I learned this week in a piece by Shawn Shinneman at D Magazine that the city of Dallas is paying lawyers to sue the Texas Attorney General in district court in Austin to get out of turning over Mayor Eric Johnson’s daily calendar.
Let me just run that by you one more time. The state attorney general has ruled already that the mayor’s calendar is by law public information and the mayor should turn it over to D Magazine. We — by which I mean you, me, our tax dollars — are paying attorneys to sue the state attorney general in order to keep the mayor’s daily schedule secret.
The mayor has argued that making his calendar public would subject him to personal danger. Let me run something else by you. Yesterday at 10 a.m., the president of the United States was scheduled to handle phone calls. At 11:45 a.m. he was to receive his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.
He was slated to leave the White House at 4:45 p.m., arrive in Michigan at 6:25 p.m., do a rally. He was supposed to be home by 10:25 p.m.
How do I know that? Because the president’s daily schedule is published by the White House every day. It’s online. A 5-year-old can find it.
So you tell me: How can Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson have a greater need to keep his schedule secret than the president of the United States? What’s the real reason? Let’s see if we can guess.
Shortly after getting elected mayor last summer, Johnson took on another job as partner in a law firm, Locke Lord, in the firm’s public finance practice group handling local government money-borrowing. Since the announcement, Shinneman at D has been trying to find out how much time Johnson spends at City Hall and how much he spends at the law firm.
So I would guess that’s the issue. Not his personal security. How much time does he spend at City Hall? It seems to me that’s a fair question.
After all, how arrogant was it and how dismissive for him to announce this law firm job right after getting elected mayor? He immediately leverages his election as the city’s top government official to get a job in the government finance division of a law firm.
He can’t even wait six months? Wow. He must be under some serious pressure if he doesn’t even have time to worry about appearances.
After he was elected, Johnson offered his personal philosophy on transparency in an essay for The Dallas Morning News. He started out, “When we speak of transparency in government, mostly we mean the post-factum or contemporaneous disclosure of public information.”
I’m thinking, “No, I just want to see your schedule.”
He goes on: “Informing the public about what government officials have already said or done is very important. Arguably, however, it is less important than what I have come to refer to as forward transparency. By forward transparency, I mean words or actions that inform the public of where a government official is going or is attempting to go in the future.”
I’m thinking, “No, I just want to see your schedule.”
Johnson writes: “Forward transparency is rarer than post-factum or contemporaneous transparency in democratic systems, I believe, because forward transparency carries with it greater political risk for the government official.”
Yeah, you know, I just wish we could see your schedule.
I wrote recently about my own City Hall transparency problems having to do with crime and the soaring murder rate in Dallas. My ax to grind involves the mayor’s recent demand that the city manager do something about the Dallas murder rate — 50% higher than Houston’s, twice the murder rate in San Antonio and four times Austin’s.
I said the city could get a start on things by releasing the record of 911 calls from Jim’s Car Wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. After a 20-year battle at City Hall, in the Legislature and in the courts, the city finally succeeded in shutting down the car wash last summer on the grounds that it was the cause of crime and murder in the surrounding neighborhood.
But the owner, Dale Davenport, insists the record of his own calls to the police for help during all those 20 years will prove he was fighting crime, not causing it.
Simple question, right? Was he causing crime or fighting it? Is he lying about calling the cops all the time? Or telling the truth?
Mayor Johnson says he wants something done about murder, so I would assume he must be curious about what’s causing the murders. Is murder imported into otherwise peaceable areas by exploitative business owners who promote drug sales and other illegal activities on their properties? Or does murder well up organically from the neighborhoods for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the businesses in them?
Let’s look at those 911 calls. We’ve been focused on Jim’s Car Wash for 20 years. The city’s whole argument all that time has been that the car wash was causing the crime. The answer is in the 911 calls.
But, no. It’s like the mayor’s schedule. The city will fight to the death before it will let go of those 911 calls. Why would that be? What is the city so worried about?
I can only offer informed speculation based on having covered urban crime and racial politics for 48 years. Davenport, who owns Jim’s Car Wash, is a white guy. The neighborhood around his car wash is poor, segregated and mainly African American, although Mexican American families have been moving there in recent years.
For all of my long years covering this stuff, the politically expedient approach to urban crime has been to blame it on white people, an answer I personally have usually found both satisfying and persuasive, in the main. South Dallas, the neighborhood around the car wash, is racially segregated, poor and deprived of amenities because of a history of government policies prosecuted by white people. It was red-lined out of mainstream America, and that kind of oppression has bad consequences for everybody.
But that doesn’t mean the guy with the car wash is murdering people or causing others to commit murder. At some point, somebody has to tackle the very inexpedient and politically volatile possibility that the murder problem in the neighborhood comes from the people in the neighborhood, not from the car wash.
Nobody wants to do that. No one in elective politics even has the guts say it out loud. Not even a whisper. But if they let those 911 calls out, then they will no longer be able to avoid dealing with the real issue.
I know already that the 911 calls will tell the inconvenient truth loud and clear: The car wash owner is not the murderer. He’s a car wash guy. He is as frightened and concerned and threatened as anybody by the crime around his business. That’s why he’s been begging the police for help for 20 years.
Shinneman presented numbers in his recent piece for D Magazine showing that the city of Dallas is far and away the least transparent, most secretive city in the state. Dallas sues the attorney general more than any other city in Texas to get out of releasing information that the AG has ruled is public and should be released.
I called the mayor’s office for comment on the mayor’s schedule. I was told that the question is a matter of ongoing litigation and that the mayor therefore would not comment. I should have asked if the mayor believes the issue of the schedule involves post-partum or factotum transparency, but I only thought of that after I hung up. Getting slower on the draw.
The larger point on open records and transparency is this: The kind of extreme measures the city employs to avoid transparency always tell their own story, as do the mayor’s convoluted rationalizations. There’s always a reason they won’t release information that clearly should be public.
In the case of the mayor’s schedule, the most probable reason for the city to expend taxpayer funds on a lawsuit to keep the schedule secret is that the mayor must not spend any time at City Hall, and he doesn’t want anybody to find out. In the car wash case, the city doesn’t want to release the owner’s 911 calls because the city doesn’t want to admit that he’s not causing the murder rate to soar.
And who would ever suspect a car wash of causing the murder rate to soar? Well, see, it’s the obverse that’s the problem. If not the car wash, then who? That’s the piece nobody wants to touch.
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The city’s record of obfuscation and secrecy is deplorable on its own. In this age of cynicism about government and politics, what could be worse than always hiding the ball?
But we bump into another even more serious dimension when we think about what does not happen and what does not get done when the ball is hidden. Maybe you don’t think the mayor’s schedule counts for much. I do. I think it’s important to know if our mayor is the real deal or an ex-Post Toasties bullshit artist.
But the other even more consequential case is the record of 911 calls from the car wash. Here we are dealing with truly existential questions, and we are dealing with human lives — those lost lives that account for the difference between our murder rate and Austin’s.
It’s not too much to wonder if other cities are resolving problems that Dallas cannot solve because Dallas expends so much effort and treasure hiding from them. That’s the real transparency story.