The Dallas city auditor released a report last Friday painting the outfit that promotes the Dallas Convention Center as a runaway, money-burning, out-of-control party barn. Soon after, Mayor Mike Rawlings had words to say.
Rawlings told The Dallas Morning News: “The narrative in the audit is about vaguery. That ultimately is a concerning thing, because business this important should be run with precision.”
And the Morning News, being the Morning News, let him get away with it. Well, look, before we go one bit further with this, let’s settle one important point.
The audit was not about anything vague. This audit sent up black smoke like a fire in a tire yard because it was so specific and pointed to such specific outrages.
The audit dove straight down into the fine print of the contract between VisitDallas, the quasi-private outfit that books shows and conventions into the convention center. The city-owned convention center, by the way, loses about $80 million a year, so in a city that says it can’t afford to maintain the streets, yes, we do need to see what the hell is going on.
The audit found instance after instance in which the city simply doesn’t know what VisitDallas does with the $29.1 million in tax money that the city gives VisitDallas every year to book shows into the convention center. What information the city does get back is often not true, the auditor said.
But here’s the part that absolutely knocked my socks off. The response of the city officials who are in charge of managing the contract with VisitDallas was the big, old middle finger.
For all the faults the auditors found in how the contract is handled, the audit staff offered recommendations for ways to fix the problems. In 40 percent of those cases, the city staff in charge of the contract told the auditor they weren’t going to do anything. They refused to adopt the suggested reforms. Why? Oh, this is truly rich.
“We disagree with your recommendation,” the city staff told the auditor, “because the recommendation requires changes in how VisitDallas operates internally.”
Damn straight! Of course it requires changes in how they operate internally. It would require them to show what they do with the money. Internally.
You know, that’s how it is with money. When you count it, you count all of it. You don’t just count like 50 percent of it and then say you're tired of counting.
And you know what else? If VisitDallas doesn’t want to let the city count all the city money it spends, then the city should tell them, “OK, Visitschmisit, no more money.” Oh, but now we're getting down into the real story.
Let’s go back to the mayor and his analysis that this is about vaguery, which is not a real word, but I think it should be, and I think the cops should be able to give people tickets for it. This is where we find the answer to my question: If they’re guilty of vaguery, why not stop giving them $29.1 million a year in tax money?
Because we can’t. Because the mayor made sure we couldn’t.
When this contract was brought to the council three years ago, three council members — Mark Clayton, Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs — begged the mayor and the rest of the council to hold off just a few weeks before approving it. The mayor was pushing it through, badgering the council to vote it up and sign it weeks before the council voted on the 2015 overall city budget.
Clayton, Kingston and Griggs all said they thought it was reckless fiscal policy to lock the city into a contract before the council had even decided how much money it had for other important needs — streets, for example, which typically get less funding than the convention center.
Kingston made the point that in the age of Skype and video conferencing, the big convention business is dwindling nationally. He pointed out that convention bookings have been falling steadily for years while Dallas’ downtown hotels actually have been doing better, so the idea that conventions drive hotel revenues must be skewed.
But everything about the Dallas convention center has been skewed since the 1970s. The convention center is surrounded by real estate owned by the same people who own The Dallas Morning News and by oilman Ray Hunt. The Morning News has pimped shamelessly for decades for everything from a city-owned convention hotel to a second DART light-rail alignment to a bullet train — anything that could be brought into their corner of downtown — but especially for the convention center.
That alignment of old power has created an atmosphere in which it is considered obscene and sacrilegious to even question the way the convention center does business or handles public money, and that’s exactly what the mayor told Clayton, Kingston and Griggs three years ago when they merely asked for time to carefully consider.
Shooting down their suggestion that the council should set its overall budget first, then take up the VisitDallas contract, Rawlings said: “I am more concerned about every time the [convention center] comes up in the negative sense about this, the threats of people speaking badly, of threats of this attack.”
So, look, that’s where vaguery happens. The three council members were only asking for a chance to do the budget first and then take the time needed to go over the VisitDallas budget carefully.
Rawlings shot them down and persuaded the council to hurry up and adopt the VisitDallas contract before doing the budget, and he did it specifically to cut off public debate. He even said so.
That was not the end of it. In the last year, council member Griggs engaged in a long legal battle to get city officials to cough up exactly the kind of information the auditor just published in this new scathing report. In fact, when I look at what Griggs was looking for and what the auditor finally found, I can’t help wondering if Griggs’ public information demands may not have provided a road map for the audit.
Convention center officials stubbornly refused to give up any of the information Griggs sought, and eventually they persuaded the Texas attorney general to back them. Of course, now that the information is out anyway, we see that the convention center officials are stubborn to the last and have no intention of letting it happen again.
I have been writing a lot in recent weeks about the 2019 mayoral election and how it will be a shootout at the OK Corral between the old culture at City Hall and the new. This is a great example.
Vaguery, in the form of deliberately sloppy, half-assed accounting, has been almost a state religion under the old regime. They posture themselves as hard-nosed, business-wise guys, but they learned a long time ago that tight bookkeeping is not their friend at City Hall. I’m sure they count every sou when it’s their money. But when they are sliding $29 million a year in public funds under the table to some go-along good-old-boys who will do their bidding, the last thing in the world they want is a crystal clear, steel-trap, publicly accessible set of books for a bunch of nosy council members and reporters to come thumbing through.
The old guard wants to paint people like Clayton, Kingston and Griggs as community organizer hippies, but don’t be fooled by that. The outrageous abuses and squandering of public funds found in this audit would have been found out and cleaned up. We would have had a smart, honest conversation about the basic value or lack thereof in the convention center itself. This would have been handled the right way and the clean way if Clayton, Griggs and Kingston had had their way.
The mayor’s words in 2015 said it all. He wanted to hurry up and get this contract inked, out of order in the budget process, because he didn’t want to allow even a chance of criticism or public debate. That’s the naked truth, exactly how the old guard has always done business, and there’s no vaguery about it.
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