Last week, Bobby Abtahi walked into Mayor Eric Johnson’s office a little after 4 p.m. and tendered his resignation as the president of the Park and Recreation Board. It was something of a surprise; Abtahi was one of many public officials who backed Johnson against former Councilman Scott Griggs in the mayor’s race.
He said it was the right time to exit the stage, especially after seeing his friend Mike Rawlings relax after eight years as mayor. And so after two and a half years heading the Park Board—and $262 million in public funding for new parks, upgraded recreation centers, programming to keep kids off the streets, a privatization deal for Fair park, and a parkland dedication fund—the 37-year-old decided he wanted to spend more time with his family and in his day job as an attorney.
Robert Wilonsky broke that news in The Dallas Morning News last week. We invited Abtahi to come on the podcast and reflect on his tenure (and, yes, embarrass himself guessing quotes from Parks and Rec characters). Programming note: There are show notes after the jump, but I’ve also transcribed the interview and pulled out some interesting portions. Let me know what you think of that.
1. Councilman Philip Kingston, who felled Abtahi for the District 14 council seat in 2013, lost his place to David Blewett, who Abtahi backed. Here’s a story from 2017, when Kingston and Abtahi traded some insults over each other’s records.
2. The trees lost in Dallas parks after last month’s storms now hover around 700. They’re mostly mature trees, too, which makes replanting tricky. Abtahi believes it will cost around $2 million to replace them, the bulk of that cost coming from irrigation requirements.
3. Here is an interview with the Dallas Observer from 2017, when Abtahi explains the difference between the Park Board and the Parks Department. It’s more interesting than it sounds!
4. Here is one of the other times Abtahi has appeared on this podcast, in which he debated the future of Fair Park with Paul Sims, who once waged a brief effort for District 9’s Council seat.
5. Here’s some information on Darren James and Fair Park First from the early discussions of the park’s privatization effort.
6. The latest on the effort to dredge White Rock Lake is not exactly inspiring.
On the storms from last month:
Tim Rogers: You estimated the Dallas parks lost 600 trees in the big May Storm. Why does God hate trees so much?
Bobby Abtahi: It’s up to 700, 700. Just in Dallas parks, yeah. …
Here’s the crazy thing. It’s not the number of trees that’s important, it’s what’s called the caliper inches. And I track these old trees, big old trees, it’s gonna cost us probably $2 million bucks to get everything back to where it needs to be because it’s not just planting the trees, it’s the irrigation. We’re also super behind on our tree canopy anyway. And TXU helped out with a big donation. …
If you need to help the trees in the city of Dallas, contact the Texas Trees Foundation, make a donation. Please don’t tell us you have a bunch of old trees laying around, because people have told us that and, yeah, I’ve had people email me and say, I’ve got 30 trees just sitting around and you’ve got to come pick them up. People who are doing development projects, landscape architects, stuff like that. Like I bought too many trees. I got, I gotta get these off the lot.
On resigning from Park Board:
Rogers: Did you know with 100 percent certainty when you walked into that meeting that you were going to resign?
Abtahi: Absolutely. I had the letter in my pocket. There was very little that would have changed my mind.
Rogers: But there was something that could have changed your mind?
Abtahi: Probably not. You know, I’ll come into work every day. But I’ve made my decision. … Two and a half years feels like an eternity. I told (the mayor) right when I walked in the room. I’m tired, man.
Rogers: So how many hours a week does it take to be a park board president to do it right?
Abtahi: Twenty hours a week. And for folks who don’t know, it’s an unpaid position. I’ve got a job. And that’s what it takes to do it right and to continue to do it right. And to restart that up with a new mayor, a new staff, a new council, it’s just a lot of work on the front end.
On Fair Park’s privatization deal, which Abtahi ushered through to a City Council approval. It was born of a challenge brought by Kingston after the mayor attempted to steer it to a friend, Walt Humann. The internationally active events company Spectra won the contract under Abtahi’s watch:
Rogers: How far off is this statement? Bob Abtahi started off on the park board as a young man inclined to do whatever the mayor wanted with respect to Fair Park. But then he experienced a maturation process and emerged as a slightly less young man who led a radical move to bring an outside firm to take over the park.
Abtahi: It’s very inaccurate. Let me correct the inaccuracies, please. One, my name is not Bob. Two, I have a full head of hair. I was not on the Park Board during the first iteration of Fair Park. I have always said I wanted a private, nonprofit manager and that’s what happened. At the time, we had Walt (Humann) and I supported Walt 100 percent. Look, these things are fluid, right? You don’t support the person, you support the idea. And when multiple people have the same idea, then you pick the best person. And at the time, there was only one idea. Only one. We hadn’t done jack with Fair Park for 30 years. God bless Walt Humann for doing that and taking all the arrows and the beating he took, because if he hadn’t, and the mayor hadn’t asked him to, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
We wouldn’t have even had the debate. It’s a lot easier to say, this is wrong, we shouldn’t do this. Well, then let’s talk about it. And Mayor Rawlings and Walt Humann … we wouldn’t have had the debate if it wasn’t for them. I know them both well and I know that they couldn’t care less who came out on top as long as the right decision was made. Right now, it seems like we made the right decision.
On the difficulty in dredging White Rock Lake, and how that shares some challenges with Fair Park:
Abtahi: It’s long overdue, (particularly with) erosion and all that stuff. But that’s the stuff that’s meat and potatoes. No one ever sees it. It’s not the fun part of doing city stuff. The lake would look exactly the same if you dredge it or not. And I guarantee someone will be out there and be like, whoa, they spent $3 million on this?
Rogers: I am shaking my head no. And it’s $30 million.
Abtahi: We’re spending $50 million on Fair Park to fix roof leaks and ADA complaints. (Some would say) the city wasted the money (because) it looks the same to me. And your point is taken in that if you don’t understand why dredging is important to the ecology of the lake and to the entire ecosystem, if you don’t understand that, then you’re right. Everything happens beneath the surface of that water, and (some) go, like, why did we need to spend all that money? … It’s like, we’re acquiring land for our park. But we’re going to build it in 20 years so no one cares. They’re like, no, I want shovel-ready! But it’s so important.