Court Thumbs Down on Methodist Zoning, City Council Civil Zombies

Retired real estate developer Ralph Isenberg told the Dallas City Council his wife was not allowed to sign documents without his permission. They believed him.
Retired real estate developer Ralph Isenberg told the Dallas City Council his wife was not allowed to sign documents without his permission. They believed him.
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In a ruling a week ago, 44th Judicial District Judge Bonnie Lee Goldstein found that the Dallas City Council violated its own rules and passed an illegitimate ordinance last February in a bizarre proceeding starring former Dallas City Council member-turned-hired-gun Angela Hunt and real estate person Ralph Isenberg, who married a prostitute and then years later threatened to anally rape a Dallas Observer intern because we had included the fact (the prostitute) in a story.

Gee. Who could have guessed anything would go wrong with that?

In a lawsuit brought against Methodist Dallas Medical Center in Oak Cliff by a residential neighbor of the hospital, Goldstein ruled that the city has broad power to set its own rules for settling zoning disputes. But the city, she found, cannot then throw the rules out the window when it feels like it.

It’s kind of like Little League. You can set a rule saying a runner trying to get to second base without being tagged cannot legally run more than three feet out of a straight line between first and second base. But then if a kid does it, you can’t say, “Well, it’s OK, because he’s the mayor’s son.”

Isn’t it amazing that we have to have this conversation about the City Council? Wouldn’t you think … nah, forget it. I wouldn’t think. We’re talking about an entire culture here that just doesn’t take the law or its own rules seriously, to say nothing of decency or fair play.

Methodist is a big, aggressive medical bulldog in an old neighborhood that was down-at-the-heels 20 years ago but is increasingly fashionable and feeling its oats today. The dispute is over a big fitness center the hospital company wants to build that will wipe out set-backs and open spaces agreed to in previous hard-fought negotiations with the neighborhood.

This all comes to a head two days before it is to go before the City Council last February, when everybody realizes the neighbors have the hospital licked. This gets technical, but rules do get technical: The neighbors have gathered affidavits in opposition from more than 20% of property owners within 200 feet of Methodist.

It’s close. On a Monday before a Wednesday council meeting, the tally of people opposed is barely more than 20%. One person. But that’s enough to trigger another rule requiring 12 votes on the council, not just a simple majority of eight, to approve Methodist’s application.

On Monday, the hospital has only 10 council votes in its pocket. It's short two. And by then, the drop-dead legal deadline has passed for introducing or withdrawing affidavits before Wednesday. So they’re dead in the water. Or are they?

On Wednesday, council day, Hunt shows up with Wild Ralph in tow waving a piece of paper. She and Isenberg want to explain that one of the affidavits was signed by Isenberg’s wife, Yan Hong (Nicole) Isenberg. His wife, Isenberg explains, is not allowed to sign stuff. Hunt backs him up on that.

Interim Dallas City Attorney Christopher J. Caso comes to the microphone to explain that, well, actually, this being America and this being the 21st century and this being reality, well, in fact and by law, wives can too sign stuff.

A simple majority of the council, eight votes led by then-Mayor Mike Rawlings, is all it takes to ignore Caso, their own lawyer, and allow 13th century Ralph to withdraw the document so foolishly signed by his chattel. And she’s not even there. Isenberg says he left her at home. (Should we call 911?)

But that’s enough to let the eight-vote majority kill the 20% rule. Then the same simple majority, with an emphasis on the simple, votes to give Methodist their zoning.

Before the vote, then-City Council member Philip Kingston — you remember Kingston, that terribly uncivil person who was forever daring to question Rawlings — asks Caso if the neighbors can’t sue the city over this: “And not just sue us in the way that anybody can sue anybody for anything,” he says. “We would have to prove that we followed our own rules.” Turning to Caso, Kingston says, “They could win this, right?”

Right. They just did.

Last week when I spoke with Katherine Homan, the neighbor who brought the suit, the first thing on her mind was not the lovely pecan grove the neighbors have been trying to protect. It was the experience at City Hall on that February day. She said that was why she sued.

She sat in the City Council chamber that day, she said, there to exercise her right of petition, and was shocked and dismayed to witness instead “a corrupt process."

“I was absolutely outraged to sit here and watch that proceeding,” she said. “It was a crime scene going on in front of me, nothing short of that.”

