Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings loves task forces. During five years in office he has created specialized committees both large (Rawlings’ domestic violence task force boasts more than 40 members) and small (the obscure senior citizen’s task force, chaired by Councilwoman Monica Alonzo, which we have to assume has some members, though it's hard to say.)
It can be argued that Rawlings owes his political career to the task force, since it was his stint on Mayor Laura Miller’s homelessness committee that led to his appointment as the city's homeless czar. He parlayed that into the presidency of the city’s Park & Recreation Board, which preceded his successful 2011 mayoral run.
Task forces are standard tools in the public official's tool box, ones that can be used to intelligently and transparently shape policy, as when the City Council formed a transportation-for-hire task force to rewrite taxi regulations. But they can also be used to punt an issue just far enough down the road for it to fade from public consciousness.
On the big, city-shaping issues — the Trinity toll road, Fair Park, education — Rawlings has shown a marked preference for moving substantive discussions behind closed doors. This has happened so often during Rawlings' tenure that it gives the distinct impression that the mayor doesn't believe that democracy — at least the brand practiced at City Hall — is capable of solving the city's problems. Here are a few examples of how these entities are replacing local democracy.
November 22, 2013 was a big day for Dallas, when the city was reluctantly thrust back onto the national stage as the world paused to remember what happened to President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza 50 years earlier.
Rawlings prepared for the day in the most Dallas way possible. He let it be known that the commemoration would be referred to simply as "The 50th" and appointed a steering committee, which is a classier-sounding synonym for task force. The Dallas Morning News praised this move as "broad-based," but, stocked as it was with blue bloods like philanthropist Ruth Altshuler and former Mayor Ron Kirk, it more closely resembled a Preston Hollow charity luncheon. Those with potentially heterodox views on how the event should be handled weren't invited. The Coalition on Political Assassination's John Judge asked to join the discussions but was firmly rebuffed.
The result was an intricately stage-managed, self-consciously somber event capped by a well-received speech from Rawlings. It was all very tasteful and played well on the national stage, but that was only because dissenting voices were pushed out of earshot and everyone pretended that the messiness that has defined the debate over the Kennedy assassination for the past century just didn't exist. All in all, it felt like a missed opportunity to grapple with Kennedy's death and the city's indelible association with it.
Rawlings has spoken frequently and passionately about the need to improve education in Dallas. He went so far as to blame the state of DISD for Toyota's decision to place its headquarters in Plano rather than Dallas.
And so, when then-DISD trustee Mike Morath, with backing from Houston billionaire and Hillcrest High School graduate John Arnold, began pushing a long-shot proposal to overhaul the district's governance by placing it under a "home-rule" charter, Rawlings lent his enthusiastic support.
For a variety of reasons, the task force (er....commission) appointed to write the charter never got around to doing so, but Rawlings was adamant that the overhaul needed to be radical. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News' editorial board, he described DISD's performance as "a disaster." While he correctly pinpointed the wholesale abandonment of the district by the middle class as DISD's fundamental problem, he also declared that, given the district's woeful statistics, "everybody should be fired that had anything to do with it and we'd hire a whole new company — that's the way we'd do it in the private sector."
Rawlings' argument is that an elected school board, which necessarily embodies all the deep-seated geographic and racial tensions that define the city, is fundamentally incapable of successfully running the public education system. As Bob Weiss, the chair of the home-rule committee, opined at the close of the process, home-rule threatened to undermine people's democratic rights.
Fair Park, the 300 acres of art deco buildings, parking lots, a Ferris wheel, and, oh yeah, parking lots two miles southeast of downtown has long vexed Dallas leaders. It's so under-utilized, such a drag on the historically marginalized neighborhoods of South Dallas, that there's widespread and long-standing agreement that something needs to be done to fix it. To that end, Rawlings appointed a task force to dream up potential solutions.
The Fair Park group was about as undemocratic as a task force can be. Its members were hand-picked by Rawlings and, just like the committee behind The 50th, represented a thin sliver of the civic and philanthropic elite. Observer columnist Jim Schutze gave a rundown of its membership:
The people the mayor chose to sit on the task force obviously were types he thought could figure it out, and I have to say I think he chose brilliantly: Linda Perryman Evans, longtime benefactor of Fair Park as president and CEO of the $690 million Meadows Foundation; former City Council members Craig Holcomb (East Dallas neighborhood type, 1983-'89), Diane Ragsdale (South Dallas civil rights activist, 1984-'93), Max Wells (North Dallas, "The Money," 1988-'97) and Alan Walne (North Dallas, "Even More Money," 1996-2003); former (some say still invisible) City Manager Mary Suhm; Mark Langdale (hotel developer, real estate lawyer, big W buddy); developer Jack Matthews (The Omni Hotel, now the Statler-Hilton, and he's a Canadian, go figure); and Jose Bowen (dean of the Meadows School for the Arts at SMU, sacrificial innocent person who turned out to be smart).
The task force met privately. Only when it had already produced a plan did the public get a chance to provide input.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plan which the closed-door, elite-dominated task force dreamed up called for Fair Park to be handed over to a private foundation. Rawlings' pick to lead the private foundation was Walt Humann, former CEO of Hunt Oil with a long history of philanthropy, civic involvement, and membership in the Dallas elite. Because clearly democracy hasn't worked.
The Dream Team Why are Dallas' power brokers so insistent on building an enormous tolled expressway that won't ease traffic, will flood, and has no readily identifiable purpose, all at a time when seemingly every other big city has coalesced around the common-sense idea that inner-city highways are harmful? It's incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't spent the past two decades immersed in city politics, and no doubt to many who have, but that's neither here nor there. The important thing to remember is that Dallas wants the toll road built very badly.
Many strategies have been deployed over the years to convince citizens that they, too, want a toll road. There have been pretty watercolors. There have been misleading political campaigns. It's been pitched as a matter of racial justice.
When Trinity Parkway opponents appeared to be gaining momentum a couple of years back, Rawlings' strategy, naturally, was to create a task force. A "Dream Team," he called it, comprised of a dozen nationally prominent architects and planners, all of them inclined to think a high-speed freeway would destroy the world-class park Dallas planned to build next to it.
Again, the Dream Team hammered out its recommendations behind closed doors, then presented them and gathered feedback from citizens at a charrette, as urban planners like to call their public meetings. The Dream Team's proposal, which called for a low-speed park access road rather than a highway, seemed to be at odds with what official Dallas had been lobbying for for two decades.
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There was, of course, a catch. While basically everyone agreed in public that the scaled-back plans looked wonderful and harmonious with the park, officials pointedly left open the possibility — which, given the single-mindedness with which the toll road has been pursued over the past two decades, seems more like a guarantee — that a much larger, faster road could still be built.
Poverty, Housing and the North-South Divide In 2014, City Hall began work on what would become Neighborhood Plus, which was designed to be a comprehensive plan for reducing the city's disastrous poverty level and closing the yawning gaps in economic development and quality of life between the northern and southern halves of the city. The plan that emerged was vague and toothless, neutered not long after its inception thanks to reduced pressure from the federal government and internal power struggles at City Hall.
It didn't have to be that way. Rawlings, had he made it a priority, could have made Neighborhood Plus something more than ink on paper.
But Rawlings' energies were focused elsewhere. Simultaneous to Neighborhood Plus's development, Rawlings' own, hand-picked poverty task force was beginning its work. Further confusing matters was Rawlings' launch of Neighbor Up, a "collective impact nonprofit" (i.e. private) affiliated with his GrowSouth initiative and focused on boosting three pockets of southern Dallas. The result has been general confusion.