Sour Town

Think of it as Garland's version of the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, only this suburban showdown didn't hinge on honor or ambition, and no one got shot. At least not yet.

In 2003, City Council member Harry Hickey wanted to pass an ordinance restricting citizens from parking recreational vehicles in residential neighborhoods. The Garland transplant had received several complaints from constituents, among them Edie Kirkbride, who bemoaned the redneck sensibilities of her next-door neighbor. That gentleman bulldozed part of his front yard to make room for his RV, a move he would later defend before the city council with an irrelevant tale of woe about his invalid wife. (Kirkbride, however, says that on one July Fourth, she saw the wife gallivanting in the front yard--dressed in a red, white and blue bikini--in the shadow of the offending behemoth.)

In any case, Hickey struggled to gain support for his ordinance, so he suggested to his council colleague and political adversary Randall Dunning that the city consider banning the larger RVs because they dump more raw sewage.

Dunning and Hickey have different versions of what happened next, although both accounts offer a hint at the level of tension in Garland. Dunning says he jokingly asked Hickey if RVs get "incontinent like wiener dogs," and somehow that silly remark set off Hickey. A former defensive tackle for the Stephen F. Austin State University football team, Hickey cuts an imposing, lumbering presence that belies his career in accounting. As Dunning tells it, Hickey asked him if he wanted to step outside City Hall to the loading dock, presumably setting the scene for a winner-take-ordinance fight.

"I told him no," says Dunning, who is both older and considerably smaller than Hickey. "I said, 'You're bigger than I am, but I'm faster than you are, and you will never catch me.

"He said--and this is the exact quote, I'll remember this to my grave--'You can't outrun my Glock.' How would you interpret that?"

One of the more prominent and polarizing people in Garland, Dunning is never at a loss for words. By his account, he told Hickey to shoot him in the head "because I wear body armor." At the next council meeting, Dunning wore a bulletproof vest, "just to pull his chain," he says.

When told Dunning's story about how he came to wear the vest, Hickey became irritated, sounding like the Ving Rhames character in Pulp Fiction after realizing that Bruce Willis has out-hustled him. "That's how the good ol' boys in Garland do it," he says. "They take a statement you made and totally twist it."

Hickey says that Dunning made some sort of comment about a gun, and Hickey added, somewhat conversationally, that nobody could outrun a bullet. It wasn't an intimidating exchange or even a personal one but a random discussion, the particulars of which he forgot. "To my grave, I would never threaten him in any way," Hickey says. "I'm not stupid."

In any case, Hickey never passed his RV ordinance, in no small part because of Dunning's entrenched opposition. Dunning frequently expresses skepticism of government, particularly about how it can affect private property rights, but that's little comfort to Kirkbride, who reluctantly gave up her opposition to her neighbor's RV and planted bushes to block the offending view. "I've been in the military, and I've never seen anything like this guy," she says of Dunning. "We're talking about a simple ordinance, and he gets so carried away it's crazy...Even Balch Springs has ordinances."

Like many older suburbs, Garland has hit a fork in the road and seems caught between two worlds. There's the one it's been, a freewheeling hodgepodge of working- and middle-class neighborhoods where you can park your RV on your front lawn with impunity. And the one it is slowly becoming, a more regulated, traditional bedroom community where the sensibilities of the woman next door are starting to matter. Once a white flight refuge following the integration of Southern Dallas, Garland is now a city where Anglos, Hispanics and African-Americans don't just live in the same part of town but on the same street--contently it seems from the way they talk to one another along the tidy front yards of their homes. But if the middle-aged city is wiser, it's also a little grumpier and confused about what it wants to do with the rest of its life.

For a few years now, members of the Garland City Council have tinkered with how and whether to use the power of local government to help improve neighborhoods, public safety and business conditions. On most matters, they've worked together, begrudgingly. But for whatever reason, several issues along the way wound up fracturing the City Council into two warring, sniping, scheming camps, culminating in a dramatic election this month that swept the dominant clique out of power. This not-so-civil war has turned Garland into what may be the most entertaining political theater in North Texas. Dallas City Council may have cornered the market on unethical behavior, managerial incompetence, financial recklessness, racial bickering, anti-Semitism, patronage...Where were we? But the end result of that is a rather dreary, demoralizing spectacle that makes you want to lease an Infiniti and move to Collin County. There's no fun in that.

