredibly funky and embarrassing story the old boys are putting out, with help from The Dallas Morning News, about Fair Park, our under-utilized 277-acre exposition park two miles east of downtown, and some bad history there regarding the use of eminent domain to buy out a black neighborhood over 45 years ago.

Without re-litigating all of that, let me just point out one aspect that struck me after I saw my own story online. The basic line from the old guard is that black people really were not unhappy about losing their property to eminent domain back in those days. Some outside agitators came in and said they were. But, really, they were happy.

OK, we all know that a certain kind of old rich white people sit around the country club and say this kind of stuff to each other. And I think we have to assume they believe it.

What’s significant here is that they obviously believe this is a persuasive line for public consumption. I assume that’s why they have recited this line to me and why it popped up in the News out of the blue a week ago.

I guess it goes like this: Tell the black people that they are not unhappy. They were never unhappy. Some communists came to town and told them they were unhappy, and they believed them. But they are really happy. And now, if they will allow us to do what we want with Fair Park, we will give them this big mouth-watering slice of cherry pie.

And, of course, Southern Dallas elected leaders, acting out of a long tradition of independence, will say, “No! Two slices!”

I’m bringing this up again to make a larger point about City Hall. If you back away from it and take a long view, you will see clearly that the old divvy, the old way of doings things, is based on an extremely dated and anachronistic culture.

Not a white culture. Not a black culture. It’s an extremely dated and anachronistic white and black culture – a thing from “Gone with the Wind.”

Now take a look at those four council members in the quartet I mentioned. Look for what they have in common. Look for what they share with Hunt and Miller.

I can tell you. No hippies. Not a one. They are the epitome of a new generation of city-builders, professionals and entrepreneurs bringing a whole new sensibility and ethos to the challenge of creating a 21st century city. If you scoured them and scoured the old guard for beliefs about business and economic freedom, I don’t believe you’d come up with an ounce of difference.

Now, if you scoured everybody for beliefs about inclusion, tolerance, assimilation and social proximity, then, yes, they would be quite different. But that’s less a good-guy bad-guy difference than a cultural and generational shift — a shift that’s just going to happen, the easy way or the hard way.

Probably the hard way. The fairly hard way, anyway. But who said it was supposed to be easy?

I believe there’s a new party line coming up out of the good old boys in preparation for the next couple of mayoral elections. The line is that the new council members, Kingston and Griggs in particular, make too much trouble. They’re going to say we need to search our souls and realize that we were happy until Kingston and Griggs showed up.

If what they really want is happy, they could stop lying and stabbing people in the back with fake felony charges. But I don’t believe they care about happy. What they really want is to stave off change, and that’s the one thing we must never allow. We can always get a new lawyer. Getting a new city will be harder.


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