City Hall

Police and Fire Pension Fund Should Be Ashamed of Going After Kingston

The Dallas Police/Fire Pension Fund, still trying to dig itself out of the billion-dollar financial hole it dug for itself by making stupid investments, is going to meet Friday to consider “censuring” board member Philip Kingston for speaking candidly and intelligently to the public about the pension fund’s problems.

And, look, before we even get into the details of that, let’s do a quick historical review of secrecy at the city of Dallas and all the many curses it has wrought upon our heads.

Trinity toll road.  Fracking in parks. Plots to decimate White Rock Lake by giving the park away to various rich clubs.  Successful decimation of the Great Trinity Forest. Inability to account for tens of millions of dollars in housing funds.

And then, yes, the billion-dollar shortfall that the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund engineered for itself, which the Observer began telling you about four years ago — almost entirely the result of not-smart-enough amateurs acting like big-shots behind closed doors while they partied in Hawaii on the pension money they were supposed to be stewarding for retirees.

There’s such a clear pattern here. Every once in a while into this culture of behind-the-scenes, closed-door huggermuggery there steps a Laura Miller, Angela Hunt, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston or Mark Clayton — some lone teller of truth who wants to throw open the shutters and allow in the sun. It’s usually about something so transparently obvious and true to the real world that it might not even garner huge interest from us if it weren’t for City Hall’s reaction.

When that first ray of sunlight slants in through the open crack and lights up the dust motes, all of the spiders and rats and bats and bugs and other denizens of the shadows let out a collective hiss of fear and wrath, and then something really bad happens to the truth-teller. When it was only former Mayor Miller or former City Council member Hunt, each of them a lone wolf without allies in her own time, it was easy enough for the brothers and sisters of secrecy to punish them with simple shunning.

But in 2011 when Hunt gained a single ally in new council member Griggs, there was a tangible turn toward sharper knives at City Hall. Two years later when Hunt left office because of term limits, the brother and sisterhood tried but failed to deliver the seat to an acolyte. Instead, the election went to Kingston, a fierce and fearless champion of transparency, and it was at that point, with Kingston’s addition to the council, that the war on truth-telling took a frightening turn.

Last year, after Griggs and Kingston forced the city manager to release thousands of embarrassing emails about the Trinity toll road project, the city attorney worked to bring transparently trumped-up criminal charges against Griggs. These charges were so specious, without a complainant, over an incident in which the alleged victim told investigators repeatedly that nothing happened, that a grand jury tossed them out unceremoniously.

That smoke had barely cleared the room when the long-tenured attorney for the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Board resigned suddenly. He had been caught paying a private investigator to look into Griggs. Griggs and Kingston, both lawyers appointed to the pension board by Mayor Mike Rawlings, had been outspoken and continue to be outspoken about the pension fund’s problems.

But, listen, here’s the other side of that. Transparency is not all bad news. In the last year the pension fund has achieved major reforms including a change of top management and a major shift in operating philosophy. It still has bad problems, but the bleeding, in the form of an ever-worsening outlook, has stopped.

As Stephen Young reported here two weeks ago, the hemorrhaging has already halted and for the first time it’s almost reasonable to see practical solutions ahead.
Two weeks ago in an interview with WFAA Channel 8 television’s Jason Whiteley, Kingston told both sides of that story. He alerted the public to the good news. The pension fund, he said, can dig its way out of its billion-dollar-plus hole in part by discontinuing what Kingston called an over-generous annual guaranteed raise of more than 4 percent, which has been characterized in the past as a cost-of-living adjustment. But that alone won’t do the trick.

“We need to cut benefits,” Kingston said, “and then we probably need some more capital.”

As with most truth-telling, what Kingston had to say was neither an unmixed blessing nor an unmixed curse for any of the parties. To fix the fund, future pensioners will have to eat some reductions — never a pleasant prospect, especially for people who have worked hard and loyally to earn a level of retirement support that was supposed to have been agreed upon.

