Fake Justice

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The city's fake-drug panel was announced on a Friday. The previous Monday I attended a meeting of the city council' s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Dr. Elba Garcia, at which the members believed they were going to talk about how to proceed on fake drugs. To their chagrin, they found they could not discuss fake drugs because someone had removed that item from their agenda without their knowledge.

Who could do that? I tried to find out and wound up with a lot of finger-pointing between the city manager and the city attorney. But somebody on the staff took it off the agenda. I asked City Attorney Madeleine Johnson to tell me who is the boss in terms of the agenda--the council members or the staff. Is there anything that sets the pecking order?

She said, "No, there isn't."

I'm not a lawyer. But I say yes, there is. It's called: We fought a war with the British over this stuff. The people we elect are the boss. The people who just have jobs are not the boss.

Look, maybe having a political science debate with me is not everybody's idea of time well spent. I just want to make an observation: The culture and day-to-day practices of Dallas City Hall are such that people, even very smart people who went to tough colleges and top law schools, believe that hired staff may have the right and power to tell elected council members what they can or cannot talk about in meetings.

I'll go back and look, but I don't think the Declaration of Independence said, " secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the Dallas city manager." Hey, if it's in there, my bad.

The way the city's fake-drug panel ultimately got put together amounted to one of the more humiliating treatments of the city council I have seen at City Hall in a long time. On Monday after the Public Safety Committee found out it would not be allowed to discuss fake drugs, members of the committee made all sorts of brave promises that this investigation was theirs to manage and they were not giving it up.

Councilman Don Hill warned that no final decisions had better be made at a meeting scheduled for the following day in the mayor's office: "There will not be a final decision made in that meeting as to what and how and what the scope will be, is that correct?"

Chairwoman Garcia assured him no such thing would happen and that she and her committee were still very much in charge: "Right, you are perfectly right, because I want this to come back to the Public Safety Committee for discussion."

The next day--the day Hampton acted like he knew nothing about the DEA report--Garcia and the rest of them came filing out of Mayor Laura Miller's office with wobbly-dog grins on their faces, which I now understand: In that meeting, Miller and Johnson had informed Garcia and the others what the deal was going to be, who was going to be on the panel and what the scope would be.

The following Friday when Johnson formally introduced the panel to a specially called meeting of Garcia's Public Safety Committee, Johnson capped her remarks with an extraordinary edict of secrecy: "There will not be any discussion with these individuals," she said. "They will not be answering questions...I would ask that questions not be directed to them at this point in time." Instead, Johnson directed the council that any questions they might have for the fake-drug panel should be addressed to her, and she would pass them on.

Dr. Garcia listened to this speech in polite silence. Councilman James Fantroy spoke up: "I don't want to be highly critical here," he said, "because it's very touchy, but, Madam Chair, we will not be able to ask these individuals any questions during this investigation. That concerns me."

Fantroy went on to point out that the chief investigator appointed by the city is an ex-FBI agent with deep ties to law enforcement, and he raised the question whether this type of person will have an eye for the real issues in this case.

Great question. Fake drugs was a fundamental failure of law enforcement in Dallas. Is Fantroy the only person to whom it occurs that law enforcement may not be the proper venue to look to for objective insight? Or does everybody see it, but Fantroy is the only one with the cojones to say it out loud?

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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