City Hall

Technical Conflicts of Interest Are Not the Mayor’s Problem. It’s the Oath.

To whom does Eric Johnson's first loyalty belong — City Hall or the Locke Lord law firm?
To whom does Eric Johnson's first loyalty belong — City Hall or the Locke Lord law firm?
As you know, shortly after Eric Johnson took a job as mayor of Dallas, he took another job as an attorney with the Locke Lord law firm. He said he could do both jobs at the same time, no problem, and that he would keep a sharp eye out for any possible conflicts of interest.

Judging by yesterday’s City Council briefing, he is doing just that. When the council went into an “executive” closed-door session to hear from the city attorney about litigation matters, Johnson recused himself and did not go into the session because he said the second item on the list of matters to be considered presented him with a conflict of interest.

The matter in question was a federal lawsuit in which the city is asking a judge to sort out conflicting claims between airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration regarding gates at the city-owned Love Field Airport. In that case, American Airlines is represented by Locke Lord.

Johnson’s spokesperson told me, “Mayor Johnson has not personally been involved with the case, but wants to err on the side of transparency and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

He’s doing the right thing, even though Love Field is a pretty important city asset and a frequent political issue, so it’s too bad the mayor won’t be able to help out on that one. Just for grins, I took a look at Locke Lord’s client list to see what other entities may present the mayor with conflicts in the future.

“Mayor Johnson has not personally been involved with the case, but wants to err on the side of transparency and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.” — Tristan Hallman

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The terms of use of the service I used to hunt up Locke Lord’s clients may not allow me to reproduce the full list, and I’m not sure there’s room here anyway. But I can tell you the list is a who’s who of hundreds of banks, construction companies, civil engineers, insurance companies, energy companies, tech companies — a virtual multitude of entities that can and will come before the City Council in some guise sooner or later, all of them requiring that Johnson put himself in the timeout chair.

Then there is the question of his specialty within the firm — public finance. What that means mainly is legal questions surrounding government bond programs and bond issues.

The mayor is a smart guy and a well-trained lawyer, and he will know how to keep himself out of legal conflicts in those specific matters. But public finance also is a very small world with a few key players at the top, and it’s an inherently political world, because, well … public.

The really consequential conflicts in Johnson’s dual role will not be technical or even legal. They are more likely to involve social and business relationships than law. And it is those conflicts that point to the core question: Whose man is this anyway?

If he is the people’s man, the voters’ man, the man of the hour for the city, why isn’t that enough? Elected office is supposed to be kind of a marriage. You’re only supposed to do one of those at a time.

The issue of pay for the mayor’s job is a serious one and a problem. Right now the post pays $80,000 a year, which, to most of us, sounds pretty sweet. But the fact is that most young lawyers with résumés like Johnson’s would run in the other direction if you waved a salary like that at them.

It really isn’t enough money to attract top, well-paid talent to the post, and please don’t tell me they shouldn’t be doing it for the money. They still have to pay their bills, and people who are accustomed to getting a lot of money tend to have a lot of bills. We shouldn’t fence them out by making the mayor’s post an honorific position only for people who don’t need money.

But that’s a problem solved by us, by giving our mayor more of our money as her or his pay. Going somewhere else to get paid is a problem not of amount but loyalty.

The real issue is advocacy and the championing of a cause. Dallas has a long bleak history of moneyed elitism, of power operating behind closed doors and under the table, and the names include some of the very same people who sought Johnson out and talked him into running for mayor at the last minute in last summer’s campaign.

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This 104-year-old house in South Dallas and the lot on which it stands tripled in appraised value in one year.
Dallas Central Appraisal District
This job with the law firm just looks like more of the same, a soft sinecure set up by the kind people who can make things like that happen. If we the people are the figurative wife in this marriage, we can’t be blamed for worrying where he’s going to be spending his nights.

He read my story and immediately went to the tax rolls to see what that house is worth now. The value now is $37,000. But the family sold it recently at the old value — $15,000.

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You might ask what relevance any of this has to the real lives of real people living in the city. Let me offer you an example.

For the past week or so, I have been writing about rapidly escalating property values in old South Dallas, the neighborhood that fans out from Fair Park at a radius of about a mile. I am dealing with appraisal district values, not sales prices, so there’s a gap between what I see and what the market may be really. But I see jumps of 100% to 200% in appraised values in one or two years, and I also find lots of anecdotal evidence that the sales prices are not too far away from appraised values.

Nobody knows exactly what is driving the increases, and the theories are all over the map. While some of the increase seems to be driven by blue-collar immigrant families building organic communities, major developers also may be casting their eyes toward South Dallas, perhaps as a bridge between the Cedars district and a rejuvenated Fair Park.

The important thing is that it’s happening. The values are surging, and, in a very poor part of town where people have limited access to information, the surge has been largely unknown and invisible. Houses get plucked away one at a time by sharp buyers. People may sense something going on, but they’re not sure what it is. That’s why this is a news story for me to write about.

Yesterday I heard from a friend whose family owned a home in South Dallas for many years. He read my story and immediately went to the tax rolls to see what that house is worth now. The value now is $37,000. But the family sold it recently at the old value — $15,000.

In a neighborhood where people have been told for decades that their property is undesirable, that the values will only go down, never up, it’s counterintuitive to hear that values suddenly are doubling in a year. And much as I would love it if everybody in South Dallas could read my stuff and get the message from me, I don’t think that’s how it’s going to happen.

Someone with credibility in the community, some champion of South Dallas, some gleaming Hermes on a rooftop and with a silver trumpet needs to be telling people not to sell at the old prices. Of course, whoever is that Hermes, when he starts trumpeting, he will fly in the faces of the sharps and the development interests who want to get in there and grab the land while it’s cheap.

So who is that? Is it our mayor? Does he get up on a rooftop and warn everybody not to sell cheap? Does he make sure people get their due? Is he the agent of the people, their champion, their defender?

Or does he form a task force? That’s what he did with the violence issue. A task force is a good way for him to get out of the line of fire on a tough problem, a way not to rock the boat. He can keep the sharps and the developers off his back. The guy on the roof with a trumpet is what South Dallas needs. The guy with a task force sounds more like Locke Lord.

I think it’s a fair question. Forget the legalisms. Let’s assume that Eric Johnson and Locke Lord can figure out the legalisms. Let’s talk about the marriage. Reminds me of one of the saddest conversations I ever had with a friend, many years ago at a bar.

Moping with head slung low over a bottle of beer, he said to me, “I got an open marriage.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Just found out about it.”