Let's Hear it for Bad Behavior: How Dissidents Improved a Slipshod Fair Park Contract

Fair Park
Fair Park
Flickr Creative Commons (Paul Sableman)

Midway through a seven-hour park board meeting last Thursday, board member Lawrence S. Jones, who represents the rarefied Strait Lane district of North Dallas, expressed his misgiving about a certain class of people who have been appointed to the board of a private entity set up to take over Fair Park:

“My big concern structurally,” he said, “is that the whole organization looks a lot like some very interested, well-intentioned community activists, for lack of a better word.”

Jones said his notion of better people to run Fair Park would be the sort “who are fully able to not only write very big checks when asked but to write substantial checks consistently.”

The best thing, then, for Fair Park, a 277-acre long neglected albatross surrounded by poor neighborhoods two miles from downtown, would be to turn it over to rich people, because they would be able to fix it up.

The irony was that the rich-people delegates were the ones on the park board who were ready to sign a seriously flawed, sloppily one-sided agreement more or less sight unseen. And they broadly suggested that any criticism of the agreement — even minor editing — was a sign of disrespect and bad behavior.

Meanwhile it was the community activist types on the park board who were trying to scrub the document — never to kill the deal but tighten it up – to protect the taxpayer’s pocket and sometimes just to correct simple legal errors and omissions.

I watched the whole meeting online. If I blurred my eyes, I could sit at my computer screen and imagine the community activists with green eyeshades and rolled up sleeves, a bunch of bean-counters holding up fingers of caution now and then, tsk-tsking and tweaking things. And I could imagine Jones and company in Roman robes, bored with the whole process, guzzling from flagons while maidens dropped grapes into their mouths.

The truth is that the community activist types on the park board Thursday – Barbara Barbee, Jesse Moreno, Becky Rader, Marlon Rollins and Paul Sims – proposed amendments that the rest of the board passed unanimously for the most part because the amendments were so obviously necessary.

This is about a proposal to turn Fair Park over to a private entity. At the end of the day Thursday, the park board voted to do it. But that happened only after the board tightened the agreement to make it more businesslike. Virtually all of those amendments were brought forward by the community activist types, for want of a better word.

The contractual terms proposed to the board by Mayor Mike Rawlings and his surrogate, retired oilman Walt Humann, were written behind closed doors by lawyers working for Humann. The document Humann brought to the board contained outlandishly bad clauses and was missing clauses crucially important to the city’s interests. Dissidents on the board were able to get some of the obvious fixes done by talking with city lawyers before the document ever came to the board for a vote.

An example: The contractual terms agreed to by the park board call for the city to give the “private” entity a potential $610 million of tax money in annual increments to run Fair Park over the 30-year life of the agreement. But the fact is that one City Council cannot legally bind a future council to appropriate money, even for a contract.

Because future councils cannot be bound by a sitting council, all long-term city contracts must have a clause called “termination for non-appropriation.” It provides that if a future council refuses to appropriate the money called for in the contract, the contract is dead. Both sides agree the deal is over. Done.

The proposed Fair Park contract, originally written by city attorneys, was modeled on other city contracts and had the clause. But by the time it came back from Humann’s lawyers at the law firm of Locke Lord, the termination for non-appropriation clause was gone. Removed.

What would it have done to the city to sign a long-term contract without that clause? Board member Sims, who met with city lawyers for 13 hours over two days before the Thursday meeting, told me the lawyers told him that without that clause to cover the city in the event of a non-appropriation the current City Council would be obligated to escrow the entire value of the contract over its full term. That, again, would be $610 million.

When the contract showed up at the Thursday meeting, the non-appropriation clause was back in it, basically because the city would have been totally insane to sign the contract without it.

And that was only one example of almost four dozen things Sims and his allies on the board found that needed fixing. It seems unlikely that even the loveliest of people from Strait Lane with the very biggest of checkbooks would have coughed up enough to cover a $610 million goof the day after the contract was signed. So, for want of a better word, the community activists did good.