And now the court agrees. Homan was right. It was a corrupt process.

We can quibble about criminality. But most of us would think it was some kind of crime if the mayor’s son were allowed to run all the way through center field and up into the bleachers waving a piece of paper to avoid getting tagged out at second.

“It was about a corrupt process that needed to be brought to the court’s attention,” Homan said, “because obviously the city attorney and all the rules and state laws and so on were not enough to keep that illegal vote from being taken.”

Homan’s lawyer, Thomas M. Whelan, explained to me the basis for Judge Goldstein’s final order: “It was within the legislative jurisdiction of the council under a specific state statute to pass rules governing these kinds of contests.

“But what the court found and what I think she found correctly is that they could have drawn the rules differently, the same as they did or differently. But once the council had adopted those rules for general application, they were bound to follow those rules.”

Yeah. Second base, baseline, no bleachers, not nobody. I think we got it. But wouldn’t you think the council … no, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that again. My bad. Won’t do it again, promise.

I texted Hunt last week after the verdict with some questions. She texted me the name Ryan Owens, director of public relations for Methodist Health System. I emailed him. Owens emailed me back: “We are studying the Judge's rulings and have no comment at this time.”

Whelan had good things to say about Hunt. He said she’s an effective lawyer and a good advocate for her clients. I tend to agree. Hunt didn’t break any rules. The City Council did.

Former City Council member Angela Hunt endorsed the view — wrong legally — that Isenberg's wife's signature on a document wasn't binding without his consent.EXPAND
Former City Council member Angela Hunt endorsed the view — wrong legally — that Isenberg's wife's signature on a document wasn't binding without his consent.

You hire Hunt, hire Kingston, you’re hiring tough, smart lawyers who will fight just as hard to win for you as they did on the council for their constituents.

That’s how I view it. But I am aware that mine is sort of a grizzled insider’s view. I can tell you one thing: It does not wash with Homan, who is as dismayed with Hunt as she is with the council.

"I don't know what has happened to Angela," Homan said. "She has joined the dark side? What the hell is going on with Angela?"

Nobody knows what will happen next. Methodist is extremely wired into the city’s old power structure, and I am sure they will regard this as little more than a strip of truck tread fallen into their lane. Their decision will be whether to steer around or drive over.

The hospital can appeal Goldstein’s decision. But the cheaper thing and more in their wheelhouse would be simply to run their dirty shirt back through the washing machine at City Hall. Remember, we’ve gotten rid of all those terrible uncivil people at City Hall who were so rude as to question Mayor Rawlings (or, as Homan calls him, which I love, Mayor Raw Dealings). I bet their zoning deal would fly through there this time like nourishment through a duck. The outcome would look and smell similar, but Methodist would have their big building.

It’s too bad Methodist hasn’t kept up better with its surroundings. They continue to treat their environs as a slum that will be improved by any big building they choose to smack down on it. While they weren’t watching, their area has become one of the city’s loveliest, more distinguished residential districts. Wouldn’t you think they’d want to be a part … ouch, no, disregard, didn’t say that.

But here is the thing that strikes me personally in all of this. I see it in other City Hall venues as well. I’m talking about this completely perplexing disregard for the rule of law — the same thing that shocked Homan so badly the day she sat out there watching it happen before her very eyes.

Here comes Hairball Ralph waving his piece of paper with this totally embarrassing story about how he doesn’t let his wife sign stuff. A council member even asks where she is and suggests his own wife would not allow him to speak for her this way in her absence. I’m watching at home thinking I’d be in Baylor ER having my scalp repaired from garden trowel damage.

In fact, everybody who knows the story is sitting on the edges of their seats digging their fingernails into the upholstery thinking, “Yikes, it’s the saga of Ralph Isenberg’s wife again! Quick, send the interns out of the room!”

The city’s own lawyer, a man of probity, gets up, and he tells them that the lady can sign stuff. Duh. And he says they’re supposed to follow their own rules. Double duh.

And they just blow right by it. They allow Isenberg’s wife’s affidavit to be withdrawn not in her presence, when they should have sent somebody out to do a welfare check. And they give Methodist its zoning.

They’re more afraid of irritating Mayor Raw Dealings than they are of getting tumped upside down later in court. I think that’s the Dallas City Hall definition of being really, really, really civil. They’re so civil, they’re civil zombies. It’s scary down there sometimes.

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