City Hall

Dallas City Manager and Councilman Lee Kleinman Flout the Law to Keep Road Plan Secret

 Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez announced on Memorial Day he intends to resign at the end of January, telling a TV crew he wants to get his "life back.” 

I don’t know any more than that, so I am bound, however grudgingly, to take what he says at face value. But I can’t help noticing a parallel.

Last year in this same month and with curiously similar timing, Gonzalez and City Attorney Warren Ernst (also now resigning) locked horns with City Council member Scott Griggs of North Oak Cliff over access to public information. In that case it was a fight over the open meetings law.

Gonzalez won that fight but only after he and top aides had duked it out pretty good with Griggs, verbally as far as we know. About a week and a half later, Ernst and Gonzalez ginned up a bizarre criminal complaint against Griggs for assaulting a female city employee  — serious business because it was a felony complaint but absurd on the face of it because there was no complainant. All of the eyewitnesses said they hadn’t eyewitnessed anything, and the alleged complainant signed a sworn affidavit saying nothing had happened.
Six months later when the district attorney got out of a mental hospital (another story), the charges went away. But I think it’s safe to say that Griggs and others among the new younger council members, notably Philip Kingston of East Dallas, really do get under the skin of top city staff, especially when they squeeze them into positions potentially at odds with the wishes of the mayor and the old business establishment.

By the way, the underlying issue in the battle that preceded the trumped up charges against Griggs was that unkillable rattlesnake, that pernicious divisive invader that has poisoned the well of local politics for 20 years, the Trinity River toll road, a proposal to build a new highway along the river through downtown.

So history tells us that if it’s a public information fight and if the Trinity River toll road is at the bottom of it and if Griggs or Kingston is involved, we might not be wrong to expect some kind of extreme behavior on the part of City Manager Gonzalez. Somebody has to go prison. He resigns. Whatever.

Fast forward one year after the saga of the trumped up charges, which brings us to this May. Deep in the bowels of City Hall, supposedly out of public view, another Trinity toll road cauldron is bubbling and brewing, with top city staff stirring in the usual eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog.  In this case it’s a document called “CityMAP,” supposedly a compilation of all the best thinking on highway projects devised by City Hall, regional officials and the Texas Department of Transportation.

In truth these kinds of documents tend to have about the same amount of real information and truth in them you would expect to get from some hillbilly on TV screaming at you to come buy a pickup truck, but they are presented to the public with the ritual and ceremony of grand official pronouncements.
The CityMAP document, which was released last Friday, says — oh, knock us over with a feather — that the Trinity toll road is a really good idea and that we need to get to work on it right away and that then we need to come buy a pickup. I was not thrilled to learn to learn, for example, that the toll road is now "needed to realize Governor Abbott’s vision for Texas."


Last May 19, Griggs learned that a draft of the CityMAP document was being circulated to a group of council members on the mayor’s team, of which Griggs definitely is not a member. We’re not talking about notes. Even though this was a draft, it was a formal printed document being shared among chosen members of the council (those who favor the toll road) but not among unchosen ones (those who don’t).

The only reason to split the access that way was that the ongoing process, the bubbling and the brewing, must have been all about the toll road. The pro-toll road forces must have wanted to get that portion of the document inked on paper before the opponents even got a peek.

But Griggs did peek. He found out. He knew by law that a document distributed to some council members and to city staff must by law be distributed to any other council member who wants to see it. So he called into his office Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel, who is over the Trinity toll road project, and asked him for the document. McDaniel said he would go see what he could do.

A short time later McDaniel returns to Griggs’ office with council member Lee Kleinman in tow. Kleinman is the mayor’s appointee as chair of the council's transportation and Trinity River committee, otherwise known as the toll road committee.

Griggs sees Kleinman coming toward his office, basically waves him off and says this isn’t between Griggs and Kleinman. Griggs has a right to the document from A.C. Gonzalez. He wants the document now.

