Want a pretty good indication where things stand at Dallas City Hall? A majority of the members of the Dallas City Council have decided the city needs to stop keeping a record of where the council gets its campaign money. Gee. What could they have in mind?
I stumbled into this unawares earlier this week. I wanted to make a point about Bobby Abtahi, president of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board and a guy the old guard has been trying for several years to groom as a mayoral candidate against whomever the progressive challenger will be after the incumbent establishment mayor resigns early. (They all do — golf.)
Abtahi ran for the Dallas City Council District 14 seat in 2013 against Philip Kingston. In that race, the candidates’ positions on the now dead Trinity toll road project were important for all sorts of reasons. Abtahi tried to hide the ball on that one, presumably because District 14 was so overwhelmingly anti-toll road.
But the evidence — the thing I was looking for this week as part of another discussion — showed that in 2013, Abtahi took the bulk of his campaign money from the hardcore, dead-ender pushers of the toll road. That was the fact I wanted to pinpoint again this week in relation to another Abtahi story.
To my dismay, when I went to the city’s never-very-great-anyway campaign finance report website, I found that the records available there went back only to 2015. At first I assumed I was doing something wrong. I’ve always before been able to reach back all the way to the beginning of digital reporting, whenever that was, 10 or 15 years ago.
I briefly flirted with calling someone at City Hall, but I immediately gave up on that notion because I wasn’t on vacation and didn’t have the three days it would take getting to the ultimate nonexplanation. So I Googled it.
And, of course, guess where I found what I was looking for almost immediately: Dallas City Hall! It had erased the information from the not-very-good website but had forgotten the information was posted in other places as well. So really nice job on the ball-hiding, City Hall. You can’t even hide your own balls (sorry for grotesque image).
You know, for one thing, trying to hide things like this in this day and age is pretty idiotic. Oh, my goodness, Dallas City Hall is hiding the ball on me! I wonder if it will take me 10 seconds or 15 seconds to find it. Where should I look first? Oh, I know! Dallas City Hall! I bet they don’t even know where their own balls are (very sorry, very sorry).
The day after my ball search on Abtahi, I found the explanation for this perplexing situation on the Facebook page of Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs. Griggs posted a memo he had received from the City Secretary’s Office explaining in wonderfully Orwellian language that the city is busily erasing years of campaign finance and other data “in our effort to improve transparency.”
Griggs explained to me on the phone how he and some other council members got hornswoggled on the records-keeping requirements. Earlier this month, the council approved a resolution brought forward by the City Secretary, who is the keeper of the records, for the “reinstatement of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSL) required retention period for specific records series maintained by the City Secretary’s Office.”
Griggs, a lawyer and pretty careful guy, assumed this was a technical issue to ensure that no records would be kept for less than the minimum period required by the state. He saw nothing in the measure about chopping off the records-keeping period at that point and then erasing everything before in the city’s archives.
Why would anyone do that? Information like this, a bunch of PDF and Excel files, is basically free to store and retrieve. How many pages of City Council campaign finance information can occur in a decade? In a century? The average teenage girl has more data than that on her phone.
There can be only one reason, one possible motivation for making the already archived information go away. It’s hiding the ball. Or in City Hall’s case, trying to hide the ball.
Hey, City Hall, what is that big, round, white thing sticking out of your ass pocket? Oh, it must be our ball, is it not? Isn’t this wonderful? We were able to find the ball after all in spite of its getting lost, and it was right there in your ass pocket.
I talked to a few more people after I spoke with Griggs about this. Nobody else wants to go on the record with me about it because they’re all afraid of sounding paranoid. Well, let me tell you something. I’m afraid of a lot of things in life, like falling out of a kayak into Lake Superior and turning into a frozen lake trout, but I have never once been afraid of sounding paranoid. So let me don my tinfoil beret and tell you what I think is going on here.
All of a sudden, the past is no longer a friend to the old City Hall political machine. By machine, I mean the eight-vote majority on the council. The eight-vote majority used to be made up of the mayor; the two or three white North Dallas council members whom the mayor had in his pocket; the white Pleasant Grove member, also a reliable pocket-dweller; and the four black members.
Now all of that is much fuzzier. As the Confederate statue controversy has illustrated, the mavericks on the council own a solid five-vote bloc on the 14-member council, leaving the mayor with only nine votes to mess with. A solid three of the four black votes on the council are still totally sold out and in the mayor’s pocket as usual, but at least one of the black members, Kevin Felder, has shown tentative signs of what is either nascent independence or, at least, some form of shame, which alone would be improvement on the other three.
As of the June runoff election, the Hispanic member whom the mayor used to count as a solid pocket vote is gone, replaced by a tough independent, Omar Narvaez. Things generally are slip-sliding away from the old guard.
All of a sudden, all that big, white money going to the black council members looks a little different. All of that toll road money to Abtahi looks different. For the first time, the support of the private Dallas Citizens Council, a downtown business leadership group, is not automatically a thing to brag about. Getting that money doesn’t mean you’re cool anymore. It could mean you’re a fool.
Of course, it doesn’t have to mean that. The way the money looks depends on the issue. There are plenty of smart people in the city’s business leadership, some of them enlightened, with lots more to offer than money alone.
The old business money looks really bad in the cases where it is used obviously and deliberately to compromise candidates and officeholders and get them to behave or vote in ways that are clearly opposed to the interests and wishes of their constituents.
The most startling example recently was the decision of the four black council members to withdraw support from a measure expressing the city’s determination to bring down the rebel statues. They switched their support instead to the mayor’s call for delay. I would not be a bit surprised if they gave their support next to a seminar at City Hall called: “Just Thinking Out Loud Here: Was Slavery Really All That Bad?”
Abtahi’s attempt to run for the City Council in District 14 and not mention his support from the pro-toll road gang was another pretty good case in point. A good many of the things that used to be done openly and shamelessly at City Hall are now worth covering up.
And what about that toll road? It doesn’t seem to have a daddy anymore. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have a mama. Poor little orphan of history. Nobody can find the parents, at least not farther back than two years.
Griggs is asking the City Council to reconsider its records-burning decree. I predict the mayor’s majority will stand firm in favor of burning, but at least we will get a better look at the people doing it.
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