Listen, the debate about Fair Park – turning our 277-acre albatross two miles east of downtown over to a private entity — probably started out with good enough intentions. But now, not so much.
Now it’s about nothing so much as shielding the board of directors of the State Fair of Texas from public scrutiny, and the scrutiny they’re ducking from is pretty damned searing.
The specific questions the State Fair of Texas board has been ducking, dodging, suing and gluing people over in the last year have to do with alleged kickbacks from vendors, conflicts of interest, side-deals, financial arrangements with the cops, a slew of things.
I would feel compelled to point out that these are just questions and it’s unfair to assume the answers, except that the board has gone to such extraordinary lengths to avoid giving those answers.
Last year, rather than go through the normal legal process for an entity that doesn’t want to answer public information demands, the fair board sued the Austin law firm that had sent them the questions.
State District Judge Staci Williams threw the fair board out of court, telling them to go through the steps prescribed by law for people who object to a public information demand – an appeal to the Texas attorney general and, if they’re still not happy there, maybe a visit to court in Austin, not Dallas.
But Williams took another extraordinary step, agreeing with the defendants that the State Fair of Texas had violated state law by suing them as a way to prevent them from exercising their constitutional right of free speech. The judge awarded attorneys’ fees to the defendants plus a matching “sanction” amount that the judge made clear was the fair’s penalty for abusing state law.
Was that enough to make the fair repent? Absolutely not. As we speak, the fair is engaged in an appeal of Williams’ opinion. The fair board is still firmly determined not to answer any of the questions put to it under state public information laws.
The fair has argued that it is not a public entity and therefore not subject to the public information laws of the state. The defendants argue that the fair is public enough, under the law, given both a history of financial support from the city and the obvious important effects the fair’s operations have on the public good, for better or for worse.
That question hasn’t been litigated yet and won’t be, ironically, unless the fair wins its appeal. If it wins, then its lawsuit will come back to Dallas for trial, and all of that laundry will be done in court – a prospect the fair ought to be having second thoughts about.
In the meantime and of more immediate importance to you and me, the whole transparency issue is front and center – way front, way center – in deliberations at the park board about which plan it ought to adopt for turning Fair Park over to a private entity.
Several park board members have been saying they want any new entity that takes over Fair Park to agree by contract to make itself subject to state public information and public meetings laws. I told you here a little over a month ago that Walt Humann, the person who is heading up a particular proposal closely allied with the fair board, was adamantly opposed to anything like that.
Humann told me that making the new private entity subject to public information laws would render it susceptible to attack by saboteurs. Humann said the entity’s enemies might exploit state law to destroy the private entity with an inundation of trivial and bogus information requests.
Maybe. It’s not impossible. It does seem kind of like reaching for something to worry about, but it’s theoretically possible. I guess they could also jam the new entity’s board meetings with way more people than the entity had folding chairs for.
But let’s see if we can imagine a more down-to-earth reason why the fair might want Humann to shield his new private entity from the public information laws. First of all, whatever contract the city grants to such an entity will govern and subsume the next contact that the entity signs with the fair. If the new entity signs a contract in which it agrees to be subject to the public information laws, it can’t sign one with its principal tenant that doesn’t impose the same conditions.
Once that happens and assuming the state fair wants to stay at Fair Park, then the fair will have to call off its legal dogs, forget the appeal or any other maneuvers and answer questions like any other entity subject to state law. In other words, they will have to answer the questions they are presently suing to avoid answering.
I have spoken with reliable sources, who talked to me in return for my promise not to name them, who have told me that the questions the fair is suing over now were inspired by information received from multiple anonymous whistle-blowers, at least one of whom was a state fair employee at one time, some of whom were not but who had extensive dealings with the fair.
Of the 61 questions, some are broad, asking, for example, for minutes of board meetings, statements of policy and so on. But some are wickedly specific:
“Documents and communications reflecting fundraising for the reconstruction of Big Tex due to SFOT (State Fair of Texas) underinsuring for the destruction of same.”
“The use of paving equipment and/or materials for the repaving of properties outside Fair Park.”
“Any agreement with a SFOT subcontractor to provide paving services on properties outside Fair Park as a contract term, ‘rebate’ or condition of receiving a contract on Fair Park property.”
“All ‘economic impact studies’ of any kind performed on behalf of SFOT or on behalf of any consultant retained and/or paid in whole or in part by the SFOT for the time period set out above.”
“All documents and communications regarding any benefit conferred on SFOT board members (both current and former) in each of the last 10 years.”
“All documents and correspondence regarding compensation of (former State Fair CEO) Errol McKoy ... (former supervisor of finance) Lee D. Winton … (current CEO) Mitchell Glieber.”
Other questions have to do with the fair’s sources and amounts of income and what it tells the city every year about its income and expenses. Several questions have to do with cash side-payments made by vendors to state fair employees. A series of questions seek information about money the fair claims to pay toward scholarships every year.
Even though the fair has fought bitterly to hold all of this information secret, some answers have emerged anyway through the process of normal public discourse and the fact that lots of people are interested. I told you last April about an economic impact study done by the Baylor Center for Business and Economic Research that blew the State Fair’s own claims about its economic impact right out of the water.
Here were some highlights of that report:
In fact the State Fair has not provided supporting evidence for any of its claims nor has it released a single economic impact study. The estimates themselves vary so widely that future city planning based on them would be both difficult and unwise.
No reliable data confirm State Fair attendance is 3 million as published. Available evidence indicates attendance, not counting employees or football games, is between 1.5-1.7 million.
Here is perhaps our most important conclusion. If previous assessments of Fair Park’s economic impact have caused officials to think that the status quo is working well, then the City of Dallas is misinformed.
Against that backdrop, some of the smaller but more wickedly pointed questions take on a more sinister appearance. All of it smacks of an entity that has operated for way too long on an anachronistic, hip-pocket, good-old-boy basis and now can’t stand up to the light of day.
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Last week Humann — under great pressure to do so from impatient park board members — finally named the people he wants to see as board members on the new entity, which he intends to head himself. Incredibly enough, the park board still has not seen final numbers for the enormous public subsidies, thought to be in the annual tens of millions of tax dollars, that the new entity will expect from the city.
When the names were announced, a certain buzz went up over the fact that Humann had appointed some of his most staunch critics to the board. Certainly that was a good faith effort on his part.
But those people have been critics of the Humann plan largely because they are allied with community groups in the city, especially in the area around Fair Park. They need to think about what they’re doing before they jump in.
If this new entity is created as a kind of information Alamo for the old guard types who have always run the state fair board — if the members of the board of the new entity are going to be bound by the same culture of secrecy that rules the fair board — then those new board members will soon find themselves deeply estranged from their own communities.