So McDaniel takes Griggs to see Gonzalez, leaving Kleinman behind. Gonzalez tells Griggs that Kleinman, as head of the toll road committee, doesn’t want Griggs to see the document, and he says “It’s a thing between you guys.” He says, “I am at a loss at what to do.”

A parade of assistant city attorneys ensues until finally Chris Bowers, who is the top assistant city attorney, shows up. Griggs tells Bowers, “It is my right as a City Council member to see this document. City staff, specifically A.C., has specifically told me I cannot be shown this document.”

Bowers tells Gonzalez the law is clear. The document cannot be kept from Griggs. But Gonzalez won’t do it. He wants a written formal legal opinion.

Please allow me to pause here. Wow. What the hell is going on with that document? The lawyer tells Gonzalez the law. He still won’t do it. So do we think this is some dry scholarly exercise in traffic projections? I sure don’t. I think it’s some serious eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, and Gonzalez, acting, he says, on Kleinman’s orders, is ready to go to the legal wall to keep Griggs from seeing how the cooking is done.

Four days later Bowers delivers a four-page single-spaced legal opinion to Gonzalez explaining that by law the City Council owns any documents produced or distributed by the staff. Owns them. The whole council. Everybody on the council. Equally. The documents are not the staff’s property.

The opinion refers at some length to a case we talked about a lot here two years ago involving Wallace Hall of Dallas, a University of Texas regent. In that case the Texas attorney general ruled Hall had a right to documents because as a regent he was a “fiduciary,” meaning he and other regents were on the hook for managing the money. But even with Bowers’ four-page opinion in hand, Gonzalez still will not produce the document. Meanwhile, of course, work on the document continues, somewhere out of view.

Wow. What a document! I’m thinking poisoned entrails, lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing!

Kleinman intervenes at this point. He doesn’t accept Bowers’ opinion. On May 24 at 6:34 a.m. he sends an email to Bowers saying, “Please conduct further research and opine as to the required time frame under which information must be produced.”

Now the whole council is in it. At 9:20 a.m. Kingston sends Kleinman an email saying, “What possible harm are you trying to avoid by keeping the draft away from us? What is the holdup?”

At 12:41 p.m. that same day, Bowers sends Kleinman his own private legal opinion. He basically reiterates everything Bowers has already said to Gonzalez, but he adds a line. Not only are Gonzalez and Kleinman required by law to turn over the document, but Bowers tells Kleinman they are “subject to criminal penalties for a failure to do so.”

Griggs gets a copy of the document within the hour.

Not until they get a second legal opinion telling them they are subject to criminal prosecution do Gonzalez and Kleinman relent and release the document to Griggs. And, oh yes, of course, by then the draft “CityMAP” document is all about how great the Trinity toll road project is and how wonderful the toll road will be and how we need to get work on it right away and then come buy a pickup.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches' mummy, maw and gulf.

I asked Kleinman about it. He sent me an email saying, “Note that Mr. Griggs never asked me for access to the document before making his demands on the City Manager, who sought guidance from me. Had Mr. Griggs merely asked to see it, I would have provided him that courtesy, but he chose the adversarial path and indeed prevailed.”

Just about a week after this showdown — roughly the same timing as with the battle between Griggs and Gonzalez last year and the trumped up charges against Griggs — Gonzalez made his retirement announcement. He said he wanted to get his life back. I must grudgingly take him at some of his words.

But, look. The fight over the CityMAP document is a true window on Gonzalez’s role. Obviously the mayor’s pro-toll-road team not only did not want him to give up that document: they wouldn’t let him do it even when the City Attorney said he had to.

Only after the term, “criminal penalties,” entered the picture was Gonzalez able to give away the hot potato and get himself away from the fire. Tough job. But it does pay $400,000 a year.

Meanwhile, what about that CityMAP thing? What do you think? Oh, yeah, by now that thing is just cooking with credibility.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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