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Infighting at City Hall Adds to Confusion Over Vaccine Distribution

All of this drama comes the same week Dallas County officials voted to reverse course on a plan to prioritize vaccine doses for people in certain ZIP codes, primarily in communities of color, after the state shot down the plan.
All of this drama comes the same week Dallas County officials voted to reverse course on a plan to prioritize vaccine doses for people in certain ZIP codes, primarily in communities of color, after the state shot down the plan.
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The battle of the memos continued at City Hall on Thursday with more accusations of "playing politics" flying between Mayor Eric Johnson and council members over the question of how to ensure fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to Black, Hispanic and other neighborhoods typically shorted on services.

The latest round ended with the mayor agreeing to council members' call for more effort from the city to get people of color registered to get a shot, but not before the mayor and council members traded a different kind of shots, exposing  bad blood between the mayor and others on the council.

The sniping began last week when Johnson sent a letter to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. In it, he complained the county wasn't communicating properly with the city over how the county is reaching out to overlooked neighborhoods to get people registered to receive vaccines at the "mega-center" in Fair Park. Johnson suggested the county was giving preferential treatment to people with political pull. Jenkins denied that, saying essentially the county was trying to give equal treatment to people without pull.

On Tuesday, council member Chad West sent his own letter to Jenkins. In it, he apologized for the mayor's letter.

The trip downhill picked up more momentum Wednesday when the mayor shot down a request from West, Adam Bazaldua, Adam Medrano, Omar Narvaez and Jaime Resendez for city staff support to set up "hubs" in their council districts where people could sign up to be put on a list to get a vaccination when one's available. The five even identified potential locations for the hubs.

Unfortunately, they sent their request via memo directly to City Manager T.C. Broadnax rather than go through the mayor. That led Johnson to fire off another memo, this one to Broadnax, ordering him to ignore their request and reminding the city manager that the mayor is by law Dallas' emergency management director. The mayor's memo suggested the council members, who are up for election this year, were playing politics and meddling with vaccine distribution.

Which brings to Thursday and another round of memo-ing.

Now, it's a generally recognized truth that few insults sting a politician more than being accused of practicing politics. When it comes to disses, that arguably ranks up there with, say, one adult apologizing on another's behalf without permission. Words to the effect of "I'm sorry that other guy effed up" are not likely to please the other guy, especially when that other guy is the mayor.

Still, some of Johnson's fellow council members said they know where these communication problems are coming from: the mayor and his penchant for communicating by memos that make unsubtle digs at council members who disagree with him.

“That’s his communication methodology. That’s just unfortunate,” council member Lee Kleinman said. “His attitude is, ‘Talk to the hand.’”

Kleinman, who said he didn't want to put himself in the middle of the spat between the city and county, nevertheless talked to the Observer about the mayor's communication process in general. Kleinman said he thinks the mayor has isolated himself, and that's true at least in Kleinman's case. He said he has not had a direct conversation with the mayor since February.

“That does seem kind of like a breakdown in the communication process, don’t you think?” Kleinman asked.

The mayor, meanwhile, said he's simply trying to create a vaccination program based on data, not politics. In a statement sent to the Observer, Johnson called for an end to political games surrounding the vaccine roll-out. How and when eligible residents get the COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t be determined by their party affiliation or their ties to elected politicians, he said.

Who on earth thinks otherwise, you ask? Well, the mayor has some ideas ...

“We have limited resources, and it is imperative that we develop sound outreach and vaccination strategies based on available data, the advice of experts, and state guidance — and not based on the interests of partisan politicians or of Dallas City Council members who are up for re-election this spring,” Johnson said, doubling down on the comment that angered other council members. “I have tasked my designated emergency management coordinator to develop a data-based plan for outreach and distribution, and I appreciate those of my colleagues who have offered their thoughts and support of the city’s efforts in a constructive way rather than through publicity stunts.”