But just northeast of Dallas, a few miles from the Mockingbird Lane bridge over White Rock Lake, the politicians of Garland are largely intelligent and honest. They quote English political philosophers and bring laptops to council meetings so they can consult their Excel spreadsheets for appropriations measures. And yet they can't so much as agree on when each others' terms end. They've had a mayor storm out of a meeting after the council was set to approve a bill he disliked, a council woman's wife distribute political fliers in a voting booth and a former 60- or 70-something elected official accuse an incumbent of staring at her breasts. As a measure of revenge, she launched a Web site that doctored a photo, putting her adversary's head on the body of a fat, wrinkly man wearing a diaper and standing in a steam room. Hell hath no fury like a Garland politician scorned.

The political climate in Garland is so charged that the lone news writer for the town's only real newspaper has donated money to one of the candidates who recently won election to the council. Meanwhile, Hickey, who will be forced out of office because of term limits next year, is so disgusted with the rivalries and infighting that he's considering getting out of Dodge.

"I'm thinking about leaving Garland," he says. "You have a bad group of vindictive, mean people. They're schemers and connivers, and they're bringing the city down."

Dunning, the unofficial leader of the opposing faction of the council, asserts the moral high ground in the debate against Hickey and his axis of not-quite-evil.

"Edmund Burke had a great quote," he said before the election. "'When evil men band together, good men must do the same.' I'm not going to call the bloc evil, but when they bind together it forces us to bind together in self-defense."

This is Garland politics: a cast of drama queens, equal parts petty, stubborn, confrontational, conspiratorial and, believe it or not, endearing, at least from a distance. They were like a prototypical cast for the TV show Real World, without the hotness and youth. But on June 17, voters toppled the controlling wing of the council and their anointed heirs by sweeping into office three passionate challengers, each of whom more or less coordinated their campaigns to take on the clique that had been setting the agenda. Whether that will help ease the dysfunction or amplify it, no one really knows, but at the very least it's yet another act in the city's strange political drama.

This is as good a time as any to tell you more about Randall Dunning, who along with his wife, Karen, helped the challengers defeat his council colleagues. A delegate to the state Republican convention in San Antonio--the one that came out in favor of making it a felony to marry gay couples--Dunning is not just your garden-variety suburban conservative. He is skeptical of even the mundane functions of municipal government, such as code enforcement. With the tall and lean build of a drill sergeant, complete with a graying crew cut, Dunning believes that the terrorist strikes of September 11 could have been prevented if airlines allowed passengers to be armed. (Archie Bunker once had a similar idea.) He also suggests that the torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were an outgrowth of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Don't ask us to try to explain that one.

To his detractors, Dunning is a conservative bogeyman, respected for his intellect, feared for his unrelenting distrust of all levels of government, even the one that he helps lead. As people often talk about him in alternately reverential and apprehensive tones, Dunning attains a mythic status before you meet him. To a newcomer, trying to understand who the players are, Dunning is the Keyser Soze of Garland. In person though, he's no wild-eyed zealot. He's a really charming guy who just happens to make Grover Norquist look like FDR.

Dunning and his wife homeschool their four children, in part because of the council member's own experience in public school. Dating himself a bit, he jokes that Paul Simon was right when he sang in his hit "Kodachrome": "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all."

Now a member of the scientific staff at Nortel Networks, Dunning says that as a student in the Chicago school system, he was trained to be "a good little socialist." One year in high school, his teacher instructed the class to create a government from scratch. The teacher meanwhile played God, spawning natural disasters and provoking global unrest. Three weeks into the assignment, the class created its own government, but it wasn't exactly a Jacksonian democracy.

"When it was done, we created a Marxist despotism," he says. "I was horrified at what I had just participated in, and it really magnified in my mind what the founders did when they created our government."

Dunning is now part of a real-life government, and while it's hardly a Marxist despotism, it's becoming something so bizarre that no high school class could have ever conceived it. It's hardly uncommon for city councils to squabble over neighborhood and budget issues, but how many of them quarrel over basic election matters? But in Garland, city council members were faced with a legal and political conundrum that could stump Solomon.

