FrontBurner

A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Policy

Four Key Questions that Could Determine the Future of Texas’ Failed Electrical Grid

| 2 days ago

The Texas Legislature is conducting hearings today to determine what led to last week’s massive power outages. We’ve all learned a lot about how Texas’ energy infrastructure works in week since the historic winter storm, and the story of the failures of the deregulated marketplace has remained at the top of the nation’s headlines.

What is now clear is that last week’s event was brought about by a confluence of factors, ranging from physical challenges in natural gas distribution and power plant operation to market-related issues with how plants are incentivized to prepare for catastrophic weather events. There have also been a lot of potential fixes tossed about, ranging from reconsidering the independence of Texas’ grid from the rest of the nation’s infrastructure to taking to task the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates and manages the state’s electrical grid.

The legislative sessions hope to bring some additional clarity as to what went wrong, as well as identify ways the state’s leadership can ensure that such a cataclysmal event – which has resulted in the deaths of a still un-certain number of Texans – never happens again. But as the legislature deliberates, keep an ear out for any answers to these four key questions that must be at the heart of any attempt to repair Texas’ broken electricity system.

Read More

Politics & Government

Could Dallas Reform Its Government Without Going Full Strong Mayor?

| 2 weeks ago

Last week I suggested that Dallas should (again) consider adopting a strong mayor form of government. If you want to read the full argument, head here, but here are the main points. Under the current council-manager system, there is no way for voters to hold the city manager accountable. Council members and the mayor end up running work-arounds to enact their agendas. And there are conflicting incentives with regards to forming council coalitions, making it difficult to set and maintain momentum on policy.

Since then, I’ve heard from a lot people who hate the idea of a strong mayor and thought my argument was garbage, as well as others who love the idea and think we should go ahead and set a referendum for 2023, the year when Mayor Eric Johnson is up for reelection. I’ve also heard a handful of intriguing theories that offer additional insight into what works and doesn’t work about the city’s system.

Here are few of them:

Read More

Politics & Government

State Legislatures Are Trying to Run America’s Cities

| 3 weeks ago

Perhaps this whole conversation about what kind of government Dallas should have will soon be irrelevant. According to a new report in Governing, over the past decades, state governments have become increasingly aggressive in stepping in to exert influence over local policy matters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as emergency orders have given state officials more control over local jurisdictions than usual, this trend has only accelerated.

This is not news for Texans. Dallas officials and Texas legislators have been butting heads for years over local control on issues ranging from cellphone regulations to sanctuary cities. The most recent confrontation has come over policing. Last year, the city of Austin repurposed funds from its public safety budget to convert two downtown hotels into housing for the homeless. That prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to suggest the state take over the policing of the center of Austin. The governor also supports legislation that would prohibit local governments from cutting their police budgets.

Talk about a nanny state – but Texas is not alone:

A 2018 survey found that 70 percent of local health officials and 60 percent of mayors had abandoned or delayed policies due to the threat of state preemption. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated health preemption efforts. Bills have been introduced in roughly half the states to put new limits on public health authority, including their ability to shut businesses or impose mask mandates.

So, what gives?

Read More

Politics

The Most Detailed 2020 Dallas Election Results You Will Ever See

| 4 weeks ago

The New York Times published a nifty little map that allows you to drill down into last November’s presidential election results on a precinct-by-precinct level. The tool offers the most detailed election results I’ve seen to date, and there is some interesting new insight that can be gleaned from it.

Unsurprisingly, the city largely went for Biden. What is more interesting, however, is the data on margins. Southern Dallas voted most heavily for the new president, with Biden topping Trump by margins of around 90 percent. Perhaps more significantly, North Dallas precincts that voted for Trump did not do so by very large margins. Scrolling across some Far North Dallas precincts, and you can see that Biden managed to pick up 40-45 percent of the vote in predominantly conservative districts. The districts that went most heavily for Trump were in the Park Cities, but there are also pockets of Trumplandia around town, most notably in Northwest Dallas.

