Mary Suhm Screwed Dallas, but Now City Hall Has to Let the Gas Drillers Frack Parkland

If there is one thing I hate, it's talking about morality with people who agree with me. But this has been one of those weeks.

I'm your basic anti-gas-and-oil-fracking-in-parks type of guy. Call me soft. I've just always been against major petro-chemical operations where the children play. So generally speaking I'm on the same page most of the time with the anti-fracking claque. Not this week.

Instead, I have been catching a fair amount of flak over the phone from people who ought to be my same-page buddies. They are horrified by the deal we exposed here on Unfair Park, signed five years ago by Dallas city manager Mary Suhm and a gas-drilling company, in which Suhm said she would do everything possible to help the company drill in parks.

The view of most anti-frackers -- and I get the logic -- is that this was a dirty deal. It was. They say Suhm did everything she could to keep it secret. She did. They say it flew in the face of the will of the people of Dallas as expressed by their elected representatives. Yup. They tell me it went outside the boundaries of Suhm's power and authority. Suhm said the same thing herself, weirdly.

But that's all about fracking. Now we get to the moral argument. The anti-frackers say there is no way the city of Dallas should be held to this deal. No way. I say yes way. It stinks. She really screwed us. I hate being in this position as much as anybody. But a deal is a deal. It's done. We can't just stamp our feet and make it go away.

See also: - Mary Suhm Signed a Secret Side Deal to Push for Drilling on Parkland as She Told Council It Would Be Banned - Rawlings and Suhm's Attempt to Spin Secret Gas Deal into Something Innocent Is Hot Air

I believe what Dallas Cothrum, who represents the gas-drilling company Trinity East, told me when I called him about it last week. He said the city took Trinity East's $20 million check the same day Suhm signed her deal with them. Cashed it. Spent it. There we are. Damn. Hate this. But there we are.

I usually never even call the Cothrums, a father-and-son City Hall lobbying team. They're polite people, but they won't ever tell me squat that I can use. This was a great opening for me to call them, however, because they were on the news and on the record as the gas company's hey-boys at City Hall. But I was pretty surprised when Dallas Cothrum, the son, not only took the call but opened up and unloaded.

Oh, look. He knew he was pushing my buttons. He knew just where to push. He framed the thing in terms of basic fairness and a deal has got to be a deal. Cothrum didn't bad-mouth City Hall to me especially, but he knew he didn't have to. That would be like an all-choir event -- the choir preaching to the choir preaching to the choir.

Cothrum said his client had a right to believe that a deal in which a $20 million check was passed was a deal. He said now they want their end of the deal. Period.

Damn it! The thing I absolutely deplore about City Hall more than anything else is its tendency to flake on agreements even after people have invested major money or social and political capital in those agreements. Then they just fade back into their big building, fold their hands in their laps and stare at everybody like one big Buddha whispering, "So sue us."

I would argue that's what happened to the city's original commitments on the Inland Port, where former mayor Tom Leppert helped pull the rug out from under the main investors. I have done stories about regular people to whom it has happened -- a young couple who poured their savings into a rehab project in Oak Cliff only to have City Hall tell them the promises the city had already made to them on zoning were no longer operative.

It's what City Hall has done to the entire city over the Trinity River Project, where the city actually went into court and said under oath that it had no obligation to live up to its own campaign promises for how bond money is spent on the project. And here is the larger point: They went to court with that spiel and won.

The city does this to people because it can. It enjoys huge immunity from lawsuits under the law. It has an entire floor full of its own lawyers and bottomless pockets with which to hire outside lawyers. But none of that makes the city right. Making promises, taking money and then later saying they had their fingers crossed just makes Dallas City Hall one big scam-job.

Where does all of this put us on the gas deal? I think we have to let them drill. Sorry. I just don't see a way out of it morally.

Suhm works for us. That's our company down there. It has our name on it. Dallas. She's our CEO. She signed the deal, but we took the money. You and I. We took that money. You did. I did. We spent that money on ourselves. We didn't have to have a tax increase that year, in spite of a huge deficit. Our hands are not clean.

Some of my callers seem to think it was unfair for Trinity East to use lobbyists when the public doesn't have a lobbyist. OK. But, look: If the Inland Port investors had hired competent lobbyists; if my young Oak Cliff couple had hired them; heck, if we taxpayers had hired them to represent us on the Trinity Project, I believe all of those stories might have had better endings.

In the screwed-up, implacable, totally amoral haunted house that is City Hall, you're nuts if you go in there on an important issue without a gladiator in front of you. The Cothrums aren't the only gladiators. There's a list. You need to look over that list before you walk in the door.

But let me tell you. If my house ever catches on fire, I'm not calling 911. I'm calling the Cothrums so they can negotiate a truck for me. It'll get there faster.

"Can I have two trucks?"

"Jim, we can definitely get you one truck, and then let's step back, take a deep breath and check the lay of the land."

Here is where I wind up. And I hate it. I do think Suhm screwed us. But I think we have to let these guys drill in a park. Park Board member Betty Culbreath has been telling people this not about drilling: it's about whether or anybody can ever trust a word City Hall tells them. She's right. I hate it. But she's right.

And here is something else I hate, because I think so well of Suhm personally. Either she tells us that somebody else put a gun to her head and made her sign that deal, or she definitely must be sacked. There is not another way around that one, either.

The whole thing reeks, but the reek doesn't make it go away. We have to bite the bullet and take our stitches. We need to say, "Never again.' We need to believe ourselves when we say it. But this one's gone. It's a done deal, and if we have an ounce of integrity it will stay done.

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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