Blame cannot be un-owned. Like money, blame has to go in somebody's purse. It can't be left on the table. If the responsible person is able somehow to cleverly skate on the blame he deserves, that just means somebody else has to be the scapegoat. Witness the grand saga going on now in our city as elements of the leadership are forced to recognize the imposing failures of Dallas City Hall in dealing with racial issues.
City Hall and its house organ, The Dallas Morning News, can no longer escape the monumental failure of the city's slum improvement efforts, in which both are hugely invested. The good news (I have a column about good news, believe it or not, coming up in this week's newspaper) is that both seem willing for the first time to concede that most of what has been done here has come out somewhere between a wash and a trip to the cleaners.
They don't have a lot breathing room. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is on the verge of delivering something called a "voluntary compliance agreement," which will not be voluntary and will not be an agreement -- more like a list of edicts. It should arrive in Dallas within days, possibly within hours.
The "VCA" -- that's the term of art for such documents in the federal malfeasance game -- will put a stop to City Hall's assertion that it is utterly innocent of charges of collusion to increase racial segregation. In order to get right with the federal government, Dallas will have to admit that such a thing did happen and then promise it won't happen again.
Hmm. So if it did happen, who did it? How?
Somebody has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance money designated by law to reduce segregation into an elaborate system designed to increase segregation. City Council members, white and black, seem to have signed off on the system consistently over the years.
The Morning News won a Pulitzer Prize four years ago for its still ongoing series of editorials arguing that people in the slums need to stay where they are but try to look tidier --- a good old-fashioned fix-up, tidy-up, pick-'em-up. It's an idea that fits in nicely with more segregation, isn't it? Don't ask me to explain the Pulitzer.
But all of a sudden nobody can say with a straight face that any of the things Dallas has done in the slums over the last two decades has worked. So-called economic development efforts like the Bexar Street project and Patriot's Crossing have turned out to be monuments to failure, if not abject stupidity.
So who did it? Was it the City Council? They voted for all of it. Maybe it was the recently retired long-term city manager, Mary Suhm. If we're ready now to admit that it all went wrong, that means we've got blame to assign, blame sitting on the table. It's got to belong to somebody. Whose blame is it going be?
The lead editorial in The Dallas Morning News today gives us the official answer, in fact what is fast becoming a kind of football cheer from City Hall and elsewhere in the leadership. I have been getting the same chant from top people at City Hall in the last week or so.
Jerry Killingsworth. ("Je-REE! Je-REE!")
Jerry Who-worth, you say? Yeah. Right question. Killingsworth, now retired, is a former banker who was hired 11 years ago to run the city's housing department. In that capacity he also oversaw many of the so-called economic development projects -- Bexar Street, for example, a tax-dollar boondoggle in southern Dallas whose retail shops stand vacant in an ocean of blight like the lurid daydream of a mad Third World dictator, and Patriot's Crossing, another costly blunder built on the premise that sick veterans would want to live in condos next door to the Veterans Administration Hospital (not, as it turns out, if they could get something for about the same price in hell).
He did it. Killingsworth. It's all his fault. The News says today that Killingsworth's department, "spackled over major problems with the city's most ambitious revitalization project [Bexar Street]." The failures there "show what happens when a city department decides to do business with little or no accountability." The editorial singles out Killingsworth personally for blame because in painting a rosy picture to the City Council he, "failed, though, to mention major problems with one of the key partners in the deal..."
Are you kidding me? Really? Look, I hold no brief for Killingsworth. I tried and failed to reach him again this morning. Last time I did get him on the phone he hung up on me. As for personality, I don't think you're going to see this guy popping up as a late-night talk show host any time soon.
But I've watched Killingsworth operate for years. I saw him testify five years ago in the federal corruption trial of Dallas council member and former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, eventually convicted on multiple counts and now serving an 18-year prison sentence. In that trial Hill's lawyer pressured Killingsworth to say he had pushed through Hill's southern Dallas boondoggles all on his own, without any pressure from Hill or other council members. Killingsworth said that was not true. He said there was plenty of pressure.
He came across as an angry, testy man, a mid-level executive who had been forced to be involved in a lot of stuff he knew wasn't kosher. But I had the impression he managed to keep his own toes out of the bear-trap, and the one thing he was never going to do was lie under oath.
I also have seen a string of emails from and to Killingsworth in the Lockey and MacKenzie downtown housing matter. It's the case that spurred HUD's four-year investigation and led to the upcoming issuance of that HUD VCA I told you about.
Over and over again in those emails, Killingsworth meticulously notifies his own superiors -- then City Manager Mary Suhm and then assistant city manager A.C. Gonzalez, now the city manager -- to make sure they know of every detail. In one exchange Killingsworth flies into sort of a rage or panic, maybe both, because he thinks principals in the deal have been end-running him and speaking directly to the City Council.
The unmistakable impression is of a guy who knows he has to have paper covering his every move, and the only way he knows to do that is to make sure everything moves up and down the channel the way it's supposed to. The very last thing he looks like is a rogue operator.
Killingsworth seems to be taking this latest round of scapegoating in absolute silence. I have no idea why. That has not been his pattern in the past. Six years ago when he thought the Dallas Housing Authority had breached a contractual agreement to hire him as CEO, he sued them and prevailed. He's not really a lay-down guy. But now in the face of this wave of public blaming, Killingsworth, recently retired on a city pension, is playing the part of the invisible man.
This is what I do know: It's beyond absurd to assert that this mid-level bureaucrat was the sole author or even an important author of the overwhelming pattern of abject failure of Dallas City Hall on slum issues. His unmistakable record is that of a fundamentally honest man, a banker who may have rued the day he ever hired on at City Hall but who always made damned sure he was not going to be left holding the bag. That the powers that be now insist his monogram is on the bag, that he remains silent, those facts amount to a mystery. But there you have it.
The important thing for us to know is that this picture -- the Jerry-Killingsworth-did-it picture -- is a lie. Somebody did do it. People exist who did it. A system in place at City Hall and a culture in the city's leadership allowed them to do it. But trying to blame it on Killingsworth is lame. Just plain lame.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.