Read More

Police

What Did We Learn This Week About the Dallas Police Chief Candidates?

| 2 months ago

Before Christmas, the city will learn who the next chief of the Dallas Police Department will be. This week, the City Council, mayor, community stakeholders, and the public got a glimpse of the seven candidates vying for the position. On Tuesday, dozens of community groups participated in private group panels with the candidates. Yesterday the finalists fielded questions posed by City Council candidates during a three-hour-plus livestream. While the decision is City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s alone, the candidates spent hours introducing themselves to the people they’ll be working for. 

The seven candidates are close in their thinking about how to manage a police department, stem rising violent crime, and implement reforms to meet the challenges of community distrust and historical racism that all large American cities have had to confront in the wake of the George Floyd protests. 

John Fullinwider, a longtime civil rights activist and co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, sat on one of the community panels on Tuesday. He said all seven candidates seemed to understand that building community trust and combating violent crime both required rethinking the ways police departments operate — and what the cops can and cannot control.

“I was surprised how open the candidates were to defunding and reallocating resources, more so than most elected officials,” Fullinwider said. “On crime reduction, it was basically hot-spot or ‘cops on dots’ policing for the short term and investments in ‘root causes’ long term. None supported saturation patrol, like last year’s state troopers, because of how it alienates residents. All were aware that street crime has its origin in poverty and lack of opportunity. How much they would advocate that their new boss in Dallas seriously address inequality on the necessary scale is anyone’s guess.”

The candidates’ messaging didn’t change on Wednesday, when the panel was opened to the public. Four are present or former high-ranking Dallas cops: Maj. Malik Aziz, Assistant Chief Avery Moore, Deputy Chief Reuben Ramirez, and former Deputy Chief Albert Martinez. (Martinez is now the head of security for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.) The out-of-towners included Irving Police Chief Jeff Spivey, outgoing San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia, and Charlottesville, Virginia, Chief RaShall Brackney.

Read More

Police

How Transparent Is the Dallas Police Chief Search?

| 3 months ago

Over the past few weeks, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson has repeatedly complained that the city’s search for a new police chief has been less than transparent. During a recent local radio appearance, he said he wishes the City Council’s Public Safety Committee could handle the hiring process. In a newsletter emailed last week, Johnson said he was concerned about the qualifications in the job description and wondered why Dallas couldn’t hold a public form with the candidates in the midst of a pandemic. In Tuesday’s state of the city address, Johnson spoke about his desire to continue to push for more public involvement in the police chief selection process.

But has the public really been shut out of the hiring process? Late Tuesday night, not long after Johnson finished delivering his speech in the Hall of State in Fair Park, City Manager T.C. Broadnax sent a memo to the mayor and the Council that laid out how the final stages of the hiring process will unfold over the next few weeks. This morning, the city manager announced the seven finalist candidates.

The search began in October, when the city put the selection process in the hands of Gary Peterson, a recruitment consultant who has led police chief searches in cities like Nashville, Seattle, and San Francisco. Peterson first met with the mayor and the Council and used that feedback to craft a candidate profile and job description. The City Council Public Safety Committee received monthly briefings as the search unfolded, and in November the city conducted a community survey to seek public feedback on the qualifications sought in the next chief. More than 4,500 people responded.

The city manager’s memo states that 36 people applied for the position, and he hopes to make a hire by January 1. Per the city charter, the city manager has sole authority to hire the next chief. However, Broadnax says the next few weeks of interviews will be collaborative and will include feedback from the mayor and Council. Dozens of stakeholder groups are expected to meet with the finalists.

In many ways, the process mirrors the approach Broadnax took when hiring outgoing Chief U. Reneé Hall, with one key exception. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the process has shifted online. Gone are the informal meet and greets hosted by business associations at downtown hotels where council members could hobnob with candidates. Gone are the community meetings at City Hall, where residents were encouraged to visit with the finalists. Those events will be replaced by the video conferences that have become a ubiquitous part of pandemic life.

If anything, that shift online has made the process even more transparent, says Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee.

Read More

Politics & Government

Q&A: Doug Deason, Major Dallas Trump Donor, Talks the Election

| 4 months ago

Doug Deason is the president of Deason Capital Services, LLC, but I know him as someone I love to verbally arm wrestle with. We share common ground on criminal justice reform, where he is my hero. But mostly our world views are … not the same. He describes himself as right of center, I’m left of center, but I doubt we would agree on the exact location of center.

