A Daily Conversation About Dallas


Mayor Eric Johnson Loses Again As His Budget Priority Flops

| 2 weeks 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.

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Dallas City Council Blocks I-345 Soccer Field Proposal

| 4 weeks ago

It was fitting that the strange saga of Roddrick West’s proposal to develop soccer fields under a stretch of elevated highway downtown ended today in a confusing tangle of parliamentary procedure. The soccer development was mired in political obfuscation from the get-go.

At its Wednesday meeting, the Dallas City Council voted unanimously to deny a resolution that would have seen the city of Dallas relinquish its control over land under I-345 between the downtown Farmers Market and Deep Ellum so West could build a soccer complex. The vote, however, came only after Far North Dallas’ Councilman Lee Kleinman deconstructed the resolution so that the denial wouldn’t affect the development of Carpenter Park downtown as well as the future of land along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas.

There was no good reason why those other projects were ever tied up with West’s soccer fields in the first place. The idea for locating a soccer complex under the highway first emerged last year when West, who has no previous development experience and is the son of State Senator Royce West, emerged with a deal already in hand. The Texas Department of Transportation would let West’s private company build fields on its land, but first the city would have to amend its Multiple Use Agreement with TxDOT to allow the state to lease the land to the state senator’s son. Dallas city staff supported the deal. The city council and Deep Ellum stakeholders, however, had some questions.

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Arts & Entertainment

Former President George W. Bush To Release Art Book of Immigrant Portraits

| 1 month ago

Preston Hollow resident George W. Bush has been spending much of his retirement, like Winston Churchill, engrossed in the finer art of painting. And while he’s no Bob Ross, Bush has honed a talent for portraiture, though 43’s choice of subject matter often raises more eyebrows than his chiaroscuro. Case in point: his latest batch of paintings engage with the very pressing and politically charged subject of immigration.

Bush is set to release a book of portraits of immigrants (43 of them, of course), and the subject matter is already creating some controversy. Critics point out that the former president is responsible for creating US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the agency that has implemented the current administration’s immigration policy, which led to families and children being detained and separated, often in squalid, inhumane conditions. The authority given to ICE by the Bush administration has allowed the U.S. government to commit some of the most abominable human rights abuses in this nation’s history.

Bush acknowledges that the subject is controversial in an introduction to the new book:

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Local Government

Will the City Manager’s Budget Reflect the Mayor’s Priorities? We Find Out Today.

| 2 months ago

If you have been following City Hall over the past few months, you’ll know that the stress of the pandemic and the ongoing protests against police violence have created some friction between Dallas’ two top officials: Mayor Eric Johnson and City Manager T.C. Broadnax. You can catch up on the passive aggressive war of dueling memos here. Today we will see how that pivotal working relationship may play out over an all-important budgeting season. At a 3 p.m. press conference, the city manager will unveil his 2020-2021 city of Dallas budget.

By way of background, because Dallas has a council-manager form of government (it is the third largest city in the country that hasn’t switched to a so-called strong mayor, or council-mayor, form of government) the city manager is tasked with drawing up the annual budget. The mayor and City Council offered some initial input. Over the coming month, a series of town halls (virtual this year, of course) will be held before a series of council workshops and hearings, and the Council will finally approve the budget on September 23.

This system places a lot of power in the hands of the manager and city staff. After the budget is rolled out, it is difficult to make sweeping changes to it. Council members jostle to get their pet projects into the budget, perhaps with some feedback from the community, but much of budget season can feel more like performance than process. The key is getting your projects into the budget before the manager’s draft.

Last week, the mayor issued a memo laying out what he would like to see in this year’s budget.

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What the Census Deadline Change Could Mean for Dallas

| 2 months ago

As I mentioned yesterday in Leading Off, the Trump administration decided to end the 2020 United States census four weeks sooner than expected, leaving only six weeks to get the Constitutionally mandated, once-a-decade headcount right. Moving up the deadline, however, basically ensures that the Census Bureau won’t get the count right, and Dallas may stand to be disproportionately affected by the move.

For one, the region is home to the fourth largest population of undocumented immigrants in the nation, and the deadline change will only make it more difficult to track down a population already fearful of being noticed. Secondly, communities of color tend to be undercounted during censuses, and Dallas is a minority-majority city. A severe under count could affect Dallas in many ways. Here’s one: according to a report in the Dallas Observer, a mere 1 percent undercount could cause Dallas County to lose around $40 million a year in funding.

