DART's Allegedly Public Board Meetings Are Locked Down Like Guantanamo

If you're looking for popcorn-worthy fireworks at a public transit-related public meeting, your best bet is to watch the Dallas City Council decide who should represent the city on the DART board, an exercise that invariably descends, as so many other discussions at City Hall do, into a bitter racial skirmish. The DART board meetings themselves, by contrast, tend to be eye-gougingly boring, filled with arcane discussions of insurance policies and widget contracts.

But the DART board is important, controlling almost a half-billion dollars in local sales tax money and setting policies that will shape Dallas and the region for decades to come. If Joe Q. Taxpayer wants a say in how that happens, he's welcome to stop by and drop his two cents.

He's technically welcome, that is. If he actually makes the trek to DART's headquarters at 1401 Pacific, chances are he won't feel very welcome.

Partly because I had some time to kill before picking my 2-year-old up from his downtown preschool, partly because I was curious about DART's efforts to woo the exurbs, and partly because I'd never actually been to a DART meeting, I showed up on Tuesday afternoon to watch the DART board's planning committee in action.

I made it in without being subjected to a cavity search. But just barely.

The first challenge was finding the meeting. The agenda said it was on the first floor, but wandering around the lobby, there was no indication there was any sort of public gathering happening. I asked the security guard at the main desk and she gave me a cool shrug. If there was a meeting, it would probably be in there she said, nodding to a nondescript door tucked into an unobtrusive recess that was guarded by a metal detector and elderly rent-a-cop at a folding table.

The rent-a-cop also shrugged when I asked about the board meeting. There was some sort of meeting happening behind the door, but he didn't know what kind of meeting it was. Spotting Dallas Morning News transportation reporter Brandon Formby's name on the sign-in sheet just above the blank on the sign-in sheet the guard made me sign, I decided I was probably in the right place.

The clueless security personnel and the sign-in sheet didn't bother me. Neither did the security guy poking around in my backpack or making me walk through the metal detector. Probably a layer or two more than is completely necessary, but not that unreasonable. Better safe then sorry.

It started to feel a bit stupid when the guy pulled out a security wand and waved it around me, examining my clothes for ... lunch stains? loose threads? ... with what looked like a black light at the wand's tip. It started to feel really stupid when, as I was finally about to reach the hallowed door, the first security guard called out sternly that I wasn't allowed to take my backpack inside.

A word about my backpack. Because I ride DART and thus don't have a car to stow my stuff in, it's basically an appendage, slung over my shoulder pretty much constantly. This has never been much of a issue. I've carried it into Dallas City Council meetings. I've carried it into courtrooms. I've carried it into an interview with the police chief. It's filled mostly by the children's picture books I read to my kid on the train, with pens and notepads and a handheld bike pump in a jumble at the bottom. The only way its contents could be considered remotely dangerous is if the goldfish debris had been in there long enough to become a biohazard.

My protests were shot down: the backpack stayed outside. I might have considered, as a small act of civil disobedience, rushing inside with my backpack on, but DART has apparently thought of this. The door to the board meetings is electronically locked, accessible only by special key card or through the benevolence of the first security guard.

The escalation of the security protocol -- from routine dental visit to cross-country Greyhound trip to flight to North Korea -- was rapid and absurd, but whatever. I was in, sitting quietly on the back row listening to DART CEO Gary Thomas drone on about courting Allen.

At least I thought I was in until, roughly 30 seconds after settling into my seat, I noticed a uniformed DART cop giving me the once over. She asked if I'd come in through the lobby. I gave her a blank look. As opposed to the air conditioning vents, which seemed the only other possible point of entry? Yes, I'd come through the lobby. Why, then, had I not been given a visitor badge?

I muttered something not terribly polite (DART something, something Guantanamo something, something Gestapo) as she beckoned me out of the room, but I was visited by an image of the "Real cops, real consequences" DART plasters inside its trains, so I decided not to push it. The first security guard was benevolent enough to bestow upon me a visitor badge and to unlock the door on my third tug.

As I settled back into my chair, I puzzled over why DART would be so paranoid about security. Who else but DART vendors and maybe an occasional civic-minded masochist would bother to show up? In the unlikely event that some terrorist and/or nutcase were to target DART, surely they'd blow up a train or attack a bus driver, not sneak into a snoozer of a committee meeting.

It dawned on me later when, after stepping out of the meeting room filled with the besuited business types who comprise the DART board, my path to the lobby water fountain was blocked by a large homeless man noisily gulping down water. DART, I decided, doesn't lock down its board meetings because of security threats. It locks down its board meetings to keep out DART people, those dregs of society who can't afford a car and tend to congregate around train stations and bus stops. Take out the intimidating layers of security, and they might start showing up.

As an aside, the DART board next meets at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the agency's headquarters. Here's how to get there. Be sure to bring your backpacks.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.