Bazaldua said this is usually how council members hear from the mayor: through press releases, memos and social media. Nevertheless, Bazaldua took the mayor's words to heart and sent him another proposal for registration hubs in his district.

In that memo, Bazaldua said the county and the city must work together to get their hardest-to-reach neighbors vaccinated. “To ensure equitable distribution of the vaccination to the entire city, including many neighbors of color, aggressive outreach is essential immediately, and the County cannot do it alone,” Bazaldua wrote.

He said in his district and several others, there are communities with language barriers and a lack of internet access, making it harder to get them registered for the vaccination. (Those without reliable internet access can also register by calling the Dallas County Health and Human Services Vaccine Registration Hotline at 469-749-9900).

He wants staff’s support setting up vaccination registration hub sites at St. Philips School and Community Center Athletic Field House, Frazier Revitalization Inc., T.R. Hoover Community Development Center and Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space this week. He said these locations were chosen based on geography, high positive COVID-19 numbers and willing partners.

Bazaldua added, “I am deeply disappointed that you are implying that this is about politics — when your unnecessary touting of emergency power seems to be just that, political.”

Despite Bazaldua's touch of "I know you are but what am I?" the mayor on Thursday sent a letter to Rocky Vaz, Dallas' emergency management coordinator, instructing him to work with council members to set up registration hubs in locations that hard data suggests are appropriate.

Council member Paula Blackmon said she too had sent a memo to Broadnax requesting vaccine registration hubs in her district and followed it with a memo to the mayor after he ordered Broadnax to do nothing. She says if we weren't trying to navigate through a pandemic, all the back and forth would just be silly. But now, it's just confusing, for residents and city officials.

All of this drama comes the same week Dallas County officials were shot down by the state on a plan to prioritize vaccine doses for people in certain ZIP codes, primarily in communities of color. If the county had gotten the green light, 11 ZIP codes would have been prioritized for vaccine distribution. In that light, the mayor's green light for creating registration hubs is good news, though it might not solve the miscommunication and bad blood on City Council.

Kleinman says the mayor’s relationship with the council has deteriorated rapidly since he was elected.

“Generally, he’s just not responsive to his council members,” Kleinman said. “I send inquiries to his office, directly to his staff members, but they won’t even reply.”

It wasn’t always this way, though. Kleinman, who is finishing out his term on City Council, says he was part of the mayor’s inner circle at one point. “I had, I thought, a pretty close relationship with him when he first came on board,” Kleinman said. “I even had a fundraiser at my house for him that raised him quite a bit of money.”

But then, for reasons Kleinman still doesn’t understand, things changed and now the two don’t talk.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a council colleague or a mayor that just won’t respond to my calls or texts,” Kleinman said. “I got into it years ago with other council members over other stuff, but they would always take the call.”

Overall, though, Kleinman says his biggest concern is getting the vaccine out to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. “Bickering over this methodology versus that methodology is below the main thing, which is getting [the vaccine] distributed,” he said.

To be fair, not all council members were ready to blame the mayor for the week's spats. Medrano, who signed the original memo to Broadnax, said he was waiting to see the mayor's plan for registration before commenting. And, in an emailed statement to the Observer, council member Jennifer Gates wrote: "It is essential everyone work together to address the distribution of the vaccine. It needs to be apolitical and collaborative between all parties involved."

Tennell Atkins, council member for District 8, said much the same. He’s not concerned with any drama between the mayor and the county judge or the council members. He’s concerned with getting the vaccine to people and focusing registration efforts in a data-driven way. “My responsibility is to the residents of the city of Dallas and to make sure they get correct information,” Atkins said.

He said he gets along with the mayor and the rest of the council members because he has to if he wants to get the vaccine to his constituents. “We have to make sure that we’re protecting the people that we are here to serve,” Atkins said. “That’s our responsibility, and that’s my responsibility — to make sure we get through this pandemic and still be here.”

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