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Witch Joins Fight to Banish UNT Young Conservatives of Texas from Campus

| 2 months ago

An effort to ban a conservative group from the University of North Texas has reached for the heavy artillery: magic.

According to social media posts picked up by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online news outlet, witches have joined the fight to push-out UNT’s chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas by casting spells intended to inflict misfortune (if not physical harm) on the leader of a group of what they call “Hex racists.”

Follow that? Me neither. Here’s a quick breakdown of this perfectly 2020 controversy:

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Arts & Entertainment

Dallas Arts Still Can’t Catch Federal Funding Break

| 3 months ago

About a year ago, I wrote about how Dallas arts and cultural organizations struggle to secure funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Looking back over two years of grants, Dallas received around 45 cents in federal arts funding per resident. Compared to a city like Seattle, which received around $3.20 per resident during that same time frame, that’s not good.

The city’s Office of Arts & Culture hoped to mentor more arts groups through the federal endowment’s application process. A year later, however, and things haven’t improved. The latest round of NEA grant funding has been announced, and out of 1,114 recipients, only 54 are in Texas and just four are in Dallas. As Deep Vellum founder Will Evans points out on Twitter, that’s four grants for the arts in the ninth largest city in the country. Yikes.

Why should we care? Well, as I wrote last year, NEA funding not only helps pay for important cultural activity, it is something of a barometer of the health of a local arts community. Cities that receive the lion’s share of NEA funding also tend to have strong sources of local and state funding. Healthy local patronage enables arts organizations to build capacity for long-range planning and foster a depth of development experience that can help craft successful NEA grant applications. The lack of successful NEA grant applications in Dallas is one indication that our local arts ecology is ill.

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What ‘Defunding’ the Dallas Police Department Could Look Like

| 3 months ago

Samuel Sinyangwe is an activist and Stanford-trained data scientist and policy analyst who co-founded Campaign Zero, which researches solutions to end police violence. Although based in New York, yesterday on Twitter Sinyangwe took a passing look at the budget of the Dallas Police Department in order to illustrate what “defunding” the police could look like in practice.

Given the controversy and confusion around the word “defund” that has erupted in Dallas since protesters began calling for it in the streets — and 10 of 14 council members used it in a memo to the city manager on Tuesday — I believe it is worth walking through Sinyangwe’s analysis to offer some clarity on what this policy approach actually means.

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‘Defunding’ the Police Is Not a New Idea in Dallas, It’s an Overdue One

| 3 months ago

In late 2019, Sara Mokuria, associate director for leadership initiatives with The Institute for Urban Policy Research at the UTD and a co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, helped organize a new network of activists under the name Our City Our Budget. The group advocated for including funding for a handful of deceptively simple programs in the 2019-2020 Dallas municipal budget.

At the time, the Dallas City Council, spooked by a record spike in crime, was promoting what they called “a public safety budget.” But Mokuria believed that directing money to the very programs the city planned to cut to afford more police officers—parks, rec centers, homeless services—would have a better impact on public safety. “We think we should be having an anti-poverty budget, not a public safety budget,” Mokuria said at the time. “And truly, an anti-poverty budget is a public safety budget. When you invest in the people, you don’t have to police them.”

In recent weeks, Mokuria has become one of a handful of prominent voices that have emerged from the protest movement to advance the call to “defund” or “dismantle” the police department. And while these words have quickly become weaponized to promote polarization around the issue of police reform, they aren’t new ideas in Dallas. Activists like Mokuria have been advocating for them for years. They represent a desire to change the public’s perception about the role of policing in America, to recognize that pouring money into an increasingly militarized police force doesn’t reduce crime; it does, however, terrorize many communities of color.

Defunding the police, Mokuria says, is simply a process of reallocating the city’s resources toward programs and departments that are better suited at addressing the instability, inequality, and degradation that contribute to crime. It means no longer trying to address all of the city’s problems by dumping more money into the police department, and instead funding mental health, drug addiction treatment, and better schools. “Defunding is investing in cleanup of environmental racism,” Mokuria says. “It is addressing the housing crisis.”

Perhaps the person who best articulated the need to defund the police was, somewhat ironically, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown. In the wake of the 2016 police shootings, Brown acknowledged that the tension between the police and the community is a result of a system that pretends that the police are the solution to too many societal problems.

