The devil is in the details

I’m going to share something personal with you, but it’s got to stay between us.

I like details. No, I mean, I really like details. Like, unnaturally so. Like, if I could marry details, I would. Give me a few dense legal contracts, a ream of spreadsheets and a box of historical news clippings, and I’m in heaven.

But we need to keep this unhealthy predilection of mine on the down-low because I’m fairly certain that if I’m found out, there are some in this city who will label me as anti-Dallas. (Or perhaps even a “hater.”)

There’s a troubling (and I would argue, dangerous) civic fidelity test that has grown in popularity among the powers-that-be in our city. It posits that one’s love for Dallas is directly proportional to the degree to which one will disregard facts and blithely and blindly support a particular civic effort. The more extravagant and expensive and complex the project, the more devout are those who enthusiastically advocate for it without question.

According to this perspective, if you truly and dearly love our city, you should be perfectly comfortable signing off on nothing more than a concept — an idea. You shouldn’t need details or contracts or case studies, all of which reveal a lack of faith in our city leaders — and that’s just rude.

In the recent past, we’ve seen this litmus test utilized by sitting mayors and others in relation to a multitude of large-scale, publicly-funded projects: Ask too many questions about the projected mobility impact of the Trinity Toll Road and you’ll be labeled as trying to kill the entire Trinity River Project. Wonder aloud about taxpayer protections in the convention center hotel contract and you’ll be chastised for not wanting downtown to flourish. Ask for examples of horse parks and golf courses that have transformed blighted urban areas and you’ll be vilified for hating southern Dallas.

This antagonism between concept and contract is evident in the current debate about the future of Fair Park. The mayor has been pushing for a private nonprofit foundation, led by former Hunt Oil executive Walt Humann, to take over management of Fair Park. Conceptually, that may or may not be a good idea.

But the question isn’t whether we want to save Fair Park, whether we care about Fair Park, or whether privatization is a good idea. All of that’s prelude, an appetizer. The meat of this debate is the contract itself. The real question — the only question — is whether the written contract between the City of Dallas and Humann’s Fair Park Foundation is a good one.

Luckily, five members of the Dallas Park Board like details. In early August, Park Board members Becky Rader, Jesse Moreno, Paul Sims (my husband), Marlon Rollins and Barbara Barbee foiled heavy-handed attempts to limit debate on this 30-year, $800 million contract. They didn’t have the time or support to completely fix the agreement, but thanks to their hard work, the Fair Park contract coming to City Council in late August is much improved.

And it’s the contract that counts. All these lofty ideas, whether about Fair Park, the Trinity River or the Convention Center Hotel, are meaningless hot air until they are boiled down to very concrete terms in a written contract. And once these ideas are given solid legal form, once they are parsed into black and white letters and inscribed on a page, and once the council has voted to approve a very particular combination of words, those words bind the City of Dallas. They create legal obligations and financial responsibilities guaranteed by Dallas taxpayers, often for decades and usually for hundreds of millions of dollars.

I can’t help but think that if these massive civic projects were privately funded, if certain cheerleading, wheeler-dealer types who pull the strings at City Hall had to ante up their own money instead of putting taxpayers on the hook, that there would be a lot more questions asked before anyone signed on the dotted line.

I suspect we would discover that they secretly love details, too.