He was, and continues to be, involved in the inner workings of the Trump administration. In 2016, he and his father, Darwin, donated $900,000 to the Trump campaign. He has organized fundraisers for Trump across the country and has helped the president prioritize criminal justice reform. So, obviously, I wondered what he thought about the current state of things. Highlights: he believes the president contesting the election is a good thing; that Trump’s greatest legacy will be the criminal justice reform he signed into law with the First Step Act; and that a Biden presidency should not scare anyone. Brantley Hargrove profiled Deason for in May of this year, if you’d like to know more about him.

The interview was edited for length and clarity, but I have a transcript if anyone wants to know Doug’s strategy for fly-fishing in a shallow stream when trout are spawning (don’t worry, he doesn’t hurt the mamas).

Read More

Politics

Explainer: What Does the Election Mean for Healthcare?

| 4 months ago

Election Day is here, and several issues hang in the balance. The pandemic has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the debates, but there are longer-lasting policies at play that could impact the future of our healthcare. Both candidates are all about reducing the unsustainable cost of healthcare in this country, but getting there looks very different.

Much will depend on who wins what election, though most predictions believe Democrats will retain the House of Representatives. If they don’t win the Senate and presidency, there will probably be more of the same kind of stalemate that existed during the Trump and Obama years.

Biden’s plan would embrace something close to a universal payer, with a return of the individual mandate; it would allow undocumented immigrants access to a plan as well. The plan would also give Americans the ability to buy into a Medicare-like health insurance option and expand coverage to low-income earners.

Read More

Politics & Government

Election Day Arrives on the Heels of Historic Early Voting Turnout in North Texas

| 4 months ago

In the presidential election four years ago, 770,590 people cast a ballot in Dallas County. In 2020, early voting alone closed with 802,972 votes. (Of those, 70,827 were mailed in.) As with other Texas counties, early voting in Dallas County just about matched total turnout of the entire 2016 presidential election.

Of the 1.4 million registered voters, 57.2 percent have already voted. That’s about 1 percentage point shy of what we saw in the entire 2016 election. If the same percentage share of voters turns out on Election Day as they did in 2016, that would mean a little over 305,000 will vote on the day of. That’s good for a voter turnout of 1.1 million, about 78.8 percent of all registered voters. It will be unprecedented.

That this happened during a pandemic is remarkable, and we owe deep gratitude to all the volunteers who showed up to work the polls over the last three weeks, as well as to those who will work them on Tuesday.

Looking at precinct turnout, just over 32,000 people voted at the American Airlines Center, more than any other polling location in Dallas County. This was the first year the stadium opened its concourse for polling machines, considering there was no hockey or basketball filling the evenings. University Park United Methodist brought out more than 27,000 and Our Redeemer Lutheran, where hundreds of voters snaked through a soccer field, had a little over 25,000.

Tarrant County’s turnout is at 60.2 percent, compared to a total of 62 percent in 2016. Collin County has 69.1 percent, up from 66.4 percent in 2016. Denton is also up: 67.4 percent through early voting compared to 63.9 percent total turnout four years ago.

Read More

Education

Why the Dallas ISD Bond Election Won’t Really Increase Property Taxes

| 4 months ago

A commenter in Leading Off this morning asks an important question: Why do ballots claim that the Dallas ISD bond election represents a vote to increase property taxes while supporters of the bond say it will not?

The short answer is that regardless of the details of this particular bond election, the property tax language is a new blanket requirement of any school bond election that was included in the Texas school finance reform bill that passed during the last legislative session. In a video urging for the passage of the DISD bond, state Rep. Rafael Anchia says that the inclusion of the language in the bill was part of a legislative compromise that helped get the lege’s large school finance bill passed. But even so, is the language correct – is the DISD bond vote a vote to raise taxes?

Well, not really. And here’s why.

Read More

Politics & Government

A Guide to Early Voting in North Texas

| 5 months ago

The polls are open across Dallas-Fort Worth.

From now until October 30, you can vote between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays or from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. If you’re in line by closing time, you’ll be able to vote. Early turnout appears huge across the city: lines immediately wrapped around the University Park United Methodist Church in the Park Cities, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in South Dallas, the Oak Lawn Branch Library, and the Lochwood Branch Library, among many others. A steady stream of voters queued up outside the American Airlines Center, the first time the stadium has served as a polling location. Hundreds of voters at Redeemer Lutheran Church on Park Lane are formed into a serpentine line that has taken over the soccer field.

In Dallas County, there are 61 early voting locations. Head here to find the one nearest you and gauge the wait times. If you’re in Tarrant County, here is a PDF of the 50 early voting locations. For those in Collin County, here is your interactive map of early voting locations. And, finally, here is Denton County’s interactive map.

Three days in, and 173,887 voters have cast their ballot in Dallas County. That’s an increase of about 12,000 over the 2016 election.

Read More

Politics

Mayor Eric Johnson Loses Again As His Budget Priority Flops

| 6 months ago

Mayor Eric Johnson was embarrassed by his colleagues on the City Council last week. This week, it happened again, and the Council went on the offensive.

Last week, the City Council unanimously voted down the mayor’s amendment to order the city manager to cut staff salaries by $6.5 million, freeing up money for infrastructure improvements, among other things. They instead voted to take $7 million from police overtime. After the defeat, Johnson left at lunch and didn’t return to the meeting, which dragged on late into the night. Then he spent the week telling anyone who would listen that he was up against a City Council seeking to “defund the police” instead of the bureaucracy. Johnson went on a tour of local outlets: the Morning News editorial board, conservative talk radio, television news stations, his 35,200 or so Twitter followers, subscribers to his email newsletter.

But the Council refused to let Johnson control the narrative of this budget cycle, refuting the idea that they were defunding the police department. They also sent a message to activists that the current City Council will not adopt sweeping reforms to police funding in next year’s budget.

What they are willing to do is take $7 million from the line item for police overtime — just under a third of its total budget for overtime — and spend it on more civilian positions in the department, adding lighting in neighborhoods that need it, funding infrastructure improvements, and building more bike lanes. Council and the mayor are aligned on what to fund, but not how to fund it.

Johnson instead wanted to direct City Manager T.C. Broadnax to cut $6 million from the salaries of city staffers, leaving the particulars to Broadnax to figure out. (His second attempt was $500,000 less than his first.) His colleagues on Wednesday refused to do so, voting Johnson’s amendment down 13-2.

“Those are city employees who earn right around $60,000 a year; they’re our most vulnerable city employees,” said Councilman Chad West, who represents North Oak Cliff. “My [Housing and Homelessness Solutions] committee assists families who make $60,000 a year and try to live off that and we try to find them affordable housing. This could put many of our employees into that category.”

It’s worth noting that $7 million is pennies in the context of the entire general fund budget, which totals $1.4 billion. The budget for the police department is $514 million, about 40 percent of all the city’s general fund spending. There remains $17 million left for police overtime spending, even with the cuts. Opponents to the mayor noted that, in 2010, the police department spent $12 million in OT when it had hundreds more police officers on the force. They believed cutting salaries of employees could have a far more significant impact on their households than it would the operations of the police.

Cuts will have to come. This year’s budget is balanced. The city got help through federal coronavirus relief funds and a healthier-than-expected commercial property tax roll. But next year, the city’s chief financial officer says she expects a $62 million hole in the budget, mostly a result of cratered sales tax. So if public salaries get cut now, what will it look like when the wound gets even deeper?

Last week was the first set of straw votes to figure out how the Council wanted to change the city manager’s proposed budget, a final version of which will be voted on September 23.

During that meeting, the Council unanimously shot down the mayor’s budget amendment that would’ve ordered the city manager to cut staff salaries by a total of $6.5 million, a progressive cut for employees who made $60,000 or more. Johnson wanted the city manager to take 25 percent from the city’s highest earners. Those who made less received less of a cut; the mayor’s desire for the lower end of staff salaries was a 1 percent cut. He said his plan would affect just 10 percent of City Hall employees.

This is apparently the hill that Johnson will die on during this budget cycle, arguing it is necessary to send a message to the private sector that public employees are sharing in their economic pain.

Council hasn’t agreed.

Read More