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How Can Dallas Turn the Lessons of the Streets Into a Program of Change?

| 4 months ago

Dallas—and the country—is experiencing the most widespread movement of direct action we have seen in more than 60 years. People are taking to the streets to demand that this city wakes up, listens, and sees the systemic and endemic racism that has defined the lives of people of color in America for what it is. If real progress is going to be made, however, that direct action must advance an agenda of change.

Based on the many conversations going on right now, there is a hunger for change. When Love Field swiftly moves to take down a statue of a racist cop, when the hosts of sports talk station The Ticket spend a week soul searching, you know we have entered a new kind of moment. Reforms that weren’t imaginable a month ago now seem possible.

Change is already happening. Los Angeles may redeploy public funds from its police budget to fund community development. The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department. Even during the disastrous Dallas City Council meeting Friday, the city manager presented a list of possible reforms, and promising ideas were put forth by council members, like reimagining the police academy and banning elected officials from taking campaign donations from police unions.

This next step, however, concerns me. A knee-jerk response to the crisis will likely miss the monumental scale of the problem. Racism runs through every aspect and every institution of American society. It is baked into the structures of power that hold our city, state, and country together. Racism is so much a part of American life that we are blind to most of the insidious ways it defines our culture. Confronting that is going to take courage, not only from our neighbors who have taken to the streets but from all of us.

Over the past week, I have seen a lot of well-meaning efforts to confront the problem. There have been the numerous corporate statements backing Black Lives Matter; public symbols of support, like the blackout of Reunion Tower; and the sharing of articles and ideas on social media about how to support businesses owned by people of color, contribute to organizations that work in disadvantaged communities, and raise money to help repair the damage to properties that took the punch of the anger that manifested in Dallas’ streets. These are not meaningless gestures. They represent people in positions of power and privilege saying, “We hear you.”

But ultimately these are only gestures. They are the kinds of gestures that have been made before, and they are gestures that have proven hollow when it comes to making meaningful change. Real change is going to need to strike more deeply, and it is going to require more than giving our attention, time, and money. But to understand what real change looks like, we must first confront assumptions about how our society works.

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Arts & Entertainment

Watch Filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith’s New Short: ‘Dear Bruh: A Eulogy. A Baptism. A Call to Action.’

| 4 months ago

Ya’Ke Smith is the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication’s first Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, though for years he was a mainstay in Dallas’ film community. I first encountered Smith’s work when he screened his feature film Wolf at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2012. Wolf is a powerful and complex film about child abuse in a church and its effect on a family and a close-knit community. It has never really left me. Smith previously taught at the University of Texas at Arlington, and since Wolf, his short film “Dawn” made a splash on HBO and remained in rotation for a couple of years.

Yesterday, Smith alerted me his latest piece, called “Dear Bruh: A Eulogy. A Baptism. A Call to Action.” The short film, which you can watch below, is a elegy born of our current moment, a moving reflection on love and loss, racism and history, suffering and endurance. I won’t say more. The piece speaks for itself. Listen.

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Local Government

Is Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson’s Leadership Style Suited for the Moment?

| 4 months ago

A year ago, former state Rep. Eric Johnson defeated former Council member Scott Griggs to become the 62nd mayor of Dallas. It has been a tough year to learn how to lead a city. Since Johnson took office, he has had to face a sharp rise in violent crime, a devastating category-3 tornado, a pandemic, and now mass protests over police brutality.

During that time, we have learned a lot about the mayor’s leadership style—and yet not a lot about the mayor. Johnson comes across as a reserved, private figure, protective in his language and careful with his actions. Around the horseshoe, he leans on parliamentary procedure and public statements to advance policy objectives. He prefers to communicate with the public via press conferences, television interviews, and social media.

In recent weeks, we have seen how this leadership style can create confusion and contention at City Hall. Matt reported on the mayor’s ongoing spat with the city manager over the balance of power at City Hall, a tussle that has played out via a series of lengthy communiques but few actual conversations between Dallas’ two most powerful leaders. In the June issue of D Magazine, I write about how this leadership style has also cast a shadow over the mayor’s relationship with his colleagues on the Council, alienating nearly half of them and sowing distrust among Dallas’ governing body.

As the last week has shown, Dallas is at a pivotal moment in its history, a time when inspirational leadership, strong moral guidance, and real reformative action are needed more than ever. Is Eric Johnson up for the task? His behavior during his first year in office raises doubts.

Here’s the piece. It’s online today.

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