After serving eight years as a city plan commissioner and another eight as a council member representing some of North Dallas's more upscale neighborhoods, 72-year-old Mitchell Rasansky is no longer roaming City Hall when he's most needed. Replaced last month by Ann Margolin because of term limits, Rasansky now must sit on the sidelines as the council struggles to balance a $190 million budget deficit.
"He was a rare bird on city council in that he really understands a budget," says Donna Blumer, who appointed him to the plan commission and preceded him on the council.
Before he left, Rasansky called the budget "the most non-transparent" he'd seen in his time at City Hall. His final opportunity to weigh in on the budget came at a June 17 council meeting when he proposed $21.7 million in cuts, but Mayor Tom Leppert interrupted him twice, urging him to keep his comments within a five-minute time-frame. Tensions between the two were also apparent after the council approved last year's budget and Rasansky said Leppert was clueless about the process, adding that he was disappointed in the mayor because he refused to consider amendments from him and Angela Hunt.
Despite backing Leppert's 2007 mayoral run and subsequent campaign to keep the Trinity River toll road inside the city's floodway, their relationship quickly deteriorated, and Rasansky says there's no question that supporting Leppert is his biggest regret during his tenure as a council member.
"Not too many people pull the wool over my eyes, but he did," Rasansky tells Unfair Park. "I trusted the man, and I'm sorry I supported him. I surely would not support him in any future fields of battle unless he had a turnaround and realized the mistakes that he's made."
Rasansky, who strongly considered running for mayor himself until wife Rita convinced him otherwise, says he supported Leppert after the two met twice at Rasansky's office near Dallas County Republican Party headquarters. He felt comfortable with Leppert because he assured Rasansky that his goal was to run the city like a business, and he promised to crack down on handing out tax abatements to greedy developers. Once seen as a savior, Leppert proved to be a dud, Rasansky says.
"Leppert has had two years to bring this city around -- that's plenty of time," he says. "It's gotten in a deeper hole since he's been here."
He also viewed Leppert as a much better alternative to former council member Ed Oakley, who Rasansky says stood for everything at City Hall that he couldn't tolerate, so he rallied support for Leppert in a district with historically high voter turnout compared with other parts of Dallas. "I don't think he'd be mayor without me -- without District 13."
Rasansky started having serious questions about Leppert when the council in May 2008 considered an ordinance requiring police officers to tow uninsured vehicles. He claims he approached Leppert for his support and was asked how many other council members had committed to him. When the mayor was told he'd be the eighth and winning vote, he told Rasansky to find another one before he'd go along, just in case someone waffled at the last minute. So Rasansky convinced Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway to vote in favor of the ordinance in exchange for Rasansky's support of one of Caraway's board appointments. Sure enough, it was approved 10-5.
"I have never seen someone with his voting record. This man will not vote for something unless he's on the winning side. Maybe a true politician is like that," Rasansky says. "Does the man not vote from his heart? Does he not have a backbone?"
Rasansky describes Leppert as politically motivated, lacking a moral compass and promoting his own agenda. When asked if the mayor also promotes the interests of the Dallas Citizens Council and others who helped get him elected instead of taxpayers, Rasansky says, "Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely."
While his support of Leppert's mayoral campaign can be chalked up to getting the wool pulled over his eyes as Rasansky described, standing behind the mayor's effort to keep the Trinity River toll road inside the city's flood-control levee system continues to baffle even his closest friends. How could someone known to nitpick each and every item on the council's agenda -- often times publicly berating city staff to prove his point -- support a road project with red flags related to its safety, rising budget and negative impact on the park and amenities highlighting the Trinity River Corridor Project?
Blumer says she has not been able to understand why Rasansky opposed the 2007 referendum, suggesting that his stance was simply an extension of his support of Leppert from the mayoral race, and he might have been afraid of losing his position as chair of the Finance, Audit & Accountability Committee.
"At one point, I even stopped talking to him because I was so furious," she says. "It was so inconsistent with what he usually espoused at City Hall."
The two eventually rekindled their friendship after Rasansky's wife intervened, but Blumer, who campaigned with fellow former city council members Sandy Greyson and John Loza, former state Rep. Sam Coats and council member Angela Hunt against Leppert, Rasansky and the nearly the rest of Dallas's elected politicians, blames Rasansky for the narrow 53-47 loss at the polls on November 6, 2007.
