Morning News Bagged Its Man on the Park Board, Fair, Square and Bloody

Marlon Rollins was kicked off the Dallas Park and Recreation Board.
Marlon Rollins was kicked off the Dallas Park and Recreation Board.
People who watch this stuff closely for a living were not surprised at the end of last week when The Dallas Morning News got Marlon Rollins kicked off the Dallas park board. For one thing, it was a fair shoot. He was vulnerable. For another, it was inevitable because Rollins had pissed off The Dallas Morning News.

That’s how it goes. Get the city’s only daily newspaper good and mad at you, you'd better be bulletproof. Rollins wasn’t.

District 3 City Council member Casey Thomas II appointed Rollins, a successful contractor and real estate investor,  to the Dallas Park and Recreation Board at the beginning of 2015. The first time I ran into Rollins, 43, was in September 2016, when he questioned a contract that parks director Willis Winters wanted to enter into with a foundation established and named for Robert Decherd, the recent former CEO of the company that owns the Morning News.

Decherd now is a philanthropist working to create a network of new parks downtown. He had a plan for a park called Pacific Park Plaza at the far east end of downtown, but another group also had a plan for that park.

Winters, the park director, would not allow the competing plan for Pacific Park Plaza to go before the park board. Don’t even ask me why a departmental director who is a hired hand can block access to the political appointees who are supposed to have oversight of his department.

I tried and failed to reach Rollins yesterday. A friend of his told me that Rollins has his head down and doesn’t especially feel like talking to reporters this week. I understand.

The competing group for Pacific Park Plaza went to Mayor Mike Rawlings and said it should at least be able to present a proposal to the park board. Rawlings agreed and sent a message to Winters.

Instead of allowing the competing proposal to go before the board, however, Winters sends the whole package to Decherd’s outfit. The Decherd group churns out a detailed analysis of the competing proposal that is very negative. So before the park board gets a peek at the competing proposal, it receives this big knock-down analysis from the Decherd group warning the board it's no good.

Because I’m writing about it, I begin to get calls from some little birds — birds who thought I might want to know that a person involved in the competing proposal had some legal problems in another state. So we’ve had the shovel brigade out there, digging for dirt.

Rollins spoke out. He said it was wrong to give the park to the Decherd group without at least providing equal time to the other group. I didn’t hear him say anything at the time about the other plan being better. He just thought it wasn’t fair to shut them out. He thought it was dirty.

More recently, Rollins was active and at some key points a leader in efforts by a minority of the park board to stop the city from allowing a hand-picked group, also associated with the old oligarchy, to take over Fair Park. Fair Park is the beleaguered 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas where the State Fair of Texas takes place once a year.

Never mind that the minority opposed to an insider giveaway turned out to be correct legally. One of the first acts of Dallas' new city attorney, Larry Casto, was to rule that City Hall could not simply give away a 277-acre taxpayer asset without competitive bidding. You and I might wonder how anyone could have failed to know that anyway.

click to enlarge Jesse Moreno is a member of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board. - JIM SCHUTZE
Jesse Moreno is a member of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board.
Jim Schutze
Several months ago, the members of the small cabal who resisted the Fair Park giveaway became aware that somebody, not necessarily a Morning News reporter, was looking into where they lived. The outcome of those investigations was that several park board members may live in districts other than the ones they represent on the board. It’s a technical foul. As leverage to get somebody off the board, the residency rule was neutralized by the fact that the same net had swept up board members on both sides of the Fair Park giveaway.

On Nov. 1, Morning News reporter Tristan Hallman began searching for the names of water department account holders at several properties in Dallas and in nearby suburbs associated with Rollins’ company. Hallman also searched voting records in surrounding counties.

On Nov. 19, the Morning News published a story under Hallman’s byline with the headline, “Arlington voting record exposes questions about Dallas Park Board member's residency.” Hallman is a very good reporter. The story was flawless. In it, Rollins gave some answers that sounded transparently evasive. He clearly moved around among various houses he owns in and out of the city, and at some point he voted in the wrong county.

