After three-plus hours of questioning and pontificating from the horseshoe, the city council wrapped up its briefing on the proposal to turn the keys to Fair Park over to a new private non-profit foundation. Two big things stuck out.
The first was a question raised by council member Philip Kingston regarding the state law that allows for municipalities to enter into agreements like the one former Hunt Oil executive Walter Humann has brought to the table. The law provides an exception to the usual required bidding process if the proposed contract is for “management services provided by a nonprofit organization to a municipal museum, park, zoo, or other facility to which the organization has provided significant financial or other benefits.” Kingston pointed out that, unlike Klyde Warren Park, Humann’s non-profit was not approaching the city with pre-raised funds for the park. And so, what were the “other benefits” that the foundation was offering the city?
City attorneys scrambled for a few moments before providing an answer. The management services themselves were the benefit to the city, they said. It was a less than satisfying answer, and the question seemed to linger in the air. Could the contract be challenged further on those terms? Could a legal challenge blow the whole thing out of the water or force an open bidding process? Opening the future of Fair Park to an open bidding process could get, well, really interesting.
The other interesting part of the meeting occurred at the very end of the proceedings. Council members had their chance to vet Humann. They raised questions about representation on the foundation board by South Dallas community members, the terms of the management fee, and the fact that public funds were to be spent on building maintenance while yet-to-be-raised private money would fund a park at some later date. One fishy detail that stuck out was the stipulation that the foundation could meet its obligation to match future bond funding with non-monetary donations.
When it was over, it seemed like there was much left still to do, many details that still need to be tweaked and refined, and some large questions about whether or not the foundation could offer enough assurances to the city that it would be held accountable to the promises it was making.
Then the mayor charted a way forward.
“It is near impossible to negotiate a deal with 30 people,” Rawlings said, referring to the drawn-out debate over the past few months that have seen park board members, city council members, and others weigh in on the proposed contract. And so to negotiate the final deal for the council’s vote, Rawlings announced the creation of a special negotiation team consisting of council members Tiffany Young, Adam McGough, and Monica Alonzo.
The mayor’s choice was not random. Young and Alonzo were two of the least-critical council members of the plan as it stands today, and while McGough did ask questions about board representation and holding the park foundation accountable to economic development goals outside its boundaries, he wasn’t as aggressive in his questioning as Kingston, Scott Griggs, Adam Medrano, or even Jennifer Staubach Gates, who wondered at one point why the city shouldn’t up its budget and manage the park itself rather than give all its tax dollars away to a foundation. That’s when Carolyn Arnold piped up with a question. Why, she wondered, was council member Adam Medrano not on the special team? After all, his district, like Young’s, abuts Fair Park.
“Mainly because he said he is not voting for it,” Rawlings said, referencing Medrano’s earlier remarks that he wasn’t ready to vote “yes” on Humann’s plan. “I want someone at the table who is interested in trying to get that done.”
It was an unfortunate moment. While I understand what Rawlings intended by his comment (Medrano had brought up the issue of police pay during his comments, suggesting, perhaps, that he wasn’t going to vote on the plan for political reasons), the mayor’s remarks injected precisely the wrong tone into a debate that has been all about proving the need for transparency and openness.
Rawlings went on to explain that he sees Humann’s deal as the last chance for Fair Park.
“If we don’t pass this, this doesn’t happen for the next 20 years,” he said. “Do we want it good and make it happen, or do we want to kill it? I’m for pushing it on. Let’s get it done.”
I can empathize with Rawlings’ sense of urgency. Right now, there is a real plan for Fair Park on a table, and after three-plus of hours of cutting the plan apart and looking at its underbelly, it doesn’t look like the worst plan in the world for Fair Park. It has a management structure that could succeed in ensuring that progress will be made where previous attempts at re-imagining the park merely manifested themselves in plans that sit on shelves.
But there were some real, serious concerns voiced by nearly all the council members today. Many of them revolve around ensuring that whatever foundation is created, there is accountability built into the contract to ensure that the promises Humann made to the city this afternoon are promises his foundation will be bound to keep in perpetuity.
For example, it is troubling that the foundation isn’t subject to the Texas Opens Meetings Act. It is also unfortunate that the plan provides for only one seat on its board of directors that has to be filled by someone who lives in South Dallas. And I understand that it might be easier to raise private funds for a “community park” after the city dumps millions into the park’s cherished (and dilapidated) Art Deco buildings, but there aren’t any firm timelines to ensure that community park isn’t an empty promise. That doesn’t offer a lot of assurance to a community used to lip service.
The mayor said that the city has cut deals with the zoo and the arboretum that are less tough than the one it is currently negotiating with Humann’s Fair Park Foundation. But Fair Park is not the zoo or the arboretum. The history of Fair Park demands greater accountability and transparency. If it adopts this contract, the city will relinquish oversight of Fair Park in the hope that a private foundation will draw private funds to the park. But the scarce public funds that Humann argues are needed to kick-start that project need strings attached to ensure they are not merely subsidizing a North Dallas vanity project. Public funds must contribute to the public good. There needs to be language in the contract that forces the foundation to think beyond the confines of the park, to see its mission as more than simply creating a great park. The foundation should be tasked with stitching a city together. The foundation should not be created to improve a barrier, but to remove one.
But for now, the mayor has a plan for getting the contract through the sticky process of council review. According to Rawlings’ timeline, the council trio will negotiate the final details and then put the deal up for a full council vote in September.
And then, right before the mayor was ready to let the gavel fall on the proceedings, McGough asked if he could ask one more question. The mayor reluctantly agreed. As it turned out, McGough’s question was more of a comment. Could he get something on the record? McGough said that regardless of his participation in the mayor’s negotiation team, like Medrano, he was still not ready to vote “yes” on the Fair Park plan. That was okay, right?
Of course it was. This is a democracy. The rubber stamps aren’t out of the box just yet.