City Hall

Dallas City Hall May Be Under a General Ghost Attack

When the city was blaming its 911 crisis on so-called ghost calls, did you ever hear a believable explanation of what a ghost call was?
When the city was blaming its 911 crisis on so-called ghost calls, did you ever hear a believable explanation of what a ghost call was? denk creative via Shutterstock
Here’s a scary thing, and please don’t think I’m trying to make a joke. A child died. A man died. And those are just the ones we know about. So I’m not trying to be funny about the ongoing crisis in the Dallas 911 emergency service.

But “ghost calls”? Before the mayor or the city staff would admit what was really going on — once again they had allowed the number of call-takers to dwindle so low that nobody could get through — they told us the problem was ghost calls.

And obviously that was not their fault. Because … ghost calls.

Did you ever hear them say exactly what a ghost call was? They claimed it had something to do with people’s cell phones continuing to dial 911 after the people had hung up. If that was real, wouldn’t you notice your cell phone was dialing 911 all the time?

Well, maybe not, because … ghost calls.

Over the weekend, the city stopped all the ghost calls by bringing in enough people to staff the 911 center. All of a sudden, there were no more incredibly long waits on hold that had been causing 911-callers to give up and hang up. No more waits. At all. No more … ghost calls.

Then Sunday, 20 percent of the 911 staff called in sick or just didn’t show up for work, so the long waits on hold came back. Well, look, you and I may not be management experts, but I think we can look at that and pretty well analyze the problem.

City Hall has a reflexive habit of never taking responsibility for anything and blaming everything on ghosts.

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The 20 percent no-show rate was the result of one of two things: 1) ghost calls, or 2) an understaffed bully-boss chickens-with-heads-cut-off workplace, so bad that one in five employees is willing to risk getting fired rather than show up. Which would you guess?

I happen to think City Hall has a reflexive habit of never taking responsibility for anything and blaming everything on ghosts. The ghosts should put in for overtime. Just one small example: the Stupid Whitewater Feature. Still in the river! Still stupid!

Six years ago the city built a big fat concrete dam in the middle of the Trinity River to create a recreational facility for kayakers. It was such a mess and so lethally dangerous that it had to be closed the same day it opened.

This week — six years on! – the new city attorney announced he is considering a lawsuit against one of the companies that participated in the design. But there’s a big problem with that. The city designed it.

Yes, there were two different firms that participated in the design originally. But for the last six years it has been generally known that city staff engineers “value-engineered” the final product before it was built.

You might think that before the city sets about trying to sink some private company over this absurd boondoggle, they would do a real forensic audit of their own role. Maybe this is just sentimentality on my part, but it seems to me part of the responsibility you take on when you inherit the public purse is an obligation not to use it to crush private parties unless you’re pretty sure you’re right.

Go back to the ghost calls. Before the city even tried to see what was really wrong with the 911 call center, city officials were all over the media saying T-Mobile had caused the problem — caused the deaths of a man and a child waiting for help — because their phones were making ghost calls. So what does a story like that do to a company’s brand, its good will, its sales? Can’t be good.

Seems to me if you were the city and there was still some small chance you might be the one at fault, you wouldn’t even take a risk of inflicting that kind of damage on private parties until you had done some due diligence.

But, no. Ghost calls! It’s some kind of reflex. Anything bad or embarrassing gets within a mile of them — ghost calls! It’s that damn T-Mobile and their ghosts. “Ghosts, we tell you, ghosts!”

So some Park Cities nitwit with a lot of pull talks the city into putting a big fat concrete dam in the river for kayakers. It’s a disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is insisting the city either fix it (probably impossible, like fixing spilled milk) or get it out of there. And what is the city’s reflexive reaction?

Sue somebody! Does the city even check to see what its own culpability is? Does it even know who worked on it in the city and how the plans were changed? Hell no! Sue somebody!

The object of both things, ghost calls and sue somebody, is to off-shore the problem and inoculate the city against any and all responsibility as quickly as possible. The same thing is front and center in the mayor’s approach to affordable housing.

In 2014, he goes to Washington and successfully lobbies the secretary of HUD to kill a four-year federal investigative finding that was about to force Dallas to provide more affordable housing. In 2016 he and council member Monica Alonzo, who represents one of the poorest parts of the city, vote to kill an anti-discrimination measure that would have made thousands more affordable homes available to the poor.

But that same year, when attention is drawn to a perfect storm in Dallas of racial segregation, economic disparity and lack of housing, he and City Hall know exactly what to do. Sue somebody! So they sue the only landlords who are providing last-resort housing in the city, with the predictable result that those landlords decide to sell their properties and get the hell out of the last-resort housing business.

Ghost calls! Landlords! Sue somebody!

click to enlarge All of Dallas City Hall may be under a general ghost attack. Or is that figure coming down the stairs former City Manager Mary Suhm? - ANTLIO VIA SHUTTERSTOCK
All of Dallas City Hall may be under a general ghost attack. Or is that figure coming down the stairs former City Manager Mary Suhm?
Antlio via Shutterstock
I told you at the top I am very bitterly aware of the recent deaths related to the 911 crisis, and it is not my intention to write some kind of comedy about it. I could more likely weep instead.

On the other hand, I do see an unmistakable pattern, which I hope you may also see by now. The ghosts are everywhere. City Hall is under a general ghost attack.

Take the police and fire pension fund. All of a sudden it’s between three and four billion dollars in the hole. City Hall didn’t notice, but, oh my God, all of a sudden, hey, where did all those billions of dollars go?

Somebody took them. It was probably the cops or the firemen. You know how cops and firemen are, always stealing huge sums of money. You know they’re all rich now, right? Oh, yes. They’re all millionaires. That’s why you see all those retired cops and firefighters in the party pix in D Magazine, flashing their dental implants and their tits. No, the caption doesn’t say all those skinny old people in the party pix with the bling and the baked on suntans are retired Dallas first responders, but they are. Very stuck up now. Took all our damn money.

The mayor, I noticed again this week, has this thing he does in which he says, “The buck stops here.” He did it with the ghost calls. He always takes “full responsibility.”

But, wait. After he says it, just wait a couple beats. He says he takes full responsibility. Count two beats, max. Then he says he was misled.

No. That is not taking responsibility. You can’t take responsibility, wait two beats and then blame it on somebody else. Taking responsibility is two things. It’s admitting it’s your own damn fault. And then it’s doing something.

Look, the mayor is a nice guy, and I truly do not wish him ill. But if it were me, if I had to say the buck stops here that many times and I take full responsibility that many times, the only way I could say it the next time and feel I had any shred of credibility would be to say: “The buck stops here, therefore I have decided to shoot myself.”

Unfortunately, you and I are where that hard-traveling buck really does stop.
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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