City Hall

Hah. Castro Did Come to Town and Semi-Undercover. So I'm Not Totally Nuts.

So. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro did come to Dallas City Hall yesterday on what I can only call a secret mission, and I will explain why I call it that in a minute.

HUD never would tell me what he talked about, but the mayor’s office told me Castro met separately with the mayor to discuss “the city’s progress on the VCA” — a reference to the voluntary compliance agreement that came out of the Lockey and Mackenzie litigation charging Dallas with seeking to increase racial segregation.

Speaking for the mayor, Scott Goldstein also told me that, “the secretary challenged the mayor to push for new affordable housing projects throughout the city.” That sounds bland enough, but it also homes in very close to issues that have been discussed as part of a potential new settlement with developers Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie.

Lockey and MacKenzie have accused the city of killing their downtown tower redevelopment deal six years ago because apartments in their building would have been racially integrated.

Castro made his under-the-radar visit here at a moment when HUD is up against a deadline for production of documents and other disclosures in a lawsuit brought by MacKenzie. HUD is asking a federal judge to set back the headline for discovery by 60 days because the father of one of the HUD lawyers working on the case died a month ago.

A fairly hilarious two-step has been going on since late last week when I learned Castro was coming to town. Both HUD and the mayor’s office sought to avoid confirming to me that he was coming, then refused to say why his meeting with city officials was not announced and was closed to the press.

First, HUD told me they couldn’t confirm or deny travel by the secretary more than 24 hours in advance for security reasons. But 30 seconds of Googling gave me an example of Castro’s travel being announced at least a week in advance for a recent speech in New Orleans.

Monday when I knew for sure he was coming to town within 24 hours, I asked General Deputy Assistant for Public Affairs Jereon Brown again to confirm the visit. I heard nothing. Tuesday when I got a call saying that “motorcade-type vehicles are pulling into the garage,” I asked Brown why the visit had never been announced.

Brown said by email: “The Secretary’s public schedule, with public events, is normally advised (released to the media i.e., AP Daybook). Our interpretation of a public event is ‘open to the public or media.’”

I asked him why this meeting was “unannounced and closed to the press.” He said, “When we receive invites, they normally state if they are open to the public or limited to a certain group. Similarly, event invites normally note if the event is open [to] media, if there is a Q&A session or media op. There’s not much more to it than that.”

Oh. So in other words, Dallas invited him, and Dallas told him the meeting should be closed to the press. I forwarded that to Goldstein in the mayor’s office, whose only response was, “Who at HUD sent you that?”

Never heard back from Goldstein again on that one, but I did catch sight of an email Goldstein sent to a bunch of people several days ago asking them to attend the meeting. In it, Goldstein said, “Per HUD, this event is closed press.”

OK, never mind, that’s just me, the ink-stained wretch, catching some people (not Goldstein) lying to me about why the meeting was closed, and who cares? Not you, right? You probably figure people should lie to reporters, because reporters are assholes. And I’m not sure I could argue the point.

Much more interesting: What fiendishly secret things went on in that meeting that made it worthwhile for a cabinet secretary to fly here unannounced and go into a closed-door meeting with the mayor and a bunch of local housing officials and activists? Well, as it happens, even though I was shut out of the meeting and not supposed to even know about it, I contrived to be sort of a fly on the wall in that meeting, and I actually do know what they talked about. Every bit of it.

How? Oh, I can’t reveal that. First of all, you just called me an asshole. Secondly, a fellow has to have his secrets. You may or may not remember that a year ago I spent a good deal of time prowling all around City Hall looking for the secret hiding place of recently retired City Manager Mary Suhm, whom I suspected of having some kind of Hunchback of Notre Dame-style niche or hideaway up in the attic of the building, which I was determined to find.

Let us just say that, although I never found Ms. Suhm’s secret lair, I did find niches and lairs. I can safely tell you that the people at City Hall never know when I might be close by and all ears upon them.

They talked about squat in the meeting with Castro. Blah-blah-blah generic plain vanilla stuff about the need for supportive housing for homeless veterans. Some woman — I couldn’t see her from where I was but I think it was MaryAnn Russ, CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority — told Castro it’s hard to build public housing in nice neighborhoods because the land costs a lot.  I didn’t catch Castro’s response, because that was when the blood started really rushing to my head, and I got a terrible Charley horse in one leg.

Let me tell you: that was a dummy meeting. Fake. Not what he was here for. Not a single word said in that meeting needed to be secret. In fact not a single word even needed to be said. He didn’t announce anything new. For all the information he conveyed, he could have sent an intern. There wasn’t even any kumbaya. It was weird.

All right, when I told you Monday he was coming, I said there was a possibility that, “I really am an ink-stained wretch cobbling together a self-important fantasy in which my utterly irrelevant natterings are at the center of the universe.” And I’m going to stick with that.

But I was right that he was coming. HUD never announced his trip, even within their own 24-hour security rule. Somebody — I vote for HUD — tried hard to keep the meeting closed to reporters and unreported, then dissembled (I vote for HUD again) about why.

The meeting Castro did attend with local officials and activists was so strangely devoid of any direct message or narrative as to resemble the works of the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett.

So, within those parameters, here are my natterings: This was about Lockey and MacKenzie. Something big is about to shake loose there. It will have something to do with much more low-income housing in affluent neighborhoods. HUD must have summoned Dallas to Washington first, and Dallas must have told HUD to stuff it and come here.

And for the real mission to be carried out by the secretary himself — not even an assistant deputy major-general brevet-deputy under Secretary but the Secretary himself — that tells me either HUD or Castro personally is in a sweat over something serious and needs to get it resolved right now.

Stay tuned. And remember, City Hall people: I am always with you.