In Richardson Mayor Scandal, the Cover-Up Is Worse than the Crime
Will Silverthorn addresses the Richardson City Council on his ethics complaint against Mayor Laura Maczka at a raucous meeting Tuesday night.
Richardson is supposed to be an orderly place, where a citizen can settle into a comfortable existence, which includes twice-weekly trash pickup and all the plastic grocery bags one can carry, and gaze dismissively down Central Expressway to the shit-show at Dallas City Hall while thinking, Not here.
And so things used to be, back before Mayor Laura Maczka threw her weight behind the Palisades, a mixed-use development along Central with 1,000 apartments adjacent to the NIMBY fortress of Canyon Creek; before rumors began circulating that she was in bed (literally) with the developer behind the project, JP Realty Partners' Mark Jordan; before she admitted in a March ethics filing that she had taken a job with the developer she was being accused of bedding; and before Brett Shipp cornered her with a vaguely flirtatious email between the two suggesting they take a jaunt together to NorthPark mall. Suddenly, Richardson city government has become a shit-show, too. The climax came -- or seemed to come -- Tuesday night, when the city unveiled the findings of an outside attorney's month-long ethics investigation spurred by Maczka's admission that she'd taken a job with Jordan.
But that summary undersells Tuesday night's drama. It is probably best described as a play in three acts, albeit one penned by a playwright who can't understand that the action is supposed to gradually crescendo into a climax and who inexplicably buries the crucial plot twist in a footnote.
Act I Richardson's council chamber was packed. Five minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. start time, a cop was standing at the door sending late-arriving citizens into an overflow room where the meeting would be broadcast. I pulled the I-write-for-the-Dallas-Observer card, but the officer rejected it on the grounds that all the seats were taken and that if he let me go in and stand and watch the meeting, he would have to let the rest of the people stand and watch the meeting which, I dunno, he feared would tire their legs or something. A scene was averted when a passing city staffer directed me to an open seat next to a gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt. Glancing behind me, I noticed that Brett Shipp had somehow secured permission to stand. His legs seemed to be holding up fine.
Up front, behind an elevated dais hemmed in blue carpet, stood the City Council sans the mayor -- six old- to middle-aged white guys in business suits, gazing uncomfortably into the distance. Maczka strode in wearing a handsomely cut pink jacket over a blouse. There's an invocation (one of the councilmen prays for wisdom in governing affairs of this "awesome city") followed by the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the pledge to Texas flag; somehow, everyone in the room knows all of the words.
The pledge is like the opening bell of a boxing match. Speakers, most if not all pissed-off residents of Canyon Creek and Prairie Creek neighborhoods, step to the microphone and spout pure, unadulterated vitriol both at Maczka specifically, for screwing over her neighbors to help Jordan, whom they refer to scornfully as "your boyfriend," and for turning Richardson government into a tawdry soap opera, and at the council generally for approving the Palisades re-zoning and abetting Maczka. An older man in the audience wore a red T-shirt with "Prairie Creek Mob" scrawled in Sharpie, a phrase Maczka used in an email to Jordan referring to the Palisades opposition. There presumably would have been fancier T-shirts, but the email had only been reported by Shipp the previous evening, too short a window to print some.
The council absorbed the abuse mostly in silence, not because they were too high-and-mighty to address the speakers, as they were accused of, but because procedural rules prevented them from doing so during open microphone sessions. The white-haired bloc of Richardson government -- councilmen Bob Townsend and Mark Solomon and City Manager Dan Johnson -- wore shame-filled expressions similar to that of my black lab after he eats the Goldfish my 2-year-old sets on the coffee table. Councilman Steve Mitchell looked pained. His two remaining colleagues, Paul Voelker and Kendal Hartley, his jaws jack-hammering a piece of gum, looked like they'd rather be watching the Mavericks game. Maczka mostly kept her eyes on her desk, where she occasionally jotted something down or shuffled a paper, although she did gingerly make efforts to maintain order. During a pause between speakers, she reminded audience members to refrain from yelling out insults while the city was conducting a business meeting, which prompted a loud guffaw from one 60-ish woman and a caustic "Like your business meetings with Mark Jordan?!?" She behaved herself after the aforementioned Richardson police officer politely threatened her with removal.
A couple of people praised Maczka for her tireless service to the city, which elicited groans from many, but Maczka looked up from her paper, grasping at the words like a life raft. Mostly, though, it was vitriol. By the end, one could almost sympathize with Maczka's description of the Palisades opposition.
Act II With the public-comment section over, City Attorney Pete Smith took the floor, his gravitas belied just a tad by the apparent hot-dog pattern on his navy dress socks. He explained the process by which the city had pursued its ethics investigation. After Maczka disclosed her employment with JP Realty, the city fielded a flood of calls and emails accusing the mayor of ethics violations. This was new territory for the city, Smith said, as there had not been a formal ethics complaint filed with the city under existing ethics rules. City staff drafted an ethics complaint form, which four residents subsequently completed and submitted. To avoid a fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario, the city hired Fort Worth attorney George A. Staples Jr., who had previously given the city advice regarding the regulation of group homes.
