Thumb Job

Rosemont at Laurelland, a subsidized housing project, straddles the line between two plan commissioner districts. Both commissioners wanted the developer to pay court to them.

The origins of the ongoing scandal at Dallas City Hall are in a well-intended bill passed two years ago. This bill is a great example: They pass laws in Austin, and it's like two guys kicking a bomb out of an airplane with their feet. They crawl over on all fours to the open bay, and while they watch it tumble away they're both thinking, "Man, I hope that dude goes where it's supposed to."

It didn't.

SB 264 was supposed to protect communities that already had too many subsidized apartment developments. The new law said the state couldn't put new affordable housing projects in communities where there was already a glut unless local elected representatives gave their OK.

But when the new law hit the ground in Dallas, it had the opposite effect. District 8 council member James Fantroy (far south and southeast Dallas) had opposed subsidized housing in his district, but he turned on a dime when Senate Bill 264 put him in the driver's seat. Fantroy actively sought more subsidized apartments, but only after a subsidized apartment developer hired Fantroy's security guard company to patrol apartment complexes outside the city of Dallas.

Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill (District 5 in mid-southern Dallas) was another big drum-beater against apartments and in favor of single-family residential development. But Hill turned, too, and sought more subsidized apartments after a developer gave a cement contract to a woman Hill had recommended.

It remains to be seen whether any of this will add up to the kind of tit-for-tat (no pun intended) needed for federal indictments. But what anybody can see is that the new law reinforced an old tradition--the South Dallas Toll.

First rule: The toll is a creature not of single-member council districts per se but of the single-member district privilege. The privilege is the informal rule, honored by all on the council, that a council member is the unquestioned king or queen on zoning issues that physically touch only that member's district. If I represent District X and I go thumbs-up on an apartment project, then the privilege says everybody else on the council has to go thumbs-up on it, too. If I go thumbs-down, everybody else goes thumbs-down. That makes me the boss.

You're the developer? You want $17 million in state funding for your project? Talk to me. While you talk, watch my thumb.

Rule 2: Zoning requests start with the Dallas City Plan Commission. The plan commission is appointed by the city council. It is a single-member district body as well. I represent District X. I appoint a plan commissioner for District X. You start with my plan commissioner.

Rule 3: You need to meet my plan commissioner in private.

No, no, don't just go down to the city plan commission meeting and start blabbing. Plan commission meetings are public. No, you need to come by, hat in hand, in private. And talk to my commissioner. And watch my commissioner's thumb.

Well, you're talking now about all the social-service programs you're going to provide. My commissioner's thumb ain't movin'.

Oh, now you're talking about how there's a lot of opportunity for new women and minority entrepreneurs in the cement-contracting needs of the project. Thumb's wavin' like Old Glory! Kind of jerking back over the shoulder toward that photo on the wall, which must be of a very lovely cement contractor.

You finally got your thumbs in a row!

Fortunately for us public, the practitioners of the secret art of City Hall Thumbcraft are not clever enough to keep their thumbs from view. Once in a while, the thumbs show, as they did during the April 14, 2005, public hearing of the Dallas City Plan Commission.

Southwest Housing Development, one of the entities recently searched and subpoenaed by the FBI, was before the plan commission seeking a minor amendment--a tweak, a fix, something on the legal punch list--for a project called Rosemont at Laurelland on Camp Wisdom Road just east of Interstate 35.

Plan Commissioner D'Angelo Lee, appointed by Don Hill in District 5, was thumbs-upping the amendment all the way. Fine developer, that Brian Potashnik; terrific project. Ten thumbs up!

But plan commissioner Carol Brandon, appointed by Fantroy in District 8, was sitting on her thumbs. She was way thumbs-down.

Now, long after this meeting, we have learned a few things, haven't we? This is the same project reported on last June by Robert Riggs, Todd Bensman and Jack Fink at Channel 11: They said Lee had collected a $5,000 fee from the Urban League of Greater Dallas for persuading Potashnik to hire the League as principal social-services provider for Rosemont at Laurelland.

