Ted Barker surveys the enormous pit in the Trinity Forest


Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s Real Test

How the new top dog at City Hall handles an environmental catastrophe in the Trinity Forest -- and its cover-up -- will tell us what we need to know about the man.

Yesterday I wrote about turnover in City Hall’s top brass that has occurred since the arrival of Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax. Today, Jim Schutze has a column about a standoff between the city and an environmentalist that he argues may prove to be the first real test of Broadnax’s willingness to stand-up to Dallas’ old guard power structure.

It involves — what else? — the Trinity River. In particular, it involves that big nasty pit dredged in the Trinity Forest for dirt and sand by the contractor building the Trinity Forest Golf Club. Tim has covered the pit’s environmental havoc, and the city’s subsequent shirking of responsibility for the mess that eventually drew the attention of the state’s environmental agency. Schutze now writes about how this neglect and its cover up may have been illegal.  The article is certainly worth a read in full, but here are the highlights:

After the contractor building the golf course dug a pit the size of Cowboys Stadium in the forest, the city hired independent inspectors to make sure that the city was enforcing regulations that protected against future environmental impact from flooding, erosion, and other damage to the site. But after those inspectors indeed found violations at the pit, the city went to bat for the contractor of the golf course. Per an email cited by Schutze, an assistant director with the Trinity Watershed Management Department told the inspectors the contractor was not liable and that she believed there were no violations. Reports on the violations turned over to the city attorney’s office were not prosecuted. In other words, the city hired inspectors to provide oversight of the protection of its forestland, but when those inspectors found wrongdoing, the city went to bat for the private golf course that was monkeying with city land.

We know all of this because accountant, birder, and self-appointed Lorax of the Trinity Forest, Ben Sandifer, managed to obtain emails related to the pit. He discovered in them the long string of violation reports. But here’s where it gets interesting. Some of the emails Sandifer obtained from an anonymous source were not include in the information he received as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. One email in particular that was left out of the FOIA cache seems to show the assistant director trying to strong-arm the inspectors. Schutze drills down on the significance of it all:

The immediate issue isn’t even about the borrow pit. Sure, it would be interesting to know why [assistant director of the Trinity Watershed Management Department Susan] Alvarez tried to shut down the inspectors instead of allowing the inspection process and the notices of violation to proceed through regular channels, which would have happened if the city had been inspecting a private party. Private parties, after all, don’t get to send emails to the city’s inspectors telling them they’re full of it and to stop sending notices.

It would be interesting to know how this behavior comports with the city’s obligations under the consent decree with the EPA, but those are not the most interesting things in this situation.

The really interesting thing is that the city signed and submitted an official certification to the Texas attorney general saying it had provided Sandifer, the activist, with all the documents responsive to his demand under the Texas Public Records Act. But that was not not true.

The email in which Alavarez puts the arm on the stormwater inspectors is conspicuous for its absence from the rest of the emails the city gave Sandifer. It has been plucked out of the stream.

And so the ball falls to Broadnax. The Texas attorney general may now take legal action against the city to force it to fulfill Sandifer’s Trinity Forest Golf Course FOIA request. The violations discovered by the inspectors and turned over to the city attorney have still not been prosecuted. Alavarez, and her boss, Trinity Watershed Management Department Director Sarah Standifer, are not among the recently resigned or retired top brass at City Hall, though the public information officer involved in the questionable Freedom of Information Act compliance is no longer with the city.

Transparency, cleaning house, open government, a promise to serve the needs of the city and not the interest of wealthy or powerful interests: these are the values the new city manager has said he will stand by. The pit, like most everything related to the Trinity River Project, is part of an older legacy of management at City Hall, associated with obfuscation and the prioritization of the interests of private backers of big ticket projects like the Trinity golf club. And just as the Trinity River Project and its historical handling has been the best way through which to observe the old way Dallas did business, the pit in the Trinity Forest is a single image and controversy that offers Broadnax an opportunity to prove that he really does represent change at City Hall.