Blowup in City Hall

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Therman Nobles wanted to go home.
Instead, he was sitting in the underground parking garage at Dallas City Hall, behind the wheel of tire truck No. 901020, with the engine idling noisily. He sat with his arms cradled around the steering wheel, staring at a set of fire-engine red doors through which a woman named Diane Harper was supposed to walk. Three minutes earlier.

Nobles, 43, who is married and has two sons, has worked for the city of Dallas for 21 years. He's one of those hidden employees--low-paid, hard-working, and absolutely critical to the smooth daily workings of a big city.

Nobles repairs tires. Each day, he makes sure the city's 4,500-vehicle fleet keeps rolling. When any one of those vehicles--a dump truck, a garbage truck, a police squad car, an animal control wagon--blows a tire between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., Nobles is just a radio call away with the quick fix. In his truck, he carries hydraulic lifts, air pumps and compressors, lug nut removers, and every other conceivable automotive tool.

The job is often grueling. Early that morning, just 10 minutes into his shift, he had found himself on his knees jacking up a three-ton garbage truck in the dark with a chill wind, flecked with rain, blowing at his back. That day, he would service two more garbage trucks, a fire department Chevy, two pickup trucks from the streets department, and five more vehicles he couldn't even recall. After 21 years of seeing everything at tire level, it all kind of blurs together.

Nobles points to the wide black belt around his waist--a much-needed precaution in this job--and shakes his head. It's been a long day. His face is lined with sweat, his brown work shirt streaked with tire grease. "Sometimes I go home, and I take a shower, and that's as far as I can get," he says. "I just hit the bed. And a lot of times I miss dinner."

From the way he looks, this might well be one of those days. Indeed, Nobles had been looking forward to his 3 p.m. knock-off time.

But it was not to be.
At 2 p.m., as Nobles was winding down his day cleaning up the service shop located a mile east of City Hall at Canton and Hall streets, a highly unusual call had come in. "My boss called me into the office and gave me a work order," Nobles recalls. "There were some other guys around, and they kind of laughed and rolled their eyes. But here I am. I just do what the boss tells me to do, that's all."

Nobles and I waited a few minutes more. Then the red doors opened, and a tall woman in a green skirt suit emerged with a newspaper folded under her left arm. As soon as the door closed behind her, she stopped in her tracks, whipped out a cigarette, cupped her right hand, and lit up.

After her first puff, Diane Harper glanced at Nobles and his truck and asked, in the same detached tone of voice used for Domino's Pizza delivery men, "Are you here to put some air in Councilman Duncan's tire?"

Gee, Larry Duncan. What were you thinking?
When this minor incident occurred two Mondays ago, the equipment services division of the Equipment, Communications and Information Services (ECI) department of the city of Dallas--Therman Nobles' employer--went into red alert. The Larry Duncan work order became an instant hot potato, with employee after employee wanting nothing to do with it because no one wanted to wind up the fall guy for something that should never have happened.

"We can't work on private cars," Nobles told me that day in the garage, repeating what other employees would tell me again and again over the next few days. "If we ever get caught doing anything to a private car, we're gone. We have a flat on our own car, we wait until after work, and we change it ourselves--without our city equipment."

That had, in fact, happened to him, Nobles said. He had found a flat tire on his own car after work one day, and he had changed it--alone and without the benefit of city tools or assistance.

Nobles couldn't help but smirk just a tad when he hooked the air hose up to the councilman's car two weeks ago. Yeah, it was a little low--but clearly not low enough that it couldn't be driven to the nearest service station for a couple shots of air. ("It wasn't safe," Duncan told me later, quite insistent.)

Even if Duncan had been positively stranded, which he wasn't, Nobles shouldn't have been anywhere near his white 1982 Ford Granada--a filthy, hubcapless jalopy with a torn rear bumper and a trash-strewn interior filled with old coffee cups and cigarette butts.

Nobles can work only on city-owned vehicles. Period. He and his fellow employees do not work on councilmembers' cars. They do not work on employees' cars. They do not work on citizens' cars--not even if the citizen who is flagging them down is nine months pregnant with a toddler clinging to her in an ice storm at midnight on a remote stretch of road in a bad neighborhood. That's the rule. And it's been beaten into Nobles as long as he's worked there--and it's been beaten into everyone else, too.

