Friday, October 23, 2009

Corruption in South/Southern Dallas Didn't Begin with Don Hill

My predecessor at the church I pastored had developed what was called a 'Procedures and Guidelines Manual'. It was a pretty useful document and pretty well put together. Of course, it fell my lot to not only implement the 'procedures and guidelines', but as we grew and as circumstances changed - let's just say I grew to, shall we say - hate it!

Not because it was a bad thing to have - as a matter of fact most churches have them, in some form or another. No, my problem became that members, especially leaders, started to look to it to answer common sense problems. One example of the challenge was that the church provided a floral spray for the funeral of a deceased member or the immediate family. But, then the question arose, 'What about parents?'; 'What about 'step children'?; 'What about step-parents?' Believe it or not eventually listed, literally, nearly every conceivable, eligible, familial relationship eligible for a floral spray at the funeral.

As the copies of the procedures and guidelines became scarce, I stopped making them, though some leaders grew agitated because they couldn't find them and we didn't update them. We solved most problems through, prayer, conversation and common sense. Things didn't run perfectly (but, they didn't run smoothly with the manual, either!). But somehow we managed - without a lot of extra rules. We also found out that the key to operating effectively wasn't just to have written guidelines, but to find the right people who would make good decisions in the interest of the entire church. That too, was not a perfect process. But it also meant that we took our time in identifying leaders.

Now that's a small church in a poor section of Dallas. In some respects not an apples to apples comparison to what I want to write about - not totally.

The recent conviction of Don Hill, his wife Sheila and his Plan Commission appointee, D'Angelo Lee, is a sad and disappointing saga in the history of our city. Corruption in our public officials is not pretty. And it is interesting, if not telling, that there has been no public uproar in the African-American community during the trial or at the conviction. For those of us who know them - particularly Don and Sheila - we are saddened by the whole affair, mainly because of the promise that Hill had shown throughout his career on the council. He, conceivably could have been Dallas' second black mayor.

The corruption centered around bribery of low income housing developers, for favorable votes on their tax credit applications. Hill says it was tough politics, with no intent to defraud or bribe anyone. Twenty-three guilty convictions by the juror says that they don't believe him.

Now, aside from the convicted parties awaiting sentencing and possible appeals, two other questions have arisen. The questions involve what this means for the prospects of southern Dallas development in light of these convictions and the alleged prevalence of corruption when it comes to economic development in southern Dallas and the need for ethics reform on the city council.

Let me take them one at a time.

I believe it is wholly unfair to suggest that corruption in southern Dallas among elected officials is worse than among any other elected representatives in Dallas. We can talk about incompetence. We can talk about a lack of political savvy and sophistication. We can even talk about power grabs and district fiefdoms.
But, if we want to talk about corruption, then I will argue that historic corruption gave birth to the conditions that exist in what we now call 'South Dallas'. It is a corruption that helped create the underdevelopment, blight and neglect that, in turn, helped create the need for the massive redevelopment needed in southern/South Dallas, in the first place.

The zoning and rezoning that blighted residential areas of South Dallas with heavy industrial traffic, creating environmental health hazards for the citizens that remain; the lack of zoning, that allowed 300 liquor related businesses in a 13 square mile area; the lack of code enforcement that allowed absentee landlords to continue hold on to urban nuisance properties near schools and churches.
That is corruption.

Those who went to the Fair Park recently, and who either drove over the bridge to the south, or who parked on the parking lots to the south during the Texas-Oklahoma game, were driving over or parking on, what used to be a neighborhood. It was a neighborhood which was nearly destroyed by the wreckless, predatory, cruel use of eminent domain. For nearly 50 weeks during the year, those parking lots sit vacant. They give mute testimony to the callous disregard with which black communities were and in many ways still are held.
That, too, is corruption.

Whether the efforts of black politicians are misguided, heavy handed, incompetent or - if you like - corrupt, it is against this backdrop that most of them came into public life: the recent historic memory (less than 40 years ago), of the careless and wanton displacement of vulnerable, poor black people.

There is even a 'corruption' if you will, in the development of Uptown and the Arts District, in this sense - those areas were to Dallas what Auburn Avenue is to Atlanta, Georgia. It was redeveloped and gentrified in such a way that it failed to preserve the history and the culture of the people who lived there. Even the graveyard of African-Americans was paved over to create a highway.
How many minority contractors participated in the redevelopment of this area?
How many participate in the development of the Arts District?
This is the area which, at one time was the mixed income African-American community in Dallas. The only two reminders left are St. Paul United Methodist Church, which struggles basically because there is no longer a community for this historic institution to be a church to and Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School, which many (if not most) of the great-grand children of the loyal alumni of the '50's may not qualify to attend.

Again, a form of 'corruption'. Every deal may be legal while the whole affair may be corrupt.

So, no, southern/South Dallas doesn't have a lock on corrupt politicians. There are men and women in southern Dallas who have held office honorably. They have had to face the challenge of proving themselves credible, in spite of the fact that they and their constituency were lightly regarded. And, yes, southern/South Dallas has had more than its fair share of those who have been sloppy, unsophisticated, exploitative and ineffective.
But, they are no more corrupt than the public officials and elected politicians who have implemented policy that officially decimate a whole community.

As to whether or not this will impact developers who want to do business in southern/South Dallas: those who don't want to do business in southern/South Dallas will always find a reason not to; those who want to do business in southern/South Dallas will see the opportunity and seize it.

As for the ethics issue. There does need to be reform. But not just because of Don Hill and not just because of southern/South Dallas. There needs to be ethics reform because we need to restore public trust and accountability across the board. James Ragland, in his Dallas Morning News column on Thursday has an important analysis of why it should and how it can be done.

But at the end of the day, new ethical guidelines are still requires addressing issues in the only way I found the 'Procedures and Guidelines Manual' effective: the right people serving with wisdom and common sense.
That's important no matter who you're elected representatives are, or what part of the city they represent.


Anonymous said...

Al Lipscomb, James Fantroy and Don Hill come to mind.
Hasn't the Dallas City Council been minority majority since 1999?

Gerald Britt said...

Ten years of the representation you talk about can't possibly correct more than 50 years of the negative impacts of the public policy decisions I mentioned. Nor does it address the issues of systemic malfeasance which these neighborhoods have endured.

Simplistic reasoning in order to demonstrate some type of illusory sense of moral superiority is irrelevant and useless in furthering public dialogue.