On May 15, 2004, Garland voters went to the polls to select council representatives, bond issues and charter amendments. On the latter, they chose to shorten city council terms from three years to two. That same day, they elected Terri Dunn, John Garner, Weldon Bradley and Michael Holden. When that group filed their candidacies, they were running for three-year terms. Voters ostensibly elected them to serve three-year terms since that's how the charter read when they walked into the booth. But the amendment that reduced the terms was supposed to go into effect immediately. So, does the new amendment cover the triumphant council members or not?

In October 2005, those four council members, plus Hickey, voted against having an election in May, basically opting in favor of three-year terms. The Garland City Council has nine members, including the mayor. The other four members voted in favor of holding an election. It just so happens that the five who voted against holding the election almost always vote together on other issues, particularly in favor of regulatory ordinances.

"I see their agenda as an attempt to micromanage the citizenry," says Dunning, who is the most outspoken of the other four. His group doesn't always band together, but they put up a unified front on the election issue.

The vote against holding the election didn't settle the matter but rather jump-started the animosity. A group called "Let Us Vote" raised money for a lawsuit and then challenged the city in court.

"This is old-style Garland politics, and now you have people challenging it, and they don't want to see the old way continue," says Douglas Athas, who ran for council and won against Holden's chosen successor and was one of the leaders of the Let Us Vote insurgency. "Not having an election and blowing it off because you can is not acceptable for most people in the community."

A local Web site run by former City Council member Jean McNeal tagged the bloc who voted against the elections "The Gang of Five" and began mocking them relentlessly. McNeal particularly targeted Holden, a smart, affable polygraph examiner by day, who by night reigned as the dark leader of a rogue bloc. At least that's how she sees it.

"Holden has his five, and he can kind of flip the bird at everyone," McNeal says. "He wants to be mayor someday, and after that, he wants to be God."

As if the political atmosphere wasn't charged enough, fliers critical of the Gang of Five were posted inside voting booths in Garland during the Republican primary run-off. With the help of an election judge, Dunning's wife, Karen, distributed the campaign material that ridiculed the five council members who voted against the elections for "turning a deaf ear to the citizens."

Dunning claimed that his wife and the election judge thought they could distribute the fliers because they were not related to the election at hand.

"I think it was a thoughtless mistake," he says. "Let's contrast that with the bloc that wanted to unlawfully suppress an election."

But not everybody felt that the so-called "Gang of Five" was stifling democracy in Garland. Stephen Miller, who serves on the city's utility advisory board, sympathizes with the incumbents.

"People say this is a dumb analogy, but I use it to explain. You're going down a road at 50 mph, and the speed limit is 40, and the officer gives you a ticket for going 50 in a 40. That same night the council leaders change the speed limit to 30, effective that day. Is your ticket now going to be for driving 50 in a 30? I don't think so."

Miller's logic aside, the Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Let Us Vote contingency and ordered the City Council to hold an election no later than July 1, essentially declaring that the two-year term was the rule for all.

That ruling prompted several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to run against the council members they beat up in court. On June 17, three of the candidates who supported holding the elections cruised into office, and now only one of the five council members who voted against holding the elections remains.

The Gang of Five is now a gang of one.

"The ones who didn't want to have an election, they all got beat handily," says council member Mark Monroe. "It's pretty obvious there were five members of the previous council who took the citizens for granted and wrote them off. I think that came back to haunt them."

Even after the elections, many of the more polarizing personalities remain, including Mayor Bob Day, a card-carrying member of the anti-Gang of Five camp. On two occasions last year, he simply walked out of meetings, once after the City Council was prepared to update its rental registration ordinance. While Dunning argued compellingly that the proposal was unconstitutional because it allowed city officers to show up unannounced and inspect rental homes at will--he was later proven right, and the ordinance was amended--the mayor chose to simply depart the council chambers in disgust, shocking just about everyone present. In a way, the mayor wound up, unintentionally, doing the ethical thing. He and his wife own rental property, and by storming out he avoided a possible conflict of interest. Still, the mayor's antics have given his critics plenty of ammunition.

"They're saying we're the dysfunction, but we're not the ones getting up out of meetings and wearing bulletproof vests," Holden says.

