Grab for Privates

Oh, wow. How very Dallas. A certain set of downtown leaders can't get exactly what they want on the Trinity River project or on downtown development schemes, so now they want to set up their own private government.

The same set of moguls who brought us that stupid Palladium project that's never going to get built around Ross Perot Jr.'s peace-sign basketball stadium now are lobbying for a new entity in downtown based on the British East India Company. They want the right to set up a private corporation with the power to build roads, levy taxes, sell bonds and even enforce the law, all under the modern equivalent of a royal charter.

Call me alarmist. I don't care. This is like the old Dallas Citizens Council risen from the sepulchre. Yikes! Where'd we put that wooden stake?

Maybe I'm mis-remembering: Did we not fight a war with the British over this? We wanted to run our own affairs under the system we call democracy, rather than have our lives run for us by private companies owned by friends of the crown. Right?

I have been looking at the powers and authorities that could be granted to this new "local government corporation" or LGC that people are talking about for downtown, and I actually don't see a lot of difference between it and the royal charters we lived under before the American Revolution. I know we all remember the Revolution.

David Biegler, chairman of a private group called the Central Dallas Association, wants to set up a private company that would have control over "all Rovaltyes of Hawkeing, Hunting, Fowleing, Warren, and Chases within the said Province of Downtown Dallas and Premisses aforesaid, Deere of all sorts and all other Beasts and Fowles of Warren and Chase and all other Beasts there and also All Mynes and Oare of Goulde, Silver, Precious Stones, Tynne, Leade, Copper, Sulphure, Brimstone or any other Mettall or Mynerall matter whatsoever within the said Province."

Oh, my bad. That's not Chapter 431 of the Texas Transportation Code setting up local government corporations. I got it mixed up with the 1639 royal charter of the Province of Maine. The two documents have so much in common, it's hard to tell them apart.

Biegler and the Central Dallas Association are talking about a couple of concepts, one of which is an LGC for downtown, and the other is a municipal management district or MMD. The powers of an LGC could include the ability to "construct or improve a transportation project on real property...issue bonds and notes to carry out its purpose" and generally carry out planning for all of downtown.

The Municipal Management District they are seeking, created under the Texas Water Code, could be even more powerful. It would have the power to "incur liabilities, borrow money on terms and conditions the board determines, and issue notes, bonds...acquire real and personal property...construct permanent improvements and provide services inside and outside its boundaries...establish and maintain reasonable and nondiscriminatory rates, fares, tolls, charges, rents, or other fees or compensation for the use of the improvements constructed, operated, or maintained by the district."

And on and on. And that's not the half of it. What we're talking about here is the potential for a group of private interests downtown to acquire almost all of the powers that are now exercised by the Dallas City Council, mainly within downtown but also outside downtown in some instances. Since they would have the same powers as a Municipal Utility District under Texas law, they could even set up their own police force with full power of arrest.

Think about it. Simply by defining their boundaries to include the Trinity River floodway between the levees, this new entity or entities could assume complete control over the Trinity River project.

End of debate on Calatrava bridges. End of debate on toll road. End of debate on park. Why waste time on debate, anyway? The Governor General of Downtown, Lord Perotus of Palladium, will simply confer with Lord Bieglerbrook, the High Commissioner, and things will be arranged. And ta-ta.

You may remember there was a near civil war among downtown interests two years ago when Ross Perot Jr. sought $43 million from City Hall in tax increment financing for a supposed $600 million development around his new downtown stadium. Led by Bieglerbrook, one set of interests pushed hard for the city subsidy.

Another arguably larger group downtown fought just as hard against it, claiming the Palladium deal would subsidize a mall-style development to compete unfairly with revitalization efforts in the real downtown.

So if this entity being proposed now, Biegler's LGC/MMD, had been in place back then, the interests opposed to Palladium would have been completely shut out. Their recourse at the time was to the city council. Perhaps not coincidentally, the proposal from Biegler, et. al., would cut the council out of such debates in the future.

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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