You do what you want, but this is popcorn and folding chair time for me. An eye-popping little tent show is about to unfold, and I want a front-row seat. It started last week with this: Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, running for mayor on an anti-boondoggle platform, scored a fairly amazing anti-boondoggle coup at last week’s council meeting.
Griggs talked a solid majority of the City Council into asking the goofy Park Cities socialite set to pay back city taxpayers for one of their more spectacular boondoggles. The council voted 10-4 to ask the Trinity Park Conservancy to pony up the $7.1 million it’s going to cost to fix their “signature” bicycle bridge over the Trinity River downtown — never opened two years after completion because it keeps shaking itself to pieces when the wind blows.
Hey, look, if you just got to town, let me tell you. What Griggs did just does not happen. Dallas simply does not raise its eyes, let alone its voice, to its social betters in the wealthy enclave communities of Highland Park and University Park.
And it’s not like Griggs or his East Dallas ally on the council, Philip Kingston, hid the ball. At the council meeting last week, Griggs and Kingston both made sure the rest of the council knew exactly what they were voting on and why.
The amazing thing was not that Griggs and Kingston went after a Park Cities boondoggle. They do that stuff all the time. The amazing thing was that the rest of the council heard exactly what they were saying and then they voted overwhelmingly to agree with them. I’m telling you. Something big is beginning to happen here.
Griggs listed all the crazy, unbelievably expensive messes the goofies have gotten us into: “For too long the Trinity Trust, now known as the Trinity Conservancy,” he said, “has had a heavy hand in the Trinity River, going after a number of boondoggles, from the Trinity toll road, which we spent $200 million on, to the whitewater rapids, which at their urging cost us $4 million and we had to spend $2 million more dollars to pull it out, and now this most recent bridge, which represents an opportunity cost of $115 million, and now it will cost us another $7 million.
“I think it’s time for the Trinity Park Conservancy to clean up their own messes. We need to go ask them for this money and save the $7 million for another use in the city of Dallas.”
If that wasn’t blunt enough for somebody, Kingston came right in behind to do cleanup with some vintage Kingstonian oratory: “It just offends me that we come back and back and back to the taxpayer to fix these baubles and shiny objects that their betters want them to have. None of my neighbors who go to work every day and pay their taxes were calling for this bridge. This entirely came from a different class of people.”
In terms of the old-style Dallas culture and politics, let me tell you something. Right at that point, after Kingston had said that, he might as well have announced that on City Hall Plaza following the council meeting there would be free instruction in the proper operation, maintenance and storage of the guillotine. I fully expected the City Hall security guards to storm him at that point and haul him off in a tow sack.
But, no! Instead the Dallas City Council votes 10-4 to agree with Griggs and Kingston and to instruct the city manager to write a letter to the Trinity Park Conservancy asking them to pony up the $7.1 million. And the city manager says he’ll do it! Unbelievable! I expected the city manager instead to announce that professional counselors would be on hand to help everyone erase their memories.
The night before, I saw Hamilton at the Music Hall. One of the songs was a reference to my favorite tune in all of American history, “The World Turned Upside Down,” the English ballad that according to American legend was played by the British military band when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in 1781. The traditional English lyrics go, “Old Christmas is kickt out of Town. Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, You see the world turn’d upside down.”
In Hamilton, it’s more like, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry. I’m not throwin’ away my shot, ’til the world turns upside down, ’til the world turns upside down!”
Man. The next day when I watched that council vote in favor of Griggs and Kingston, I didn’t know what the rest of the world was up to at the moment, but Dallas sure just turned upside down.
The Trinity Trust was the private lobbying group set up to push for construction of a new tolled expressway that would have been jammed up against the banks of the Trinity River through downtown. That project, a 20-year battle and a kind of holy grail for the old oligarchy, didn’t happen. A big part of the oligarchy’s plan was two hike and bike bridges, baubles as Kingston called them, built next to the new Interstate 30 expressway bridge over the river at an additional cost of $115 million. Those bicycle bridges, to which no bicycle trails are attached, are what still can’t be opened and will cost $7.1 million to fix. They were the Trinity Trust’s brilliant idea.
After they were defeated on the toll road, as a consolation prize for themselves and a demonstration of never-say-die stubbornness, the same people who wanted the toll road and the hike and bike bridges decided that they still would stake a claim to the river by building a huge, fancy park on the river downtown designed to look like Central Park in New York. They winkled a $50 million promised gift that probably will never see the light of day, changed the name of the Trinity Trust to Trinity Park Conservancy and then used the park project to claim ownership of the river. One of their main champions, real estate developer Mike Ablon, is running for mayor against Griggs.
This group has always had its own moles inside the city staff. One of them, Sarah Standifer, tried to tell the City Council last week that the Trinity Park Conservancy and the Trinity Trust are different entities. “In conversations with them early on,” Standifer said, “they felt like they’re a new organization. It is not the Trinity Trust. They don’t have the same purpose and mission.”
This is a conversation I had just had a few days earlier with Brent Brown, CEO of the Trinity Park Conservancy, concerning another issue. Brown was telling me that whatever problems the park plan may have encountered recently are minor. He said those issues will be taken care of in what he called “an iterative process” and that the park plan has not hit a wall.
I said, “There’s a certain historical burden that you have here in that the very same people who are involved in the park and this whole effort are the people who brought us a 20-year process with all the same assurances —‘Oh, it’s iterative. We’re going to get around it. We’ll work things out with the Corps of Engineers.’ That was a project called the Trinity River tollway that cost the city $200 million and did hit a wall and was a failure, and the assurances along the way were false.”
Brown said, “Jim, Jim, you know I really like you, but I can’t stand and let you make the generic comment, ‘all these people involved in Simmons Park.’ Jim, I’ve been working on this for three years, four years, so forget the 20-year deal. You look at the board of directors of the conservancy, and you will see that out of our membership, that I think now is 22, there may be 6 members that are actually from the Trinity Trust. So I just ask you to take a look at this idea of everybody, X, Y and Z, being the same.”
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He was right. I did need to take a look at that. So I did. I looked up the federal nonprofit declarations that both groups, the Trinity Trust and the Trinity Park Conservancy, have filed with the IRS. And guess what? The Trinity Trust and the Trinity Park Conservancy have the same federal employer identification number (sort of like an individual’s Social Security number), and they have the same street address, and they occupy the same office suite. So if I were the IRS, I’d pretty much assume they were the same outfit.
Look, this week the city manager, acting on instructions from the City Council, will ask the Trinity Park Conservancy to pony up the $7.1 million that their flaky bicycle bridge is about to cost the taxpayers. The Trinity Trust will say no, because they ain’t got the money. And the taxpayers will have to pay for it.
I hope for their sake the Trinity Park Conservancy will just admit they don’t have the moolah and will not try the thing about not being the same group as the Trinity Trust, because that just reminds me of bad roofing companies, and I don’t want to have to feel embarrassed for them.
The money isn’t the big news anyway. The big news is the Dallas City Council standing up for once and Griggs and Kingston being the ones who got them to do it. That’s a sea change. I’m serious. Look for this to have serious reverberations in the mayor’s race.