This should have been better than Dallas board members merely living in the wrong council districts. This was a member living in the wrong city. The paper’s editorial board followed the story quickly with a high-dudgeon denunciation under the headline, “What part of voting laws does this Dallas Park Board member not understand?”

Indeed. But there was a problem. Rollins remained on the park board. I could have told you that. Even for elected officials — Rollins is only appointive — residency stories are nothing-burgers, even living in the wrong municipality. Maybe somebody should enforce those laws, but no one does. Hey, tell Texas 32nd District Rep. Pete Sessions he’s supposed to live in Texas, not Florida. He’s going to flip you the bird from the deck of his bonefish boat.

So what to do? Last week, the Morning News went to the Dallas city secretary with evidence that Rollins had two felony convictions in his past, one for robbery 26 years ago and one for forgery 25 years ago. When he joined the park board in 2015, Rollins certified in paperwork that he had no felony convictions.

The city's charter says that a person may not serve on an appointive city board if he has been convicted of two or more felony offenses. Upon seeing the Morning News’ evidence, the city secretary ruled Rollins was in violation of the charter, effectively kicking him off the board.

The paper dug up the facts. The facts went against Rollins. It got him. If this were deer hunting, it would have had a right to strap him over the front fender and drive home, drinking whisky the whole way. Well, if not the right, the tendency.

The paper dug up the facts. The facts went against Rollins. It got him. If this were deer hunting, it would have had a right to strap him over the front fender and drive home, drinking whisky the whole way.

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But you can’t blame me for wondering about the allocation of resources. As a longtime observer of City Hall, I can’t help questioning how a hardworking beat reporter like Hallman even gets the time to sleuth out something like this — a rap sheet from another county with offenses from a generation ago.

Oh, I do so love social media. It’s all right there, isn’t it, whatever you may wonder. Happily for me, Hallman provided the answer to my question in response to a tweet from someone who had wondered the same thing:

“I found a 1993 story in the DMN archives mentioning his conviction,” Hallman wrote to his tweeter. “I looked it up online, drove to Fort Worth, paid $5 and in 10 mins they gave me his criminal history.”

Brilliant! Just happened to be perusing those fascinating 1993 archives, and it leapt out at him: “FUTURE DALLAS PARK BOARD MEMBER NABBED IN ROBBERY.”

Nah. Sorry. That’s not a story from real life. It fails to answer the question: Why were you perusing the 1993 archives for stories about Marlon Rollins? Is Marlon Rollins your hobby?

Friends of Rollins have given me his side of those convictions. I won’t repeat those exculpatory versions here because I didn’t get them from him personally. I am not suggesting that he was not guilty. I would point out that he was 17 and 18 years old when those things happened. He is now a successful businessman, respected enough in his community to win a prestigious city appointment, now taken away.

Park board member Jesse Moreno put it this way to me yesterday: “He has been the guy who was going to overcome and show everyone who told him he wasn’t going to amount to anything. It’s the typical stereotype, right? African-American, had a conviction when he was 18 years old. Their life is now ruined. They’re not going to be able to be productive citizens.

“He took that, and he ran with it. He said, ‘You know what? I am going to be better. I am not going to let this define me. I am going to overcome this.’

“And that’s what he’s trying to do for others, for other minorities, so that they will not let one mistake define who they are for the rest of their lives.”

I can tell you this much. All of the other members of the small group on the park board who have questioned the old guard and The Dallas Morning News on Pacific Park and Fair Park have been scoured as intensely as Rollins was in the search for vulnerabilities. Somebody has been scanning the archives for them, too. I am sure of that.

But they didn’t have red flags. Rollins did, so he took the bullet. That’s how it works. I’ve always said: We reporters are not the press. We work for the press. Don’t piss the press off.