Politics & Government

The Deal With Tiffinni Young’s Birthday Cake and Philip Kingston’s Unexcused Absence

Something quite amazing happened at the City Council meeting last Wednesday.

This post is about media ethics and birthday cake and Councilman Philip Kingston’s dog. There’s a lot to explain. Let’s start with our podcast on Thursday.

We recorded an episode of EarBurner with novelist Harry Hunsicker. You should listen. It’s a pretty good little chat, conducted, as always, around table No. 1 at the Old Monk. Before we talk to our guest about what’s going on in his life, we generally discuss recent events in Dallas. Earlier in the day, I’d heard from a trusted source a silly little story about Councilwoman Tiffinni Young’s birthday cake and Councilman Philip Kingston’s refusal to procure same. Here’s the way, roughly, I told the story on our podcast:

The Dallas City Council has a tradition of randomly selecting members to get birthday cakes for their colleagues. Kingston was picked to buy for Young, but he refused for some reason, possibly because Young had lost her reelection bid and will be bounced from the Council this week, making her birthday cake not something Kingston cared to fuss with.

The punchline to the story was that the Council had to vote on Wednesday whether a recent Kingston absence from a committee meeting was excused because he was on official city business, attending an event in Young’s district. Young raised her hand and let everyone know that Kingston, in fact, had not attended this event. So he was docked pay for having an unexcused absence. I said that I thought this move was Young’s retribution for Kingston’s cake kibosh. Earlier that day, I’d called Young’s office to ask about the cake and was told to email my questions, which I did. I said on the podcast that these details were as yet unconfirmed and that I’d update our listeners when I heard back from Young.

That’s the media ethics portion of this post. I would not have published the Cakegate™ story on this blog or in the magazine without a better grasp on its details. I have yet to hear back from Young and suspect I never will. Before writing about Cakegate™, then, I would have called Kingston to get his side of the story. But for a podcast? Just some dudes sitting around a table at a bar, entertaining each other? Good gossip from a trusted source felt like fair game to me. The podcast went up Thursday night.

Friday afternoon I got a call from Kingston. He’d listened to the podcast, and he lit into me for getting everything wrong. I’m not putting those words in quotes because I was taking notes as quickly as I could, but I didn’t write down “You got everything wrong.” From my recollection, though, that was how he described my telling of Cakegate™. According to Kingston, here’s how it actually went down:

Some of the city staff thought Young should get a cake early, before she left office, because her birthday would fall in July, after she left office. Kingston’s staff asked him if they should get on this cake thing, which, according to him, would have taken time away from work. He instructed them not to do it. Kingston told me that I got the random cake tradition wrong. He said the city council manager produces a random list that every council member then refuses to heed.

On my scoresheet at this point, I have my Cakegate™ story at 80 percent accurate. I’m biased, though.

Kingston corrected me on the detail about his pay being docked. It wasn’t. He didn’t explain how the process works, but I would later learn that a council member has to miss 10 percent of his meetings before his pay gets docked. Kingston told me he had filed a memo with the Budget, Finance, and Audit Committee explaining that he planned to miss a meeting so that he could attend a District 6 event. That would be Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo’s district. (She, too, lost her bid for reelection.) According to Kingston, his dog got sick and he had to take it to a veterinarian, which is what forced him to miss the committee meeting. I asked him if he had a vet bill he could show me.

It was at somewhere around this point in our conversation that Kingston said, “You’re a fucking piece of shit. You don’t cover shit except for bullshit.” I hasten to add that he didn’t say this in a menacing way. That’s not the way it hit my ear. He said it laughingly. He sounded bemused. Also worth noting is that I told Kingston I was writing down what he was saying; I’m not betraying any confidence by reporting what he called me.

Of course, he said, he had a vet bill. I asked if it would be easy to take a picture of it and text it to me, and he agreed that that would be easy, but he refused to do it, saying that no one cared. I said that I cared, and I told him that I thought the trip to the vet was important because missing the committee meeting for something other than the event he said he was going attend — and the Council’s vote on the attendance matter — made it seem like he was lying. He didn’t agree with me. He called into question my competence as a journalist.

