Next year, when it’s time for Dallas voters to choose a new mayor, the good old boys, the inside slicks and the Dallas Citizens Council will do whatever they can to frame the race the way they always have: Their candidate will be the fiscally sound, conservative but very nice business, family and church candidate. Whoever runs against him or her will be the hippie.
But the opposition is going to have a very strong chance at overcoming those fibs and defeating the old oligarchy next year. The city is younger. People are fed up. Dallas is looking for the right kind of change.
Now is when we need to begin teasing apart the old story — looking for the tricks and dodges. You can see it if you look. There was a little skirmish at the Dallas City Council on Wednesday that provided a clear window.
Council members Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston took machetes to a sleazy insider deal. The city was giving away half of a city airport in southern Dallas to a former city employee. Kingston and Griggs tore into the deal for four main reasons:
First, the deal was deliberately structured to evade and violate state law — always a bad start.
Second, the deal was set up to deliver millions of dollars in public subsidy to a group of City Hall insiders who had certain valuable knowledge that the public didn’t have.
Third, the whole thing was devised to avoid a fair and square public bidding process. There was no bidding. The insiders just got the deal.
But last — and this is really most important in terms of where the city is headed — the deal gives away a valuable public asset in southern Dallas that could have been and should have been exploited and maximized to bring employment and development to the city’s neglected southern hemisphere.
In a hair’s breadth 8-7 vote, the council ignored Kingston and Griggs and approved the deal anyway, with the mayor and the black council members voting in favor, defeating the so-called progressives led by Griggs and Kingston. And I will explain “so-called” in a second. It’s about the word, progressive, being used as a pejorative by the old political patronage interests.
Let’s make sure we see the larger profile here. The arguments that Kingston and Griggs brought to bear against the airport deal were business and fiscal arguments — a dodgy legal structure, fake underwriting, absurd undervaluing of the land in favor of the former city employee who is the developer, ducking out of a bidding process and then treating millions of dollars in public funds as Monopoly money.
Their businesslike objections to the deal were not the old-fashioned, stodgy cover stories that racist so-called conservatives have always used as camouflage for discrimination. Kingston and Griggs were fighting for the economic development of southern Dallas, the city’s most benighted, forgotten and economically abused realm. They simply believe that sound business practices and transparency provide the best path forward for economic development.
For their efforts, the pair were roundly denounced as racists by the black council members, some of whom had helped craft the insider giveaway. The black council members were joined in voting, as they almost always are, by their co-conspirators in the old white oligarchy, who offered bumbling, half-joking excuses for going along with the deal.
“It sounds like a fumble-rooski to score a touchdown,” said Mayor Mike Rawlings, who voted for the deal.
The point here is that the symbiosis between the old southern Dallas elected leadership and the old white North Dallas leadership is anything but conservative or businesslike. As a group, they’re all just bandits. Both sides of that unseemly coalition use the language of race as camouflage for rip-offs.
The other side, the so-called progressives, are serious about social justice, but they also come from a truly responsible place where public money is concerned. They’re the ones who want to count it. They think being transparent about the public’s money — using it as wisely and as penny-pinchingly as possible — is the best way the city can enable important civic outcomes leading to true social justice.
Kingston presented a detailed analysis of the deal showing that the city is turning over land at city-owned Executive Airport, formerly Redbird Airport in southwest Dallas, at such a low value that the city effectively is paying the developer to take the land off the city’s hands rather than charging a market price for it. Kingston said the deal had to be restructured after the city attorney ruled that the original version violated a state law that forbids cities from giving away public assets.
“I do believe that this is part of a mindset that Mr. Griggs identified, where people assume that southern and western Dallas are made up of worthless parcels of land," Kingston said.
“That’s a poisonous attitude. We’ve got to get away from that.”
Kingston scoffed at the repeated assurances from council member Tennell Atkins, a principal architect of the deal, that the millions of dollars in direct subsidy to be given to the developer in addition to the land would not come from tax funds. Atkins emphasized that the millions in subsidy would come from the Chapter 380 aviation enterprise fund — money the city makes from Love Field, a lucrative public asset.
Kingston’s point was that the enterprise fund is still money that belongs to the public.
“I also believe that this substantially treats aviation 380 money as free money,” he said. “This isn’t the city being a smart real estate investor to get a good return.
“This looks like a secret deal that was given to someone with connections to the city.”
Griggs cited two key pieces of inside information — known to city staff but not generally known to the public — about future events that will have a major impact on the value of land at Executive Airport. One has to do with a coming increase in general aviation fees at Love Field, and the other involves a major tenant at Love Field who wants to move.
Both things have the potential to drive up airplane traffic at Executive Airport. Not only has the information not been widely shared by city staff, but Griggs only got to it by hammering the staff for information.
Rodney Burchfield, the primary developer and recipient of the deal, would have known about both important factors, Griggs suggested, because he worked for the city for two years on real estate deals at Love Field and Executive Airport. Both factors have the potential to drive up the value of land at Executive soon, possibly making a development project there attractive to more bidders and even sparking a bidding war.
Griggs said the right way to handle the matter was to put off the deal, get all of the relevant information out to potential bidders and then initiate a bid process.
“We need to let the public know that we are going to increase general aviation fees at Love Field and that we have a long-term strategy to drive traffic to the west side of Executive Airport, and then we put this out for bid," he said. “We need to start treating southern Dallas, all of its parts, as assets.”
So here we have two so-called progressives doing two things. First of all, they are calling for transparent businesslike practices. In the second place, they are fighting to defend southern Dallas from being sold out to inside players, arguing that Executive Airport is on the verge of being attractive to private capital. Nothing could be worse for the airport or the surrounding area than giving away airport land in a junk sale.
For that, they were attacked as racists. City Council member Dwaine Caraway, who represents District 4 in southwest Dallas, said, “We’re asked always to follow the rules, to create entrepreneurship, to enhance African-Americans and Latinos to come together to try to do the right thing.
“But it appears that every time there is an opportunity to grow south, there is all types of microscopic, scientific technology and theories about why we can’t.”
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Then the mayor said his thing about fumble-rooskis and touchdowns, and the council voted 8-7 to do the deal. So what is the window I’m talking about?
The window this little chapter opens for us shows us that the term "progressive" is at least incomplete, maybe directly misleading and definitely susceptible to misuse and manipulation. In this window, the only sound business advice is coming from Griggs and Kingston. They are the business guys. They are the money-counters.
But they also are the only ones sticking up for southern Dallas. Giving away city assets in insider deals is not a way to stick up for southern Dallas. The way to defend southern Dallas and help it grow is what Kingston suggests: The city must reject the poisonous idea that southern Dallas land is worthless, and the city must do what it can to prove up higher values.
Kingston and Griggs are not the hippies. They’re the grownups in the room. And the accusation of racism? That’s just reprehensible. It’s all worth keeping in mind as we approach what could be the biggest year of change for this city in a century.