City Hall

New Private Fair Park Entity Could Volunteer to Be Transparent. Or Not.

Here’s a simple idea, a plain idea, not my own idea but a good one, I think. It might help allay some fears and misgivings associated with turning over city-owned Fair Park to a private and opaque organization.

Make it not opaque.

This 277-acre albatross, a park that isn’t even a park, does belong to the public, for better or for worse. Who knows what asset value it would have if we sold it as raw land? Probably pretty raw, but at the very least we in the pubic have some responsibility for it. Not the least of that responsibility is seeing that it isn’t managed in a manner deleterious to its surroundings.

Oh, and I almost forgot: The people behind the private take-over idea want hundreds of millions of tax dollars over the next decade in public support for whatever they decide to do with the land. So, if nothing else, we ought to be able to keep our own eyes on our own money.

In some of the discussion of Fair Park, the State Fair of Texas, the Dallas Zoo and other so-called public/private entities in the city over the last couple of years, there has been a good deal of friction over the degree to which strictly private entities doing business with the city are subject to Texas public records law. The worst, in terms of public access, has been the Dallas Arboretum, but an interesting thing has come out of those conversations. Any private entity doing business with the city, it turns out, is perfectly free to make itself subject to public information laws and to codify that agreement by contract.

In other words, the private entity taking over Fair Park could agree to a clause in its contract with the city rendering itself subject to both Texas open records and Texas open meetings laws.

A clause like that would provide the window through which the public could monitor the way these vast and valuable public assets, both the park and the millions of dollars in subsidy money, are being managed. Or, let’s look at it from the other foot. What would it tell us if the new private entity declined to make itself obedient to open records and meetings law? I’ll come back to that at the end.

As I say, this idea is not my own. I heard it some months ago from Dallas Park Board member Becky Rader. I discussed it at the time with Walt Humann, the person who would head the new private entity under one of the formulations being considered by the Park Board.

I think I may have dropped the idea on Humann a little bit too out-of-the-bluely, not giving him sufficient time to weigh it. His immediate reaction was negative. He said the staff of the new private entity would be small and that people interested in sabotaging the entity might use onerous public information demands as a monkey wrench to bring it grinding to a halt.

Every once in a while in this world one does run across an onerous public information requester, but I have never seen an institution brought to a grinding halt by one. Much more often the complaint of onerous public information demands is made by institutions trying to hide their own scandals, as in the case, for example, of University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall of Dallas 
But never once have I known of a case in which an organized band of private entity saboteurs set about to destroy an entity by bombing it with public information demands. Now that I’ve said that, someone will tell me of such a case, of course, but even at that I think Humann, given more time to consider, might still see benefits outweighing that risk.

Here’s the thing. Fairly or unfairly, the misgivings about turning Fair Park over to a private entity involve things like old white men from the Park Cities using the place to practice marching in Confederate uniforms. And, of course, I know how absurd that is. I mean, in this day of the volunteer army, who in the Park Cities really knows how to march anymore? But you catch my drift.

Given the very considerable level of mistrust that swirls around Fair Park on any given day of the week anyway, and given that the land belongs to the public and that large public funds are being sought, and given that there has always been a sort of closed-door, secretive, ritual aura about Fair Park, anyway, what a nice gesture it would be for the new entity to volunteer to make itself open.

To wrap up then, I would come back to what it might mean for things to go the other way, for Humann to stick his position hard and flat refuse to consider any kind of serious public access agreement in the contract.

Such an agreement, by the way, could be formed with or without reference to state law as long as it creates a clear avenue of public access to both documents and meetings. That cat can be skinned.

If Humann won’t skin the cat on public access, if his group will not consider it, then their message to the rest of us will be quite clear, and it will be the last clear thing, by the way, that we will ever hear from them once that contract is signed.
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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