Robert Abtahi, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the District 14 City Council seat in East Dallas last time around, had an interesting essay last week on the opinion pages of The Dallas Morning News. He castigated critics of City Hall, whom he lumped together as a new and burgeoning alliance of conspiracy mongers:
"Some of the new complainers are current and former elected officials," he wrote, "some are media types, and all spend more time whining than doing their part."
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But from the mouths of people who have rallied against City Hall over the last year on an array of issues, I really have not heard what I would call a true conspiracy theory. I do hear great frustration with a central bureaucracy that seems too unaccountable, too careless about the way it does business with taxpayer dollars, too clever in playing council members against each other and way too quick to circle the wagons when they get caught. But calling that a conspiracy would almost give it too much credit. Maybe it's more of a culture.
On the other hand, Abtahi makes a sound point in saying the recent selection of a new city manager ought to provide us with a fresh starting point. In fact "change" and "transparency" were the two words most frequently invoked at the City Council vote that made A.C. Gonzalez city manager — repeated like twin mantras by both Gonzalez himself and the council members who voted unanimously to give him the job.
Great words. Great ideas. Now let's see if there is going to be any reality behind them. Here is a list of six opportunities for the new city manager to demonstrate that real change lies ahead. I would hope he might choose just one of them — only one — as an opening to demonstrate this new culture of change and transparency.
The first is the ongoing, seemingly never-ending spectacle of Yellow Cab and its undue influence on the bureaucracy. If anything, all of the city's taxicab regulations could be lumped under the title "Yellow Cab Monopoly Preservation Ordinance."
Why is Yellow so strangely exempt from the very ordinances it has lobbied for that are so onerous for competitors? Everybody else has to buy expensive insurance? Not Yellow. Yellow's direct assertions of its own good behavior seem to melt away at the first ray of daylight. Yellow owner Jack Bewley droned on before a recent City Council meeting about what great insurance Yellow has now, after they got caught without it, and what a good job they're doing serving poor neighborhoods now all of a sudden for a change.
"We also conduct regular inspections and driver background checks," he told the council.
Not 48 hours after Bewley spoke those words to the council, Amy Silverstein had a story on our Unfair Park blog (see page 6) quoting sworn court testimony by a Yellow employee who admitted under questioning that the company doesn't pull driver histories for the people it hires, doesn't drug test them, won't fire them once hired until they have a third at-fault accident in a 12-month period and apparently just doesn't care how many speeding tickets they get.
The Yellow Cab question should be very close to the new city manager's heart, since he, as an assistant city manager, was the person who got caught helping a Yellow Cab lawyer rewrite local cab ordinances yet again, this time to run the smartphone-based ride service Uber out of town.
Uber came up at a press conference Gonzalez did in the flag room outside council chambers right after his inauguration. I attended. Somebody asked Gonzalez about Uber and cab regulations. He said that was all being handled by a council committee. Stop, end of statement.
I said, "But the question with Uber was really your dealing with Yellow Cab before the council was aware of the process. Is that something that's an area of change? In other words, do you see change as to when the city staff deals with outside interests before the council knows what's going on?"
He answered: "As to that particular incident representing a learning experience for me and since it was so public for the organization, yes, I do believe that we are going to be changing with regards to that."
Oh, good. So next time he does something under the table for Yellow, it won't be so public? Ah, but let's not be like that. Let's assume instead that the new city manager is sincerely dedicated to change and transparency. In fact, let's help the man out by providing opportunities for him to demonstrate his resolve.
As my own part, I'm going to just tick down this list I have compiled and think about what the new city manager could do to convince us real change is ahead at City Hall with true transparency on difficult issues.
First, Mr. Manager, Yellow: People aren't really worried about insurance and the background checks so much as the impression that Yellow Cab has you by the balls. Why not prove them wrong? Why don't you convene some kind of hearings process by which all of Yellow Cab's competitors could come to City Hall and tell everything they know about how City Hall screws them over to help Yellow maintain its monopoly? Talk about transparency, you couldn't get more transparent than that.
Second, the "white-water feature." Two and a half years ago the city spent $4 million building a fake concrete rapids in the Trinity River as a recreational amenity for kayakers. It was so ill-conceived and badly executed that it had to be closed to kayakers and canoeists as soon as it was completed for fear they might kill themselves paddling through it. But nothing has been done to fix it.
I went down there a week ago, and there it sat, a big ugly blob of concrete that ruins the paddling entryway into the Great Trinity Forest. I asked Willis Winters, the new head of parks, what's being done. He referred my question to a lawyer, from whom I have not heard.
Why not just say? What are you going to do about the white-water feature? It would be so wonderfully transparent of you and such a change for you just to talk openly about it instead of waiting for me to die in hopes nobody else will bring it up again. By the way, I feel great.
Third, the car wash. Mr. Manager, your people sent the owners of Jim's Car Wash on Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard a letter threatening them with eminent domain for some unnamed "project." Later the mayor apologized, said it was all his fault and no eminent domain is imminent. But he said the city is continuing to look for other ways to run the car wash off its property. He referred specifically to a former City Council member, now the paid head of a housing nonprofit, and to city plans to "improve" MLK as an entryway to Fair Park.
So what's up with that? What's the project? What's the plan? We can all see something is going on. Somebody wants that car wash property for something. Why not just tell us?
Fourth: no sewers for the neighborhood around the new University of North Texas at Dallas campus. Just explain it for us. At your press conference the day you got the job, you were all about "Grow South," the city's initiative to spur economic development in southern Dallas.
There could be no better opportunity for you to accomplish that laudable goal than the area near this new gleaming college campus. Yet in spite of the fact that you've got the bond authorization already to do it and even though the city has promised repeatedly to bring basic sewer service to this benighted area, you keep not doing it.
People in that part of town believe you are engaged in a conspiracy to get their land at cheap prices, then later install the basic infrastructure that will increase values. Is that true? If not, wouldn't the decent thing be to tell them what is true? The best way to refute a conspiracy theory is to say what's really going on.
Fifth, "Veterans Place." A developer says he spent $4.3 million of city money buying a city block of land across Lancaster Road from the Veterans Affairs hospital for a grand multi-use development that never happened. Your staff assured the council this deal was copacetic, but an impressive coalition of council members at a recent housing committee meeting banded together to say the appraisals the developer presented to document his purchases did not pass the smell test.
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So how's your own sniffer on this one? What about a hearing on it, rather than one of your customary PowerPoint presentations?
Lastly, the HUD complaint making Dallas the largest 21st century American city ever accused by the federal government of practicing deliberate racial segregation by policy and, dare I say it, by conspiracy. I asked you about this one, too, at your press conference, and you rather huffily referred me to the city's letter of response, which said whatever Dallas did, HUD was in on it, too.
Yeah, but what about the racial segregation? Why 10 years ago when the city got serious about downtown redevelopment did City Hall change policies on affordable housing and start cramming all of it into already segregated neighborhoods in southern Dallas? The data show that after two decades of steadily diminishing racial segregation, that change of policy began pushing segregation back up. Forget HUD. Just tell us about the segregation.
You're a big boy, Mr. Manager. You've been around. Surely you know that change — real change — and real transparency can't be accomplished without breaking some eggs. Show us what you've got.