In the old culture of Dallas, the one I hope is half-dead already, it was bad form to try to connect the dots. Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow is gone from those pages now, and I sort of miss him: He always painted me as a tinfoil hat crazy-head when I tried to connect the dots, and that was how I knew I was connecting the dots.
The fact is that Dallas has always been a very top-down hierarchical town ruled by a small business elite accustomed to a great deal of privacy when devising or carrying out strategy. If we didn’t scan the horizon for whatever dots we could find and then make a stab at connecting them, a process called disambiguation, we would never have much idea what’s going on around us.
Example: the accusation of coercion recently prosecuted against City Council Member Scott Griggs by City Attorney Warren Ernst. A handful of those dots are so unmistakably visible to the naked eye that even the The Dallas Morning News acknowledged them in an editorial this week.
The News took note of the fact that no witnesses supported Ernst’s claim that Griggs had ever coerced anybody. The paper pointed out that the evidence prepared by Ernst was tossed by a grand jury. And the paper concluded it was too bad and a shame that Ernst had pursued felony charges against a sitting City Council member on such a flimsy pretext.
Yes, but why? Why did it happen? Even in asking that question, we know that we cross the line into the strictly verboten realm of speculation where we are forbidden to trespass and where the penalty is a tinfoil hat. But how can we not ask? Why would we not wonder?
There are more dots than just these, after all. The city attorney’s aggressive pursuit of criminal charges against a council member did not just pop up out of the blue, a lone dot with nothing to precede it. Over the last year, the same city attorney has sent multiple memos bearing his signature to members of the City Council, warning them of possible criminal penalties if they expose what he considers city secrets to the public.
Most of these warnings have had to do with information relayed to the council in what are called “executive session” meetings. Executive sessions are legally protected, behind-closed-doors meetings of the mayor and council to consider certain topics laid out specifically by law, including lawsuit settlements, certain personnel matters, real estate transactions — generally speaking the kind of thing most of us would agree the council and city staff need to be able to hear about — though not vote on — in private.
Ernst’s memos warning the council of criminal penalties for divulging these proceedings have been the occasion for spirited push-back from some council members. They believe executive sessions are misused by the staff to cloak certain matters in secrecy when they should be public.
Strictly in terms of dots, the fact is that the single dot representing the criminal case that Ernst tried unsuccessfully to build against Griggs was preceded by a string of dots concerning executive sessions, in which Ernst invoked criminal penalties to enforce secrecy.
Then we need to look at where the dots fall. The executive session dots never have followed any statement or action by what we might call the loyalist wing of the council — the ones who never cross swords with the mayor or staff. The dots have followed criticisms or demands for information from the insurgent wing of the council, especially council members Griggs and Philip Kingston.
Griggs caught city staff pursuing a secret deal to allow gas drilling in city parks after the council had forbidden it, for example. Kingston demanded and got dash-cam video showing Dallas Police Department vice cops harassing Uber drivers at the behest of Yellow Cab. The so-called coercion incident occurred after Griggs caught officials backdating documents in order to influence an election.
And these, by the way, are little dots. Pin pricks. We need to look also at the great, big, fat dots. Who are council members Kingston, Griggs, Adam Medrano and Mark Clayton, after all? If they are insurgents, what does their insurgency represent? What is it all about?
Clayton, Griggs, Kingston and Medrano (to be alphabetical about it) represent a fundamentally new and very different view of the city and its destiny. The Old Guard still has all its poker chips piled up behind a bet on sprawl, the hub-and-spoke urban architecture in which the city itself, especially downtown, may be a central destination but is never a true community.
The insurgents have an entirely and radically different view. They see the city as a place to live as well as work and seek entertainment. They are not fully enthusiastic about cars and roads. In seeking their goals they are much more democratic than the Old Guard. They tend to believe that people are smart and that the best way to make a good public decision is to involve, inform and consult the public, not get everything all wired up beforehand over drinks at the country club and then spring it on people as a fait accompli.
When we look at all of the dots, big and small, and at the pattern of them, we see that the dots follow very closely the demarcation of conflict between the Old Guard and the insurgents. The insurgents demand information and then share it with the public when they get it. The city attorney threatens them with criminal action. They catch the Old Guard red-handed. The city attorney actually tries to put them in prison.
And what about coercion? The accusation against Griggs was that he attempted to coerce a public official. That charge fell flat when a grand jury looked at the evidence. But was there coercion going on? Is coercion of public officials a real problem at Dallas City Hall?
The dots say yes. But the dots tell us that the picture painted by the city attorney is a perfect inversion of what is probably really going on. Instead of Griggs being a perpetrator of coercion caught in the act by Ernst, it’s Ernst who was attempting to coerce Griggs.
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Coerce to do what, you ask? Coerce to shut up. Coerce to sit down. Coerce to stop challenging. And this more than anything else: coerce to stop pursuing a vision of the city that conflicts with and impedes the long-range strategy of the Old Guard.
If anything, that dot pattern of coercion, the real coercion, gets more clear as the insurgency gains strength, as it did in this last City Council election when the insurgents organized, went out into the city and beat the Old Guard in certain key races.
The old guys have got that big stack of poker chips still riding on that bet on sprawl. Those new guys looking at their cards across the table, those anti-sprawl guys, seem awfully confident. Time for the bouncer to kick their chairs out from under them.
Those are the dots I see. My hat now, please?