A deceptively quiet-looking Dallas City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

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The Search for a Parks Director Is Happening Outside the Public Eye

As coronavirus dominates the news, the city's search for a parks director is coming to a close. But the public and the media have been left in the dark.

On Wednesday, I talked to Park and Recreation Board Commissioner Jesse Moreno about the city’s three month hunt for a new Parks director. Moreno was uneasy about whether the public had truly been let in on the process.

We talked a day before a telephonic final meeting of the Board’s search committee, which happened Thursday. The committee’s recommendation will go to the full Board for approval next week. The full board has final say in hiring, and it will choose from three finalists: John Jenkins, the city’s interim director; Gordon Robertson, the director of planning in Denver’s parks and rec department; and Daniel Betts, Cincinnati’s director of recreation.

“I know I’ve spoken to several Park Board members who have concerns over lack of public input,” Moreno told me.

If transparency was an issue going in, the meeting only made it worse. The committee reached its final decision during closed session, possibly running afoul of open meetings laws. And members of the public were not able to listen in due to a dial-in line that didn’t function. Audio of the meeting has not been made available.

We will have to take these matters individually, starting with committee’s decision to reach a recommendation in executive session. Park Board Chair Calvert Collins-Bratton who also chairs the search committee, says the committee was free and clear to discuss personnel matters behind closed doors. She quoted this piece of the Texas Open Meetings Act (section 551.074):

(a) This chapter does not require a governmental body to conduct an open meeting:

(1) to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee

That part, however, does not deal with taking votes on approving a public officer. Per a different part of the act, those votes are to be done in open session. But Collins-Bratton says there was no quorum of the Board anyway—this is a meeting of just seven board members, plus a couple non-voting, ex oficio members.

“No, we did not have to vote,” she says. “We did not have to have an open roll call vote. No.”

I called the Attorney General’s open meetings hotline and repeated all this stuff. A nice lawyer juggling her young child while working from home pulled up section 551.102: “A final action, decision, or vote on a matter deliberated in a closed meeting under this chapter may only be made in an open meeting…” If you talk it over in closed session, you’ve got to decide on it in open. Those are the rules, according to the state’s attorney.

I also asked about Collins-Bratton’s quorum defense. It is true that some meetings of government bodies that do not reach a quorum are not subject to the Open Meetings Act. But it is curious to otherwise follow the act—posting agendas, at least ostensibly allowing the public to listen in—and fail to when it’s no longer convenient.

Now, to that part about listening in: yesterday, it was impossible. I know because I tried. Many, many times. My editor, Matt Goodman, tried. And failed. The agenda featured two phone numbers for English speakers and another for Spanish speakers; none of them worked. Trying to get to the bottom of the issue became a dizzying affair. The Park Board secretary blamed it on the City Secretary’s office, which is where Collins-Bratton says they got the phone numbers. But City Secretary Bilierae Johnson says nope, those are created by IT. I contacted interim IT Director Gloria Carter, who said, “We did not coordinate this meeting for Park and Rec. Park and Rec will need to tell you how and where they received their instructions.”

(Eventually, Johnson said she would make some calls and come back with more information. I will update here when I receive it. Update: Johnson says it was a “slight terminology confusion on the use of toll free numbers.”)

There are other matters that make this an important decision to be deliberated publicly. In early February, an officer of the NAACP sent a letter to the Board that made several assertions about the internal candidate, John Jenkins. Bob Lydia claimed Jenkins had been the subject of several allegations involving Civil Rights, harassment, discrimination, and workplace employment policies. Lydia said over the phone that he has since met with Jenkins and gone over five separate instances in which employees were dismissed. Four of those got their jobs back, and Lydia no longer wishes that Jenkins be kept from the position. He declined to send over documents substantiating any of the allegations.

After Lydia’s note, Gary Bledsoe, NAACP Texas State President, later wrote the Board himself, clarifying that although Lydia is an officer of the Texas NAACP, he was not speaking on behalf of the organization. Those words were Lydia’s alone.

Jenkins says he is dumbfounded. “Outright lies,” he says. He says he has no idea what Lydia is talking about in regard to the five employees. He says he’s met Lydia just once, when Lydia was representing someone receiving disciplinary action. Jenkins ruled in favor of his client.

“That’s the only interaction I had with this guy,” he says. “The man complimented me on how well I handled the employee’s appeal hearing.”

He also stood by his 25-year record at City Hall.

“Everything he mentioned about me goes against who I am as a person,” he said. “I treat everybody fairly.”

Jenkins’ side has not made it to the public eye before now.

In one week, the city of Dallas will have a new director of its Parks Department, one of the city’s most important roles. But much of the selection process has happened behind closed doors. After the three candidates were interviewed by the Park Board on March 5, each of the three attended what Collins-Bratton called a “public meet and greet” in City Hall’s flag room. This occasion was open only to City Council, department leaders, Parks staff, and friend groups. Collins-Bratton says she stands by every point of the process.

“I feel very confident, the committee does as well, and feel like this process was done with the utmost integrity, thoughtfulness, and concern for the current and future state of the parks department,” she says.


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