Editorial: Why Dallas needs more transparency from new Fair Park Foundation, State Fair

When the Dallas Park and Recreation Board next meets to discuss Mayor Mike Rawlings’ plan to turn over management of Fair Park to the new Fair Park Texas Foundation, the public will be invited. The notes and records that come out of the meeting will be preserved and made available if requested. And when the board finally votes, probably next month, residents who will have to live with the decision will be invited to watch.

That’s the beauty of Texas’ imperfect but absolutely vital open-government laws.

That openness should not disappear if the city agrees to hand over management of Fair Park to the newly created private foundation that seeks to run it.

Given how many millions of dollars the city is being asked to provide the foundation each year, it’s a good bet the Texas Public Information Act would apply as a matter of course. But that’s not certain.

Such an important safeguard shouldn’t be left to chance. The new foundation must explicitly agree to conduct all meetings in public and to comply with all reasonable requests for documents, subject to the same generous exemptions already baked into state laws.

This point was raised during the Park Board’s last work session, but the Park Department staff was not left with a clear directive to incorporate this goal in its negotiations with Walt Humann, the creative force behind the new foundation. That must be remedied at its next meeting.

Too much else is right with the plan to let a lack of openness mar the results. While Humann makes a strong case for why such obligations for transparency can be burdensome for a small board, the public interest in transparency trumps those concerns. The foundation would be taking over for the city in managing Fair Park, and that change should not shut voters out.

Fair Park’s largest tenant, the State Fair of Texas, is in a battle of its own over what records it is required to release to the public.

The State Fair of Texas — a private nonprofit, just like the foundation — is fighting hard to insist it be exempt from Texas open-records laws. It has gone to court to repel a colossal records request submitted last year under the Texas Public Information Act by the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a Dallas nonprofit founded by frequent State Fair critic Don Williams.

The State Fair sued, seeking a judgment declaring that it is not subject to the act. Instead, a judge dismissed the suit and sanctioned the State Fair. The State Fair has appealed, so the legal questions are not yet settled.

We favor more transparency from the State Fair, as well. For example, we called for the State Fair to give a more open accounting of how it reinvests revenues, as required by its lease for Fair Park. The next time that lease is negotiated, provisions to require more transparency need to be included.

The city of Dallas is wrestling with how to balance the State Fair’s success, Fair Park’s revival and the needs of residents. The more access the public is granted to the dialogue, and to records related to the discussions, the better the outcome.