"I just know that Mitchell's support of the project is what doomed our referendum to failure, because it was this district that passed it," she says.
Rasansky acknowledges that committee appointments are routinely used by mayors as leverage to get council members on board with their agenda. He claims Leppert never directly told him that his place on the Finance, Audit & Accountability Committee depended on his stance on the Trinity, but he says, "The biggest disappointment he had was when he had to name me chair of finance and audit."
He remembers getting a call one night while he was in Frisco from Hunt urging him to join her side, but he was looking at the project from a business perspective: an opportunity to obtain 90 percent funding for a road that aimed to alleviate downtown congestion. And he had been assured by city staff that there were in fact no red flags with the project.
"Staff told me this, and staff told me this," he says. "I asked the main questions. Is everything OK -- scientific-wise, engineering-wise? Are there any hold-ups? Do we know what it's gonna cost? Do we know where the money's coming from?"
Rasansky claims he was given all the right answers to his questions with most of the information he received coming from assistant city manager Jill Jordan and Rebecca Dugger, the city's director of the Trinity River Corridor Project. It was only after the referendum that he learned some of that information was incorrect.
"I don't know if they were lying or if they didn't know what the heck they were talking about," he says of Jordan and Dugger. When pressed about who gave him the most misleading information, Rasansky says, "Of the two engineers, I expected to get a much more factual answer from Jill Jordan."
Pat Cotton, a political consultant who has represented the last four council members in District 13 (Jerry Bartos, Blumer, Rasansky and Margolin), says Rasansky's support of the road alignment was shocking because she knew him as an excellent researcher unafraid to question recommendations from city staff.
"The staff sometimes has to say things that they may not believe or may know is not correct, but, to keep their jobs, they have to say it," she says. "And he understands that, and that's why I think historically he's always questioned the staff so carefully and so thoroughly, and this time he didn't seem to."
Cotton says Rasansky had a strong relationship with Jordan because he viewed her as a "straight shooter" that he could trust. "He didn't expect her to do anything but tell him the truth...His attitude toward her was if she said it, it was gospel."
Long before the '07 citywide vote, Rasansky supported a road alignment inside the levees, and again Jordan and Dugger were the ones allaying his fears. "How are they going to put the road inside the levees -- isn't that an absurd question? But we were told by staff that it could be done. Was I naïve? Maybe I was. I was only on the council in my third or fourth year. Should I have known by then? Maybe, but I believed them; they're engineers. Jill Jordan is an engineer. So is Rebecca."
Rasansky finally realized "Angela was right," recalling his declaration at a March 3 Trinity River Corridor Project Committee meeting this year when he said he wouldn't support any items related to the road until he knew exactly where the funding was coming from. And although in September 2008 he helped approved the $3.18 million purchase of the Delux Inn on Stemmons Freeway for the road's right-of-way, he was the lone opposition to the council's May 13 approval of paying nearly $650,000 in relocation assistance to its 46 residents.
"Why in the world would we do this?" he says. "I'm going to stop short of using the word lies, but we had not been given the truth out there. Is it because they didn't know? Is it because the people running the Trinity wanted to tell us something else? I want to use another word, but I won't. And that's what bothers me. We weren't given all the facts. We just were not given the facts."
Rasansky was asked if Leppert lied during the campaign when he made statements claiming that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had "signed off" on the project and the North Texas Tollway Authority would pay $1 billion toward the cost of the project, which were unfounded when they were issued and have proved even more so over time.
"I don't want to use those words," he says. "I don't think he got all of his facts; that's the problem. He doesn't get all of his facts."
It's best for the citizens of Dallas for him to avoid calling Leppert a liar, Rasansky says. "I don't want to call the mayor of the city of Dallas a liar -- I just don't want to do that. He needs to be more factual."
Once Rasansky changed his mind about the toll road, he went to Leppert twice and urged him to reconsider his position, especially with the recent report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rating the levees "unacceptable," resulting in a $29 million study to determine the extent of the necessary repairs. He told the mayor that perhaps the corps' report was a blessing in disguise for the future of the road, and future agenda items related to the road would be throwing money out the window.
"You know, mayor, people make mistakes," Rasansky says he told Leppert. "Sometimes your first loss is your best loss."
