Mayor's Fair Park Deal a Lock But Won't Resolve Questions on State Fair of Texas

Settle down. Sit back. Face it. The mayor’s plan to give a private group virtual ownership of Fair Park, a 277-acre exposition park at the heart of the city, is a done deal. He’s got the votes.

The count I heard yesterday was 10 in favor. That leaves five dissenters. Mayor Mike Rawlings would rather have a marriage of love and unanimity on this, but he’ll settle for a ring.

So what is there to talk about? Well, everything. A vote to do the mayor’s deal will settle nothing at all about the core issue driving all of this in the first place — the State Fair of Texas.

Fair Park, site of the 1936 Texas Centennial exposition, is not much changed since then except for decay. But it is home to the annual three-week run of the State Fair of Texas, and all of this has been about that from the beginning.

The fair is Fair Park’s anchor tenant. None of the myriad unanswered questions about the fair will be resolved or made magically to go away just because the mayor talks the council into turning Fair Park over to a private do-good group.

The State Fair of Texas is the Great Mystery of Dallas, in ways both bad and good. Somewhere between the auto show and the swine barn, between Big Tex and fried Jell-O, the fair manages to conjure every fall the strange ghosts of salesmanship and grit that were the city’s spiritual and cultural parents in the first place. And maybe because those forces are semi-mystical, the fair must be allowed to operate behind a certain hokey shroud, passing on board memberships like family heirlooms and engaging in secret handshakes, whatever.

But Fair Park, even after it gets turned over to the mayor’s friends, will continue to be 277 acres of real estate owned by the public. The public will continue to subsidize it at $20 million or so a year and at least $125 million in public bond money in the near future, according to the deal.

Like it or not, call it what you may, do whatever you like to dress it up organizationally, Fair Park will still be a public asset, and its principal purpose and activity will still be hosting the fair. The fair’s contract will be with the new private entity under the deal, and that brings us to the bad part of the State Fair mystery.

Because the fair is privately owned and run, because it is old and proud, the fair angrily resists any and all attempts to make it publicly accountable. A state district judge ruled last year that the fair’s acceptance of public support makes it subject to the state’s open records laws and fined it for resisting a set of open records requests. Rather than acquiesce, the fair is appealing that decision.

It’s not an academic question. When Dallas city auditor Craig Kinton audited the fair’s contract with the city this year, his staff found that the contract was so loosely written, so full of air, forgiveness and wink-nudges that the city could have no good way to know what it was owed by the fair or whether it had been paid.

For example, the contract provides that the fair will spend all its profits fixing up Fair Park. Or does it provide that?

The language in the contract says the fair shall “expend the excess of its revenues less its expenses and after all reasonable and prudent reserves are funded on major maintenance and capital expenditures, which State Fair agrees to use for the development and enhancement of Fair Park and the Fair, using as a reference guide the mutually agreed upon Long Range Plan.”

But Kinton’s audit found it was up to the fair to state its own revenues and expenses, to decide how much was prudent to hold back for reserves, to decide which maintenance projects were for the benefit of Fair Park and which were for its own benefit and to know how, why and if it was doing anything according to some mutually agreed upon long-range plan.
When the mayor’s turn-over plan was before the Park and Recreation Board (which eventually passed it), dissident members of the board asked chairman Max Wells to get them answers to all of those questions. He never did.

I asked the fair yesterday for an audit or accounting of all excess revenue in calendar years 2003-2015; amounts spent on the long-range master plan, cultural facilities or community outreach; a schedule of maintenance and capital expenditures in the same years; documentation of approval by the city of the fair’s purchases of land around Fair Park; and audited verification of revenues and expenses reported annually by the fair.

They're working on a response,  and obviously one day is not enough time for such a long question.  But I won't hold my breath. 

The reason I’m not holding my breath is that my request copied the same things the dissident members of the park board asked for and never got. And what they asked for and never got is what's in that open records lawsuit that the fair apparently is prepared to fight all the way to the Supreme Court.

I don’t know what the fair’s extreme penchant for secrecy tells us. The knee-jerk response is that they must have something to hide. Maybe.

Or they may just have their heads screwed on wrong and believe that all of that fraternity-house hocus-pocus about their traditions and roots means they should get to keep their money a secret, too. You know, a lot happens in this world just because people are sort of crazy.

Crazy or not, the fair sits on public land. Its ownership and management are intimately interwoven with the stewardship of a major public asset. As the judge said in the open records suit, the fair is not truly or totally private. It has a public element.

The people who want answers to these money questions about the fair are not going to shrivel up and blow away. The mayor may manage to heap quilts of privacy over the basic bed of public interest on which the fair rests, but that won’t make the public interest go away.

By batting away all of these questions and refusing to answer them during the turnover process, I think the mayor and the people pushing the turnover have made it clear that they intend to protect the fair from scrutiny once the turnover is done. And I think it’s just as clear that they are launched on a fool’s errand.

Lately the brouhaha I am hearing from some of the skeptics includes a suggestion that there could even be criminal exposure in continued concealment. I have no idea if that idea holds water. I mention it here only as an illustration to show that continued concealment will only sharpen the will of those who want answers.

Fair Park is going to be turned over to the private group the mayor favors. That group, by the way, has been all over the map about whether they will or will not deign to be subject to Texas public records and meetings laws.

None of that makes any difference. If the new private entity takes up the shield and devotes itself to deflecting public attention from the fair, then that fight is going to be 99.9 percent of what they do until they give up and disband.