Don’t you wonder sometimes what goes on inside the head of a Dallas County commissioner?

There the guy sits. He must know the voters aren’t exactly overwhelmed by his performance, and that a good portion of the electorate would like to take him by the lapels of his leisure suit and shake some sense into him. He must know that some of the biggest civic powers in town. Democrat and Republican, are quietly marshalling their forces for the sole purpose of thumping the living daylights out of him in the next election. And he must suspect that only ten blocks from the county courthouse, Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes is having her law clerks look up the precedents for putting an entire governmental body in jail for contempt of court.

You’d think these things would have some effect on the average county politician. But it becomes obvious with every passing day that the politicians on the commissioners’ court aren’t average at all. They are below average. Way below.

Let’s take the matter of the Dallas County jail. On this issue the commissioners have displayed the kind of obstinacy and irresponsibility that have become their collective trademarks. It’s an instructive lesson in how to mismanage the public’s business.

First, obstinacy. Judge Hughes originally entered her order to build a new jail facility in June, 1972. In response to that order, the commissioners decided to procrastinate, on two assumptions. One, that Judge Hughes, who is 82 this year, would retire and the whole matter would be easily resolved once she was off the bench. Two, that conservative Dallas would rebel at having a federal judge interfere with local governmental decisions and that this reaction would give the commissioners enough political support to withstand her directives. Five years later a very impatient Judge Huges is still on the bench. The judge hasn’t worn out, but the commissioners’ base of support has: they find themselves regarded not as heroes struggling to preserve local control against a tyrannical federal judge, but merely as hopeless incompetents who need a United States District Court to tell them when to buy more food carts to serve inmates hotter food. Scratch one strategy.

That leads us easily to irresponsibility. The present county jail is inadequate. It may be the worst modern jail facility in Texas. A federal judge has ruled that a new jail must be built. The Supreme Court has upheld that federal judge. According to Sheriff Carl Thomas, in 1972 when the original order was entered a new facility would have cost $20 million. Today the cost would be closer to $40 million. But the commissioners are talking about going through another equally meaningless round of appeals. The more they delay the more the costs skyrocket. Meanwhile, attorney Earl Luna, who happens to be a past Democratic county chairman, has collected more than $200,000 in fees in the last two years for representing the commissioners. The next time you read a newspaper story in which a Dallas County commissioner claims to be a fiscal conservative, keep those figures in mind.

The commissioners have set December 13 as a tentative date for a $189 million bond election which, among other things, will provide funds for construction of a new facility. That’s all they have done. Judge Hughes complains, “Except for the hiring of architects, who made a study, completed April 7, 1975, there has only been talk. No site has been selected, nor have any plans for a facility been adopted. A date for a bond election has been agreed on but so far as this Court knows, little has been done to make the public aware of the county’s needs. Unless an extensive program is carried out, there is no chance that the bond issue will be favorable.”

You can bet there’s no chance. Would you vote to place another $189 million in the hands of the Dallas County commissioners?

If the commissioners had any sense left at all, here’s what they would do:

1. Start immediately on site selectionand planning for a new facility. Implementas many of Judge Hughes’ instructions aspossible without large expenditures.

2. Go to the judge, show her the workthey’re doing, and ask for a delay in buildinga new jail until the bond election can bepassed.

3. Go to the Dallas Citizens Counciland ask for help in selecting a blue-ribbonpanel to not only push for the bond elections passage, but to serve also as a watchdog commission for the voters to supervisethe commissioners’ handling of the funds.

The bad news is that the commissioners have no intention of doing anything like that. The good news is that a majority of the commissioners court- David Pickett, John Whittington, and Roy Orr-come up for reelection next year. Pickett is finished, Whittington’s in trouble, and Orr is weaker than most people suspect. All three deserve to be defeated. Dallas can wait one more year to restore competence to our county government. But that’s all we can wait.


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