One Positive Observer Article About a Dallas Park Board Member, and the Guy’s Toast

Dallas Park and Recreation Board Vice Chair (for now) Jesse Moreno
Dallas Park and Recreation Board Vice Chair (for now) Jesse Moreno
Jim Schutze

People should start paying me not to write anything positive about them. Just over a week ago I wrote something positive about Jesse Moreno, vice chair of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board, and now I see on this Wednesday’s upcoming City Council agenda there will be an effort to kick him out of that post.

He won’t be off the park board, but the council will vote on whether a different park board member, Sean Johnson, should be made vice chair and Moreno demoted to a regular member.

By the way, Johnson is a person I wrote something very negative about in the same piece in which I praised Moreno. Now he stands to get promoted.

Whatever is the opposite of a green thumb, I’ve got it. I wrote a lot of positive things about former school superintendent, no longer with us, Mike Miles. He was probably looking at his phone every time I called thinking, “Oh, no, it’s that damn guy from the Observer, going to write another positive article about me.”

So I wonder. Could I use this?

The thing this week with Moreno is all about Fair Park, the State Fair of Texas and all that mess. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, how could I better exploit my gifts?

With some people, I could call up and say, “Hey, man, sorry, but I really don’t like you. I don’t like what you do. I don’t like your face. I don’t even like your mom. So, yeah, that’s right, I’m thinking about writing a really positive article about you.”

Or the other way. I could call up a guy like Sean Johnson, and I could say, “Well, Sean, your career on the park board is looking a tad laggardly. I suppose I could help if you wanted me to. I could write a really negative piece saying you’re a kiss-ass and a sell-out to the State Fair of Texas. I’m thinking you might be able to get vice chair out of that, or who knows, maybe the chairmanship when the old dude gives it up.”

I’ll have to think about it. And by the way, there are other explanations. The park board business is about a level of arrogance and vindictiveness that would be there anyway, going strong had I never been born. I tried to explain it over dinner last weekend to a friend and neighbor.

He’s a smart guy, a CEO and someone who pays attention every once in a while to City Hall, even if he doesn’t necessarily follow it closely. He happens to be an admirer of J. McDonald “Don” Williams, retired CEO of Trammell  Crow Co., who has campaigned for better uses for Fair Park, the city’s aging and neglected 277-acre exposition park two miles south of downtown.

My neighbor said something to the effect of, “Don Williams is a credible guy. He has good ideas. So what’s the beef? They just sit down with him and look at his ideas and then establish a process to evaluate what he has to say.”

Yes, that’s how it might work if we were living in Rational-La-La-Land. But we’re not. And here, where we do live, the beef — the real beef – is the State Fair of Texas, which occupies pretty much the whole park for three and a half weeks every fall and doesn’t want anything to change.

Williams has been urging the City Council to understand that no plan to revitalize Fair Park will work unless it is founded on Fair Park finding sources of revenue to make it self-sustaining. He offers Balboa Park in San Diego and other self-sufficient revenue-producing entertainment parks around the world as examples of what can be done.

But none of that can be accomplished unless the State Fair of Texas can be persuaded to compromise on space, change its footprint and maybe even give up using some buildings for less than a month a year so the park can rent them out to full-time year-round tenants. But the State Fair cannot be persuaded.

Instead, the fair’s board of trustees has taken a stubborn, even angry, posture, arguing in some public meetings that the State Fair of Texas somehow owns the buildings it uses once a year at Fair Park. It does not. Fair Park and the buildings in it belong to the city.

Wait, you might say (my neighbor did say at dinner): The fair is the rent-paying tenant of the park board. So the park board is the owner and boss. Sure, they have a lease agreement, but the park board’s not going to let a tenant, even an anchor tenant, tell it what it can and cannot do with its own property in the long run.

Yes. It is.

I stand under the bridge with this sign. If they don’t give me money, I write something positive about them.EXPAND
I stand under the bridge with this sign. If they don’t give me money, I write something positive about them.
Jim Schutze

The beef a week ago was about Moreno, acting as vice chair and taking advantage of the absence of park board Chairman Max Wells, to ask state fair officials a bunch of questions. When Moreno tried to open the meeting up to general questions for fair officials who were already there on another item, state fair president Mitchell Glieber literally hot-footed it out of the room and down the elevator.

Dallas park board member Sean Johnson jumped all over the members of the board who wanted to ask Glieber questions. Telling them they had embarrassed him by trying to put Glieber on the spot, Johnson shouted over and over again, “Learn your role,” reminiscent of “Know your place,” which was the title of the ninth episode of the fourth season of The Wire.

Johnson is the full-time paid director of parks and recreation for the suburban city of Lancaster, but as I tried to explain to my neighbor, it doesn’t even take a hard-wired connection to the park and rec profession to put some Dallas park board members in the pocket of the state fair. In fact many of them who have no personal or business connections to the amusement industry at all are obsequious and subservient to the fair.

In Dallas, the fair’s private and exclusive board of trustees has social rank and prestige above the park board, which is, after all, merely public. That’s how you get people on a public board ignoring what should be the public’s clear interest in Williams’ ideas, which would protect taxpayers and protect the park. Instead they incur favor with a private body interested only in its own tradition even if that leaves the park empty most of the year, withering on the vine.

Withering brings me back to my bad thumb. I wrote that Moreno and his colleagues who make up a minority of the board had made a brave stand at getting answers from the fair about its finances. Johnson, on the other hand, castigated them for their impudence. Johnson even argued it was improper for the board to publicly discuss salary information commonly available from the fair’s required public IRS declarations.

A copy of the fair’s most recent publicly available IRS Form 990 is below. Skip to page 46 to see names of seven state fair personnel compensated at more than $200,000 a year, the highest at $1.4 million per year.

So just over a week later, we have Moreno possibly getting the boot from the vice chair position and Johnson rewarded with the title instead.

Now, one thing I need to make clear: Jesse Moreno is in no way infected with my own dark and suspicious character or view of things. A better man than I, Moreno told me Monday he will be absolutely fine with the City Council’s decision on the vice chair position:

“I believe my actions, my role, my conduct speak for themselves,” he said. “I think I have brought many changes, making the Dallas park system a better place. I will be happy with whatever decision the council makes.”

Moreno said he will still be an enthusiastic park board member, “and I am going to continue to ask tough questions.”

In fairness, I should have said to him, “OK, now, Moreno, you understand that I’m about to write another positive article about you. You and your wife might want to just toss a few necessaries into a suitcase, get some cash together and gas up at 7-Eleven.”

But I didn’t. And do you know why? Sure, I could tell people all that stuff. I could warn them ahead of time how it works in this town. Then how do you expect me to earn a living?

I’d be toast. I’d have to go stand under a bridge with a cardboard sign saying, “Will write negative stories for cash.” I mean, give me a break. Everybody has a few trade secrets. Everybody who passes me without giving me any change, I will shake my fist and mutter, “OK, you got a real positive one coming at you, you son of a bitch.”


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