Since T.C. Broadnax took office as Dallas city manager in February, I have had the feeling he was waiting to see just how sacred some of the city’s sacred cows were. Yesterday, he got a clear message that at least one of them, the weirdly named South Dallas Fair Park Trust Fund, may be ready for the butcher.
Kevin Felder, the recently elected first-time City Council member from District 7 in South Dallas, an area known to insiders as “Diane’s district,” spoke up in a meeting to directly and powerfully challenge the trust fund. The earth shook a little tiny bit.
The Diane in the equation is Diane Ragsdale, who represented roughly the same district from 1984 to 1991. The political bounty she harvested from her years in office is the South Dallas Fair Park Trust Fund. The trust fund is a … well, obviously it’s one of those … it falls in the category of a … it would come under the heading of a …
Wait a minute. What is a trust fund? I mean, we all know what a trust fund is if your parents were named Kellogg or Pillsbury or Bauxite or something. But what is a trust fund if you spent seven years representing one of the poorest urban city council districts in America?
Did she get a nickname with it, like Bitsy or DeeDee? Did she have to learn how to play field hockey? How did Ragsdale come out of seven years on the City Council with a trust fund?
Very carefully. While she was on the council, Ragsdale did at City Hall what Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price was doing at the county at the same time: scaring the snot out of old-school white people by talking back to them. Hard. And they deserved it.
Fair Park, our aging, 277-acre exposition park in the area called South Dallas, and its anchor tenant, the State Fair of Texas, had a long history of excluding, ignoring and actively oppressing black people, even though the neighborhoods all around Fair Park were and are black. The trust fund was set up on Ragsdale’s watch to channel money from event tickets at Fair Park into a nonprofit that would use the money to revitalize South Dallas.
Since then, however, the fund has become what Felder called “a piggy bank” Monday, but almost no one has ever had the courage to say so. Whether Ragsdale had a formal position on the fund’s board or was just hovering around outside it, everyone knew it was her deal, and nobody, especially old-school white people, said jack-one about it. Or else.
Over the decades — the thing is now 30 years old — that or-else has metastasized into uncounted millions of dollars sluiced out to a close cadre of beneficiaries without bookkeeping, let alone evidence of revitalization. Going after it right now may be a little less than totally fair because, in the last couple of years, a new board of directors has been working hard to clean it up. Harvard Law School graduate Chequan A. Lewis is chairman of a truly (truly) revitalized board of directors that is doing yeoman's work to find all the skeletons and see if the skeletons still owe it any money.
That almost wasn’t the real point Monday when Felder, who is now the representative from Ragsdale’s district, lit into the fund and said it does not have his support. By taking on the fund, Felder was taking on the legacy and power of Ragsdale, and that’s a first for elected African-American leadership from southern Dallas.
Ragsdale is no longer on the City Council, but she is hardly absent from City Hall. She continues to be deeply involved in a variety of city-funded initiatives, especially in the area of government-subsidized affordable housing development.
Three years ago after an especially scalding city auditor’s report on the fund, Ragsdale's powerful influence was the only reason the city didn’t do the obvious thing and just kill it — padlock the offices, kill the credit cards, turn the books over to a collection agency and then see if there was anything left over that the district attorney might want to look at.
No, it had to be saved. Why, nobody could say then or can tell you to this day. At Monday’s meeting of the City Council's economic development committee, council member Lee Kleinman asked almost plaintively if anyone had ever come up with a single shred of evidence of the fund ever having done any good.
“When was this started?” he asked. “1987? So here we are, 30 years later. Has this organization put together an annual report or maybe at this point a 30-year report that says, ‘Here’s where we were, and here’s where are today?' In 30 years of funding this, has it moved the needle in South Dallas?”
But it was Felder, speaking from long and deep knowledge of his district, who put the knife to the neck, naming names and pointing out that the fund, far from spurring new business development, has been handing out fat checks to the same churches and charities for decades.
“I will not support this,” he said. “This is in my district. This was created to benefit the South Dallas Fair Park [area].”
He said he was disturbed to see multiple grants from the fund to the same charitable entities over the years but little evidence of successful economic development.
“One thing that disturbs me in here — we’ve got Cornerstone Community Development Corporation in here three times, one on a community nonprofit grant and twice on a challenge grant for a total of $46,500. I will not support that,” Felder said.
He said he had asked for but never received from staff an accounting of the fund’s finances.
“I want an overview and an audit of the trust fund," he said. "I don’t know what it’s going to take for you guys to do that. I have asked and asked and asked, and every time I get an excuse. I am very disappointed. I’d like to know what’s going on.”
Having watched this same debate for some 30 years, I knew exactly why Felder has never received answers to his questions. It’s because city staff knows from bitter experience that nobody is supposed to ask questions about the trust fund.
When Councilman Mark Clayton asked what the staff does to review grants made by the fund, Raquel Favela, the city’s new director of economic development installed by Broadnax, gave what I thought was very hedgy answer — something about sort of helping to keep the paperwork straight and maybe giving some advice now and then. Favela, who came to Dallas from a series of top national jobs in economic development, knows better than this, as does her boss, Broadnax.
To the extent Broadnax and his top staff have been asking anybody for advice, all of the old hands at City Hall and in the business community have been telling them, I am sure, that they cannot touch a Ragsdale deal with a 10-foot pole without risking an absolute explosion from black Dallas. I’m sure they’ve been wondering.
They got a very strong hint Monday. Felder didn’t even use a pole. He used his fists. He went after the trust fund hard. The reaction from the other two African-Americans on the committee was extremely muted — I would say just on the edge of supportive.
It’s not like Felder was vague.
“This is not a piggy bank,” he said. “We need to be doing economic development projects in South Dallas and Fair Park, not challenge grants and funding for all these churches and things like that that are looking for a piggy bank.”
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There was no explosion of outrage from the other black council members. Most of the white council members reacted with looks of drop-jaw amazement, as in: “Are you really saying all that?”
That should give the new city manager and his top staff the answer they need. Some of those old sacred cows everybody was afraid to touch for 30 years have reached the point where they might make good chili meat.
One of the suggestions other council members on the committee came up with Monday was changing the name so it’s no longer called a trust fund. Hey, it’s conceivable that could have been the source of the original confusion, although that does seem like kind of a white people thing to worry about.
How about just “fund”?