City Hall

Ethics Complaint Says Tennell Atkins Wasted $20,000 on Grass for Rec Center

The recreation center is complete with a fitness center and baseball courts, a recording studio, commercial kitchen, computer lab, and senior center.
The recreation center is complete with a fitness center and baseball courts, a recording studio, commercial kitchen, computer lab, and senior center. City of Dallas
CORRECTION, Sept. 13: Due to an editing error, a previous headline for this story inaccurately referred to a "non-native grass." It has since been amended.

The City Council put a lot of work into revamping the Singing Hills Recreation Center in southern Dallas. It was first proposed almost a decade ago, but the project didn’t receive full funding until 2017. It was finally finished late last year, but the pandemic delayed the renovated recreation center's opening.

When the Singing Hills Recreation Center finally opened in March this year, it received praise from the city and the community.

Now, an anonymously filed ethics complaint accuses council member Tennell Atkins, a project manager and a program manager of wasting $20,000 of city property and resources on the recreation center, which is in Atkins' district.

The complaint says Atkins interfered with city employees Vincent Ogbuehi, the project manager for the Singing Hills Recreation Center, and Trent Williams, a senior program manager for the Park and Recreation Department, and improperly influenced them to “destroy water saving landscaping” at the recreation center.

“Atkins’ behavior violates the city’s charter prohibition on interfering with management, the code of ethics, council policy as adopted for the design of Singing Hills, and city procurement rules,” according to the complaint.

When the Observer received a tip that an audit was taking place over the Singing Hills Recreation Center, Atkins said he didn’t know anything about it. The city would only say that the Park and Recreation Department was responding to an audit. Atkins didn’t reply to requests for comment on the specific allegations outlined in the complaint.

The city had requested that the project be sustainable as part of a broader effort to make Dallas’ environmental policy a focus in design proposals. Led by Perkins&Will Architects, a team of designers won the project. Kevin Sloane Studio was the team member in charge of landscape architecture. He’s known for using landscaping to restore native habitats to enhance his projects' sustainability.

The Singing Hills Recreation Center proposal called for a blend of multiple native Texas grass species that, once filled in, wouldn’t require any watering or mowing.

“In addition to the environmental benefits of conserving water and reducing the use of gas-powered mowing, the landscape proposal would have generated substantial annual savings for the parks department,” the complaint said. “Watering and mowing are large expenses for the city’s other parks.”

The landscape portion of the design contract topped $100,000, with the native grass installation clocking in at $20,000. But after the grass began to fill in, the complaint alleges, Atkins complained to the Park and Recreation Department that he did not like how the grass looked and demanded it be mowed and replaced.

“Instead of explaining to Atkins that the design was necessary to the procurement of the project and approved by Council, Ogbuehi and Williams acquiesced to Atkins demands and had the native grasses mowed and replaced with buffalo grass, which will have to be periodically both mowed and watered,” the complaint said.

"I guess it didn’t look good enough for the publicity it was getting.” – Trent Williams, senior program manager

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Because of this, Atkins, Ogbuehi’ and Williams are directly responsible for the destruction of $20,000 in landscaping, increased project costs for replacement landscaping, and a permanent increase in maintenance costs, the complaint alleges.

Ogbuehi didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Williams said the complaint isn’t completely accurate. “That anonymous complaint is, oh how do I put this politely? Incorrect,” Williams said.

The native grass was installed and doing well, Williams said, but months of construction activity, problems with vegetation and the freeze from Winter Storm Uri was causing the grass to fill in slowly. “It takes patience,” Williams said.

He got a call one day saying that the grass had been mowed completely down. The following week, he heard that it might be replaced. He said he recommended buffalo turf and some other grasses, but that it wasn’t his decision to make at the time. In fact, he said he would have advised against replacing the grass.

“If Tennell had come to me and said, ‘Trent, what do you think?’ I would have said, ‘Let’s give it the rest of the year … In the meantime, people need to quit mowing it,” Williams said. "But I guess it didn’t look good enough for the publicity it was getting."

Williams said neither he nor Ogbuehi decided to replace the grass.

The complaint claims Atkins actions are a clear violation of the city’s charter, which states “neither the council nor any City Council member shall give orders to any of the subordinates of the city manager in those departments, either privately or publicly.” It also claims that Atkins violated the city’s code of ethics. The code of ethics prohibits city officials from interfering with city employees’ work and implementation of policy, or influencing them in making recommendations or decisions.

According to the complaint, “Atkins interfered with Ogbuehi’s and Williams’ work on the landscaping of Singing Hills. He impaired their ability to implement council's environmental policy and the Singing Hills landscape design adopted by council. Atkins also influenced Ogbuehi and Williams in the decision to destroy the native grasses.”

Atkins actions also create potential procurement liability for the city, the complaint said. The design contract was awarded by sealed bids in response to a request for proposals by the city. The project received six points in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for water use reduction through landscaping.

“An aggrieved proposer could argue that the Perkins&Will proposal won unfairly because it received credit for an aspect that the city later decided not to require,” the complaint said.

The complaint was filed on Aug. 3, and the grass replacement took place between mid-May and June 30. Overall, the Singing Hills Recreation Center ran $10.5 million and went through several City Council administrations before completion.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn