Fair Park esplanade. (Photo: Michael Cagle/Preservation Dallas)

State Fair of Texas

Sean Johnson’s Conflict of Interest

Is the Dallas City Council's vote to reorganize Park Board leadership just a way to put Fair Park in the State Fair's pocket?

On paper, it looks like a simple reassignment of duties. Item number 18 on this week’s Dallas City Council agenda calls for a “consideration of appointments to boards and commissions and the evaluation of duties of board and commission members.” But between the lines of the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, the agenda item represents nothing less than a hatchet job.

First, let’s translate it into plain English. Tomorrow the City Council will decide whether Dallas Park and Recreation Board Vice Chair Jesse Moreno should remain vice chair, or if Sean Johnson, another board member with professional connections to the State Fair of Texas, should assume the position.

The timing is significant.

Two weeks ago, Moreno and Johnson locked horns in a park board meeting over the State Fair of Texas. Officials from the State Fair were invited to City Hall on January 26 to give a presentation of “highlights” from last year’s event. Some park board members wanted to use the visit as an opportunity to ask fair officials some tough questions, particularly relating to findings of a city audit that questioned whether the State Fair was adequately fulfilling its contractual obligations as a tenant of Fair Park.

When city staff told the board that the agenda item only allowed for the State Fair to present “highlights,” and not to be questioned by the board, Moreno slipped a second item onto the agenda that would allow for an open discussion of the State Fair. However, after the State Fair made their presentation and the open conversation began, the fair officials split. They just left. No conversation.

Jim Schutze covers the whole thing here. Schutze was in the park board meeting room at the time, which is good because I was watching the meeting online and just when the juicy part of the back-and-forth kicked in, the sound on the live feed mysteriously dropped out. Schutze reports that Johnson went to bat for the State Fair, calling his colleagues’ attempts to grill the State Fair officials during the briefing “embarrassing.”

This may all sound like the usual City Hall squabbling, but as with everything that has to do with the State Fair and Fair Park, context is everything. The city is currently planning to hand over Fair Park management to a private entity. Some are concerned that the control and influence the State Fair exerts on the management of the park is the real reason Fair Park continues to struggle. Last week, Moreno demonstrated a willingness to push against procedural and institutional reluctance within City Hall to question the State Fair of Texas. Johnson, on the other hand, scolded him for it.

That it was Johnson who took to the soapbox to scold his colleagues is not insignificant. The park board member has an inconspicuous connection to the State Fair that suggests a conflict of interest.

Sean Johnson’s day job is the Managing Director of Quality of Life and Cultural Services for the city of Lancaster. That means he oversees parks, recreation, library services, Country View Golf Course, the Lancaster Convention and Visitors Center, and State Auxiliary Museum. In other words, he’s a parks and rec staffer for a Dallas suburb who also serves on the Dallas Park Board. Some might say that offers him the depth of knowledge and range of expertise that would make him a good Dallas Park Board member. Others might argue that his role in overseeing the Lancaster park and rec department and in serving on the Dallas Park Board means Johnson is playing both sides of the field.

But that’s not the State Fair conflict. Johnson’s boss in Lancaster is Mayor Marcus Knight. Knight is an up-and-coming politician who was elected the first black mayor of Lancaster at 33. Knight’s accomplishment follow in the footsteps of his father, Richard Knight Jr., who is something of a Dallas legend. Richard Knight Jr. became Dallas’ first black city manager in 1986, and he has enjoyed a long and successful career as an executive in the oil, construction, and waste services industries. As a capstone to that success, in 2015, Richard Knight Jr. was elected board chairman of the State Fair of Texas.

Let’s spell that out more clearly: the guy the city wants to make vice chair of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board works for the son of the guy who runs the State Fair of Texas.

I reached out to Johnson yesterday via his work line, and he returned my call to give me another number to reach him, but said he didn’t have time to talk and would call me back. I still haven’t heard from Johnson. I also reached out to Tiffinni Young, the council member who has nominated Johnson for vice chair, to gain some insight on the timing of vice chair vote, but I haven’t heard back from her.

It bears mentioning that the timing of the vote doesn’t just coincide with last week’s State Fair scuffle. Some park board members believe that the current chair, Max Wells, who was out of the country during the January 26 meeting, is set to resign from the board. That may mean that whoever is vice chair may become chair of the park board in the coming months — just as the effort to privatize Fair Park moves forward.

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