The rental ordinance is one of those measures aimed to clean up the pockets of Garland that perpetuate the (mostly) unfair stereotype of the city as a redneck outpost. The city's housing standards office has pictures of rental homes with trashed backyards, broken windows held together by duct tape and ramshackle rooms plagued by peeling paint and badly cracked floors. There are also stories of rental homes that don't have running water, with buckets serving as toilets. Many of these dilapidated properties anchor otherwise well-kept middle-class neighborhoods, where everyone else manages to mow their lawns, take out the trash and clean up the graffiti on their sheds.

Other than the mayor and Dunning, the rest of the City Council voted in favor of the rental ordinance, which required annual inspections by Garland code officers. (After a lawsuit, the inspections are now done by appointment.) But it was the Gang of Five that pushed for this legislation, as well as an earlier measure that sought to upgrade minimum housing standards for rental property.

But now that the elections have upended the balance of power, the members of the once-dominant council cadre are worried that much of what they accomplished will be undone. Already, they've speculated that the mayor will look to repeal the rental registration ordinance in the coming months, which they seem to view as the centerpiece of their efforts.

"I believe their goal of getting us out of office is to repeal much of what we've done to improve the quality of life in Garland," Holden says.

But Dunning says the Gang of Five has tried to tap into the power of government to make over their city. In a way, he's right. Holden's group has tried to spin Garland into more of a traditional suburb where at least some degree of conformity is the law.

"Using the power of positive legislation, they may believe that they can transform Garland into something like Frisco," Dunning says.

You could forgive the Garland City Council if its confrontations and debates stemmed from deep philosophical divides. Fighting over the soul of a city of 225,000 people can tend to amplify the latent tensions that run through any political body. But the stakes alone don't explain the bitterness or the tendentious behavior of the players.

Incredibly, Mayor Bob Day, the same guy who walked out of two council meetings, ordered the Garland Housing Finance Corp. (GHFC), a public agency that uses tax dollars to build affordable housing, to withhold the minutes of its meetings from council member Terri Dunn, one of his political adversaries.

"He screamed at me and said I didn't have the authority to have this information," she says.

After the City Council allowed the agency to partner with private developer Southwest Housing, which is at the center of the FBI investigation into alleged bribery at Dallas City Hall, Dunn wanted to learn more about GHFC. Although it's regularly involved in million-dollar transactions, the agency was a bit of a mystery to Dunn. So she asked for the minutes of their meetings.

But when she called one of the top officers at the GHFC, he refused to provide what are clearly public records. Her answering machine recorded their conversation. On the tape, Ed Jackson, who has served as both the president and vice president of the housing authority, deferred to the mayor's wishes. "You're putting me in a bind, Terri," he said uneasily.

Dunn asked how in the world could she, as an elected official, be denied something as routine as the minutes of a public body. "I've been told by the mayor not to do that," Jackson replied.

Jackson belatedly provided Dunn with the minutes after the city attorney told him to.

Mayor Day did not return repeated requests for comment, but his caginess on the housing authority and its dealings with Southwest Housing only add to the controversy surrounding the company. In December 2004, a divided council--surprise!--approved a zoning change for Southwest Housing that would allow it to build an $13.8 million development for senior citizens called the Primrose at Crist. Holden and Dunn voted against the development, in part because they believed they were being rushed to approve something they knew little about. In addition, many of the nearby residents opposed the design of the development, and the debate had become rancorous.

After the council finally approved Southwest's plan, resident Lee Lutz, who had pushed for the company to decrease the density of its project, went up to congratulate Jack Potashnik, the father of Southwest CEO Brian Potashnik. (The FBI has been investigating Brian Potashnik and his company for more than a year.) By Lutz's account, neither Brian nor Jack Potashnik received her graciously.

"They attacked my character and threatened to bury me," Lutz says. "I think one of them called me a bitch." She would later mount a losing campaign against Dunning, who supported the project.

Even after the council gave its tentative approval, Southwest Housing was staring down a funding deadline from the state to complete financing on its property. Garland's top planning official sent a letter to Wachovia Bank saying the company had not yet satisfied the city's demands. But an employee at Southwest Housing changed the letter to indicate that the company was fully compliant. This forged document ensured that Southwest would not lose the investment it had already made in the project.

