Punch-Out at the Park Board — What Ever Happened to High Tea?

J. McDonald Williams addressing a special meeting of the Dallas Park Board Wednesday .
J. McDonald Williams addressing a special meeting of the Dallas Park Board Wednesday .

Dallas Park and Recreation Board meetings have always been like high tea – tinkly tee-hee and not much done. But Thursday's was a barroom punch-out. Angered that they were not allowed to fully discuss a proposal to give Fair Park to a private entity, five board members got up and walked out, depriving the meeting of a quorum and forcing it to shut down.

That just does not happen at Dallas park board meetings. For several minutes after the walkout, the remaining members sat at a horseshoe of tables gawping at each like oxygen-deprived goldfish.

In the five minutes before the walkout, board member Paul Sims prowled the room whispering in the ears of other members frustrated by a last-minute set of rules imposed by chairman Max Wells. They had come with long lists of questions to discuss, but Wells told them the board could discuss only a short list of items he imposed.

Sims, the appointee of District 14 City Council member Philip Kingston, said afterward that the members who left the room were concerned that a contract to give away Fair Park to a private foundation is being forced down their throats by interests allied with the State Fair of Texas. I told you Wednesday that Walt Humann, who represents the foundation seeking control of Fair Park, has flatly refused to agree to any contract provision that might force the fair to answer questions about corrupt practices.

Sims said some of the park board members who walked out already believe that the city’s existing contract with the state fair is a one-sided giveaway and a betrayal of the public good.

“Everybody that walked out has a sincere interest in improving this contract [with the new foundation to take over Fair Park] and in making sure that their interests are represented,” he said. “In light of the cluster-fuck that is the state fair contract, we have no intention of letting that happen again.”

Sims said the members who walked out are not opposed to a deal by which Fair Park, the 277-acre city-owned albatross two miles east of downtown, would be turned over to a private entity to run. But, he said, “We are going to make sure that this contract is done correctly. We may not get all the things that we want on the contract, but we damn sure need to talk about it.”

Yesterday’s meeting was a special “called” or unscheduled meeting, ostensibly to allow board members to go over in greater detail the proposed contract with Humann’s group. But at the outset of the meeting, Wells, a retired banker who is a former City Council-member, former mayoral candidate and member of the private Dallas Citizens Council, limited discussion to six items agreed to in advance by Humann.

Six of 12 board members present voted to overrule Wells, creating a tie vote, which left in force Well’s decision to limit debate.

Park board member Jesse Moreno, the appointee of District 2 council member Adam Medrano, said the limit on debate smacked of what he sees as an effort in recent weeks to railroad the board. Moreno said the interests behind the Humann proposal “wanted to have this thing wrapped up months ago.” But he said their proposal has encountered rough sledding.

The proposed contract, as it stands, would call on the city to provide the new public entity running Fair Park with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax support. It would create a self-appointing board beyond the reach of city control. It would seal off the meetings and documents of that entity from public scrutiny.

Moreno said many of those aspects of the agreement have made it a tough swallow for some board members who are becoming progressively more assertive, putting the deal’s adoption by a deadline early next month into question.

Walt Humann
Walt Humann
Mark Graham

“In my opinion,” Moreno said, “it is falling apart more and more by the day. They are losing thread on this. It is unwinding. More information is being discovered. More questions are being asked.”

He said he saw Well’s move to strictly limit debate as a sign of weakness, not strength. “I feel that these people are scared, and they are trying to fast-forward this to stop more questions from being asked.” He said he thinks the Humann group wants to, “try to have this a done deal in the next couple weeks.”

Yesterday’s half-hour meeting also happened to be the first time the park board was allowed to hear a presentation by J. McDonald Williams, retired president and CEO of Trammell Crow, founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, and a strong critic of the Humann/State Fair plan.

When Williams completed a brief presentation, park board member Lawrence Jones, the appointee of District 13 City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, asked him if his real agenda was not to run off the State Fair entirely and open up Fair Park for real estate development. Jones’ question provided Williams his first public opportunity to address an accusation that has been rife in the rumor mill for the last year.

“I don’t want them to move,” Williams said of the fair. “I have never said that. They just need to be a good partner with others, current and future.

“I don’t think there needs to be private real estate development in the park. That’s out of bounds. I have never said that, and I don’t know where you would hear that.”

Williams said the fair, which requires most of Fair Park to be closed for other uses during several months each year, could be physically reconfigured to allow other institutions at Fair Park to operate normally all year.

State Fair board members have fiercely resisted any proposal for a physical reconfiguration, even suggesting they would close the fair or take it to another city before they would comply with such a requirement.

Williams told the park board: “The State Fair has a very awkward layout. It’s not a best practice layout. It’s not best practice operations.

“Five of those historical buildings are being used to sell mattresses and Barcaloungers and hot tubs and toe rings. That’s a misuse of those important historical buildings. They can do business differently and better.”

Williams said most great parks exert a “park premium” on surrounding real estate, making properties worth more the closer they are to a park.

“We did a study that shows the closer you are to Fair Park the lower your home value is and the longer it stays on the market to sell,” he said. “The State Fair’s operations are not just damaging to the park, they are damaging to the neighborhoods too, and that needs to change.”

Williams also touched on a point that is extremely sensitive with Humann and the State Fair right now – the issue of transparency. Humann has insisted the new entity he is proposing must be shielded from open records and open meetings laws. At present the fair is engaged in a protracted lawsuit and appeal to avoid answering questions about kickbacks and other corrupt practices

Wiliams said: “I am basically for radical transparency, if you will. I think that builds trust. People are open to come to meetings like this meeting right here. You hear the debate and all of that. You don’t have to do stuff behind closed doors to get things done.”

Board members Moreno and Sims both insisted their walkout should be viewed as neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of any particular plan but only as an expression of concern over the manner in which they believe they are being bullied into making a decision.

“I have not made my final decision on how to vote,” Moreno said. “It was my hope that we would be given the opportunity to address some of our differences today and move in the direction of potentially supporting this (the Humann plan).

“However, not being given the opportunity to voice our opinions today, I feel that we had no other opportunity but to end the quorum.”

The final vote of the park board is scheduled for the first week in August. The five who walked out Wednesday also included Barbara Barbee appointed by District 1 council member Scott Griggs, Marlon Rollins appointed by District 3 member Casey Thomas II, and Becky Rader appointed by District 9 member Mark Clayton.

The five were only enough to break a quorum of the board Wednesday because other members were absent. A boycott by the five would not break quorum for a fully attended meeting, nor would their votes be enough to stop passage of the Humann plan.

But with opposition this strong and with unanswered questions this pointed, the Humann plan would pass only with one hell of a stink on it. Hardly high tea.

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