The seasoned rookie: One year with Adam McGough

Adam McGough at City Hall (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Adam McGough at City Hall (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Only one year in, our neighborhood’s new councilman knows City Hall inside and out. He’s still figuring out Lake Highlands.

Lake Highlands Councilman Adam McGough can’t shed his City Hall mindset now that he’s on the other side of the horseshoe.

A little more than a year into office, he still looks at our neighborhood through the eyes of a community prosecutor, a position the city created in the mid-2000s to bring together several different departments to address problem properties and chronic crime. McGough was one of the first and was so successful in the role that he eventually became Mayor Mike Rawlings’ chief of staff, a position he left to run for council.

“My wheelhouse is dealing with the highest crime areas,” McGough says. “I guess I had some delusion that I would turn into a councilman and not be the same person I was before, but I’m still a community prosecutor.”

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Though Lake Highlands is known as a bedroom community, McGough’s District 10, which largely encompasses our neighborhood, has the hottest crime spot in Dallas — the multi-family corridor around Forest Lane and Audelia Road, where 20,000 people live. McGough says he feels “drawn” to Forest-Audelia and areas like it. Sixty-three percent of McGough’s constituents live in District 10’s roughly 100 apartment complexes, he says.

“I think a major part of my role is to break down the walls between the ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” he says.

That’s proving to be an uphill battle. In the June 2015 election runoff, a mere 36 votes gave him the win against Paul Reyes in a hard-fought race. Most of his support came from north of I-635 and on the western edges of the district, outside the residential nucleus of Lake Highlands.

McGough, a Nacogdoches native, is the first Lake Highlands councilman in decades whom some neighborhood insiders view as an outsider. His most recent predecessors — Jerry Allen, Bill Blaydes and Alan Walne — are either Lake Highlands High School alums or parents of alums, or both. Allen even touted his stint as an LHHS Bellboy in his initial 2007 campaign.

At the beginning of McGough’s campaign, he was “introduced” to the Lake Highlands Exchange Club, a group that neighborhood political aspirants typically emerge out of, not into. And he was excoriated for buying a home in the Park Cities to send his children to Highland Park schools rather than to our neighborhood’s Richardson public schools.

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He won anyway, but the slim margin foreshadowed a steep learning curve when it came to Lake Highlands.

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His naïveté was likely evident to the crowd of 60 or so which gathered at McGough’s first neighborhood meeting at Neighbors Casual Kitchen. He had sent out a Facebook notice on a Wednesday, hoping that maybe five or 10 people would show up that Friday. His estimate was off, as was his expectation for the discussion.

“I wanted to talk about all these issues and things I was working on, but over and over and over again, people were complaining about multi-family,” he says.

“What I took from that is, I can’t just ask people to accept it,” McGough says. “There has to be a concerted effort so I can go back to this group and say, ‘It is better now.’ ”

A few months later, Dallas Police Chief David Brown announced a “violent crime task force” focused on Forest-Audelia, concentrating officers from SWAT to K9 and every unit in between. Within the first month, McGough says, crime stats citywide had dropped by 11 percent.

“That tells you something, right?” he says. “Either we had so much crime happening in our area that it skews the numbers, or crime coming from Forest-Audelia impacted other areas.”

He has heard law enforcement officials refer to it as “the hive, the hornet’s nest of violent crime.” Walne, who was Lake Highlands’ councilman from 1996-2003, believes that Forest-Audelia is, indeed, “feeding over into the adjacent neighborhoods” and “whether perception or reality, the perception I get is we’re having a sizable increase in all kinds of different crimes in the district — residential break-ins and burglaries, car vandalism and theft.”

“Something that’s going to be incumbent upon Adam is really beating the drum and saying, ‘Hey, pay attention to me,’ ” Walne says of pointing the city’s resources toward Lake Highlands crime.

McGough says he successfully advocated this past year for another Dallas community prosecutor who would focus on multi-family properties. The position is in pilot stages right now, with District 10 as the initial focus.

