The Fair Park Plan is Dead! Long Live the Fair Park Plan

The battle for Fair Park is the story of the city right now. It’s a window on what the old leadership doesn’t get, but it also offers us glimpses of a smarter future.

And that’s all before we even get started on fixing Fair Park, our sadly decaying 277-acre art deco exposition park in the center of the city. The debate isn’t about whether to turn it over to some kind of private management. It’s how and who.

Last week’s word from the new city attorney, tossing out the mayor’s already baked deal and forcing open the whole process to the light of day, was a dramatic victory for the New Dallas in general but also for a specific set of people, only a few of whom can I name here.

Last July 21 five members of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board walked out of a meeting that was already sparsely attended. Their defection was enough to deprive the board of a quorum and prevent board chair Max Wells from ramming through the mayor’s buddy-pal deal without debate. It was a brave and effective act of disobedience, and, even though weeks later the full board swallowed the mayor’s deal, the walkout called down the lightning that led eventually to this week’s better moment.

The walkers were, in alphabetical order, Barbara Barbee, Jesse Moreno, Becky Rader, Marlon Rollins and Paul Sims. I know from talking to some of them that walking out wasn’t easy, wasn’t fun, didn’t make them feel cool, didn’t attract the kind of personal attention any of them especially desired, but it had to be done. It took courage, and they deserve credit.

Many more people deserve medals of distinction pinned to their chests for this outcome, six of whom are City Council members Mark Clayton, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Adam McGough, Adam Medrano and Casey Thomas II who asked tough questions and refused to be railroaded. More on Kingston in particular in a moment.

Of all the brave, smart private citizens who trudged up to microphones in public meetings, sometimes to endure withering disdain from members of the park board and the board of the State Fair of Texas, none deserves the no-good-deed medal more than philanthropist Don Williams.

The greatest compliment I saw paid to anybody in this whole campaign was the dotty-seeming refusal of park board chairman Max Wells to allow Williams to speak longer than three minutes on a topic to which the mayor’s guy, Walt Humann, already had devoted what felt like an entire geological era of speaking time. I figured if Wells was that afraid of what Williams had to tell the park board, it had to be good.

And it was. The best thing about what Williams had to say was that he didn’t tell the park board what to do with Fair Park. Instead he pleaded with them to do the one thing always so difficult for the old guard in Dallas — just look, listen and think. Look outside.

Look beyond our borders to what other cities have done. Ask ourselves if somebody else has attacked a similar problem with success and may have a good idea.

I happened to be on the phone the other day with a guy who lives in San Diego but does business here, and somehow Fair Park came up. He started going on and on about Balboa Park in his city, an old exposition park with a history directly parallel to Fair Park.

I asked him if he takes friends or visitors to Balboa Park. “Friends, relatives, visitors, anybody,” he said. “All the time. We have business dinners out there for our company.” He said just driving to Balboa Park is fun because the shopping and restaurants along the way are so cool.

Williams has been asking the park board and the mayor for a year to look at Balboa Park and a handful of great parks he personally has investigated around the country and world, along with their systems of governance and management and the local political processes and histories that brought them to their current success.

Williams has met an absolute brick wall, a hands-over-ears, hands-over-mouth refusal on the part of the old guard to hear or talk about anything outside Dallas. From what I saw at public meetings, a lot of that red-faced stubbornness comes straight from the board of trustees of the State Fair of Texas, who comprise Fair Park’s historical anchor tenant.

They are convinced that any alteration of the status quo is a direct threat to the fair. And, sure, if you like what you have now and can’t grasp a single new idea, then I guess all new ideas are threats.

But, look, this comes from a guy, me, who absolutely loves the state fair and believes it endures so wonderfully in our midst today only through an alchemy of devout commitment and carnie voodoo. The fair needs to guard its prerogatives and its roots. But no man-made thing, no social convention or enterprise that is perfectly rigid can stand against the seas of time.

The fair must change in order to stay the same. In order to pull that off, the fair has got to open itself up to new ideas from far and wide.

Fair Park, the fair’s home, must do the same. That’s why this new ruling from the city attorney is so crucial. By throwing the management of Fair Park open to a fair and legal, open and competitive bidding process, this ruling gives Fair Park and the fair their only realistic shots at surviving and thriving.

The mayor’s defense of his deal with retired oil executive Humann is typical and illustrative of everything that is wrong – everything – with the way the old guard in Dallas does business. In a lame attempt to put a brave face on the new city attorney’s opinion knocking down his own Fair Park proposal, the mayor said he had only wanted to give Fair Park to Humann in the first place because Humann was the only person who had expressed interest.
Expressed interest where? Over lunch at the Dallas Country Club? You don’t know who’s interested until you ask, and for a 277-acre richly historical public asset, you ask publicly. In fact there’s a law about that. In fact how could you not know there’s a law about that? And in fact that brings us to Kingston.

Like Councilman Griggs, like former council member Angela Hunt, Kingston is a lawyer, and sometimes that really helps. Kingston told me he read the original authorizing document for the Humann deal and noticed that it cited a state law that it said authorized the deal. So Kingston, lawyer that he is, read the law.

Guess what? It didn’t authorize the Humann deal. In fact the state law cited in the document made the Human deal illegal, because the Humann deal was struck without first officially publishing a request for proposals. That’s how you find out if anybody wants to propose. You ask. Not at the Dallas Country Club.

When Kingston first brought his reading of the law to the attention of the City Attorney’s Office, the office was in a leaderless state of transition, the former city attorney having recently disembarked, leaving the office under the command of an interim staff person. Rather than agree with Kingston and deep-six the mayor’s plan, the interim person came up with an opinion defending the mayor’s plan with arguments that I’m sure everyone now would like to quietly forget.

Frankly, I was reminded of another interim regime in local politics when the former district attorney was absent from office while receiving protracted inpatient mental health treatment. Her supporters kept saying her assistant could handle the job while she was out. People on the other side were saying, “Sure, unless it’s something hard.”

This new opinion from our new city attorney, Larry Casto, was something hard. He did try to offer some face-saving to his colleague who had written the forgettable one. In his opinion, Casto said it was now necessary to put the deal out for proposals because other people have come forward recently to propose. There’s an obvious cart-before-horse issue there, but let’s just be grateful he got it right eventually.

Here is a final thought or caution, however: One of the stories I am hearing out there now is that the proponents of the mayor’s deal have a new strategy for making sure this comes back to Walt Humann one way or the other. By this arrangement, rather than handling the proposal process according to the city’s normal procurement process, the City Council itself would draft the request for proposals and then score the proposals as they come in.

The obvious mischief there is that the council, in the interest of humanity, could draft a request for proposals limited to applicants whose names include the word “human.” Ahem.

So let me just point something out about that. The federal government has devoted incalculable resources and five years of investigative and legal effort to putting current Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price into the pen for exactly that – putting his thumb on the scale to steer public contracts.

I assume that if Commissioner Price ever did try to steer a county contract to somebody, a thing yet to be proven in court, it was probably to someone he knew and liked and trusted and respected and all of those other warm and fuzzy things.

I do see a significant difference between Price trying to steer a contract to a friend and the mayor doing it. Price, as we know, is a black man. The mayor, as we know, is a white man. Otherwise I’m damned if I see daylight.

So maybe the mayor and the council might think about this for a change: How about doing it straight? Are honesty and the law just totally off the table?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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