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You may recall that Mayor Rawlings, whose idea this whole thing was, called an emergency press conference in the lobby of City Hall on the Monday afternoon three days before the park board was to vote. Rawlings invoked the memory of the five police officers murdered in the streets of Dallas on July 7 and said that in honor of the five the park board needed to stop quibbling  and sign the deal turning over Fair Park to Humann’s private foundation:

“Now it’s time to vote,” he said, “and we expect them to do so on August 4.”

The mayor’s press conference — did I mention that he invoked the five dead policemen? — came a week after Sims led a walkout that broke quorum and shut down a park board meeting. Sims and the four other for-want-of-a-better-word community activists ditched the meeting rather than agree to a kangaroo-court set of rules that park board President Max Wells was trying to impose on them.

Wells’ rules would have barred the dissidents from bringing up any of their proposed amendments. After the dissidents walked out and doused the meeting, Humann insisted angrily that there had never been a plot or a plan to limit debate and that the five were just trying to kill the whole deal. A few days after that, an anonymous source provided me with a copy of what appeared to be a memo (copy below) from Humann to Wells, giving Wells his marching orders for how to limit debate at the meeting.

I emailed Humann the content of the memo. He called me, very angry, and said he had no knowledge of that memo, which he called “a bunch of malarkey.” As it turned out, that statement by Humann was a lie, but I couldn't prove it at the time. The memo looked very legitimate to me. Before the walkout, Wells had tried to do every single thing Humann told him to do in the memo. But I didn’t use the memo, because I could not confirm its provenance.

Later that week the same memo showed up again on WFAA-News 8 in a report by their ace, Brett Shipp. Shipp said Humann had denied to him at first that he had written the memo but then later admitted it was his, calling it “a proposal.” And by the way, good work, Brett Shipp. You kept him on the phone longer than I did.

After Humann sent his kangaroo-court memo to Wells, after the walkout, after the invoking of the five murdered police officers, after Humann told Shipp he hadn’t written the memo and then admitted he had, when the dissidents finally were allowed to ask their questions, finally allowed to present their proposed amendments to the board, everything went swimmingly. The board agreed to most of their amendments.

The next morning board member Moreno, who is a for-want-of-a-better-word community activist, told me he is still very concerned about several issues, especially whether the park, always open for free to all comers in the past, will be closed to people who can’t afford the price of an admission ticket in the future. But he said, “I am happy with the amendments that came through.”

Board member Rader, also of the for-want-of-a-better-word persuasion, told me that she thought the contract was much improved at the end of the day but still came out as a birthday present for Fair Park’s anchor tenant, the State Fair of Texas:

“I do believe that the State Fair organization is pleased with this decision and will find that they will gain much benefit from this partnership, because they have worked hand in hand with Mr. Humann throughout this process.”

Sims said he’s pleased with the end product. “I think it’s a lot better than it was. The city is protected a lot more.”

He points out that none of those improvements would have been possible if Humann, Wells and their allies on the park board had succeeded in shutting off debate:

“Why were they such crybabies about it and trying to stop us from having the conversation? It’s this attitude that details don’t matter. ‘We’re just North Dallas, and we need to get it done.’”

Sims thinks some of that attitude can be attributed to a failure on the part of some board members to grasp what they were voting on: “They thought they were voting on a concept. No, we were voting on a contract. It was a legal entity that was going to bind the city for 20, 25 or 30 years.

“All the good intentions, all the lofty goals don’t mean jack. All that matters is what’s in the contract.”

The most frustrating aspect of the whole process for Sims was the unwillingness of some park board members to buckle down and do the hard work of actually reading and understanding the contract they were being pressured to endorse by special interests.

“It’s this blithe ignorance, these bleating cheerleaders,” he said of the special interests. “They say, ‘Pass it, or you don’t support Dallas.’ It pisses me off to a degree that you can’t imagine.”

I can’t think of a better word.


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