Groups: Dallas City Attorney is Blocking Stricter Gas Drilling Ordinance, Call for Independent Counsel

by jim on August 7, 2013

Tammy Palomino(Dallas)—- Citing City Hall official audio recordings, neighborhood and environmental groups are accusing Dallas City Attorney Tammy Palomino of blocking the City Plan Commission’s intentions to adopt a stricter gas drilling rule governing how far wells can be located from neighborhoods and schools.

“It’s a clumsy attempt to steamroll the Commission, made even more embarrassing by the fact that it’s captured on tape,” said Zac Trahan with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “She’s stepped out of her role as an objective advisor, and become an advocate for a much less protective ordinance – even after the Commission made it clear they want a stronger one. Residents can’t trust her.” 

In a letter to Mayor Mike Rawlings and the Dallas City Council, Trahan’s group, along with Downwinders at Risk, FracDallas, Dallas Area Residents for Responsible Drilling, Climate Reality Leadership Corps, and the Dallas Sierra Club complained that the evidence of Palomino’s bias was so blatant that the Council needs to appoint an outside lawyer to advise it and the Plan Commission on the writing of the new gas drilling ordinance. 

At issue is one of the most important restrictions a municipality can place on gas drilling – the buffer zone or “setback” distance between a gas well and a home, school or other “protected use.” 

Currently Dallas allows drilling within 300 feet of those kinds of structures, a holdover from the original 2007 drilling ordinance that is now being rewritten by the Plan Commission. At an earlier June meeting, Commission members reached a consensus to lengthen that distance to 1500 feet, with no objection. But when it was time to recap the results of that meeting, Attorney Palomino denied such a consensus ever occurred as part of the official record.

However, the city maintains audio recordings of every Plan Commission meeting and according to the recording of that June meeting, the intent of the Commission was clear, despite Palomino obvious attempts to get them to back down to a less protective distance. The groups released excerpts from the June meeting:

Commissioner Anglin: “The mandate generally would be, in my view, 1,500 feet generally and a 2/3rd [vote] waiver down to 1,000 feet.”

Commissioner Ridley: “I agree with that.”

  Chair Alcantar: “OK, any comments?”

                  (The audio is silent)

Assistant City Attorney Tammy Palomino: “Commissioner Anglin recommended 1,500 feet, do we need to have more debate on that? Is there a majority that wants to go back to 1,000 feet instead of 1,500?”

Chair Alcantar: “I think we are all in agreement on 1,500…you got that, Tammy?”

Assistant City Attorney Tammy Palomino: “I do…I will draft the changes to the spacing.”

Despite this promise, Palomino showed up at the next meeting with no such changes reflected in the draft. Surprised at the omission, a Plan Commission member quizzed her. Again, the groups point to excerpts from the July meeting:

Commissioner Paul Ridley: “At the last meeting we had a consensus on 1,500 feet. Why is that not reflected in the base draft?”

Assistant City Attorney Tammy Palomino: “Because at the last meeting at the end I said that staff needed to look at that because those numbers are different….from what the task force recommended….and we need to come back and provide information on how that may or may not affect land use….We did not have a consensus on that, either.”

Despite a consensus from the Commission itself to adopt a setback of 1,500 feet, Attorney Palomino is unilaterally vetoing the recommendation in the running draft of the ordinance – a draft that only she is allowed to keep.

When she says ‘we did not have consensus on that,” she’s not telling the truth” said Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk. “In fact, the Commission did reach consensus, but it was one that Attorney Palomino didn’t like. Apparently she feels like her vote counts more than all of those on the Commission combined.” 

Representatives from the groups say Palomino’s motive is clear – to weaken the new ordinance enough to allow the resubmission of the twice-rejected Trinity East gas permits that have been the center of controversy for the last nine months.

They claim the same thing that’s happening now with the Plan Commission has happened before. According to their letter, “This problem of staff bias towards the Trinity East permits has been omnipresent at Dallas City Hall since the 2007 secret deal between Trinity East and City Manager Mary Suhm was signed. There has been a long trail of contorting the process over the last six years.”

To prevent the same bias from twisting the process this time, the groups request the Mayor and Council appoint outside counsel for the drafting of the gas-drilling ordinance.

The Plan Commission’s next workshop on the gas drilling ordinance is this Thursday, August 8th, beginning at 8:30 a.m. in Room 5ES of Dallas City Hall. The agenda calls for a discussion of a wide range of issues concerning how to regulate drilling in Dallas, including a “review of the draft ordinance” so far, and a revisiting of “previous topics.”

Because of Ms. Palomino’s insistence that the 1,500ft setback has not been decided, the groups expect more debate within in the Plan Commission itself on Thursday in any review of the process-to-date.

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