Looks Like We Found the Real Reason Behind the City's Decision to Sue Railroad Museum

[Editor's note: Tonight, Jim spoke with sources familiar with the negotiations between the Museum of the American Railroad and the city. Among those to whom he spoke is Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm. His update follows at the end of this item. But, long story short, reports Jim: "This has everything to do with Ron Natinsky."]

I spoke this afternoon with Tom Smith, president of the board of the Museum of the American Railroad at Fair Park, who had some fairly appalling stuff to tell me about how the museum is being treated by Dallas City Hall. It's starting to look exactly like those politically driven "Safe Team" vendettas they carry out against landlords who have made the mistake of pissing off a city council member.

The landlord vendettas are bad enough. But this is a nonprofit. It's the old Age of Steam, for goodness sake. Sic the goons on the Age of Steam?

Wilonsky is all over this. I spoke with Smith because I have known him and known of him for a long time. He was a very important director of Old City Park who captained it through its period of growth in the late '80s and early '90s. Then he went to Arlington and set up the "Legends of the Game" museum for the Rangers. He came back to Dallas in 2001 to become the founding director of the Old Red Museum. After that he was the pinch-hitter at the Dallas County Historical Society while they replaced a longtime director who had departed.

I'm just saying, this is a recognized leader in the field of state and local history with a distinguished record in local museums, and he's not used to being treated like some kind of trespassing vagrant.

"It's unusual," he told me.

Yeah. You could say.

As Wilonsky has reported, the City of Dallas has filed suit against the railroad museum to kick them out of Fair Park by August 1 of this year.

Smith acknowledges there have been hurt feelings over the museum's decision to avccept an offer to move eventually to Frisco. He told me it was a difficult decision based on a careful assessment of incentives offered by Dallas, which wanted to keep the museum, and Frisco, which hoped to acquire it.

They decided to split. I hate that. I like the Age of Steam. I wish they were staying. But when I look at how City Hall treats people, I begin to understand why some of them just want to get out of Dodge.

Smith recounted for me a series of approaches made by the city to the museum. These same events were laid out later this afternoon in an official statement released to the media by Bob LaPrelle, president and CEO of the Museum of the American Railroad.

First the city went to them and asked them to sign a contract agreeing that the city can confiscate all of their property if they aren't out by August 1, 2010. Normally in a negotiation like this, you would offer some incentive to sign. At least, "If you sign, we'll kiss you." Something. But in this case, according to Smith and LaPrelle, it was just, "Sign it."

They said what anybody else would have said: No. So the city came back with another one demanding that they post an expensive bond and pay rent. They don't pay rent now. The city has never acquired or required a rental agreement with them. Again, the city didn't say, "If you agree to post the bond and pay rent, we will at least kiss you." Just, "Sign it."

Why would you sign it? Oh, well, that's the other piece of the puzzle. I'll tell you why you would sign it. Because now, according to Smith, the museum is getting all kinds of unfriendly calls and visits from code enforcement, food safety and probably every other city official with a tin badge. If this goes like the Safe Team deals, the cops will be out there next kicking down doors.

You think you can't any action out of Dallas City Hall? Try pissing them off. In fact, try pissing off a council member. You will see City Hall spring into action.

Smith told me that all of this muscle started after he had a particularly unpleasant meeting with councilmember Ron Natinsky. I have left messages with Natinsky, City Manager Mary Suhm and the City Attorney's Office asking them why I shouldn't think this is a vendetta. I have to ask it that way or they won't call me back. So far, they haven't. Wilonsky called Natinsky too and told his assistant exactly what he was calling about. Natinsky was in a meeting that was supposed to last 45 minutes. That was almost four hours ago.

Again, I hate it that the railroad museum is leaving. But I hate it worse that Dallas City Hall turns into a Mafia whenever there's a political head-wind blowing against somebody.

You want to know what Natinsky would be like as mayor? Just watch him through this little saga. This will give you a taste.

Update at 10:50 p.m.:This evening I have learned a couple of things more about the railroad museum. The first is from a reliable source close to the negotiations between the city. That source tells me Unfair Park is right about one thing: This has everything to do with Natinsky.

The source is sympathetic with Natinsky, pointing out that he went out on a limb for the museum toward the end of the bond budgeting process in 2006. This is something Tom Smith also told me about. Smith understands the city has an argument. He just doesn't like the way they're making it.

My source says Natinsky, exercising a personal prerogative and expending a good deal of personal political capital, persuaded the council to put an amount into the bond program for the museum in an attempt to keep the museum here. My source this evening thought it was $2 million. Smith thought it was $3 million.

So, in Natinsky's view, according to my source, the thanks he got was that the museum decided to go to Frisco anyway. My source said the museum people even went back to Natinsky and asked if he could sweeten the deal a little more, based on the Frisco offer. That pissed Natinsky off.

Suhm, for her part, told me tonight, "They don't have a contract with us, and they need to." She said the city can't allow somebody to sit on city land forever without some contractual basis for their presence.

I said I understood that, but I asked about the allegation from Smith that the city's side of the contract negotiations is being enforced with a code crackdown and calls from the food safety people. Suhm said, "I don't know how that got started, but I can check and see." She said she'll let me know tomorrow.

She said she didn't know anything about what Natinsky may or may not have said to the city attorney. And that's understandable. That's not her lookout. The city attorney doesn't work for her.

Natinsky may never call us back. But he'll have to do some explaining soon anyway. Other members of the council will want to know about any direct contact Natinsky may have had with the city attorney. He's not supposed to do that. That cat's out of the bag and walkin' around.

It's not like Natinsky doesn't have a case to make on this. How much does the city owe the railroad museum at this point, anyway?

But Tom Smith may have an even better point to make. His point is that people don't act like this in the civilized world of nonprofit institutions. Emphasis on civilized.

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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