After impromptu toll road debate, Dallas mayor warns of open meetings violation

By Robert Wilonsky
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published March 20, 2015

Two weeks ago a couple of Dallas City Council members debated the pros and cons of a toll road between the Trinity River levees. And, as it turns out, Mayor Mike Rawlings isn’t happy about it. At all.

On Wednesday he sent the council a memo telling them to stop talking about things that aren’t on the council’s agenda. Insists Rawlings, doing so violates the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The toll road wasn’t on the council’s agenda, but the debate — pitting pro-roader Rick Callahan against Scott Griggs — wasn’t exactly unprompted: Three people on the city secretary’s public-speakers list stepped to the open mic to proselytize in favor of the Trinity River toll road, among them Gelinda Aguirre, the former secretary for Vonciel Jones Hill (head of the council’s Transportation & Trinity River Project Committee and an ardent toll road supporter), and Pleasant Grove resident Yolanda Williams, council member Rick Callahan’s current appointee to the Dallas Park Board. Said Williams, southern residents “always get caught in the middle” during election season. “We voted for it twice,” she said in support of the toll road. “Why do we have to fight? … We are tired. We said we want it.”

At which point toll road opponent Scott Griggs chimed in with a lengthy speech in which he called the long-proposed, long-unbuilt $1.5-billion-or-so toll road “the biggest boondoggle there is” and “nothing but a sales job based on some water colors.” The longer he spoke, the more passionate he became. Watch for yourself below. Go right to the 43:26 mark.

But as our Brandon Formby pointed out two weeks ago, the whole thing made Dallas City Attorney Warren Ernst very uncomfortable, to the point where he told Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins, acting as mayor in Rawlings’ absence, to shut it down since the topic wasn’t on the agenda. That didn’t sit well with Callahan, who said, “This gets to hit the press, this gets to hit the TV waves and you’re trying to mute my voice.” Others ultimately weighed in as well.

And Rawlings wants that to stop. Now.

“I was unable to attend the March 4, 2015 city council meeting, but I watched the video of it,” he says in the memo you can read below. “I asked Warren Ernst to clarify the confusion about what responses to public inquiry or comments are permitted during the city council meeting public comment open microphone portion of the agenda. The key point is that, while the Act allows for open microphone speakers to address the city council on topics of their choosing, itdoes not mean that councilmembers are then free to further deliberate or discuss the topic raised.”

Says Rawlings, council members can only address citizens’ complaints — if, say, they need to get city staff together with someone complaining about a busted traffic signal. Other than that: nope.

Griggs strongly disagrees with Rawlings and Ernst’s interpretation of the open meetings act.

“Under the open meetings act you’re allowed to respond with factual information to inquiries made by speakers,” says Griggs. “The fact is the Trinity River toll road is a boondoggle. It was important to convey that fact to the speakers.”

Says Griggs, the fact that the speakers had ties to pro-toll road council members — ties that weren’t noted before their comments were broadcast on WRR-FM and via the city’s website — made it even more necessary to say something in response.

“Their presence was coordinated,” says Griggs. “There’s an effort going on by Trinity River toll road supporters to avoid public debate. Now it’s gotten to the point of avoiding a public discourse on the subject. I am not surprised by it. It’s consistent with Trinity River toll road supporters who duck debate and meet in secret, like the ‘dream team,’ which is completely shrouded in secrecy. Toll road opponents want to have this discussion in the light of day. My comments are on the record. They weren’t made behind closed doors. Maybe I should sign up as Citizen Scott to speak every week, if Mayor Rawlings doesn’t want to hear from a council member.”