The $125,000 bike-share program at Fair Park — those two forlorn rental kiosks that Mayor Mike Rawlings tried so ardently last November to make seem like a good idea — is, for all practical purposes, a city project. Rawlings, along with various members of city staff, pushed it as a way to help attract visitors to Fair Park, which is owned and operated by the city. The location of the bike stations were dictated by the city. The money, every penny, came from the city. It stands to reason, then, that the bike-share program should be subject to the same open-government rules that apply to any other city project. That its financials, ridership figures, operations, etc. should be subject to public review.
Alas, because the city farmed bike share out to Friends of Fair Park, an ostensibly independent nonprofit that maintains a hand-in-glove relationship with City Hall, Fair Park's bike share program is a black box. Last week, in response to an open records request we sent the group several months ago seeking ridership, contract and other details, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office ruled that the Friends Group isn't subject to Texas' Public Information Act.
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The reasoning is simple. Friends of Fair Park is a private nonprofit. Though some private nonprofits are so closely intertwined with public bodies as to be de facto appendages of government (previous AGs have ruled that the Dallas Museum of Art, the UT Law Foundation, and the North Texas Commission are subject to the open records act), Paxton's office ruled that Friends of Fair Park is a "non-profit citizens' group" that "receives public funds for specific measurable services and is not generally funded by the city," meaning it isn't subject to open records rules.
Whether Friends of Fair Park and the city have the arms-length relationship Paxton implies is doubtful. True, the city doesn't directly fund the group on an ongoing basis, but a 15-year-old contract that was just renewed for five years allows it to operate — and obtain about $11,000 in annual revenue from — Fair Park's Magnolia Lounge. The contract also suggests that the city and Friends of Fair Park share a "common purpose or objective," which is the standard past AGs used in the DMA and North Texas Commission cases. According to a city summary of the contract, it stipulates that the "Friends of Fair Park shall diligently improve and promote Fair Park as a recreational, historical, educational and entertainment destination."
The proximate impact of Paxton's ruling is that we don't get empirical data that might show what a terrible (or great!) idea it was to maroon a bunch of $8,000 rental bikes in a hard-to-access island of concrete. More ominously, the ruling allows the city to keep details of certain projects secret by laundering important policy decisions through closely affiliated but technically independent nonprofits. Dallas could have put out a request for bids and contracted directly with B-cycle or another bike-share vendor, as will happen if the city gets around to implementing bike share citywide. Instead, largely to expedite a project that would have become snared in City Hall's bureaucracy, the City Council contracted with Friends of Fair Park, a group that had no experience with bike share and a not-particularly-great understanding of the concept. And there are several groups like Friends of Fair Park — organizations larded with City Hall insiders who partner with the city on housing, parks, recreation, what have you. It seems only fair that they should be transparent when they're playing with the city's money.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.