Two things here, I think, are important. First, I should have called Kingston before talking about Cakegate™ on our podcast. I apologized to him for that. My conversation with him made me think for the first time about why I would consider the journalistic standards for a podcast lower than those for a blog or a magazine, especially when it’s the editor of that magazine who is recording the podcast. I’m going to approach our podcast more carefully from this point forward, and I owe Kingston a debt for bringing me to that decision.

The second important thing is that my Cakegate™ story wasn’t really that far off from Kingston’s version of events, and yet the discrepancy led him to call me a fucking piece of shit, all the while refusing to provide a vet bill. This from a councilman who has (rightfully) made a big deal about the lack of transparency at City Hall and whose opponent in the last election ran against Kingston almost solely on the platform that Kingston is a big jerk. Maybe that’s a second and third thing that’s important about this Cakegate™ story. It’s hard for me to keep count.

I struggled with whether I should write this post. After he reads it, Kingston might refuse to return my calls, as he has done in the past. But I think Cakegate™, as trivial as it might first seem, provides a good vantage point from which to see how the councilman from District 14 conducts himself. If he will call me a fucking piece of shit for missing 20 percent of a story, how does he treat city staff when the council cameras aren’t running? How does he talk to his colleagues at the horseshoe? And even if I am a fucking piece of shit, why not offer the same sort of transparency on a matter of public interest that he rightfully demands from city staff?

These question vex me all the more in light of where Kingston falls on so many important issues that face the city. On DART, on the Trinity toll road, on Fair Park — he has done so much good work. I think he could be even more effective if he learned to control his emotions.

Finally, then, what really happened Wednesday at the City Council meeting? Just to get a sense of how weird and awkward birthday celebrations can be when politics are involved, I’m going to point you to about 12 minutes of video. Take the time to watch it.

Go here and scroll down to Addendum Item 3A, at about 10:30, the “resolution designating absence by Councilmember Philip T. Kingston as being for ‘Official City Business’.” Kingston leaves the room because he’s conflicted on the item. Councilwoman Jennifer Gates asks Young to confirm that Kingston was on the train. I don’t know which train she’s talking about. Gates makes it sound like the train thing was in Young’s District 7, not Alonzo’s District 6. In either case, it is Gates, not Young, who seems like she’s gunning for Kingston, but Young looks to me like she enjoys reporting that Kingston wasn’t on the train. Gates asks Young a second time, somewhat incredulously: “He wasn’t on the train ride?” Hearing a response in the negative, a troubled Gates says she can’t support the motion (meaning she doesn’t think Kingston had an excused absence).

Councilman Scott Griggs tries unsuccessfully to delay the vote to get more information as to why Kingston missed the train ride. Side note: Griggs and Kingston are allies. If Kingston had a dog so sick that it had to be taken to the vet, Griggs would likely have known about it. I’m guessing.

At one point during these proceedings, Kingston returns to whisper in the ear of Alonzo, who is serving as mayor in Mike Rawlings’ absence. That move draws protest from Councilman Lee Kleinman, and Kingston leaves again. I’d love to know what Kingston told Alonzo, just in terms of transparency and in the context of a council member who excused himself for a conflict but then returned to council chambers for whispering purposes.

Ultimately, Griggs’ delay tactic fails, and the Council votes not to designate Kingston’s absence as being for official city business. He is unexcused.

But wait!

Stick around for Additional Item 2, the video that follows the above action. That’s where we get to the cake. Or, if not the cake, then a cake.

Here we’ve got the most awkward celebration of birthdays ever, and the dates are all over the calendar, to Kingston’s point. Gates has a birthday. Young’s is July 8. Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold’s is July 11. But they are all to be celebrated together, on June 14.

Alonzo turns the celebration over to Arnold, who says, “I don’t mind taking the lead. That’s what good leaders do. You just step up and take care of business. Isn’t that right, Mr. Broadnax? TCB. So CKA is going to take care of business today.” Then a chocolate sheet cake shows up, and Arnold says, “Ooooh!” She leads the Council in the worst rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song that I’ve ever heard, as Alonzo cackles and snaps her fingers into her microphone. Arnold gets Gates and Young to take a picture with her “since this is the last time you’re going to have any African-American women on the Council.”

That seems like a bad prediction. But anyway, there’s the whole story, as far as I’m able to figure it out.


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