Staples took no pains to conceal his sartorial quirks beneath his pant legs: He wore a shimmering, baby-blue sports coat with a "Starry Night" tie. He ambled to the podium carrying in his hand two slim reports detailing two parallel investigations, one into Maczka's behavior more generally, the other specifically addressing the four ethics complaints, and spoke to the council in the genial manner of a tenured Ole Miss history professor circa 1934. He even had a charmingly down-home nickname ("Boots") and an anecdote about bush-hogging over the weekend at his deer lease.
Staples' apparent strategy -- to drain the room of emotion by boring the audience into a vegetative state -- was a remarkable success. He read both reports in their entirety, which were disappointingly slim on lurid personal details and disappointingly heavy with legalistic discussion of Richardson's ethics rules and state law.
The bottom line of Staples' report was that Maczka has done nothing unethical, at least as ethics is defined by the Richardson Code of Ethics and Texas lawmakers. Taking the job with the developer was OK because it happened well after the council last voted on zoning for the project (summer 2014) and approved an economic incentive package (September 2014). Sending Jordan vaguely flirtatious emails was also OK because nothing prohibits being friendly, or even flirtatious, with individuals with business before the city. Zoning cases, Staples repeatedly pointed out, are political decisions, and thus all the normal rules of politics (e.g., officials having opinions on issues, special-interests fostering and leveraging personal relationships with those officials) apply. To rise to the level of an ethics violation, Maczka's vote for the project would have had to directly benefit her or a family member, or else there had to have been a quid pro quo. No hint of either was found. The review did not address the rumors that Maczka was having an affair, partly because they are rumors and partly because it wouldn't matter if she were. Bedding someone with business before the city, like sending them flirtatious emails, is not a violation of Richardson's ethics rules or state law.
And here is where the surprise plot twist comes in. While there's no evidence that Maczka's relationship with Jordan, whatever its nature, broke any rules, her actions once reporters started asking around may have. At issue is the emails obtained by Shipp, which weren't included in the response to WFAA's open-records request for all emails between Jordan and Maczka. The city, according to Staples, turned over everything it had, which meant that Maczka, who had sent them from her private email account, hadn't passed them along to the city. Failing to provide records subject to the Public Information Act, or altering or destroying those records, can be considered a criminal act. Staples' investigation doesn't say whether Maczka actually violated state records laws, just that it's a possibility. Nevertheless, he forwarded the information to the public integrity unit of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.
Act III Throughout the delivery of the reports, Maczka sat stony-faced and silent. But when Smith suggested the council move on with the agenda without further discussion, Maczka interrupted him; she had something to say. She proceeded to deliver a 10-minute monologue on the personal hell she has endured over the past four months.
In January, after 10 years of marital difficulties, Maczka's divorce was completed. She was allowed to keep the family's home in Canyon Creek but had to refinance to put it in her name. The plan was to have her parents co-sign on the loan but, in February, she was informed by the bank that since she was the primary resident, her salary, rather than the combined assets of herself and her parents, would have to be sufficient to cover mortgage payments. "Let me tell you, the $50 I make a week as mayor does not cover a mortgage."
Also in January, she began an intensive and costly 12-week course of treatment related to a melanoma she'd had removed in 2007 and been monitoring ever since. Her husband's health insurance, which covered much of the cost, including a $1,000-a-dose prescription medication, ran out at the end of January. She needed a job, and she needed a job with health insurance. So, in February, she signed on with Jordan's company. Her official start date was March 15. Shortly after that, she filed the required ethics disclosures.
Despite all this, after careful consideration and at the urging of her teenage son, she decided to run for re-election. She filed at the last minute, on February 22. On April 1, after her new job became public, she announced that she wouldn't accept that position, which fueled very plausible-sounding conspiracies about the timing and motivation behind her decision. She was the only mayoral candidate on the ballot, so the timing of her announcement meant the new mayor would be picked from amongst the remaining council members by the remaining council members. This is how the mayor was always selected in Richardson prior to 2013, and it's the way skeptics say Richardson's old guard would like the mayor to be selected in the future. Maczka said there was no conspiracy. Her decision was personal. She'd prefer to see a special election, but the charter doesn't allow it.
But Maczka's monologue wasn't just about her personal woes. It was also delivering a couple of calculated jabs at her Canyon Creek neighbors, the people who'd been yelling at her from the podium and spreading rumors about her personal life. "I think what people tend to forget, even now, is that there are three kids in the middle of this whose family has been forever altered," she chided, later opining that few of the people present wouldn't be there if they weren't still pissed about having apartments nearby. She stood behind her decision to support the Palisades project. "I voted to support Palisades becaus I felt then as I do now that a mixed-use urban development was the highest and best use of the largest piece of undeveloped land along one of the region's busiest transportation corridors."
Of course, Maczka could have spared herself a good bit of the rumor-mongering and whisper campaigns had she a) been upfront with her personal struggles, insofar as they affected her perceived ability to do her job fairly and effectively; and b) not signed on for a second term she was unprepared to complete. But it's too late for that.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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