Politics & Government

Mayor Eric Johnson Sits Out DISD Bond Election for the Most Specious of Reasons

He says he wants to avoid even the "appearance of a conflict of interest."

When you vote (if you haven’t already), you’ll get to have your say on Dallas ISD’s proposed $3.7 billion bond program, the largest in state history. It’s a lot of money. And it is all needed. There are actually five propositions listed on the ballot as A through E. The Dallas Morning News endorses each one (though C through E get only “tempered” support). You should listen to the News. They’ve got it right. On the ballot you’ll also find some legally required language saying, “This is a tax increase.” That’s a goofy notion that you should ignore. If the bond is passed, the district’s property tax rate will not increase.

Here’s the short of it: DISD is the fastest improving urban district in the state. It is doing great work. Yet compared to other North Texas districts, it doesn’t have enough money to spend on its aging facilities (in terms of property taxes per student dedicated to buildings, DISD ranks 24th in the area). And right now we have a generational opportunity to borrow money at low rates (DISD can save about $800 million in interest payments if it can issue bonds now).

I learned this stuff from a presentation given yesterday to some of the D Magazine staff by folks trying to get the bond program passed: Todd Williams of Commit, DISD trustees Miguel Solis and Karla Garcia, and the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Drex Owusu (who is co-chair of the bond steering committee). One of the slides in their PowerPoint deck showed the community leaders who endorse the bond election. To list a few:

Ron Kirk (former mayor)
Mike Rawlings (former mayor)
Larry James (CitySquare)
Fred Perpall (Dallas Citizens Council)
Susan Hoff (United Way)
Rafael Anchia (state rep)
Laurie Larrea (Workforce Solutions)
George Mason (Wilshire Baptist)
Bob Mong (UNT Dallas)

Looking at the slide, I asked if a mistake had been made. Where was Eric Johnson? Todd Williams told me that the mayor had said he wouldn’t endorse the bond because he had a conflict of interest, given that he’s a bond lawyer. Shortly after being elected mayor, you’ll recall, he was named a partner at Locke Lord. I asked Solis and Garcia if Locke Lord was handling the bond for DISD. No, it is not.

So I emailed Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of policy and communications. Hallman told me two things that don’t make sense. First, he pointed out that the mayor has made no endorsements in this election cycle. As I told Hallman, endorsing a politician in a partisan race isn’t the same thing as endorsing a badly needed bond program.

Second, and more troubling, Hallman said the mayor has no conflict of interest here. Rather, he “wants to avoid even the appearance of a conflict because he is a bond attorney.”

Let that sink in.

If you follow the mayor’s logic, one of two things needs to happen. Either he needs to step down as mayor, or he needs to quit his side gig at Locke Lord.

How can a partner at a large public finance law firm serve as the mayor of a city and avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest? He can’t. Locke Lord, by the way, represents the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, the city’s Employee Retirement Fund, and the North Texas Tollway Authority.

When the mayor took the job at Locke Lord, the firm’s deputy managing partner, Whit Roberts, said, “The mayor has said that his service to the residents of Dallas comes first, and we fully understand that.” That turns out not to be true. With this important bond election, the mayor’s lawyer job is preventing him from serving the citizens of Dallas.

In our city-manager, weak-mayor system of government, Eric Johnson has just one vote on the City Council. His most powerful instrument, then, in leading the city is the bully pulpit. He can get out there and tell citizens what he thinks. If the mayor wanted to serve the residents of Dallas, he would show leadership on the DISD program. Heck, maybe he thinks the bond is bad for Dallas. It’s one or the other, right? Either we should vote for it, or we should vote against it. The mayor’s voice in that discussion would help the city decide which is the best course forward.

But Mayor Eric Johnson, Esq., has decided to remain silent. And that silence speaks volumes.

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