Dunn says that the Housing Authority knew about the forged letter but didn't tell the council about it for months. She says that when she asked about the letter at a council work session, the city's chief of police came into the meeting and told her not to discuss it because the matter was under investigation. Nearly a year after the forged letter was exposed to the council, no one knows who doctored it and if that person was fired. A former employee of Southwest who claimed she was terminated for outing the fabricated document has filed a wrongful termination suit against the company. The circumstances of the forged letter remain under investigation.

Like many other issues, the debate over Southwest Housing has fractured the council. The once-dominant bloc voted against the original zoning change the company needed to break ground, but this time they were on the losing side. They suffered another defeat in June 2005 when they attempted to scuttle Southwest's project after it surfaced as a target in Dallas' FBI investigation. Between the forged letter and the shady allegations that have followed the company throughout Texas--not to mention the mayor's wishes to keep the housing authority's minutes under wraps--Holden has a rather ominous prediction: "It wouldn't surprise me at all if some indictments came down here in Garland. This deal does not pass the smell test."

During this past election season, the Web site SuzyBlitz.com chronicled--or perhaps more aptly, instigated--the rancor surrounding the council races. Were this the blog of just another gadfly, her diatribes wouldn't exactly merit attention. The local candidates, however, seem to be obsessed with the writings and positions expressed on the site, which seems to be a cross between A Prairie Home Companion and the Al-Jazeera of Garland. Suzy Blitz, the "nom de plume" of former Garland City Council member Jean McNeal, popularized the term "Gang of Five" and ridiculed them with relish, if not bad taste. Of Harry Hickey, who is a part of that dominant wing and is the council's only African-American member, she made a joke about him being "Jesse Jackson's butler." She referred to Terri Dunn as "uneducated" and accused her of violating the 100-foot boundary when campaigning at a local polling office. "She will be kept under camera surveillance until Election Day," McNeal mysteriously warned on her Web site.

But McNeal has reserved her strongest and strangest barbs for Holden. They briefly served on the council together, during which time she says he sexually harassed her. Even though, by her own admission, she's old enough to be Holden's mother, she claims that he continually stared at her breasts. Holden laughs off her accusation of sexual harassment, calling it a lie. He accuses McNeal of once sending out anonymous letters to city employees detailing who was sleeping with whom and signing it Suzy Blitz.

Given the content of her Web site, McNeal might not make the most credible accuser, but she kept up her assault on not only the council's once-dominant wing, but everyone they support--namely Jeffrey Maynard, the candidate Holden unsuccessfully endorsed to replace him. On her site, McNeal depicts Maynard and Holden together in a steam room with their heads placed atop the bodies of two grossly obese men wearing nothing but diapers that somehow fail to cover their rather small "constituents." In her caption, McNeal once again ridicules Holden for voting against holding council elections this spring.

"Once Holden realized the gig was up and all his efforts to thwart an election failed, he recruited Maynard to replace him. Up until March, the two were often seen sweating together at a local steam room. The Health Department has subsequently closed down the place."

Asked if this sort of writing crosses the line of good taste, McNeal says that she's just trying to make a point.

"The only way to describe my site is that it's satire," she says. "Some people may be offended by it, but the point I was trying to make when I wrote that was that by voting for Maynard, you're voting for Holden."

Holden and Maynard couldn't exactly count on their hometown newspaper for a better shake. One of their chief detractors, Jay Jones, owns a major share of the Garland News. He's ridiculed the council members who voted against the elections. Even worse, his paper's own staff writer Linda Jaresh donated money to the campaign of council candidate Doug Athas, who defeated Maynard. She is also listed on his Web site as a supporter.

In an e-mail to the Dallas Observer, Jaresh incredibly insists that she doesn't let her support of Athas influence her political coverage, but for obvious reasons Maynard won't talk to her.

"I'm not going to comment to a political reporter who endorsed a particular candidate," Maynard says.

Of course, Maynard is hardly a good arbiter of proper decorum. After he lost to Athas, he hijacked the Internet domain name of a Garland homeowners association because, as he explains, "the president of the organization, Greg Yearsley, did not support me..." On the site, Maynard says he's willing to sell the rights to the domain name for $2,500.

With the influence of the Gang of Five done, Harry Hickey is already talking about packing up and moving. His term expires next year. "There is just some bizarre stuff going on in the city of Garland," he says. "I'm just counting my days."

Holden, however, says that he's not going to let his detractors run him out of town. "I'll be in Garland long after these lunatics have left the council."

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle