Jim Schutze at the Dallas Observer came across an interesting piece of video the other day. It was the deposition of former Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm in the on-going lawsuit between jilted gas driller Trinity East and the City.
In their cross-examination, lawyers for Trinity East are asking Suhm about a secret (at least to the Council and the public) 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties trading Special Use Permits for gas drilling and production sites the company wanted to access on City-owned flood plain and park land – despite prohibitions on drilling in those places at the time of the agreement – in return for $19 million in upfront leasing payments.
Trinity East's lawyers want Suhm to say the agreement "guaranteed" the permits, and when the Plan Commission subsequently voted to deny them, and the City Council lacked the super-majority to override that denial, the City, by way of its agent in this matter Mary Suhm, defaulted on the agreement.
City of Dallas lawyers want Suhm to say Trinity East executives knew the drilling sites were off-limits at the time they signed the memo and, despite paying the City of Dallas $19 million before they got their permits, the company knew it was not a sure thing. According to the City's lawyers, what Trinity got was precisely what Suhm promised in the agreement: her best efforts to maneuver the company's permits through City Hall bureaucracy.
The crux of this back and forth comes at about the 4:30 point of the five minute video when Trinity East's lawyer, on behalf of his client, asks, "What is it they get for their $19 million dollars?"
Suhm says Trinity East "got the right to apply" for SUP permits.
But those permits cost considerably less than $19 million. What was Trinity East really paying for with those leasing checks, and did they get their money's worth?
Allow us to defend Mary Suhm.
When Trinity East wrote those checks, Suhm was riding high as City Manager and her command over Council affairs was already legend, especially as she negotiated the city budget through very tight times. Trinity knew the signature of a mere elected official was not sufficient. Those come and go at City Hall with hardly anyone noticing. It wanted the boss's John Hancock on the document and the boss was Mary Suhm.
Besides a perfectly legal and hefty bribe when the City needed it during the Great Recession, Trinity was investing in the power of Mary Suhm and her relationships with the Powers-That-Be. The company had every confidence as the ring master of the downtown circus, Suhm could make things happen that otherwise wouldn't happen. She was in control.
Trinity East wasn't wrong – in 2008. Had they pursued their permit requests in the next one to three years, there's every likelihood Trinity East would have received them.
But the company waited until 2011.
What had happened in those intervening three years?
There was a drilling backlash beginning to reach full volume in the Barnett Shale, aided by a new national awareness of fracking as it spread to other parts of the country. Josh Fox's "Gasland" came out in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Burning tap water replaced a folksy Tommy Lee Jones as the face of gas drilling in North Texas. Citizen groups were sprouting in every city with drilling fighting for larger buffer zones and more pollution controls. There were stories in the media all the time. Because no health or environmental studies had been done on urban fracking, all kinds of new ones were launched or just being reported on for the first time.
In light of the new controversy, Councilwoman Angela Hunt helped drive the City to convene a gas drilling task force, giving residents a chance to organize around the issue before Trinity East even applied for their permits. Every concern – air, water, even earthquakes – that would later become ammunition for opponents showed up in this task force process first.
Scott Griggs ran for Dallas City Council from one of the districts targeted by new gas drilling permits and won on an anti-drilling platform against an incumbent. He joined Hunt as a fierce critic of Dallas urban drilling. Neighborhoods were showing new muscle.
And so the stage was set for more of an uphill fight than what Trinity probably would have confronted in 2010.
Mary Suhm must have taken note of some of this and sighed when Trinity finally put in for its permits. Now they show-up?
Still, let the record show she put on a stiff upper lip and gave 110% to the cause of getting Dallas City Hall to approve Trinity East's permits. She contorted bureaucracies. She muscled appointees and council members alike. She and her staff worked overtime to try to subvert every move of the growing opposition to Trinity East's permits. When the company lost, it wasn't because Mary Suhm didn't pull out all the stops, but despite the fact she did.
Now, we're pretty sure this is a defense the City of Dallas lawyers don't want to use, but we offer it up here in case they need to break the glass and begin building firebreaks in court to keep from paying back the $19 million.
These are only the most egregious examples residents know about.
2011 Gas Drilling Task Force
In retrospect, it's easy to see Suhm's manipulation behind the last-minute Task Force endorsements of park and flood plain drilling. And when we say last-minute, we mean it.
Task Force members had already voted to keep the prohibition against drilling in these areas at a previous business meeting. The last meeting of the Task Force was supposed to be a pro forma affair that would ratify all previous recommendations and send them along to Council. Task Force member attendance was therefore down. This is when Task Force Chairwoman and former city council member Lois Finkelman chose to spring new votes on these two issues – and these two issues only – and won a reversal on each. Not only of the Task Force positions – but of current city policy, which of course didn't allow drilling in either area then.
Many excuses were used to justify this re-examination and re-vote that day, but none of them were the truth. Finkelman and staff were doing Suhm's bidding, and she was looking out for Trinity East. While it's not clear if Finkelman knew about Suhm's secret agreement, you can be sure Suhm, or someone on her behalf, made it clear to Finkelman it was VERY important to get these exemptions. Finkelman had been a friend to the clean air movement and other environmental causes during her tenure on the Council in the 1990's, but caved because of her relationship with Suhm, a belief she was helping the City out of a jam, or some other reason. At the end of the day, she weakened proposed city policy in accordance with what Trinity East wanted.
This is certainly something Trinity East got for its $19 million.
2012 Xmas Plan Commission Hearing on Trinity East Permits
Scheduled on December 20th, 2012, this was the first time gas drilling permits had been voted on for Dallas in three years, or pre-national outrage. It occurred before the Task Force recommendations had been considered and adopted into policy. In other words, after a call to reform its outdated drilling ordinance, and after a special Task Force had already been convened and issued its recommendations, Dallas was now about to grant three new permits, including one for a compressor station and refinery, under the old ordinance it was trying to replace. What was the rush? Why not wait and approve new permits until after the Task Force recommendations are written into a new ordinance? Because that would cause further public debate. More debate would highlight the problems of drilling in sensitive areas like park land and flood plains – still off limits in Dallas at the time.
In a transparent attempt to limit public awareness and participation even more, the City decided to hold this important hearing only five days before Christmas. Again, in retrospect, this has Mary Suhm's fingerprints all over it. And it almost worked. But just enough citizens showed up, representing enough well known groups and neighborhood organizations, and citing just enough new facts that had changed the situation since 2008 to win the climatic vote, 7 to 5 at 7:30 pm that evening. It was uncertain which way the decision would go right up until the very end.
Showing-up expecting to lose, instead citizens were elated. Overturning the denial would take a super majority of 12 votes on the Council – something that even then seemed unlikely. Citizens thought they had won. Mary Suhm had tried her best to rig the system, but the rigging failed. She tried again.
January- February 2013 Plan Commission "Reconsideration Vote" on Previous Permit Denial
Because she'd lost the December Plan Commission vote and knew she might not be able to get the 12 votes on the Council to overturn, Suhm had to do something creative. Viola! The Plan Commission would have a vote to "reconsider" their denial of Trinity East's permits only 21 days earlier. Nobody could remember the last time the Plan Commission even took such a vote. It was unprecedented. It was also Mary Suhm's handiwork.
That do-over decision came at a "special meeting" of the Plan Commission on January 10th, with a 6 to 5 vote to indeed take another vote on Trinity East's permits. This outcome, done under heavy police presence and with no public participation allowed, spurred one of the most iconic moments at Dallas City Hall in recent years – a 3 to five minute spontaneous standing crowd chant of "Shame."