"No, we're going forward," he claims Leppert replied. "We're going forward."
Rasansky says this is yet another example of the mayor's "go-go-go" attitude. "It's like Admiral Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay: Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!"
With an MBA from Harvard and experience as CEO of one of the world's largest construction companies, Leppert had the potential to be one of the city's great mayors, Rasansky says. But Rasansky points to spending $42 million on land for the convention center hotel valued on the tax rolls at approximately $7 million and restricting convention center researcher Dr. Heywood Sanders from briefing the council on a $500 million public project as examples of "costly mistakes" on the mayor's résumé.
He also stresses that Leppert served on the board of directors and audit committee of Washington Mutual when it became the largest bank failure in U.S. history. Two weeks before federal regulators seized WaMu and brokered its emergency sale to JPMorgan Chase, Leppert told The Dallas Morning News: "The feeling is that there's sufficient capital and good things ahead."
Leppert has flown under the radar without enough criticism regarding his ties to WaMu, Rasansky says. "Don't forget directors of a bank can be personally liable. Maybe he has been told not to comment, and I can understand that."
And although he admits he doesn't have evidence, Rasansky claims Leppert supported Tiffinni Young, who was also supported by Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, in the District 5 council race against incumbent Vonciel Hill, who retained her seat in the May 9 election. He says it was retaliation for Hill's dissent on approving the convention center hotel project.
"He thinks everything here is Shangri-La," Rasansky says. "This is not exactly a James Hilton novel."
Rasansky says he wishes Leppert "the best" and several times stated his reluctance to "lambaste the mayor." However, when addressing rumors that the mayor could entertain a run for Kay Bailey Hutchison's vacated senate seat when she's expected to resign and run for governor, Rasansky continued to pile on the criticism.
"Maybe it would be in the best interests of Dallas if he would run for another political office and get out of Dallas," he says.
Leppert provided a stark contrast to his predecessor in Rasansky's mind, as he says Laura Miller is "far superior" to the Leppert and the two other mayors he served with -- Ron Kirk and Mary Poss. "She fought for integrity. She had Dallas at heart."
Miller shared the details of Jerry Jones's $365 million proposal to build Cowboys Stadium in Dallas with Rasansky, but she has been criticized for refusing to bring the issue in front of the full council. He says it was the "greatest decision that was ever made" because Dallas hotels and restaurants still benefit from the team playing in Arlington without Dallas taxpayers having to pay a dime for the stadium. "We don't have to pass the cup around for Jerry Jones."
And Rasansky is convinced the proposal to build the stadium in Dallas was "a sham," with Jones using it as leverage. "It was pretty obvious, in my opinion, he was never going to build it in Dallas to begin with."
He recalls agreeing with Miller more than 90 percent of the time and says they met regularly on Mondays and Tuesdays to discuss the council's upcoming agenda. Oftentimes, the two were on the losing side of 13-2 votes, but Rasansky is quick to point out that when that was the case or when he was the lone dissenter on an item, he was right and everyone else was wrong.
"Does that sound egotistical? Um, no," he says. "It's just that I know that I'm right."
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It's this stubbornness that led to several confrontations between Rasansky and city staffers during his time on the council, with recently retired assistant city manager Ramon Miguez on the receiving end of numerous tongue-lashings. While he says Miguez "couldn't exactly be a stand-up comedian," Rasansky stresses that he grew to like him as he learned more about him and realized the two were both "car nuts."
Rasansky says he tried to be more respectful of city staff in his final years on the council, and he loves and misses all of the employees at City Hall. "I apologize to them if I [berated them]. I really mean that."
Now that he's passed the District 13 torch to Ann Margolin, Rasansky will go about his daily routine of walking three miles, which he's done every day since he had gastric bypass surgery, showing up at the Galleria at 4:30 a.m. on bad weather days. He'll continue to avoid interacting with computers (he didn't have one in his council office and doesn't have one at his business office), tout his "Redberry" (a small red scheduling book that he uses instead of a Blackberry) and leave his cell phone in his car on purpose.
And while his style earned him a reputation for being somewhat of a curmudgeon on the council, Blumer says he will be remembered as a fiscal watchdog and neighborhood advocate who provided wonderful constituent services. "My neighborhood in particular thinks he just hung the moon."