McGough says he’s turning his attention to adding more code officers to the city budget.

“There are only 13 code officers for multi-family in the entire city, only 2 in the northeast, and we wonder why we have issues in our district,” McGough says.

He’s not one of the more showy or outspoken councilmen, favoring strategic efforts behind the scenes rather than being the focus of the public spotlight. This approach is earning McGough respect among some of his prior critics.

Walne supported Reyes in the election, but “that’s all water under the bridge,” Walne says.

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“After the election, I contacted Adam and said, ‘Hey, you’re the guy; let me know what I can do to help.” The freshman councilman took him up on the offer, Walne says, and has reached out several times.

Likewise, McGough has made efforts to loop in his other opponent, James White, who endorsed McGough in the runoff after he agreed to oppose a high speed tollroad within the Trinity River levees, which had been the cornerstone of White’s campaign.

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McGough’s first policy proposal — “the first time I pushed the button to say I wanted to speak” — was a Trinity Parkway discussion in which he proposed a compromise that would allow the city to spend its remaining Trinity Parkway funds only on a four-lane “meandering” road. It was a move that aligned him, at least on that issue, with “New Dallas” progressives and rebuffed his former boss.

The compromise, though approved by Council, hasn’t ended all possibility of a high-speed tollway in the future, but “he’s done what he told me he would do,” White says. White believes it will take even more changes to City Council seats to put the final nails in the Trinity tollroad’s coffin.

McGough is “standing there, King Canute, but the tide’s going to come in,” White says, though if he hadn’t put forward the compromise, “there could have been something far worse agreed to.”

What happens within the Trinity levees, however, is not popular cocktail chatter in most Lake Highlands social circles. Two other topics — the Lake Highlands Town Center retail development at Walnut Hill and Skillman, and the overcrowding of some Lake Highlands public schools — took precedence during McGough’s freshman year. Neither of these are City Council issues per se, but from Walne’s experience, that doesn’t really matter.

“Going into this year and into his next term, provided he wants to run again, these will be a focal point on the electorate’s mind,” Walne says.

McGough’s approach to both comes down to using the only tools in his belt: his council megaphone and whatever bargaining chips the city has at its disposal.

The Town Center had been an almost decade-long public-private partnership until October, when developer Bill Rafkin relinquished $30 million in future economic development incentives in order to proceed with the project on his own terms. McGough responded by hosting a town hall in March where neighbors could engage with Rafkin, and holding the developer’s feet to the fire to fix and maintain the parkland, lighting and landscaping on the Town Center property.

For Lake Highlands elementary schools, some of which are bursting at the seams, McGough made his own pitch for a new magnet elementary school to be built just east of Lake Highlands High School on Church Road. The Richardson ISD board voted instead to build an elementary school at Walnut Hill and White Rock Trail on land zoned for commercial use that McGough says needs a deed restriction removed before the district can proceed with construction. The district disagrees.

“I thought that on a project like this, we would work together,” McGough says. He says he will do his best to “determine what my community and the people I represent are wanting,” and “if RISD has not convinced the people who are reaching out to me that that’s not the best location and right location and in the best interest of the kids, then I think they have more work to do.”

The conflicts aren’t deflating him. Quite the opposite. This is where his background in mediation and dispute resolution come to the forefront.

“I love getting into some of these contentious things,” he says. “I believe you can come up with something better than what others have thought of if you have parties willing to engage in the process.”

He calls it “confident humility — I absolutely believe we can work this out but I have no idea how we’re going to get there yet.”

Whether he can unite the broader Lake Highlands area “us” and “them” remains to be seen, but McGough says he is up to the challenge.

“The ugliness of the campaign helped me in ways I never expected,” McGough says. “I am what I am, I’m going to do what I’m going to do, I’m going to work as hard as I can, and maybe people will come around, maybe they won’t.”

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