The State Fair of Texas, or, as I call it, Sigma Phi Tau, has always been an exclusive, secretive, good-old-boy fraternity, but it hasn’t always been easy to catch. Thank goodness Sigma-Phi has a certain penchant for showing its … let’s say its hand … as this recent example illustrates:
Like any good fraternity, the fair likes to go by its initials, SFT, in official correspondence. Recently, a lawyer for SFT wrote to the Texas attorney general asking him to bar the University of North Texas from releasing certain documents dealing with the fair’s operations.
Specifically, the fair does not want the public to have access to its finances, its employees, attendance at the fair or where its vendors come from. This is significant because, in the last year, there were indications that the fair had been less than fully honest with the public about its finances, its employees, attendance at the fair and where the vendors come from.
Who cares, you might ask, as long the corny dogs are fresh and SFT puts on a good show? Well, it’s not quite that simple because the fair is a gigantic squatter on 277 acres of city-owned land called Fair Park. Now, the city is trying to find a better use for Fair Park than giving it over for three weeks of amusement during the fair’s annual run and then leaving it a howling void the rest of the year.
SFT argues that it represents a major benefit to the city in the form of an overall “economic impact” — a phrase that has less real meaning the more you drill into it. At any rate, the obvious suggestion by the fair has been that the city had better not mess with the fair, or its economic impact might go away, either because the fair would be weakened, or, as some of its supporters have broadly suggested in the past, SFT might pack up its tent and move to some place like Frisco.
As of last year, the fair was still pegging that economic impact at $608 million, which was supposed to be $608 million in found money, new cash for the city’s economy that would evaporate if the fair went away. But that amount began to shrink and wrinkle like a tired balloon last year when various outside entities took their own hard looks at the fair’s so-called economic impact.
Maybe the most devastating, also the most rigorous, was a study done at Baylor University that found the fair’s annual impact more in the $30 million range. Even that, the study said, might be overstated, because SFT was so extremely unwilling to release or in any way share detailed financial information, even with academics who wanted to test the fair’s assertions. Maybe especially with academics.
The fair argues that it is in no way, shape or form a public entity. Although it sits on public land and trades goods, services and money back and forth with the city in an inscrutable web of agreements, the fair has been able to argue successfully so far that it is a private outfit to which the state’s Public Information Act does not even begin to apply.
In December 2016, in an effort to defend its position, the fair entered into an agreement with a research group at UNT to gin up a new economic impact study. Apparently the UNT people demanded some actual numbers before writing their appraisal — good on them for that — and apparently the fair gave them what they wanted.
The UNT study must have been a disappointment for Sigma Phi Tau. UNT came out with an economic impact for the fair at less than half what the fair had been claiming. It was a fairly dramatic indication that City Hall should not be putting a lot of stock in anything the fair says about itself. After all, its own study made it look like a grifter.
In December 2017, Dallas lawyer Tim Perkins hit UNT with a letter invoking Texas' law on public information, demanding that UNT, a public entity, release to him the underlying information the fair had provided for the study. State law, Perkins argued, makes some underlying information gathered as research by a public entity subject to the Public Information Act.
The fair’s lawyer shot back a rebuttal, telling the attorney general why nothing should be released, and here is where we get our wonderful little window on how the fair really thinks. First, the letter tells the AG that the information Perkins is demanding should not be released because Perkins is the fair’s enemy:
“Mr. Perkins is an attorney who in the past has represented the interests of Don Williams, a frequent critic of SFT,” the letter states. “Mr. Perkins has made numerous PIA requests apparently on behalf of Mr. Williams.
“Information from those requests has been included in reports distributed by Mr. Williams and public statements made by Mr. Williams criticizing SFT’s impact on the city of Dallas’ Fair Park …”
Well, yes, sort of, not really. Williams is the retired CEO and chairman of what was then the world’s biggest real estate company, Trammell Crow. In the last 20 years since leaving Crow, Williams has been the largest and most influential philanthropist in southern Dallas, including the area around Fair Park.
He does happen to be a major critic of the fair. He has said openly and candidly that the presence of the fair as it is presently constituted and operated is a major stumbling block for the redevelopment of Fair Park and the neighborhoods around it.
Because of his international stature in the business world, Williams is not somebody the fair can brush off easily. Plus, he and Perkins have worked together on a series of Fair Park issues, and they know their stuff. They’re not just critics. They are formidable critics.
But guess what? Even if somebody is your enemy and your critic, that’s not a reason why you don’t have to release public information to him if he demands it. Public is public. It’s public to your fraternity brothers. It’s public to the pledges. It’s even public to ones who rushed your fraternity and didn’t get in. It’s just public.
The fair’s second argument is that the fair told UNT not to tell anybody what the fair had told the researchers about its finances. The lawyer’s letter contends that the fair had a contract with UNT not to release any information. The letter also tells the AG that UNT was supposed to give all the fair’s information back and failed to do so.
In the age of digital information, what does giving it back even mean? Un-know it? Scour it from the computers? Hypnotize the researchers and tell them they never knew it? The fair argues, nevertheless, that its contract with UNT trumps state law on public information:
“Information possessed only in violation of a contract or other legal duty cannot credibly be information ‘collected, assembled, or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business,’” the letter says.
So, in the first place, according to the fair’s lawyer, Perkins is a stalking horse for Williams, and Williams is the fair’s enemy. In the second place, the fair has a contract exempting it from state law on public information.
Then finally, the lawyer’s letter claims that the information Perkins is seeking is proprietary and release of it would give an unfair advantage to the fair’s “competitors.” Well, yes, no, sort of, not exactly.
The fair does have competitors, and the competition is serious, possibly even life and death for the fair. But the letter weasels around on who the real competitors are and what the competition is really all about.
The letter tries to give the AG the impression that this is all about some kind of competition within the world of sideshows and Ferris wheels, as if SFT is worried about some bunch of carnies out there finding out what the fair pays wholesale for its corny dogs. That’s a deliberate deception.
The real competition is an inherently public, very important and consequential debate about what to do with Fair Park. It’s a debate about the destiny of the impoverished and racially segregated neighborhoods around Fair Park.
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The State Fair of Texas argues that the best thing for Fair Park and for the neighborhoods is to leave the fair strictly alone because of its mammoth economic impact. Competing with that assertion are several ideas and concepts for a reborn and redeveloped Fair Park as a serious economic generator for that region of the city. A key element in those competing ideas is the assertion that the fair had been dishonest about its economic value to the city.
These are not private matters. These are not things to be determined by secret handshakes and initiation rites. This is a debate about the fundamental public interest of the city in using an important and valuable public asset to help create a better community and better life for its citizens.
I’m not a lawyer. You could tell, right? And I’m not an expert on fairs. I actually love going to the state fair, and I love corny dogs. But I do know language. I think I have pretty decent radar for words and tone.
Every syllable and note in this letter that the fair sent to the Texas attorney general express a very particular kind of arrogance and exclusivity. In all of it, no word is dirtier than “public.” That’s just how the outside world looks to you, I guess, when you’re a loyal Sig-Phi-Tau.