Code Breaker

Robert Ramirez, a successful artist and a family man, wants the same thing other business owners in the Bishop Arts District in North Oak Cliff already have: a chance to open a full-service restaurant and capture the dollars of local residents, who clamor for more dining options in the burgeoning business district.

But Ramirez has run into a problem. His name is David Spence, Mayor Laura Miller's appointee to the city's plan and zoning commission, who has led a campaign to block Ramirez's efforts to open his Twilight Restaurant and Club.

As a neighboring property owner, Spence has every right to express his opinion about the proposed business as a private citizen, but Ramirez says Spence's efforts have now crossed the lines of proper conduct for a city official.

On June 6, Ramirez filed a complaint with the city's Ethics Advisory Commission that accuses Spence of using his political position improperly to obtain confidential information about the proposed business and, later, using his political clout to "intimidate" Ramirez in order to advance Spence's personal financial interests in the area. In addition, Ramirez says, Spence resorted to "blackmail" when he accused Ramirez of violating various building codes and, later, intimated that complaints to city inspectors would stop if Ramirez withdrew his application for a late-night alcohol permit.

Last month, Ramirez agreed to withdraw the application, believing the gesture would resolve the dispute, but Spence's attempts to uncover and report various code violations continued.

On the same day Ramirez filed the complaint, his landlord, Amanda Moreno, called for Spence's resignation from the plan commission. Moreno claims Spence's activities are the result of her and her husband's decision to reject Spence's earlier offer to purchase the building.

"He is trying to destroy us and sabotage everything we're trying to do," Moreno says. "He's out of line, and we want his resignation."

Spence, who concedes that he inappropriately included his political title on a questionnaire he distributed to Ramirez and his neighbors, says he will not resign. He also says the allegations that his opposition to Ramirez's restaurant is motivated by spite are "preposterous."

"My worst offense was naïveté and, as a plan commissioner, possibly inexperience," says Spence, who confirms that he unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Moreno's building.

Miller, the architect of the city's ethics code, has received numerous documents relating to the dispute but has not publicly commented on the matter.

Councilman Mark Housewright, who inherited Spence after Miller was elected mayor and he took her place on the city council, says he will not ask Spence to resign. Instead, Housewright says, he will allow the ethics commission to investigate the complaint. But Housewright agrees that some of Spence's behavior has been inappropriate--particularly his decision to use his political title as part of his involvement in the dispute, which does not involve any matters before the plan commission.

"There was no doubt [Spence] made a mistake or two," Housewright says. "Whether they were violations of the ethics package, I'm not going to speculate on that."

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Robert Ramirez stands inside the future home of Twilight, located inside an old auto parts store on Davis Street that sat vacant for years until he leased it from Moreno. The place is just the type of eyesore that local residents say has hampered the neighborhood's renaissance, and Ramirez's planned renovation appears to be an ideal fit for the Bishop Arts District, a diverse collection of homespun restaurants and retail stores.

The menu will offer a selection of soups, salads and sandwiches that is mindful of vegetarians. The limited bar will emphasize imported beers and high-end wines. Ramirez says the place will be an artists' showcase, featuring the creations of artists who work and live at Tobeto, a commercial art studio Ramirez operates near the Dallas Zoo.

"I don't want to have a bar atmosphere," says Ramirez, who will run the place with his girlfriend, Misty. When it's finished, Ramirez says, he'll have invested about $30,000--his life's savings plus business loans. "I feel like there's a heavy burden on me. Yeah, there are problems that come from serving alcohol. There are responsibilities that come with it. I don't want to let anybody down."

As a city plan commissioner, Spence has no jurisdiction over Ramirez's proposed business; the restaurant is not located in Spence's district, and it does not require any zoning changes that would fall under the commission's jurisdiction. In fact, Spence's only interests in the neighborhood are personal; he recently renovated a nearby apartment building and has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to buy other buildings in the Bishop Arts District.

Still, Spence has used his position as a plan commissioner to, in his word, "elevate" the debate among neighboring residents and business owners, whom he claims opposed Ramirez's initial application to obtain a late-night alcohol permit from the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC).

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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