Silence is not golden

The last time Buzz took a potshot at Dallas Park and Recreation Board member Ralph Isenberg -- for painting over graffiti on an Arcadia Park house without the owner's permission -- he was not happy. So unhappy was he that he sent us a 5-gallon bucket of green paint and a note that accused Buzz of being malicious. Us? Malicious? No way.

Now it seems that all has been forgiven. Isenberg was back in touch last week to relate how he was attacked by fellow park board members who are upset over his habit of taking board business -- namely, the city's plans to close 26 wading pools for failure to meet health standards -- directly to the press. Either Isenberg is contrary, or he doesn't consider Buzz a part of the legitimate press. We can respect either point of view.

Isenberg is asking the city attorney to look into whether park board members at an April 6 meeting violated a part of the city code that says members of city boards are not supposed to say mean, personally disparaging things about one another. If they did violate the code, he wants them fined $500. (Apparently, certain members of the city council aren't aware of this rule. Thank God. Buzz has three cats to feed.)

What has made Isenberg so annoyed that he would sic the law on his fellow board members? It was this fairly tame comment from park board vice president Dwaine Caraway, among others: "We have never much unnecessary press...[and] penny-ante discussions...Personally, I'm tired of being played to the press...I'm tired of...reading the things that are going on up here and are going on at City Hall. It's the most disruptive destruction I've ever seen. The city is being placed in turmoil because of this unethical bull stuff." A handful of other board members said amen, at length.

Isenberg freely admits he has been "talking to everybody and anyone" trying to keep the wading pool in Arcadia Park open, which presumably is his right, since Dallas, even City Hall, is part of America. Of course, Caraway and other board members presumably have the right to say they don't like it.

Caraway tells Buzz that Isenberg has been known to make a disparaging remark now and then himself, and that his own comments were prompted by Isenberg's request that park staff study how city plans to build a softball complex at Kiest Park will affect the surrounding neighborhood. Caraway claims that was an orchestrated bit of foot-dragging on Isenberg's part to put pressure on the board to keep the wading pools open.

Isenberg says the comments against him at the meeting were an orchestrated effort to shut him up. He's not shutting up, bless his heart.

All of which has Buzz facing a dilemma: Whose side should we choose? Let's pretend we're an editorial writer for The Dallas Morning News and split the difference. We think Isenberg should exercise his First Amendment right and keep talking to the press -- specifically, us. And we think Dallas board members have a God-given right to say disparaging things about one another -- specifically, to us.

Obviously, what Isenberg, Caraway, and any other cranky board members need is a neutral third party to listen to all the dirt, gossip, tips, and innuendo and decide what is out of bounds and what is fair game.

Specifically, they should call 214-757-8439. That's us.

Feed the sharks

Need a loan to hold you over to the next payday, but not interested in pawning your valuables? Or, like Buzz, do your valuables inspire embarrassing raucous laughter at the local pawnshop? Fear not, because Texas state regulators are poised to approve new rules authorizing "payday loans" that allow borrowers to obtain loans ranging from $100 to nearly $500, with terms as short as seven days and interest rates as high as 570 percent.

Ever wonder why La Cosa Nostra never made much headway in Texas? You can thank Austin.

Such loans are disbursed at check-cashing storefronts that have proliferated in recent years, mostly in moderate- or low-income neighborhoods. Typically, if borrowers can't make the full payment in a week, they roll over the amount by repaying "acquisition" fees ranging from $13 to $35 per $100 -- and perhaps several times more, creating a cycle of burgeoning debt that critics say too many low-income people get stuck in.

Such abuses are why consumer watchdogs, including Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, call the practice "legalized loan sharking." Yet if all goes as planned, the Texas Finance Commission will meet on April 28 to green-light the notorious practice here. Even if Texas regulators don't approve rules for payday loans, however, check-cashing storefronts will proffer the loans -- or near-identical variants -- regardless.

That's because federal banking law allows out-of-state banks to "export" their interest rates to Texas. The Irving-based check-cashing giant Ace Cash Express, with 1,000 locations nationwide, has already done so. Stores in the Dallas area offered Buzz 14-day loans with a fee of $15 for each $100 (an annualized interest rate of nearly 400 percent). So whether Texas cuts its own banks in on the action isn't a big worry for check cashers. "I guess they don't even care what we do," says Leslie Pettijohn, Texas' consumer credit commissioner.

While Consumers Union's Austin affiliate demands a longer 14-day term on the loans, Pettijohn points out that Texas' payday loan rules will be somewhat kinder than other states': Lenders could charge for only two rollovers before Texas law requires them to convert the loans to installment plans. But because of loopholes, even this feature falls short. Borrowers can still use one payday loan to pay off another, while stores that don't like Texas' rules can import loan terms from the 23 other payday loan states.

Buzz couldn't help but notice that Raymond Hemmig, chairman of Ace Cash Express, is listed as a Bush presidential campaign "Pioneer," which means he's helped raise at least $100,000 for Dubya. (In fairness, many other companies have lobbied in Austin and Washington.) Luckily, that money was not a loan. If it were, at current interest rates, it looks like Bush, if elected, would owe Hemmig one B-1 bomber, or roughly 1,200 Pentagon-approved toilets.

Compiled from staff reports by Patrick Williams

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams

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