On Wednesday, we watched together as the Dallas City Council sort of, kind of, attempted to ask City Manager Mary Suhm and City Attorney Tom Perkins a couple of questions. Namely: Why did Suhm quietly sign a side deal with energy company Trinity East, pledging to help it drill on parkland even as several council decisions concluded that park-drilling was not kosher? And how did a tract of land that the City Council didn't approve end up in the lease signed with Trinity East?
It's more accurate to say that councilfolk Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt asked those questions. The other council members made it clear that they didn't believe anything untoward had occurred, and that they weren't much interested in discussing the matter any further. While Mayor Mike Rawlings allowed that "this whole process should have been clearer," he said he doesn't believe that the new revelations "fundamentally" change anything. Several council members accused Griggs and Hunt of "pandering" to the press and "character assassination" of Suhm. One of them even compared the city manager to Jesus, for some reason.
So where does that leave the two anti-drilling council members? From here on out, will their work environment be tremendously awkward, or merely super awkward?
"This wasn't a 'run' at Mary Suhm," Scott Griggs told me by phone late yesterday, objecting to my word choice. "It's not a witch-hunt at all. We have a duty to look at what went wrong. And if individual positions went wrong, then we have to put the checks and balances in place so this doesn't happen again."
Regardless of how it happened, Griggs said, "We ended up with a lease signed with property that wasn't in the briefing materials, drill sites that weren't in the briefing materials, and park drilling took a 180. That shows a systemic failure." But as a council, he added, "We weren't up to the challenge of asking ourselves and our other officers -- because Mary and Tom are considered officers of the city -- the tough questions."
Griggs said, too, that while he wasn't necessarily surprised at how the briefing went, he was grateful that it happened in public.
"I think it was important for the public to see that. I'm very thankful that occurred in the public. It shows the dynamic of the council and how we address issues, particularly ones driven by principles." What happened Wednesday, he added, "is that the effort to get to the facts, get to the truth, and have transparent and open government went off the rails."
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"Certainly our checks and balances failed," Griggs said. What's more, "We weren't able to have an honest discussion about what went wrong and why and what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future."
So what happens now?
"We haven't lost," Griggs told us. "We're in a democracy. And the electorate chooses their council members every two years. And it's so important to have transparency and for the public to understand how things work and what people's positions are." He added that the council still needs to make a decision on new rules for drilling on city land. "That shouldn't get delayed. And the other discussion that we need to have is the parkland discussion." In the meantime, he said, "The public needs to keep doing what they're doing, raising the profile of this issue and speaking out."
It's solid advice: think of this whole debacle as an incredibly depressing civics lesson. In most other cities, people might be hard-pressed to say what exactly a city manager does. Here, at least, we know she runs the show.