‘Learn your role’

What is the role of a citizen in our city government?

Our answer depends on whether we view our government as a team or as a tool.

When we think of our government as a “team,” then cheerleading becomes the highest form of patriotism, regardless of how corrupt, wasteful, despotic or inefficient the government or its officials may be. Thoughtful criticism is castigated and blind loyalty championed. Systemic problems are not addressed because to identify them in the first place is to be disloyal.

When, however, we view our government as a tool — as an implement — then we recognize critique as our patriotic duty, necessary to keep our government in optimal working order. We appreciate that we alone are the mechanics responsible for maintaining this fragile machine we call democracy. We take pride in identifying our government’s weaknesses and failures because we know that without undertaking this most crucial of civic tasks, our democracy would fall into disrepair.

These two divergent perspectives on government fell into stark relief during a recent Dallas Park Board meeting.

The Park Board is unique among city commissions: appointed by the Dallas City Council, this panel of 15 volunteers is obligated by our city charter to oversee Dallas’s Park and Recreation Department. Given the breadth of this responsibility, Park Board members would be shirking if they didn’t fervently investigate city park contracts, actively inquire about park operations, and put their noses into anything and everything involving our taxpayer-funded park and recreational facilities.

But this is Dallas. Team Dallas. And it’s kind of tacky to ask tough questions. A bit unmannerly. A smidge uncouth.

Park Board member Jesse Moreno found that out the hard way a few weeks ago when he made the mistake of asking tough questions about Fair Park, and more specifically, about the State Fair of Texas.

For the last two years, the City of Dallas has been stumbling and fumbling around the issue of Fair Park, haphazardly trying to figure out what to do with this massive recreational asset.   Throughout the process, the city has acted as if the State Fair didn’t exist.  This is odd because the State Fair has a long-term contract with the city to rent Fair Park four months every year, making it essential to any future plans.  It is the elephant in the middle of Fair Park.

So when the State Fair was scheduled to appear before the Park Board in late January to present highlights from the 2016 fair, Moreno saw this as an opportunity to finally ask the organization some illuminating questions.

As vice president of the Park Board, Moreno used a parliamentary move to allow other board members to question the State Fair about things other than how many corndogs were sold or how they get those pants on Big Tex. Park Board members Marlon Rollins, Paul Sims (my husband) and Becky Rader asked pointed but reasonable questions about State Fair finances and operations.

But they were talking to an empty chair:  once the highlight reel was over, State Fair representatives had hightailed it to avoid the hot seat.  Regardless, other board members took offense on behalf of the State Fair. Board member Sean Johnson loudly scolded his curious colleagues for their impertinent queries, admonishing them to “Learn your role!  Learn your role!”

Indeed. So what exactly is the role of a citizen in our government?  Those who think it is to sit politely, nod at the appropriate times, smile, backslap, applaud, and relentlessly cheer Team Dallas will be pleased to know that soon after the Park Board meeting, eight of 15 council members voted to remove Moreno as vice president of the Park Board and replace him with Sean “Learn Your Role” Johnson.

Those with a different perspective, who recognize government as a tool and believe that citizens have a civic responsibility to actively challenge the way our city government works, to question the decisions it makes, to investigate and interrogate, well then, they will be quite relieved to know that Dallas City Council elections are May 6.

Your role is to vote.