Dallas County

The Ropes Will Stay at Dallas County Commissioner's Court, But is it Really That Big a Deal?

The Dallas County Commissioners Court will vote today on whether to keep in place the rope barriers that sparked an outcry (from the media at least) put up three weeks ago. County Judge Clay Jenkins said he made the order to maintain order and decorum, but, coming as it did on the heels of the FBI's allegations that John Wiley Price is very corrupt, it was also clearly an attempt to shield the longtime commissioner.

Commissioner Maurine Dickey said, and continues to say, exactly that. "I think he (Jenkins) is violating the first amendment," she told me yesterday. The barriers, the portable kind you see at movie lines, are an attempt to stifle the press, she said. "It's never been done before," she said. "There's been a lot of controversial things that have happened over the years, and we've never had to rope the press off. They're not violent or anything."

In protest, she placed an item on the agenda calling for the barriers to be permanently removed, a defiant gesture but one that has precisely zero chance of passing.

Here's why. Dickey is one of two Republicans on the five-member court which, a rope barrier being a traditionally non-partisan object, doesn't in itself mean much. But we know that Jenkins will vote to keep the barriers seeing as he was the one who ordered them put in place and has not since backed down. We also know that Price has been the primary beneficiary of the measure, so count him as pro-ropes. On the other side, we know where Dickey stands, and we can assume that Commissioner Mike Cantrell, the court's other Republican who told the DMN he doesn't see the need for the barriers, will join her. Which leaves Elba Garcia as the swing vote. Except she's not swinging.

"I think this is absolutely about safety," Garcia said, placing herself firmly in the pro-rope camp. It's easy for Dickey to talk, flanked as she is by a private body guard, Garcia said, but compare the commissioners court to City Hall. To attend a Dallas City Council meeting, one has to pass through a metal detector, and to reach council members' offices, you have to go through security. The county? Not so much. "I was shocked when I got elected (as commissioner) to see how little how much security was in the whole building," said Garcia, who served several years on the City Council.

Garcia said she and Jenkins had been discussing additional security precautions, including the rope barriers, since March, long before the FBI's allegations about Price were unveiled. "Sadly, the timing (of crises) is what makes government bodies act," but in the case of the barriers, the county is acting correctly, she said. Plus: "The reality is, it's only a few feet. The media's still there, the public's still there."

She kinda has a point. Jenkin's decision to put up the barriers was ham-fisted and tone deaf and, though as the court's presiding officer he had the authority, he should have opened the topic for public discussion, are the ropes really that egregious an affront to the public? Or is this just the media working itself into a lather over what, in the end, amounts to very little?

I'm a reporter and all for openness access to public officials, and the ropes offer nothing in the way of real security, but what's changed? Basically reporters now have to stand 10 feet away from John Wiley Price while he ignores their questions. Less chance that he'll end up shoving Brett Shipp? We'll lose an entertaining news clip or two, but what else?

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson