How Dallas' Barker Brothers Fight City Hall and Win
Ever have this feeling? Something pops up in the news in Dallas like, "Ribbon Cutting Today on Gigantic Mississippi Riverboat Floating Country Club for Rich People in White Rock Lake." And you're saying, "Wait. Ribbon cutting? Riverboat? Floating country club?"
Sometimes I pick up the newspaper, and I immediately look down to see if I have tubes coming out of my nose. Did I miss a couple years?
Because that's the way they get stuff done here. They start out way down in the bowels of the mountain, deep in the subterranean veins of City Hall, mining minutiae nobody even knows about, let alone understands, things more arcane and inscrutable than zoning even, like feasibility studies for advisory panels when the people on the panels don't even know they're on them.
Sometimes if I'm the only person in the City Hall cafeteria dining room on the seventh floor on an off day when hardly anybody else is in the building, I think I can hear them through the water pipes, way down there, far, far below, little gnomes with tiny jeweled picks and axes, chipping away at the next big surprise for the taxpayers. Do I hear merry little voices singing?
But on three occasions in just more than a year, the unheard of has happened. Three times since May 2012, the city has been caught. Red-handed. Dead to rights. And I mean caught way, way down in the bowels, down where the sun don't shine.
The first was Winfrey Point. City officials were already looking over the engineering plans for a parking structure on a lovely little rag of wild prairie on the shores of White Rock Lake. They had survey stakes in the ground. They had been talking about it and planning it for a year, down there in the privates where they thought nobody would dare to look.
Had it gone on another two months, there would have been a headline in The Dallas Morning News: "Ribbon-cutting Today on Soviet-Style Parking Behemoth on Former Terrain of Nature Hippies." But today there is no parking behemoth, because they got caught.
The next was the Mississippi riverboat-sized floating country club for Park Cities people, also to be built on poor little White Rock Lake. It would have turned the entire park surrounding the lake into a demolition derby track for cocaine-addled rich kids in their parents' Porsches, their Polo shirt collars turned up and their sunglasses on their foreheads as they buzzed around like crazed black flies.
But they got caught.
The most recent, which is still ongoing and not at all a done deal, is the horsey-horsey theme park for rich people from the Park Cities that City Hall wants to build on top of one of the region's most important archeological sites and a natural spring that was never developed after the first Euro-American pioneers settled there briefly in the early 19th century. We would have been reading a headline right now: "Ribbon-cutting Today on Horsey-horsey Park, Bye-bye Prehistory." But they got caught, again with the stakes in the ground already. Plans to ride roughshod over the archeological site and the spring are now on hold.
Lots of people have been involved in all three of these remarkable saves. If anything, the fact that City Hall could even be slowed, let alone stymied, is an indication that the nature of the city itself is changing. And City Hall is changing, too, for the better. But I can't help noticing something else.
In all three of these incidents, the same two guys pop up. The Barker brothers. They're the ones who dug out all of the deep-six paperwork that proved the city and the Dallas Arboretum were trying to pull a fast one at Winfrey Point. Then only months later, they came up with the secret plans for the Park Cities Bacchanalia Barge. They even found other party barges designed by the same architect, which they described unforgettably as involving massive piers resembling "a bunch of tall dick-like things that stick out of the muck."
The Barkers know how to focus attention.
The more recent breakthrough on the horsey park is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, the city has agreed to change earlier plans that would have sent horse trails right over the sensitive archeological and historic site in an undeveloped forested area near the Trinity River five miles southeast of downtown. If the current agreement holds, those areas will be protected.
But second and maybe even more significant for the long run, City Hall executives have been strangely decent and respectful in dealing with the alliance of naturalists and activists fighting to save the area, including the Barkers. A year ago, proponents of the Winfrey Point parking structure were describing the Barker brothers to me as dangerously unhinged hermits who sat on high branches and threw acorns at people by White Rock Lake. Now all of sudden they're elder statesmen. Well, not elder. My age. Mature.
There was a walk-around meeting at the horse park spring recently, covered by Eric Nicholson, editor of Unfair Park, our news blog. After some minor fireworks, most of the parties who showed up appeared to agree on a compromise. I asked Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan later if the compromise was truly a done deal. She wrote back: "Yes. The big decisions have been made."
Again, lots of people other than the Barkers were in on that, which the Barkers would be quick to tell you. But it does raise the question. Who the hell are they? How do they do what they do? And they do what again exactly? They catch City Hall.
I visited them recently in their apartment in a beautifully secluded complex on rolling land at the southeast corner of White Rock Lake. Both are retired and living together after earlier chapters of travel, work and marriage. Ted, 68, is the outgoing one of the pair. Hal, 65, is reserved.
But Hal is the secret weapon. Seated before a wrap-around bank of monitors driven by three processors and a commercial data feed, he says simply, "I am obsessive-compulsive."
Flowing across the monitors is a virtual river of information related mainly related to The Korean War Project, a sprawling international database run entirely from their apartment. A nonprofit resource for scholars and individuals, the project grew out of their involvement in the establishment of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1992, a work they carried out in honor of their late father, a Korean War veteran.
They showed me an email that had just come in from a speech-writer in the White House asking about a war anecdote he had found on their site. While we sat gazing at these multiple streams of correspondence and information, the Barkers explained tricks that agencies can use to squelch an open records demand and the kind of dogged persistence the brothers bring to bear in order to outlast and defeat those tricks.
"It's blood sport," Ted said. "It's what I do."
"What it is," Hal said, "is I know how it works. I've been up against the Secretary of Defense in getting records. I've been up against presidential commissions."
The city of Dallas, they both agreed, operates on an assumption that it can outlast and wear down anybody who wants to get his hands on information the city does not want him to see. But you can't outlast the Barkers, they said, because that's what the Barkers do. They don't allow themselves to be outlasted.
"We don't stop," Ted said.
And in fact if that's your only game and that's how you play it every time — you're going to outlast the Barkers — then the Barkers know exactly where to go, how long to wait and how to get your ass.
What they are able to come up with is sometimes stunning. They don't just get the email chains and meeting minutes that everybody else gets but also the very early documents, the parking studies, feasibility assessments and early contracts — all those things the gnomes have been chipping away at for years in the bowels of City Hall. Much of that stuff is deliberately not stored on mainframes but scattered around the city on desktops somebody thinks nobody else can find. The Barkers can find them.
When Hal says he's obsessive-compulsive, he's not trying to be funny. In fact, Hal doesn't try to be funny. "For some reason," he says, "it's like a tunnel vision. The way the city operates is completely predictable. Everything they do is predictable." Hal is definitely in the tunnel.
Ted, meanwhile, is Mr. Outside, always genial, gregarious, the hail-fellow of the pair. Between the two of them, they make a sophisticated, presentable pair, far from the tree-dwelling hermits their detractors portrayed during the Winfrey Point battle. They are reasonable people who just happen to have a lot of ammo.
We all know the digital universe is bringing about a revolution in politics and changing the way we live day to day, but I know I have a tendency to attribute a lot of that to social media and pervasive attention deficit disorder, the ability and desire to skim the broad surface of an incredibly vast range without ever sticking a toe into it. But the Barkers remind me there is another way for computers and the Internet to change the universal equation.
They bring commercial-strength digital muscle to the task, deep technical know-how and dogged persistence. When the rest of us are flying around City Hall honking our horns in our Smart Cars, they roll up in the digital equivalent of an M1A2 Abrams tank. And they set up camp.
It's a wonderful thing that City Hall these days is more respectful toward naturalists and neighborhood activists and biking enthusiasts. City Hall should get credit for that. But the Barkers and that tank outside get some credit, too.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.