Dallas City Hall Demands Transparency of Everybody Outside City Hall

CORRECTION: This item is wrong. The city did respond to my request for information. I did not see their response. I sent my initial request on December 4, 2013. The city did not respond within the 10 day time limit set by state law, but on December 26 a city employee did send me an estimate of costs for the request.

In the past my public information requests always have been handled by one person in the city's public information office. The response came from a different city office. When I did not get any response from the public information office, I asked that office to check on the matter in an email January 15. They said they would, but I did not hear back from them. That led me to believe I was still not getting a response, when in fact I already had.

That's an explanation, not an excuse. The city did respond, and it was my responsibility to find their response in my email. I did search email for a response several times without finding it. But Sam Merten in the mayor's office provided me yesterday with the name of the employee who had responded to me, and I was able to find the response email.

I must add that this matter is one of several in which the city has not been responsive: a few days ago the city refused to provide me with information about the pay and pension for outgoing City Manager Mary Suhm, all of which I believe is public information. Sometimes it takes a little door-banging: This morning I finally received a response to a week-old request for information that should have been available immediately about the Veterans Place development across Lancaster Road from the Veterans Administration Hospital. The overall pattern of behavior for the city is to resist, ignore or stall many requests for transparency. But in the case I wrote about yesterday, the city was right, and I was wrong. I apologize to the city employees who handled my request, and I apologize to the mayor.

ORIGINAL ITEM: Sorry, but I laughed out loud when I read last weekend's story in The Dallas Morning News about the mayor of Dallas castigating the Police and Fire Pension Fund System for not being quicker to pony up information. Talk about shameless! That's like Justin Bieber bitching about reckless drivers on his street.

How would anybody associated with Dallas City Hall dare to criticize anybody else for sitting on information? The city of Dallas regularly violates state law on public information, and they do it by practice, by policy and with absolute impunity. They laugh at the law.

Mayor Mike Rawlings is mad at the pension fund for owning a building that reflects too much sunlight on the Nasher Sculpture Center. Let's do each other a favor and not dredge back through that whole thing again. You know the story. The Nasher is a kind of social/political high temple for the muckety-mucks, and it says Museum Tower, owned by the pension fund, is too reflective. You got it, right?

The mayor wants to beat up on the fund, a semi-autonomous agency, so he is demanding it turn over all kinds of internal and proprietary information. He told the News, "Transparency is critical in this case, critical."

Yeah, well, let me tell you something. Transparency is only critical to the mayor and to City Hall when they are the ones who want somebody else to be transparent. When I ask them simply to obey state law on open records, they laugh at me.

I'm having to put together a bunch of instances in which they have totally ignored my requests so I can combine them in a complaint to the Texas attorney general, which, as they well know, is like filing a complaint with Justin Bieber. But there you have it: I can only do what I can only do.

Six weeks ago I filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act for emails, correspondence, planning documents and blah-blah-blah related to a letter threatening eminent domain that the city had sent to the owners of Jim's Car Wash on MLK. I heard not one word from them, not a word, in a five-week period even though state law requires them to tell me within 10 days whether they intend to give me the information or not.

So I wrote them again a couple weeks ago and asked what was up. They said they'd check on it. Not a word since then. And here's the thing: This is a deal that directly involves the mayor. He told me that the eminent domain letter sent to the car wash was a mistake for which he took the blame. Somebody misinterpreted something he had said. But he also let me know that things are happening around that car wash and that the city still wants to take the property away from the owner.

I had a story in the paper three weeks ago saying that a city-funded nonprofit of which a former City Council member is the salaried CEO is a major landholder around the car wash. So, look, if this is our elected mayor and maybe some members of our elected council using our tax money in some sub rosa scheme to take down a guy's business, then I guess I think the public has a right and a need to know why. We have a right to know what in the hell is going on.

There is also the fact that state law gives me the right to demand information. It imposes deadlines on the city to either provide me the information or say why not. At a certain point violation of that law can become a criminal offense. And the city's official response is Fuuuuck YOU!

They're not doing it. They don't care about the deadlines. They don't care about the law. All of this transparency talk they toss around is a one-way street. It's a stick they will use to beat up on the city employee's pension fund, but try to turn that stick around and poke them with it and they'll sit up inside that leaning tower of pizza they call City Hall and laugh and laugh. By the way, does anybody have an address for Justin Bieber?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze