Public has right to hear Dallas City Council discussion

The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Oct. 21, 2013

The Dallas City Council plans to meet behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss city staffers’ questionable activity impeding the local launch of Uber, an online car service. The public has a right to hear this discussion, in spite of the twisted rationale cited by Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Attorney Warren Ernst to keep it closed.

Uber allows customers to use a mobile phone app to summon independent, licensed limousine drivers. That puts Uber in direct competition with traditional taxi companies like Yellow Cab. It’s easy and quick, though often more expensive. Taxi companies hate it.

Earlier this year, Yellow Cab attorney John Barr persuaded interim City Manager A.C. Gonzalez to intervene. Police Chief David Brown diverted vice officers from normal duties to launch a sting operation against Uber’s drivers. Lobbyists working for Yellow Cab put pressure on Gonzalez’s predecessor, Mary Suhm, who then put pressure on Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata to get code enforcers behind the anti-Uber campaign.

In August, Gonzalez placed a proposed ordinance on the City Council’s consent agenda — designed to stop Uber — by blocking smartphone-dispatched car services, requiring reservations to be made 30 minutes in advance and mandating minimum fares of $70. Gonzalez apologized Monday for his handling of the issue.

After the consent agenda item surfaced, the City Council called for an investigation and put the mayor in charge. He hired former Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill to prepare a report, which will be released publicly as early as Wednesday.

Rawlings assured us: “The public’s going to get every piece of information that I’ve got,” including Hill’s report. Yet the council’s Uber discussion Wednesday will be closed on grounds that members will be discussing personnel issues.

Lawyer and City Council member Scott Griggs disagrees, saying the Texas Open Meetings Act only allows governing bodies to invoke the personnel exception when discussing specific performance issues involving a specific employee. A formal complaint triggers the process, yet no such complaint exists.

The city attorney’s office on Monday cited yet another exception involving discussions with legal counsel, mentioning “confidential legal advice” that Hill might offer. But Hill was not hired as an attorney, and even Rawlings concedes that this exception doesn’t apply.

Everyone seems to be groping for an excuse to close the doors. What is there to hide? The proper course is to meet in public and openly discuss what Rawlings says the public has a right to know. If, at that point, specific complaints arise concerning certain officials, a future closed-door discussion might be appropriate.

Rawlings conceded that suspicions of abuse grow when the public is excluded. So why risk it? The only way to shore up flagging public trust is to make this process fully transparent.


Examples of contracts, probes and legal matters handled away from public scrutiny:

Oak Cliff Metals: The City Council voted behind closed doors (in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act) to approve a deal for the metal salvager to move from north Oak Cliff.

Solid waste: Lax record-keeping at City Hall caused the city to lose about $1.1 million in fees at the McCommas Bluff landfill in southern Dallas. The city was sued over an ordinance requiring private waste haulers to use only city-owned landfill stations. Mary Nix, who oversaw both issues, was quietly transferred and demoted instead of fired amid criticism that she misled the City Council.

Columbia Packing Co.: After an Oak Cliff slaughterhouse was linked to the dumping of pigs’ blood in a Trinity River tributary, closed-door meetings resolved major outstanding legal issues that allowed the company to reopen as a meatpacking plant.