A Lesson: One Guy Slapped, Another Rewarded for Dallas Park Board Debate

Jesse Moreno at the future Buckner ParkEXPAND
Jesse Moreno at the future Buckner Park
Jim Schutze
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Dallas City Council Member Scott Griggs said ruefully to me yesterday, “There are two things in Dallas you’re not allowed to ask about — the Trinity toll road and the State Fair of Texas.”

Here’s what happens if you do.

As Peter Simek reported in D Magazine earlier this week,  Richard Knight, Jr., a former city manager of Dallas, is father to Marcus Knight, the current mayor of suburban Lancaster. Knight the father, who was a major contractor on the city-financed Omni Hotel, is also chairman of the board and chairman of the executive committee of the State Fair of Texas.

One of Knight the son’s top executive employees in Lancaster is Sean Johnson, director of that suburb’s park department. Sean Johnson also serves on the Dallas Park Board, an unpaid voluntary position.

Last week Dallas Park Board Vice Chairman Jesse Moreno attempted to open up a park board meeting to allow members to put questions about the finances of State Fair of Texas to state fair CEO Mitchell Glieber. Glieber fled the room.

Board member Johnson, the employee of the state fair chairman’s son, loudly and repeatedly castigated board members who had attempted to question the fair, shouting, “Learn your role.” He said they had embarrassed him by trying to ask Glieber questions about the fair’s finances, even though those questions are at the heart of efforts by the Dallas Park Department to find a private entity to run Fair Park, the state fair’s rented home.

This week following a city council vote, Moreno is now out as vice chair of the park board (though still a general member) and Johnson has been awarded that post.

The city council members who voted to oust Moreno and give the post to Johnson instead were Mayor Mike Rawlings, Erik Wilson, Casey Thomas, Carolyn King Arnold, Rickey Callahan, Tiffini Young, Lee Kleinman and Jennifer Gates. The members who voted unsuccessfully to keep Moreno in his post were Monica Alonzo, Scott Griggs, Adam Medrano, Mark Clayton, Adam McGough, Sandy Greyson and Philip Kingston.

I did attempt to reach Johnson. He sent me an email telling me I wasn’t allowed to contact him at his city of Lancaster office. I emailed him at the address he gave me to ask two questions: “Do you feel Jesse Moreno was not reinstated in this position and it was given to you instead because of your role in protecting State Fair of Texas officials from being subjected to open questioning by park board members? Do you feel that your serving under Mayor Knight, son of the chairman of the board of the State Fair of Texas, is a conflict that should require you to recuse yourself from issues related to the fair?”

Have not heard back.

I went to meet Moreno at his business, a popular East Dallas eatery, but, as I knew would be the case, I was unable to get him to say anything negative about the park board, the city council or Johnson. Instead he took me three blocks to a brand-new community park, still under construction, that he has helped steer into existence.

When it is completed with trails, tennis courts, a pavilion and picnic areas, Buckner Park, a cooperative effort between the school district and Dallas Park and Recreation, will be the first true community park for an entire swath of old East Dallas from Peaks Addition to the Swiss Avenue Historic District.

My wife has accused me of not revealing my own conflict of interest here, which she says I suffer because she and I have known Moreno since he was a kid at Woodrow Wilson High School with our own son. I argued with her on this point. I said I have known everybody in Dallas since they were kids because I am the oldest living human being in Dallas and if I went through all of the begets and begats on everybody I write about I wouldn’t have space to write anything else.

But, OK. I have known Jesse Junior, as he is known in East Dallas, now 31 and married, since he was a kid. I know his father, Jesse Senior, who as a volunteer single-handedly put together a city and school district joint venture to turn a scabby needle park across from Woodrow into a beautiful softball, soccer and tennis facility.

I do not know Sean Johnson personally, so I can only judge him on the basis of his public role as a park board member.

While Jesse Junior and I walked Buckner Park, I asked him if he is still in contact with Woodrow. He said he is, and he told me that the culture of the school has evolved wonderfully. The gulf that existed when he and my son were there between white families from the affluent Lakewood neighborhood and poor and working-class minority families has been greatly softened and ameliorated.

The white parents active in Woodrow now, he said, are younger and very different from their predecessors. They are passionately committed to outreach, diversity and fairness, which makes for a very different school culture.

This is what I remembered as he and I walked the future Buckner Park: You couldn’t really get anything negative out of his old man, either, in spite of the ferocious battles Jesse Senior had to fight to get that park done across from Woodrow. It was always going to work out. Everybody meant well. People just misunderstood each other sometimes. Everything would turn out right in the end.

His son has that same determined optimism and staid dignity. He called the post of vice chairman “ceremonial.” He sent Johnson a congratulatory email. He said he will continue to ask tough questions on the board. He’s still going to get things like Buckner Park done.

Park board member Sean Johnson
Park board member Sean Johnson

People under a certain age in this city are making such a huge difference. They don’t merely have some kind of tolerance for each other across ethnic and class lines. They actively like each other, find each other interesting, recognize each other’s dignity. Mutual affinity and respect allow them to get the dirt flying on things like Buckner Park.

It’s infuriating to see them get slapped down when they challenge the old order. Remember that the old guard brought fake criminal charges against Council Member Griggs when he asked too many questions. The old guys tend to be really hardcore jugular when they think somebody might mess with their deals. What Moreno got was an early warning slap.

It won’t work. Younger people in the city like Moreno keep smiling and walking, doing stuff anyway, getting things done. Rubber bones I guess — the sheer satisfaction of seeing a new park born. Wonder where they get it.

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