We’re a little more than halfway through the Dallas City Council’s attendance year, and much has been made about how many times Mayor Eric Johnson has been absent from his duties.
KERA’s Nathan Collins started the discussion in September, reporting that the mayor had missed more than 130 hours of Council meetings from that point since 2019, when he took office. Those 130 hours were marked unexcused, the most of anyone on the Council horseshoe. A pending (long-shot) effort to recall the mayor cites the missed meetings as its reason.
City Secretary Bilierae Johnson (no relation) is responsible for tracking absentia, which is as granular as when council members might excuse themselves to use the restroom or take a call during a public meeting. As a rule, any exit for more than 15 minutes gets counted against the public official’s attendance record. Anytime council members (or the mayor) miss more than 50 percent of a meeting, they are required by the city charter to submit a memo explaining why. If they cannot, the absence is deemed unexcused.
In January, the Dallas Morning News reported that Johnson had also skipped roughly 70 percent of the DFW International Airport Board meetings, too. The mayors of Fort Worth and Dallas have permanent seats on the airport board, which decides everything from the airport’s CEO to the vendors that work within the the terminals. In his stead, Johnson has sent a rotating group of Dallas council members, including Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins and Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn King Arnold. His attendance is the lowest of any airport board member.
But what is the mayor actually missing when he isn’t present to run the meetings from the horseshoe? Using the Council’s attendance tracker, we examined Johnson’s City Hall absences from this year and last. The city charter requires an attendance percentage of at least 90 percent to remain in “good standing.” Absences can be excused if the council member or mayor submits an absence memo indicating the travel was for city business—like a trip to lobby Congress or the Texas Legislature.
The Council’s attendance tracker shows Johnson’s current attendance at 89 percent, but it doesn’t yet account for a February 7 briefing, which he attended. We then looked through each agenda to see what city business the mayor was not present to discuss. In short: The mayor has missed some really consequential votes and discussions. A few days out of school might not be a big deal. (For instance, in his last year in office, former Mayor Mike Rawlings missed a handful of days while out on city business.) But if every day you missed was a big test day, your grade would suffer.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Here is what the agendas show.
So far this attendance year, the mayor has missed three meetings out of 22. All three meetings were marked unexcused. There are also three meetings where he was present but missed more than 75 percent of the meeting, including an August 9, 2023 briefing during which he was absent for half.
But more important, we cross-referenced absences with the agendas for those dates, which gives a fuller picture of the types of meetings Johnson skipped.
For instance, in May 2023, Johnson missed a meeting that included the Council’s vote on a resolution supporting the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to lower I-345. He was in Qatar speaking during an international sports summit. That was excused, but his absence meant the mayor was not present for other significant city business.
In the same meeting, the Council also voted on a resolution supporting House Bill 567, or the CROWN Act, which prevents discrimination based on somone’s hairstyle or hair texture “commonly or historically associated with race.” He also missed voting on changes to the city’s code of ethics, which has long been one of his priority issues.
In April 2023, the mayor missed a meeting at which the Council approved nearly $6 million in incentives to bring a Tom Thumb grocery store to the RedBird area of southern Dallas. That absence was unexcused. Also that month, he missed a separate Mayor and City Council alignment session and was absent for almost half of the meeting at which the Council was briefed on a potential short-term rental ordinance.
He missed a special called meeting in June 2023 that discussed Council redistricting and a September meeting at which the Council approved a $71 million contract with the Jack Matthews-led Inspire Dallas to oversee the construction of the new Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
He has also missed at least two meetings that addressed a $1.25 billion bond that will likely be on the May ballot. In December, the Council got its first look at the bond task forces’ proposed allocations. Johnson was not there. His absence memo says he missed for “a medical reason,” but the absence was unexcused.
Facing a deadline (the Council needs to agree to the bond allocations and the language that will go on the May ballot by February 14), his colleagues called a special briefing on January 19 to begin outlining direction for city staff, including a non-binding vote to increase the bond from $1.1 billion to $1.25 billion and to place it on the May ballot rather than wait for November. Without that meeting, the matter wouldn’t be discussed until January 31, because the Council’s regularly scheduled briefing on January 17 was canceled.
Why? Because Johnson was in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. He wrote in a blog post that he felt the decision by Council Members Paula Blackmon, Jaime Resendez, and Adam Bazaldua to call the January 19 meeting was “silly” and “political noise.”
“Then, a trio of city councilmembers didn’t like this rescheduling, so they turned around and used a somewhat obscure procedure in the City Charter to call another meeting about how to spend $1 billion in taxpayer money—for 2 p.m. on Friday,” he wrote.
Johnson was traveling back from Switzerland that day. In his blog post, he also said even if he wasn’t traveling, “unlike councilmembers, state law says the presiding officer cannot attend the meeting virtually.”
Not quite. The city secretary is tasked with knowing exactly what Dallas’ mayor and council members can and cannot do during meetings, including whether the law the mayor spoke of would keep him from attending a meeting virtually. Bilierae Johnson said the mayor could have logged in.
“Texas Government Code 551 does not speak to delegation of authority; however, the Dallas City Charter, Chapter III, Sec. 11 does address who can perform the mayor’s duties in the event he/she is unable to perform a specific duty,” Bilierae Johnson said in a statement. “The next in authority would be the Mayor Pro Tem and then Deputy Mayor Pro Tem.
“Also, the mayor can still participate in the meeting remotely; however, he is not allowed to preside over that meeting.”
In other words, the mayor can’t run the meeting when away from City Hall, but he can participate.
The mayor ended the 2022-2023 period with a 91 percent attendance rate, missing six meetings. Two of those absences were excused. There were five meetings or briefings where he was present for less than 75 percent of the meeting, including one where he narrowly avoided a memo-worthy absence by attending 51.75 percent.
The subject of who runs a meeting when the mayor is gone is also important to note. There are two competing proposed amendments to the city’s charter under discussion, which Council will take up later this year.
One, submitted by former Dallas City Councilman Philip Kingston, would do away with the mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem positions, who run the meeting should their superior be absent. Another proposed amendment, filed by Council Member Cara Mendelsohn, would have the mayor choose those positions instead of a Council vote. When the Charter Review Commission discussed the matter last month, it voted to table it until a future meeting. If either amendment finds its way to the November charter election ballot, the implications of a mayor’s absence could change.
The mayor is facing some blowback for these absences—and not just in the media. Davante Peters, an activist and former City Council candidate, kicked off a recall effort in January. Peters told the Dallas Observer’s Jacob Vaughn that part of the impetus for the recall was Johnson’s frequent absences.
“There’s obviously something that has his attention more than his role at hand,” Peters said. “That’s kind of what led me to jump on this.”
The recall needs 103,595 signatures by March 5, which probably won’t happen. (Last week Peters told WFAA he had collected about 6,000 signatures.) But the absences, and what happened while Johnson was away, are no small matter, especially when it comes to leading a group who sometimes looks around and wonders where the mayor is.