But we taxpayers will also have to cough up some more money for the fund, and many of us, given a choice, would rather keep it. So it sounds like the way most things work out between grown-ups when people are being honest: We share the pain and get it done.

In this case, the words were barely out of Kingston’s mouth when pension board chairman Sam Friar launched a kind of ad hoc, off-the-cuff, impulsive-looking official proceeding against Kingston. At their regularly scheduled March 24 meeting, Friar wanted the board to vote to “censure” Kingston, whatever that means, allegedly over some off-the-cuff, semi-facetious remarks Kingston made at the end of his interview with Whitely about the possible sale of a notorious property owned by the fund.

Friar, a career city employee, seems to have surprisingly scant knowledge of the kind of notice and due process that need to be followed in launching a formal proceeding that may harm a person’s work record. He had to back off at the last meeting and agreed to try it again this Friday with help from lawyers.

The allegation is that Kingston harmed the pension fund by saying things that harmed potential sales of units in the property. I have looked at the footage three or four times. I’m hard-pressed to see how he didn’t say as much favorable about it as negative.

The property is Museum Tower, for God’s sake. You know the one. It’s the highly reflective condo tower across from the Nasher Sculpture Center. Don’t get me started. Kingston and I have always been on opposite sides of this one, Kingston on the side of culture, elegance and sophistication, me on the side of the other stuff.

The point here is that Kingston is a high-profile elected official who has been at the very center of this debate for a couple years. No self-respecting reporter in this town is going to let Kingston walk away from an interview that even touches on the topic of Museum Tower and not get him to say at least a few words. It’s his job.

I don’t even believe the proceeding against Kingston Friday is truly about Museum Tower. Friar is a Dallas firefighter. I suspect this has more to do with what Kingston told Whitley about the need for a reduction in pension benefits.

I spoke with Friar yesterday. He said my interpretation of events was completely wrong: “It’s not really a matter of us going after anybody,” he said. “What happened is that what he said possibly hurt the pension fund.

“Anytime a trustee does or says anything that hurts the fund, then it’s up to the other trustees to call him out on that, no matter who it is. It doesn’t matter. In fact the fiduciary responsibility of a trustee is to call out another if they hurt the fund.

“That’s all we’re doing. There’s no agenda there. There’s not a transparency issue. We want total transparency.”

Got it. But I don’t believe it. I’m standing here on the outside looking in, and I have to put three things together. One, I can’t imagine a single thing that Kingston said in that interview that could possibly have been of a sufficiently harmful nature to warrant a formal proceeding against a board member. It’s not like he did a secret fracking deal with a drilling company after promising not to. People do stuff like that at City Hall, and then they get lavish retirement parties.

I spoke with pension board vice chair and City Council member Lee Kleinman yesterday, who said I may be underestimating the degree to which even off-hand-seeming remarks by a board member might harm potential sales. He could be right. I’m not a real estate prodigy.

But the second thing I’m weighing here, which is way more believable for me, is that the representatives of the pension-holders on the board might like to shut down any serious discussion of cuts to benefits. At the very best I’m a little lost. Friar swears it’s not about benefit cuts or shutting anybody down, but how do I know that’s true, because…

Three: The proceedings this Friday against Kingston are coming from an institution, the pension fund, with a horrible history of operating in the shadows and lashing out at anybody who dares crack a window.

And it’s not just the pension fund. It’s the whole gang, the whole history at City Hall. I admit it: I have great admiration for the few people I’ve seen over the years who wander in there with a torch and a broom and send the shadow critters skittering. That’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to be that person.

I walked down the hallway once at City Hall with Laura Miller, 12 or 13 years ago when she was mayor, and she whispered to me, “Everybody in his building hates my guts.” I thought to myself, “Unfortunately, Laura, you don’t know the half of it.”

It takes remarkable guts and fortitude to be that person. Even when they overshoot the target by a few pellets, I’m always going to believe them before the ones who want to shut the window back.
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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