Mayor Invokes Dead Cops to Get Fair Park Contract Signed by Thursday

Walt Humann makes his case at Monday's impromptu press conference, Mayor Rawlings and City Council member Tiffinni Young looking on.EXPAND
Walt Humann makes his case at Monday's impromptu press conference, Mayor Rawlings and City Council member Tiffinni Young looking on.
Jim Schutze

Mayor Mike Rawlings invoked the five police officers murdered in Dallas July 7 in an effort to pressure the Dallas Park and Recreation Board to sign a contract Thursday that would turn over control of Fair Park to the mayor’s personal delegate, retired oil executive Walt Humann.

“In recent weeks, our city has been through some tough times,” Mayor Rawlings said at an impromptu press conference Monday afternoon in the lobby of City Hall. “We each have had pain in our hearts.

“I saw the city unite like I have never seen it unite before,” he said. “I have been looking and saying,‘Where do we go from July 7?’”

Rather than “a lot of kumbaya moments,” Rawlings said the “catalytic mechanism” the city needs could be a deal to turn over Fair Park to a private entity. He said the park board “has now spent parts of the last two years debating. … Now it’s time to vote, and we expect them to do so on August 4.”

In telling them what to do, the mayor also diminished the importance of the park board, calling them an anachronism and a merely advisory body. At his side was Dallas City Council member Tiffinni A. Young, who represents the area around Fair Park in South Dallas.

Young said she had never heard anybody in her district express interest in a community park at Fair Park, even though that is pretty much the main thing her constituents have insisted on from the beginning.

Young also was dismissive of the park board, using the word “sad” to describe the only communications she has seen concerning their deliberations. She said the thing she cares about is not parks but economic development. The mayor, in his own remarks, said he had been discussing the economic part with Young.

Walt Humann, the retired Hunt Oil executive who is the mayor’s whip on Fair Park privatization, was also at his side for Monday’s impromptu and improbable press event. Humann was still recovering from a major on-camera melt-down last week when five park board members walked out of a board meeting, killing the quorum and forcing the meeting to end rather than allow themselves to get railroaded into a contract with Humann.

The contract would turn control of Fair Park over to a foundation that Humann singlehandedly created, to which he personally appointed all the board members and of which he made himself CEO.

People say “only in Dallas” too much, right? But … only in Dallas. Only in Dallas does the mayor tell a guy to create a private foundation, appoint all the board members himself and include people who don’t even live in Dallas, appoint himself CEO, then hand a locked-up contract to the park board with instructions to sign by a date certain. And then when the park board does dare to ask — dares to ask — questions about details in the contract, the mayor and his man call a press conference, invoke the dead policemen, trash the park board and also issue direct orders to the park board to sign the damned contract on damn Thursday.

I am sorry, but that truly is an only-in-Dallas deal. National politics is a wild show right now, I know, but try to imagine Obama calling a press conference where he says: “Now, look, I want the Congress to give Yellowstone National Park to my buddy here, Rahm Emmanuel.

Supporters of the mayor and a few skeptics watched his press conference Monday.EXPAND
Supporters of the mayor and a few skeptics watched his press conference Monday.
Jim Schutze

“By the way, the Congress is a stupid anachronism and in my way. And also by the way, the Congress better damn well do what I say, and by the way I want it done by Thursday.”

Nope. Sorry. Only in Dallas. 

The basic issues are fairly simple. People think Fair Park is screwed up and a wasteland. The hope is that turning it over to a private entity will get it out from under the ka-ching ka-ching (economic development) politics at City Hall. (Maybe turning it over to Putin.)

General wisdom is that no park that must serve as a fairgrounds for a state fair during part of the year can also serve very well as a venue for other uses and institutions during the rest of year.

One plan, therefore, is to push the State Fair of Texas to the back of the park, open up the rest of the park to year-round uses and start collecting rent for some of the historic structures — money that would pay toward restoration and maintenance of the park.

The other idea is to leave the State Fair alone, let it do what it has always done with the land and use tax money instead to restore and maintain the park. That would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the Mayor Rawlings/Walt Humann idea.

Critics of the Rawlings/Humann plan may have started out daydreaming about pushing the State Fair around or even running it off, but the pragmatists in that group probably have given up on that idea by now. The city staff has told them that the fair really and truly does need all of the ground it presently occupies to put on its show every year and restricting its footprint would kill the fair.

Even the critics concede that the State Fair puts on a great show. They don’t want to be responsible for killing it.

They also have been told — and convinced by now, I think — that the State Fair’s contract, including its footprint, is bullet-proof, legally and politically, for the next decade or more. Trying to take that contract apart would be like making a legal assault on a cast-iron last will and testament and a good way to get yourself written out of the will.

But they also believe after a painstaking review that the contract is way too sweet for the foundation and a bitter pill for the city. For example, a cost-of-living increase in the amount of money the city must provide to the foundation as a management fee every year has no cap, no limit, no max. Ever. The management fee the city must pay the foundation, already in the neighborhood of $20 million a year, can never stop going up.

Critics of the proposed contract believe that the absence of an escalator cap is unique among contracts between the city and private entities. It’s stuff like that.

You and I might call it fine print, but there are people on the park board who truly believe the city should not sign away even fine print provisos that might saddle the city with an unfair and one-sided burden in the future.

That’s the kind of thing they want to go over Thursday — fine print, not basic substance. Nobody wants to burn down the barn at this point. They do want to make sure the barn has fire extinguishers.

But in an absolutely unprecedented move Monday — I sure never have seen anything like it in my way too many years covering City Hall — Rawlings dissed the park board as some kind of antique accessory that needs to be put out with the trash.

Calling the park board’s role strictly “advisory,” Rawlings said, “They are not the governing role on Fair Park. It’s really the City Council.” He called the park board part of “the archaic form of government” at City Hall.

The role of the park board, as set down in the city charter, is much more than advisory. The charter provides: “The park and recreation board shall have jurisdiction over the control, management and maintenance of the public parks of the city, with power to acquire, in the name of the city, land for park purposes, except as herein otherwise provided.”

The City Council has the authority to override some park board decisions — contracts included — but the park board retains many other powers and responsibilities of its own, specifically including the authority “to control and manage … all public properties on which there is a joint use agreement with other public or private entities …”

So, you know, Fair Park. Especially if Fair Park gets turned over to private entity.

While the mayor invoked the dead policemen to pressure the park board, Young suggested broadly that any resistance to or contradiction of the proposed contract was an expression of neighborhood imperialism.

“This has been a problem that we have had in the South Dallas/Fair Park community for decades, where somebody comes in from the outside to tell us how to run our community, what we need in our community and what we should do,” Young said. 

She suggested that the members of the park board couldn’t have been all that interested in the Fair Park issue anyway, because they have not been calling her about it, as they have not been calling the mayor or Humann.

“My phone, too, has not rung,” she said. “I too have not received any emails from the park board members about what these concerns are. I continue to see the Twitter board. I continue to see some of the things that are taking place, and it’s sad.

“I continue to see talk about my people, whatever that means, I don’t know. I continue to hear my people are not going to get a park that they were promised. I don’t even know what this park is that folks are talking about.”

The skeptics are bound and determined to fully scour the contract and demand changes where they think they are necessary to protect the public interest. They say all of that cannot get done and get lawyered and get drafted in time to get signed Thursday.


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