"Even if we wanted to work on private cars, we don't have the system set up to where we could handle it," says one employee, who, like others, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "We bill in the computer, through 'org' numbers--organization numbers assigned to the different departments that lease vehicles through us. Individuals don't have 'org' numbers. Councilmembers don't have 'org' numbers."

But they do have clout. Which works especially well with people who are willing to break rules in order to please. Which is why the boss over equipment services, a fellow named Dewayne Jackson, called over to the Canton Street shop that day with such an unusual job assignment.

Jackson, a young, dapper guy, knew better. He had started with equipment services 16 years earlier as a rank-and-file car mechanic. Gradually, he had worked his way up the ladder, to shift supervisor, then to shop manager--and finally, last month, to division manager. Now, for the first time in his city career, he was out of a dirty repair shop, sitting in an office cubicle with pictures of his wife propped up on the credenza behind him, dispatching orders to his former co-workers.

But those colleagues were confused. In going across the street to sit with the big boys, had Jackson forgotten the number-one rule of city car repair? "My shop bosses told Jackson, 'Well, you know, it's a councilmember's car--and we don't do that,'" Nobles said. "But Jackson insisted. And they said, 'Jackson, well, it's going to be on you.'"

Jackson would later tell me, quite proudly, that he had made the decision to service Duncan's car on his own, without conferring with upper management. Asked why he would put his people in the awkward position of doing something they weren't supposed to do, Jackson looked at me defiantly: "I don't work for them. They work for me."

Interestingly enough, Jackson's ultimate boss, ECI director David Morgan, thinks what Jackson did is just fine. When I told Morgan that his rank-and-file employees had told Jackson that it was improper to work on Duncan's car, Morgan smirked derisively: "They also complain about having to work on a garbage truck that's dirty or an inspector's car that has dogs in it." (For the record, changing a flat on a rancid garbage truck crawling with maggots--or an animal control wagon filled with decaying dog carcasses is not amusing, I understand, and certainly a worthy excuse for a gripe or two.)

Ultimately, though, the arrogance of higher management--a pervasive problem at Dallas City Hall these days--is not the main issue here. The esteemed councilman from The Grove should never have put any city employee--including his assistant Diane Harper, who doesn't have tire repair in her job description--in this position.

Ask other councilmembers if they would ever think--for even a fleeting moment--of asking a city employee to do personal work for them, and they will check your head for fever.

One did tell me he might have done the same thing on a bad day: "There are days where you feel like you've given your heart, your soul, your time, and there's something that goes wrong, and you say 'screw it.'"

But most laugh out loud at the thought. "Heavens no," North Dallas councilwoman Halstead told me last week, walking out to the scene of the crime, the City Hall parking garage. "I am so careful about that. I keep a roll of stamps in my desk drawer that I use on anything that is not strictly council business. The code of ethics is so complex, so detailed, I would prefer to err on the side of caution."

The city of Dallas code of ethics, which spells out how elected officials, board and commission appointees, and city employees must conduct themselves, speaks to this issue on a number of levels. It's worth citing--for future reference for any councilmember who doesn't want to slog through the whole code next time he's thinking of having someone from housing and neighborhood services come to paint his living room.

Sec. 2-121(a): "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the city that the proper operation of democratic government requires that: (4) public office not be used for personal gain."

Sec. 2-122(a): "An officer or employee of the city shall not: (1) Accept or solicit a benefit that might reasonably tend to influence the officer or employee in the discharge of his official duties. (2) Use his official position to secure privileges or exemptions for himself or others. (3) Grant any special consideration, treatment or advantage to a person or organization beyond that which is available to every other person or organization."

There are, of course, specific penalties for violating the code. But this is not relevant--councilman Duncan's transgression is minor, far outweighed by his extraordinary hard work and long hours as a council member who only gets paid $50 per meeting.

And Duncan did eventually pay for the air--a stout $25.80. After being informed that a newspaper reporter had witnessed the tire-inflating, Dewayne Jackson asked Duncan to write the check. Duncan insists that he intended all along to pay for the air, though it would have been far cheaper to call Dunlap-Swain Tire Co. at San Jacinto and Routh, which would have sent a guy over to fill the tire for $10.

