On Wednesday afternoon, as the Dallas City Council gathered in a Trinity River Audubon Center conference room overlooking a shrunken pond and sea of marsh grass, there was a solid thunk of bird hitting glass.
No one seemed to notice, save for maybe the security guard standing at attention with his back to the window, the room in various states of attention or distraction as a council member queried assistant city manager Jill Jordan on insurance requirements for the two nonprofits charged with running the soon-to-be-completed Texas Horse Park. It was an omen, though -- had to be -- and Scott Griggs took it as his unconscious cue.
Switching on his microphone and offering an obligatory compliment to city staff (they'd done a grade-A job of re-creating the City Hall horseshoe at the nature center), he turned a prosecutorial gaze on Jordan.
Hadn't city staff learned something about one of the nonprofits in recent months? Griggs wondered. An animal cruelty charge against its operator, perhaps? Claims that he hadn't paid some previous bills? And taxes?
Griggs teased out of Jordan that, yes, back in 2011 the city of McKinney convicted River Ranch Educational Charities chief Wayne Kirk on a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge. County charges stemming from the same incident (Jordan steered clear of specifics, but Kirk was accused of failing to properly feed his horses, as we detailed here) were dismissed.
Jordan further acknowledged that Kirk has in the past been accused of a "laundry list" of alleged financial misdemeanors unrelated to the horse park that spurred a lien and a few lawsuits.
What type of rent is River Ranch paying the city of Dallas for the opportunity to charge for trail rides and host parties and wedding receptions on city-owned property, in brand new, city-financed facilities? Griggs continued.
Feigning surprise that the nonprofit is paying zero rent (same as Equest, the disabled-kids-and-veterans charity that's also setting up shop at the horse park) and that its lease is for 21 years, with two five-year extensions baked into the contract, Griggs wondered why none of this had come up during the city's vetting process.
City Hall, Jordan explained, "treated this as a standard economic development deal," looking at River Ranch's basic finances but little else. The other things didn't come to light until media outlets (i.e. the Observer) reported on Kirk's past.
Griggs' feigned surprise turned to disgusted outrage.
"We completely dropped the ball on this one," he chided Jordan, then her boss, City Manager A.C. Gonzalez. "A.C., this is some of the worst due diligence I've seen in the city of Dallas."
Griggs concluded by asking City Attorney Warren Ernst to find a way out of the River Ranch contract.
"I support the facility. It's absolutely beautiful. We need an operator as good as the facility."
Here, Councilwomen Carolyn Davis and Vonciel Hill stepped in on behalf of the defense.
Davis angrily condemned the spread of what she called "false information" about Kirk. The animal cruelty conviction was the fault of a staff member, not Kirk. And a lot of the other information the city dug up was from his "much, much younger years. Like when he was 18." (Davis didn't specify, but Kirk has a marijuana conviction from 1976, when he was 22, an evading arrest conviction from the next year, and some DWI charges). None of this should reflect poorly on the city's vetting process, she said.
"I love it," Davis told Jordan. "I think you guys have done a wonderful job."
Vonciel Hill was next, matching Griggs' incredulity at the lack of due diligence with outrage of her own at Griggs' impertinence.
"Anybody who sits here today and throws rocks is going to raise my ire," Hill said. "We should be celebrating, not throwing stones."
Jordan was more than happy to be led by Hill through some of the brighter spots of the Texas Horse Park project. From the beginning, when it was pitched to voters as part of the 1998 Trinity River Corridor Project bond program, it had been envisioned as a two-part venture. Initially, the first phase was going to be what Jordan referred to as a "convention center for horses," a commercial venture that would host various large-scale equestrian events. The second was to include a public service component, with horse-related nonprofits coming in to offer their services to the community.
The city, however, was unable to convince donors to pony up a $15 million match for city funds. Then, when the city issued a request for proposals, there was one bid, Jordan said, and "they wanted us to pay them."
Instead, the city decided to do the flip the plan around, doing the nonprofit phase first, then raising the funds needed for the "convention center for horses" idea. Equest and River Ranch were the two charities who stepped up to the plate.
To the claim that River Ranch is getting a free pass on its contract, Jordan enumerated the capital the nonprofit is bringing to the project: fencing, horses, building furnishings, commercial kitchen equipment. The contract also requires River Ranch to build the horse trails themselves plus offer free rides to underprivileged Dallas kids.
Jordan also downplayed concerns about Kirk's character. The lien she'd brought up earlier had been placed on a house before Kirk bought it, she said, and was quickly paid. Same with the back taxes, which accumulated after Kirk's accountant died. Jordan noted that Kirk's new accountant is a former city of Dallas auditor.
The alleged equine abuse had an equally tidy explanation: "An employee was mad about something else" and called the SPCA. The supposedly malnourished horses were rescues that Kirk had just saved.
"When you have employees, things happen," Jordan concluded. "No organization is 100 percent clean."
And due diligence? The city never does background checks on employees of companies it contracts with, Jordan said. It looks at financials, and that's about it. Nor is a misdemeanor or felony conviction, provided they are five or 10 years old, respectively, a bar from employment with the city of Dallas.
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By the end of the meeting, it was pretty clear that Griggs' push to cancel River Ranch's contract would go nowhere. Councilmen Rick Callahan and Philip Kingston voiced concerns about the deal but, unlike Griggs, didn't seem eager to wade into a race-tinged war between north and south as the council's black representatives (minus Dwaine Caraway, who was absent) went to the mat for the horse park.
"We gotta start talking positive about things that are coming to Pleasant Grove," Councilman Tennell Atkins said. "Horse park bring money. Horse park bring economic activity." Upscale housing. Restaurants. Increased quality of life.
"Please do not rain on our horse park parade."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.