Ellen Williams, a member of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, has a powerful column in the Dallas Morning News that minces few words about the public process — or rather, lack there of — that has defined Fair Park privatization plan.
At the center of her suspicion is a simple fact that even after the park board had to fight with their chair just for the opportunity to properly vet the contract brought to the city by former Hunt Oil executive Walt Humann, the city now won’t release the amended contract until the day of the council budget meeting. To Williams, that’s evidence of something worse than any bad terms or broken promises that may or may not be contained in the contract. It suggests that this latest effort, for all of its promises of a new day for Fair Park, represents more of the same old Fair Park history:
Humann’s plan enables a handful of elites to subjugate this Dallas treasure for another 30 years. It perpetuates decades of closed-door dealings and cronyism that have ruined Fair Park for all but 24 days a year during the State Fair. Humann said he wants “a people park, not a profit park.” That will happen only if he puts community demand for a great 80- to 110-acre public park above the private interests of the State Fair.
I have difficulty not empathizing with Williams’ perspective. After all, the history of the park has been the history of a private entity seemingly outside of the public’s control utilizing a public asset to inflict harm on the surrounding neighborhood and take Dallas citizens for a ride. Here’s Williams most damning paragraph:
City documents show decades of influence by the State Fair of Texas on the Dallas Park Board, which is technically in charge of Fair Park. The State Fair fills its board with former members of the Park Board, city council and city managers, who hold influence at City Hall. The city then routinely rubber-stamps State Fair requests. Not one forensic audit by an independent accounting firm has been conducted by the State Fair, not even after the failed Summer Adventures project cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
What’s saddening for me is that this latest effort to rethink Fair Park has degenerated into the same old conflict that defines nearly all of Dallas’ big ticket visions and public-private partnerships. Private donors often want public funds to help realize big civic visions, but they don’t like the public process required to secure those funds. And so they find ways around that process, working out details in backrooms and ramming pre-finalized versions through board and council review, pulling strings with city staff, and stacking the deck.
The recent flap over Fair Park is only the latest example of how those who want the public to invest tax dollars in their pet projects don’t want the public to weigh-in on how those funds are protected against manipulation or misuse. But if donors demonstrate such a distrust in the public process, why should they expect the public to trust them in return?