Walkout a Week Ago May Force Park Board to Come Clean On Fair Park

Big Tex, patron saint of the State Fair of Texas.EXPAND
Big Tex, patron saint of the State Fair of Texas.
Kevin Brown

Let’s do what’s done at the beginning of any good negotiation. Let's see what we can agree on before we begin to bicker.

Fair Park, the 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas where the State Fair of Texas takes place every fall, occupies a warm place in our hearts; it exudes a certain down-at-the-heels modest charm that can be refreshing in a city of glitz. But it has become way too down at its heels, too shabby, standing as an eerie unoccupied desert for too much of the year when the fair is not underway.

Agreed?

We ought to be able to preserve the charm of Fair Park while pumping a bit more life into it.

Right?

The Dallas Zoo appears to be an example of a city-owned entity that has prospered since management was turned over to a private entity seven years ago. We are hopeful, meanwhile, that the Dallas Farmers Market, turned over three years ago to private management, will prosper in the same way, even though all they’ve done so far is run off all the farmers and turn the market into a generic, touristy, tee-shirt-and-fudge mall without tourists. Fingers tightly crossed on that one.

So it’s certainly possible that the ongoing effort to turn Fair Park over to a private entity could be a great thing or at least an OK thing or maybe a not totally terrible thing.

Are we together so far?

Here is where we depart from the land of kumbaya, if we were ever really there, and enter into the land of negotiation. I don’t want to say in advance that this is going to be especially contentious, but I would ask you anyway to please put on your helmets and your protective goggles.

Supposedly this week, according to plans that had not yet been finalized at the end of last week, two opposing camps on the Dallas Park and Recreation Board finally are going to be able to negotiate a long list of issues in a proposed contract that will give away Fair Park to a private foundation.

The operative term here, the one you might pay attention to, is “finally.” The park board has been under tremendous pressure to just shut up and sign the damned contract so that this can all be a done deal by September 30. The reasons why it has to be done by then seem to change from week to week.

The most recent one stated that September is when the city council begins its budget process for the year. That’s a goofy argument. The budget process goes on for months and doesn’t get down to brass tacks before the end of the year. There’s no rule that says this contract could not be taken up by the city council a few weeks after the budget process has already been rolling.

But in that spirit of agreement that we started out in, let’s simply recognize that the people who want this deal done want it done right now. That is the reality. Let’s see if we can do it.

A week ago I told you how five park board members walked out of a meeting in order to deliberately deprive the board of a quorum and force an adjournment. That meeting was supposed to have been a negotiating session. The five who wound up walking out had come to the meeting with specific issues they wanted to negotiate.

They were Paul Sims, appointed by City Council member Philip Kingston in District 14, Jesse Moreno, appointed by Adam Medrano in District 2, Barbara Barbee appointed by District 1 council member Scott Griggs, Marlon Rollins appointed by District 3 member Casey Thomas II, and Becky Rader appointed by District 9 member Mark Clayton.

Earlier that day when the five first arrived at City Hall for their negotiating session, Park Board Chairman Max Wells told them he wasn’t going to allow them to bring up any of their issues. They could only talk about things he said they could talk about.

Sims called for a vote to overrule Wells and allow open debate. The motion lost on a tie vote that left the chairman’s edict in force. The members who voted against them were the ones who wanted to just sign the mayor’s deal, be done with it and forget about negotiating.

At the end of last week when I talked to Sims, who led the walkout, he was feeling a bit stung. Various voices – The Dallas Morning News editorial page, people like that – had clucked their tongues and wagged their fingers at Sims over what they took for a display of bad manners – leaving the table before the meal was over and without permission.

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But he said to me on the phone: “I’d like to ask them what they would have done.”

Sims had come to the table that day with a list of 47 specific issues he wanted to talk about. He and the other four who walked out believed it would have been an egregious dereliction of duty – a betrayal of the public trust — to allow this contract to get signed without first hearing answers to their questions.

I have read the proposed contract, and I have read Sims’ list of issues with the contract, which I promise not to describe to you in excruciating detail. I would like, however, to give you some flavor for the issues Sims is raising.

For example, the contract says the city council must appropriate an annual management fee to be paid to the new private entity for running the park — $12.75 million the first year, $19 million the second, $23 million the third and then $23 million adjusted for inflation every year for the remainder of a potential 30-year term.

When he read the contract, Sims found that most of the new foundation’s obligations, especially the ones that have nothing to do with the State Fair of Texas, go away — disappear, vanish, poof! — if the foundation doesn’t get every penny of that management fee.

The private entity’s obligation to take care of public art like murals, statues and fountains, to fund smaller institutions on the grounds of Fair Park, to meet financial obligations associated with the Cotton Bowl stadium: All of those things, according to the contract, are “subject to the Foundation’s receipt of the full Management Fee.”

It’s what Sims calls an “every penny” provision. Either the foundation gets every penny of the fee called for in the contract, or all of those obligations under contract go away.

But one key section of the contract — the part that deals with regular maintenance and repair — drops the every-penny language about the management fee and allows instead a sliding scale. “To the extent that funding is only partially provided,” the contract says, “the Foundation shall be responsible for such maintenance and repair in proportion to the funds received from all sources.” There is no mention there of a full management fee.

Maintenance and repair is a key issue for the State Fair of Texas, which is Fair Park’s dominant client. Overshadowing all of these talks has been a misgiving on the part of skeptics that the proposed foundation is really only a false flag operation for the State Fair and that the so-called privatization is a ruse for turning Fair Park over to the fair.

Under the proposed language, every obligation of the foundation that is not state-fair-related is hostage to the full payment of the fee. If the city council fails to come across with every penny, then the foundation has no obligation to take care of the public art, subsidize the smaller institutions or keep the Cotton Bowl in business.

And by the way, to draw that noose a little tighter the contract says that smaller institutions at Fair Park will be barred from asking the city council for support on their own. So by that language if the foundation doesn’t get every penny of the management fee every year, it can cut the smaller institutions dead, and those smaller institutions will not be allowed to seek help independently from the council.

In his list of questions, Sims asks, “Why?”

But the foundation’s obligation to do regular maintenance, which is so important to the fair, is made flexible under the contract. It alone is an obligation that is rendered proportional to the amount of the fee paid each year by the city council.

One of the things Sims has suggested in his list of 47 talking points is simply leveling the playing field on all of the foundation’s obligations by making them all proportional responsibilities.

That’s what the contract does already with maintenance. The foundation is required to do maintenance only “to the extent” that it gets its annual management fee from the city council. Less fee, less maintenance. But not less fee, no maintenance.

So Sims suggests going back through and making all of those obligations – the art, the support for smaller institutions, the Cotton Bowl obligations – proportional. If the council hits a hard year and can’t pay the full fee, the foundation pays less for those other items. But it doesn’t pay nothing.

That, of course, would take those other items out of leverage as hostages to force the council to pay the full fee no matter what.

Sims does not see the proposed contract as a conspiracy or as highway robbery. He told me he sees it as what the proponents of the foundation got by hiring very good lawyers to write a draft contract for them. Those lawyers wrote a contract that inured entirely to the benefit of their client, the foundation.

But that’s what the negotiations are for. Somebody has got to negotiate for the public, Sims says, so that the public interest can be represented and balanced against the foundation’s interests.

It’s a sorry commentary that the people pushing this agreement forward aggressively have also worked to thwart that balancing process and with it the public interest.

This week’s meetings were called after the walkout had galvanized public attention (entirely vindicating the walkout, by the way). We can only hope that these new meetings will sound a more even and open note. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why the public should buy any of this.


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