Mayor Mike Rawlings and his friends in the private business group called the Dallas Citizens Council obviously must have learned their lesson when they tried and failed to give away Fair Park, a 277-acre city-owned asset, without a proper public bidding process. Never going to pull a blooper like that one again, right?
Of course, if you thought that, you’d be wrong, because of the key words “learned their lesson,” or more specifically, “learned.”
In fact, a month or so from now they’re going to try to do the exact same thing again with the Trinity River — give it away — in a deal they’ve been cooking up behind the scenes for at least six months. Yes, you heard right. The river.
Not to be biblical about it, but the river, after all, is an act of God. Where the mayor’s attempt to slip Fair Park into a buddy’s pocket ignited the wrath of people who believe in transparency, I honestly wonder if trying to give away an entire river may not earn somebody a couple lightning bolts.
A few weeks ago I told you about a public seminar put on by D Magazine where a panel of experts proposed a “re-wilding” of the Trinity River’s riparian open space through downtown — allowing it to revert to a more truly natural state and then designing human access back into it after the fact.
So the re-wilding is one idea. It’s the one I like, because there would be no massive expressway through it like the one the mayor wants to build. It uses a design called “Balanced Vision,” publicly arrived at 14 years ago but never implemented.
The Balanced Vision design has already been paid for by the taxpayers and successfully taken through a decade-long federal approval process at a total cost of $14 million, so I like that, too. No more money. But you don’t have to like it. You have choices.
Last month I also told you that I got myself sort of smuggled into another Trinity River presentation at the annual luncheon of the Trinity Commons Foundation. At the Trinity Commons deal they talked about a very different kind of park along the river, this one with the massive expressway through it, which is always sort of the point for the mayor and the Citizens Council types. The mayor told the elite crowd at the Trinity Commons luncheon that his design is already in the works, “thanks to Deedie Rose’s being willing to hire some designers.” Deedie Rose is the widow of former Texas Rangers owner Rusty Rose.
Not only is the mayor’s design already underway, thanks to Rose, but the mayor already has a group in mind that he wants to give the river to so they can build Rose’s park on it: “First of all we have got to raise more money, and we believe that we have got the right organization in place by reincorporating Trinity Trust or Trinity Conservancy and be able to raise more of that money.”
Trinity Trust, Trinity Conservancy, Trinity Commons, all are private foundations whose names and functions sort of run together, formed almost 20 years ago to promote the construction of a massive high-speed, limited access toll road along the river.
The Trinity Trust, mentioned by the mayor, is a listed nonprofit group with net assets of $4.6 million and a paid executive director who makes $130,000 a year, according to the most recent available IRS documents.
The mayor got a big round of applause from the crowd at the Trinity Commons luncheon when he mentioned a $50 million “donation” for the park made by the family of the late Harold Simmons, a billionaire. I told you about that last November. I put “donation” in quote marks, in part because I’m sort of a jerk, in part because it’s sort of not a real donation.
At the luncheon, the mayor explained that the full $50 million is divided into what he called “10 million dollar tranches.” In order to get each tranche, the city must jump through certain hoops.
The first one is a big hoop. Apparently even to get the down payment, the city must give naming rights to the Simmons family — painless enough, who cares? — but the city also must give the park itself to this Trinity Something or Other Somebody Somehow Foundation that the mayor said is being “reincorporated.”
Wait, what? Give away the park? Yes. That’s a condition for getting the first 10 million. By the way, accepting that $10 million means throwing away the $14 million we already spent on Balanced Vision, and it probably means restarting the entire decade-long federal approval process, which the mayor and his friends won’t mind doing one bit because that will give them time to find the $2 billion they don’t have now to pay for their toll road. So, you know, I don’t feel like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth, more like a gift shark. You bet I use quote marks for that.
This is where we need to go back to what’s going on with Fair Park, the city’s huge neglected and beleaguered exposition park in South Dallas where the state fair takes place every fall. The mayor spent most of last year trying to do exactly this same thing with Fair Park — just give it to his friend, Walt Humann, along with an open-ended pledge of $20 million a year from the taxpayers for maintenance and repair.
That process got stopped in its tracks when Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston won a ruling from new City Attorney Larry Casto that Fair Park cannot be given away to a private entity without the same kind of full public bidding process the law requires for the sale or disposition of any other public asset.
Since Kingston won that ruling, two formidable new bidders have emerged. I have spoken to one of them, Monte Anderson, who has some truly exciting ideas for reviving Fair Park and connecting it to the neighborhoods around it without loading huge costs onto the backs of taxpayers.
Time out. I need to go back and let you in on something a little personal. My wife, Mariana Greene, is the retired garden editor of The Dallas Morning News. She’s a native Dallasite and the descendant of generations of Texas and Georgia gardeners. She’s an expert on gardening in this climate.
Last year when I first heard that Deedie Rose might be involved in some kind of park design on the river, I told Mariana about it, and I told her I needed to talk to somebody other than some socialite, someone who would be truly knowledgeable about native plants and parks in this climate and all that kind of stuff. I asked her if she could name somebody for me.
She made a big deal out of thinking about it for a long time, like that statue of the naked guy with his head in his hand. “Oh, let me see now.” Ponder, ponder, ponder. And then she said, “Well, Jim, the one person I might recommend you talk to is Deedie Rose.”
I don’t really like getting horsed around like that, but I have to live with it. She explained herself. She was basing her decision, she said, on projects she had visited and inspected first-hand that were owned or operated somehow by Deedie Rose. Oh, great.
My point is that I am not here to tell you that I know that a Deedie Rose-sponsored park design is no good. I don’t know that. I’m not in a position to know it. My expertise on plants is zip except for unloading them from the car. My wife does know. She thinks Rose has top credentials in this area.
But I can absolutely tell you this. The mayor and his cohort have learned nothing from their Fair Park debacle if they try another back-room deal on the Trinity park. Once again they are trying to bake the cake behind the scenes, then hand it to the City Council as a fait accompli. They want to dish this whole thing to a cabal of wealthy insiders without a public process and without bringing fresh eyes to bear on a competitive basis.
The mayor told the Trinity Commons crowd he already knows he wants to turn the river over to what he called an “LGC” or local government corporation. He knows who he wants that LGC to be. And doing it his way is the price the city must pay in order to collect the Simmons gift.
“The first 10 million dollar tranche,” he told the luncheon, “will be when we approve the naming rights and we approve the governance of the LGC and the Trinity Conservancy taking over that project.”
He said the LGC is already getting itself lined up for the job: “I don’t want to speak for the conservancy, but they are in the process of building up their board, making sure they have got the right fundraising methodology, naming rights in the park, those sort of things that will help them raise money.”
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He gave the well-heeled crowd some instructions that may help explain the enormous amount of money that has flowed into the campaign coffers of West Dallas City Council member Monica Alonzo subsequent to the luncheon:
“We have to do our part. The city has to take this vote, and we have got to say thumbs up to it.” Gazing over the room, he said, “Mayor Pro Tem Alonzo, I see her waving. These folks need your support as they go to take a stand on this issue.”
Given the importance of the question — not just the kind of park we have but whether there’s a toll road through it — it is enormously cynical and ruthless to try to do it this way. The good news is that it didn’t work with Fair Park. Kingston put a stop to that.
We’ll have to hope somebody can stop it again this time. And as for the old leadership ever learning the lesson? We may have to wait for funerals for that.