The Ride, Stupid

The Dallas City Council voted last week to protect the man on the plan commission who refuses to say who gives him the luxury cars he drives.

The issue here is that the cars may be bribes.

Your stellar city council danced all around the town about it. Everybody was a law professor. Oh, they had to be sure this was all done according to Hoyle, and they wanted to be certain the man wasn't deprived of "due process." They said they didn't want to act "on the basis of media reports."

Listen. There's no Hoyle handbook on this. There are no rules by which people get to act flagrantly corrupt in public and then demand to be appointed to sensitive boards and commissions where integrity and trust count for everything.

And by the way, there's no "due process" either. This isn't court. This is the courthouse square.

Last month everybody in town saw the FBI searching the expensive luxury automobiles driven by Dallas Plan Commission member D'Angelo Lee and the man who appointed him, city council member Don Hill. Everybody knows the FBI is looking at Lee, Hill, council members James Fantroy, Leo Chaney and Maxine Thornton-Reese and two more plan commission members in an investigation of influence-peddling and bribery.

Forget about whether the FBI is on the right trail. Forget the FBI. The FBI is irrelevant. Those guys, Lee and Hill, won't say where they got the cars.

Where did they get the cars? The cars, the cars, the cars.

For days after the cars were searched, radio and TV and newspaper reporters--to say nothing of everybody else on the council--tried to find out where Lee and Hill got the cars.

It's not a "media report" that they refuse to say where they got the cars. It's a fact. Ask 'em.

Lee's term on the plan commission is up. He hasn't even troubled himself to reapply for his position properly. Of course, that would involve filling out paperwork--something he and Hill generally eschew. If the council leaves him on the plan commission anyway, he becomes a "holdover"--a screwy special status by which he can remain there without ever going through the formal approval process.

Mayor Laura Miller introduced a motion to remove Lee from the city plan commission. Council member Ed Oakley made a big impassioned speech about how it wasn't fair and introduced a motion to put the whole thing off. Council member Bill Blaydes sided with him.

You know, Blaydes is a real estate agent involved in controversial transactions for the school district. Oakley's in the bar business. There's nothing wrong with either of those occupations on the surface, but when these guys start getting all anxious about protecting the rights of people like Hill and Lee, who won't say where they get their cars, you have to wonder. Are Oakley and Blaydes afraid this integrity stuff is a dog that might come back to bite them?

When Councilman Hill was asked whose car he's been driving, he gave some answer about, "I have earned the right to drive this car."

Think of it in Old West terms. Stranger rides into Deadwood on a tall white horse. Sheriff says, "That's a fine animal you're riding, sir. Where'd you get him?"

Stranger says, "I cannot answer that question, but I have earned the right to ride this horse."

Sheriff shoots the guy.

You should have heard Oakley. He said anyone who thought Lee had done something wrong should "file a sworn complaint under penalty of perjury with the city secretary."

See, it's your job. If you think the council's dirty, then you need to hire a lawyer and risk a perjury prosecution and go downtown and devote the next six months of your life to the bizarre kangaroo court the council has established as its ethics commission but which I refer to as the Dallas City Ethics Complaint Toilet.

What's the hold-up?

Hey. Do me a favor. See if you can follow Oakley's explanation of his defense of Lee:

"My vote here is a reflection of what I believe my ethics are," Oakley said at the council briefing last week. "If I had a plan commissioner who was causing me a problem and I felt like I needed to remove him, I would ask him to leave. If Mr. Hill believes in his plan commissioner, it is a direct, it is a reflection of, our appointees are a reflection of--Mr. Hill, Mr. Griffith and I have had this conversation about this issue--it is his appointee who represents all of us in the city of Dallas. You're absolutely right. But if someone has an issue with any of the parties that I mentioned, then an ethics complaint should be filed with the ethics commission in the next three weeks.  

"If not, then I guess due process will continue."

Sheriff turns to dead stranger's little buddy on a brown horse. "Where'd you boys get the horses?"

Little buddy says, "If I had a problem with my horse, then I would get off and walk. But if my friend believes, or I believe, because I have discussed this with Lefty and Clinch and Deaf, and Lefty is a reflection of his horse as are we all, therefore, but you're absolutely right. Due process."

Sheriff shoots little buddy.

This isn't about due process. Screw due process. This is about integrity. Think of it in terms of the private sector. You're the president of the local small-town savings and loan, and your son-in-law gets arrested late Sunday night out behind the Western Auto doing meth in a brand-new Escalade.

You're not thinking "due process." You're thinking "run on the bank." You run down to the café as fast as you can and run to the round table at the back where all the powers-that-be drink their Monday morning coffee and you start talking as fast as you can about how that son of a bitch has never been behind the counter at your S&L and you never loaned him a dime for nothin' and everybody's welcome to come scour the books.

That's why Miller moved to get rid of Lee. To stop the run. Public confidence in City Hall is already sagging, and her unsuccessful attempt to get rid of Lee will cause the political equivalent of a run on the bank.

Now let's do the racial math. The FBI investigation into fraud and corruption has expanded. Its shadow now falls on all four of the African-American city council members and two black members of the city plan commission. Even black people who are not connected with City Hall tend to be troubled by the specter of a law enforcement action aimed at black officials only.

I do not question their skepticism. But I do offer these observations: The FBI investigation seems to be centered on, if not strictly limited to, the political process by which apartment developers are able to get city council approval for tax credits worth millions of up-front dollars. The particular projects under the microscope are all in black council districts, in large part because the council representatives of those districts sought or supported them. So the pattern is geographic.

The four council members in question--Don Hill, Maxine Thornton-Reese, Leo Chaney and James Fantroy--came on the council more or less together in the late '90s and have always operated as a team, a "class" on the council, originally calling themselves "the black caucus."

So here's the deal: In football, the quarterback can't win the game and the tight end loses. They all handled these tax credits the same way, kind of like a machine. If the FBI or the Justice Department has decided there was something bogus about it, then it's bogus for the whole team.

This team of four, with the exception of Fantroy, is the new face of the old, very conservative element of black leadership in Dallas that goes back to the late Reverend S.M. Wright. Fantroy made his own money, and he walks his own walk. But the rest of them are old-time accommodationists. The bitter irony in their many references to the Civil Rights Movement last week is that this is the element within black Dallas that fought against the movement.

Specifically, these are the people who stood with conservative white leaders in defense of the old white-dominated at-large city council system and in opposition to the single-member system now in place.

You'll never understand these people--you will never get a single word they say--until you know the rules. By their rules, a liberal is a white guy who gives you money. A racist is a white guy who doesn't give you money.

Does that mean black people in Dallas are corrupt beggars? Oh my, in order to believe that you would have to be house-bound and blind. You certainly couldn't have read the terrific series of articles The Dallas Morning News published recently on successful African-American families and the housing boom they are helping fuel in the Dallas suburbs.

There are things about Dallasites that don't go by race, and one of them is that folks here are just not movement types. Black, white or Latino. This is a place where people are very individualistic, family-centered and materialistic. Here, the most important opportunities and motivations tend to be economic. Huge numbers of ambitious black people have gone where a lot of ambitious whites and Latinos have--up and out to the more affluent suburbs.  

But here in the city, we are left with people who live in the past--black leaders in Southern Dallas and white business people like the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce. As far as they're concerned, the banjos are a-strummin' and the honeybees a-buzzin'. It's still sleepy time down in the grove, and everybody's happy.

Except the FBI.

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