That had to be a thumbs-up moment. And, in passing, I'd like to mention a certain satisfaction in noting that even the Urban League has to pay the toll. I think if Mother Teresa had moved to South Dallas, she would have had to dig in her purse, too. In fact, she might have needed a South Dallas toll tag.  

Of course, one reason Lee is now the subject of a major FBI probe probably involves the fact that he didn't tell anybody on the plan commission he was getting five G's out of his thumb on this one.

And then on the other side of this debate, I think we have to note the fact that Councilman Fantroy, who appointed plan commissioner Brandon, had acquired his security guard contracts from Potashnik's chief rival and former partner, Bill Fisher, whom I call "Radio Free Fisher" for his apparent habit of wearing an FBI wire during important conversations lately. (I tried to talk to all of these folks for this story. No response.)

So the Fantroy/Brandon team had been able to do some thumb business with Radio Free Fisher. But, as far as we know, their thumbs had won them squat from Potashnik. Potashnik, meanwhile, had been involved in significant thumbery with D'Angelo Lee.

On Rosemont at Laurelland, Potashnik already had his deal. He had his basic zoning. He had city council support for the state tax breaks. In fact, a week before the hearing he had been funded by city of Dallas Housing Finance Corporation bonds to the tune of $17.7 million.

Potashnik also happened to have a sound reputation in terms of the basic quality of the many developments he had done in Dallas. Yeah, there's some thumbiness about him: cement contracts, a political consultant to Don Hill who worked for Potashnik, state representatives living in his apartments and so on. But what we don't know yet is whether he has paper to cover all that.

Maybe in Potashnik's files there are bids, leases, contracts to cover it. Then he could be OK, even if the thumbers are not. He gets leaned on. But maybe he covers himself. Time will tell.

Anyway, the interesting thing about the Rosemont at Laurelland development is that it exactly straddles the line between District 5 (D'Angelo Lee) and District 8 (Carol Brandon).

Potashnik had met with Lee, obviously. But he refused to meet with Brandon. And why should he? He had already paid once. What could Brandon possibly offer him except another expensive thumb job?

Brandon was furious. At the April 14 public hearing, she begged the plan commission not to grant the minor tweak Potashnik needed to proceed with his project. Lee, on the other hand, told the commission that he personally had everything under control and wanted the commission to grant Potashnik this final approval right away.

Lee really got under Brandon's skin when he offered to help her meet Potashnik after completion of the deal. "I told her that I would seek to implement any kind of interference to make that happen...I will make sure of that."

Brandon fumed. She said, "I don't need another commissioner negotiating for me. I don't need another commissioner saying that 'I can set it up.' I don't need another commissioner being pretentious and saying, 'They will meet with her,' when that's not true.

"They refused to meet with me. And I represent an entire council district in the southern sector that has the most open land for development in the city of Dallas, District 8. So therefore of course developers have no problem meeting with me.

"But for some reason, I want you all to understand, for some reason I am being excluded. Lies are being told. The whole nine yards. And I don't want to get into the middle of this. Because you know, we have ex parte contacts, all of that going on today, over this one little case. And all I want to do is hold it under advisement."

Brandon turned to Lee and said, "I don't want you to set up anything for me, commissioner. Not anything! Not anything!"

Think about it. This basically is a done deal. The project is already designed, approved, funded. D'Angelo Lee already has his $5,000 undeclared fee, and who knows what else has been extracted. Potashnik has paid the toll.

Why would he meet with Brandon? Why should he meet with her? What could she bring to the meeting, other than her thumb? But a series of commissioners made rousing speeches in Brandon's defense. In defense of the privilege.

Ilene Perkett (District 12, Nosebleed North Dallas) said: "I do understand what Mr. Lee has said, that there still would be an opportunity for the vice chair to ask questions. I just don't like doing it in that order...  

"I don't see why we don't give our colleague the benefit of the doubt regardless of the outcome. The fact that the developer has not been willing apparently to talk with Ms. Brandon troubles me."

And then the commission voted to hold up the project and force Potashnik to meet with Brandon. In private. Hat in hand.

It's got to be torture. Even through the thick concrete walls of City Hall, you can almost hear the wails.

"Oh, no, Ms. Brandon! Please! Not the thumb!"

That's what's going on. That's what this is all about.

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