Park board member Sean Johnson, left, Park and Recreation Department Director Willis Winters, center, board Vice President Jesse Moreno, rightEXPAND
Park board member Sean Johnson, left, Park and Recreation Department Director Willis Winters, center, board Vice President Jesse Moreno, right
Jim Schutze

Park Board Thinks Asking State Fair Tough Questions Is ‘Embaaarassing’

Thursday’s meeting of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board was an abominable disgrace. Most members of the board turned their backs on taxpayers and fought instead to shield their cronies at the State Fair of Texas from public scrutiny.

But, remember: There’s one good thing about abominable disgraces. These are the moments that show us the heroes on the other side. Let’s be grateful for small blessings, since I don’t think we’re in for any big ones any time coming up soon.

You already know there’s a big battle going on at City Hall over what to do with Fair Park, the seriously down-at-the-heels 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas where the State Fair of Texas takes place for one month every fall. You may or may not know that in the weird fraternity and sorority system of all behind-the-scenes social power and glory in Dallas, the State Fair of Texas board of directors takes second place only to the deity, who is believed to be an ex officio member.

If First Baptist Church of Dallas wanted to change its name to First-and-a-half, it would have to get permission from the mossbacks on the State Fair Board. Secretly, of course, probably in a ritual. That’s how weird it is.

The problem at Fair Park has always been that the State Fair is supposed to be a tenant of the park, but it acts like it owns the place and rides roughshod over the park board. Well, that’s one problem. The other problem is that the park board enjoys being ridden roughshod over. I can’t explain that. I think it’s a spanking issue. I said weird, right?

Board member Becky Rader was one of the few who wanted to ask some tough questions.
Board member Becky Rader was one of the few who wanted to ask some tough questions.
Jim Schutze

The Thursday meeting was a rare opportunity, however, for a valiant minority on the park board to ask the State Fair some honest, open-ended tough questions. Park board President Max Wells, whose role has been to stave off and bar any rigorous examination of the fair, was out of town. That meant the gavel passed to District 2 board member Jesse Moreno, who is board vice president.

State Fair President Mitchell Glieber was already on the agenda to present something called “2016 State Fair of Texas Highlights” — mainly a feel-good film about farm kids and vendors at the fair. Moreno, who has been to a hog auction before, made sure to ask staff lawyers ahead of time if board members could ask Glieber whatever they wanted while he was at their podium making a presentation to them. And the lawyers said …

NO.

It was just highlights, the lawyers said, because that’s what the agenda said. Highlights only. And who decided what a highlight was? Glieber, because they were his highlights. Highlights or no lights.

So Moreno set about the arduous task of getting the meeting agenda amended within the legal notification period. He successfully added to the agenda an additional item called “State Fair of Texas discussion,” meaning board members could ask Glieber whatever they wanted.

And what might they want to ask? Well, the entire process by which the city has been struggling to find a new management system for Fair Park has been hobbled and fraught from the beginning by unanswered questions about the fair. Last year when Dallas city auditor Craig Kinton examined the fair’s contract with the park department, he reported that the contract was so loosely written, so full of hot air and wriggle room that the park department could have no idea how much money the fair makes or whether it is paying anything like fair rent to the city.

Now, if you’re one of the minority on the park board who want some honest answers for the taxpayers, then having Glieber before you at Thursday’s meeting should have been a golden opportunity. But if you are one of the craven kiss-ups whose sole object is never to offend the fair, then you don’t even want the questions asked, let alone any answers given. So the way it actually worked out was somewhere between outrageous and hilarious.

Here’s the scene: I get there sort of toward the end of Glieber’s cameo when he’s still showing the feel-good film, which was very, very sweet. Then Moreno moves the meeting on to the next item, which is the open discussion. And the next thing I know, Glieber and his media person, Karissa Condoianis, are hiking out of there like Bonnie and Clyde two jumps ahead of the state police.

In fact, a little later when I emailed Condoianis, I said: “You all lit out of there like bandits out of the bank rather than answer questions.” I said, “Can you enlighten me why you did not stay for the questions portion of the agenda. Would that not have helped?”

Haven’t heard back yet.

The small group on the board who wanted some answers, led by Moreno, were District 9 member Becky Rader, District 3 member Marlon Rollins and District 14 member Paul Sims. Of course, their questions were answered only by the clatter of Glieber and Condoianis’ hooves galloping toward the elevator. But after Glieber and Condoianis had made their escape, the would-be questioners came in for all kinds of scolding, some of it at the near-rabid level, from their fellow board members.

One big area of mystery, for example, is salary for top state fair executives. Only by happenstance has the public learned that some top salaries at the State Fair can be over a million dollars a year. But when board members Rollins and Sims persisted after the big bug-out and said they wanted to know what all of the top tier State Fair salaries are, District 7 member Sean Johnson went into a kind of grovel-rant like the offended butler on Downton Abbey: “Learn your role,” he said over and over again. “Learn your role.”

Johnson said, “Personal salary has nothing to do with the State Fair of Texas. It is totally absurd and embarrassing.” He dragged out the word, embaaarrasing, so you could hear in his voice that he was truly and deeply embarrassed.

Sims fired back, “If they are out there and their operating revenues go into Fair Park and their salaries come out of operating revenues, that is absolutely pertinent.”

“That would be in a closed session,” Johnson insisted.

At Sims’ prodding, an assistant city attorney got up and said Johnson was wrong, the board didn’t have to go into a secret session to discuss salary levels.

Johnson fell back to chanting, “Learn your role, learn your role.”

Which raises the question, what on earth do the rest of them think their role is as members of the park board? Each member is appointed by an elected City Council member, making the park board members deputies of the council members at least insofar as their duty to serve and represent the interests of the public. Their reason for being there is not to suck up to rich people and help them cover their traces whenever a real public servant comes along with some questions.

Instead, a majority of the board behaved as if adding an agenda item to allow open discussion was absolutely the dirtiest trick and betrayal most foul that anyone has ever committed since Judas at Gethsemane.

Sims fought back. He said, “When this item [the ‘highlights’ only item] was originally posted, it was crafted in such a narrow way that we could only discuss what was presented to us by the State Fair. I want to be able to talk about anything I want to talk about with the State Fair.”

Yeah. What about that? How can people who sit as stewards of the public interest possibly justify cutting off their own ability to pursue the public interest? Exactly what harm are they trying to prevent, what problem are they trying to solve by silencing themselves?

And then there is the sheer body language of the thing — Sean Johnson, neck stretched and nose in the air, shouting, “Learn your role! Learn your role!” If that doesn’t say it all right there, I don’t know what does.

But back to the top and what I said first: The great thing about moments like these is that we get to see the good guys in action, the stalwart few who are not afraid to be in the minority and even take a shellacking from the in-crowd. Thank goodness for them. In the end it’s on their shoulders.

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