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Charges of Malpractice Blossom at Discovery Gardens, and Records Get Composted

To shred or not to shred? Is sudden large-scale document shredding in a semi-public entity ever a good thing?

On the morning of May 21, Randy Johnson, the recently fired director of horticulture at the Texas Discovery Gardens, goes to a sit-down visit at City Hall with Paul Dyer, director of the city's Park and Recreation Department, and Joan Walne, chair of the park board.

Johnson presents these august city officials with a laundry list of instances in which he says money has been mishandled at the Discovery Gardens. He tells them that as soon as he leaves his meeting with them he's headed down to the city attorney's office to file a raft of Public Information Act demands for public documents.

Johnson told me last week: "They said, 'Well, hold off on that, Randy, because if you do that they'll just start shredding documents [at the Discovery Gardens].'"

Two days later, I learn that several employees have witnessed a wholesale document-shredding operation going on in the offices of The Texas Discovery Gardens.

I try to reach Dyer and Walne. I hear nothing back. I do talk to the acting director of the Discovery Gardens who confirms they have been shredding documents.

Oh. I ask what kind. She says financial documents. Oh. I ask if that isn't bad. She says no. None of the shredded documents had anything to do with Johnson or Jane Bryant, the former Texas Discovery Gardens executive director also recently fired after complaining to several board members about financial malpractice by board members.

Let's run through it again quickly. Executive director reports bad financial practices to board — board members running operations of the institution themselves from home, writing checks and so on. Board fires her. One month later, best-known and most popular employee with great track record for raising money, also fired, no reason given.

Fired employee reports bad financial practices to Dallas City Hall. They tell him to keep mum so nobody will shred documents. Two days later, major document-shredding party.

Is that reassuring?

You're still wondering: What the hell is the Texas Discovery Gardens? Sorry. Should have said that sooner. It's one of those quirky old institutions at Fair Park with a mission that is now somewhat elusive. Chartered in 1941, it is descended from the Hall of Horticulture at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition.

It used to be a semi-private tea-party playhouse for old-fashioned ladies garden clubs around the city, and it still has a whiff of that. Many of the directors now operate under the aegis of the Texas Master Gardeners program associated with Texas A&M University, a gardening club for people who still use chemicals.

In recent years, however, the Discovery Gardens has taken on new life through two of its most popular programs. One is the Butterfly House, a glass, multistory wing housing an indoor rain forest that's home to exotic butterfly species. The other is the horticulture department that was run by Johnson. Under Johnson's hand, the Discovery Gardens, the first public garden in Texas certified 100 percent organic by the Texas Organic Research Center, has flourished.

The Discovery Gardens sits on 7.5 acres of city land, in a city-owned building where the city pays for all utilities and maintenance, in addition to providing an annual cash subsidy of $100,000, straight from city taxpayers. Why don't you have a clubhouse like that?

Johnson's programs, in addition to being a major source of revenue, were helping move the gardens out from the aura of fancy hats and hired gardeners with name-badge work shirts and into the burgeoning arena of organics and native plants attractive to a younger demographic. He joined the staff in 2007.

Bryant, a business teacher and entrepreneur, joined as executive director last year with a promise to double sales, grants, membership and attendance. She gave me copies of spreadsheets to show that she had done all of those things within a few months of arrival.

But she found problems. She also provided me with correspondence in which she argued with two board members about their effectively running departments of the institution as if the board members were management. Some of that activity involved purchasing and other financial operations. You know — moolah.

I discussed some of this several weeks ago with Janet K. Smith, who was chairperson of the board of directors at the time. She has since resigned, and so I re-discussed it last week with Michael Bosco, the new chairman. Both of them said more or less the same thing: Give us a break, we're a small volunteer entity. You don't turn people down if they're willing to help for free.

Smith said of one of the directors running a department, "He has given hundreds and thousands of hours to the Discovery Gardens in a wonderful way." She said he got involved in helping run things when he was just a member, before he ever went on the board. "The fact that he's a board member now is not even connected."

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