The point here is that 13,000 employees live and die by the code of ethics. And unlike council members, who can get their tires blown up with a snap of a self-important finger, lowly employees pay the consequences for violating the code.

This includes the couple hundred people who work in equipment services, one of whom got fired a few years back, interestingly enough, after being accused of building a barbecue smoker on city time with city scrap metal for a superior--of all people, Dewayne Jackson. The employee, Mike Richey, hired a lawyer, produced witnesses and receipts that disproved the charge, and got his job back. "The rules and regulations, in the little red rules book, which they've fired so many people by, are not written for everybody," says Richey. "It's so unfair."

The point here is attitude. Arrogance. Those royal-like reflexes that seem to sprout, like mold on a mushy peach, on the brains of our local elected officials after five or 10 minutes on the hallowed fifth floor of 1500 Marilla.

Chris Luna, a congenial enough fellow, has the boorish bad habit of hitting his telephone as soon as a public hearing starts--yakking away as nervous citizens struggle and sweat to pour out their travails in the three miniscule minutes they're allotted to speak. Max Wells routinely spends council briefings with "bored" stamped on his forehead as he catches up on his magazine reading (in a new twist, he actually slept through a good portion of the arena renovation briefing two weeks ago.) Bob Stimson, a freshman who should still be feeling somewhat humble, recently chewed out a constituent for putting the councilman's published home number on a neighborhood flier about the proposed Oak Cliff racetrack.

Duncan, though, has always been the champion of the little people. He's the grass-roots guy, the stalwart defender of the smallest neighborhood, the most powerless constituent. He is the white guy who somehow managed to get elected to represent a district that is 61 percent black--twice.

Outwardly, there is nothing showy about him. He has "two suits and two ties," fellow councilmembers say fondly; a trashed-out office; and the hands-down worst car in the parking lot. He walks funny, talks funny, and barely ekes out a living out of his home as a computer programmer--a much less lucrative enterprise since he began spending all his daylight hours on public service.

"If anybody had to get hit on the behind with something like this, it's ironic that it's Larry," says one council colleague, "because he is the earthiest, the most home-grown--all that sort of stuff."

Then again, you could look at it a different way--as another councilmember does. "I absolutely love it that Duncan is the one who had his car worked on," the councilmember says, literally rubbing two hands together with glee. "If it had been one of us, he'd be high on his soap box, excoriating us publicly for our insensitive behavior."

Today, though, Larry Duncan is leaning low over his paper-strewn desk, his hands clasped before him like those of a schoolboy. He looks up with doleful eyes, as wide and wounded as Bambi. His shoulders are stooped. His cheeks are sunken. Even his moustache looks droopy. It is impossible not to feel this man's pain.

It's all so confusing, I say to him. You're the populist councilman.
"I am," he says weakly. "I am."
Duncan sinks lower as he hears the particulars: his tire repairman was one of his own constituents, making just $7.95 an hour, who had worked hard all day, only to get off work late thanks to Duncan's car "emergency."

Duncan digs around in his morass of papers, then pulls out two pages. One is a copy of the generic city invoice--which Dewayne Jackson had to go find in the ECI accounting department, since his division never uses such things. It seeks payment from Duncan for $25.80. The other page is a copy of Duncan's personal check for that amount--a check that he brought in the following day, he tells me, and one, I tell him, that another Canton Street employee was specially dispatched to City Hall to pick up. "We wasted another hour of time on that," an equipment services employee told me disgustedly.

Duncan insists that he never meant to get anything for free--that he always intended to pay for the service call, and that when Diane Harper returned from her parking-garage duty without a bill--"Do I need to sign something?" Harper had asked me in the garage that day, never mentioning money--he had insisted she go get one. (Dewayne Jackson insists that payment was his idea.)

One thing is clear, though. If Larry Duncan thought nothing two weeks ago of making city staff handle a pesky private problem that was impeding his public life, he won't do it again.

"It didn't strike me as unusual at the time," says Duncan, reflectively. "Because we had the equipment. We maintain a fleet of cars. Obviously it was not intended for people to run all over town. It was never intended for people to be late leaving work. Just as it's something that won't happen again. I don't make any excuses about it."

Which will certainly be music to the ears of city car mechanics everywhere.

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