You can see the speed at which Suhm is moving behind the scenes to engineer a better outcome after her unexpected defeat before Christmas. She's doing exactly what she promised Trinity East she would do. She's working the levers. Making things happen that would never otherwise happen. But now, it's costing her more to do so. The contortions of the system necessary to get the permits through are getting more twisted and harder to pull off gracefully. She's gone from talks with friends behind closed doors to forcing awkward "do-over" votes. It was obvious to the public there was something special about these Trinity East permits. Company officials had been dropping hints about some sort of an agreement with the City. Mayor Rawlings said permitting these sites "were a done deal" – although he didn't say why. It was getting messy.
Finally, on February 7th, the day the Plan Commission had scheduled the "do-over" vote, the Dallas Observer broke the story on the Suhm-Trinity East agreement. It was now clear what was driving the favoritism behind the treatment of the Trinity East permits by City Hall – going all the way back to the last-minute reversal of the Task Force, to the Christmas time hearing, to the pending "reconsider vote."
The timing could not have been worse for Suhm. We'll never know what the vote to reconsider might have been were there no headlines pointing to a City Hall cover-up. She may have thought she had the votes to keep the Trinity East permits alive. But with the story breaking that very day, the spotlight was too bright on the Plan Commission to take a new vote. Citizens won a reprieve and eventually a victory as the Commission requested the City Council deal with changing the current prohibitions against parkland and floodplain drilling before asking them to violate current ordinances again. That never happened. Instead, the three Trinity East permits were again denied by the Plan Commission in March 2013, albeit by razor-thin 8 to 7 and 9 to 6 margins.
And that was that. Suhm was gone in four months. Officially it wasn't because of the cover-up of the Trinity East agreement, but of course everyone knew it was because the whole thing was headed to court one way or the other.
Although the Mayor tried to rally 12 votes on the Council to overturn, he couldn't do it. The prospect of the kind of rolicking citizen protests keeping the Plan Commission on the 6 o'clock news showing up at a Council Meetings could not have helped his cause at this point.
Urban fracking opponent Philip Kingston had replaced Hunt on the Council, Griggs was still there, and they were joined by enough other council members (Sandy Greyson, Monica Alonzo, Carolyn Davis, and Adam Medrano) to insure the Plan Commission vote would prevail.
At the end of the day, Trinity East walked away empty-handed. but make no mistake about it. Mary Suhm did all she could to subvert the system for Trinity East.
Had the Dallas Observer not revealed the secret agreement, she might have even won the day for the company and still be City Manager. Was it $19 million worth of subversion? At today's inflated rates, who knows? But other than funding a small army and declaring herself dictator of the Drilling Republic of Dallas, she did all she could.
If you're Trinity East you can complain about the outcome, but you can't complain about her effort. There were too many variables out of her control for once. Not the least of which was a vigorous, rowdy, neighborhood-based movement against urban fracking in Dallas that was taking the fight to the public square…and winning. Sometimes, even the most powerful City Manager is on the wrong side of history.
Not very well, if you're allowed to do it in Texas. The prolific Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe has the story of why a fracking well blow-out in the middle of Denton got such a slack response from all those who were supposed to be protecting the public from these kinds of things.
One huge problem with the new Dallas gas ordinance is that it will require a multi-staffed new Office of Gas Inspections available to answer calls 24/7. Time and again, City Hall staff's response to questions about who's going to be responsible for enforcing the regs of the ordinance is simply, "The gas inspector will do that."
But no one at City Hall has a clue how much that would cost, what it would entail or how soon it would be established if ever. Not a single council person has advocated funding for such an office. So you know, we're all in favor of fracking, but regulating the stuff, not so much.
Moreover, the actual City of Dallas department that would host such a position, the Office of Environmental Quality, has been completely MIA in all the proceedings of the last year – ever since the 2011 Task Force went out of business last February or so. No input has been provided or requested from the OEQ to better understand how this new bureaucracy is supposed to work.
You can't rely on EPA. They have nobody in the field to help. You can't rely on the state – as Peggy's story makes clear. And Dallas can't be bothered to think about these things now while they're still busying themselves trying to make a land swap with Trinity East so it can get the company its permits. Like everything else about drilling in Dallas under Mike Rawlings and the still-hovering Mary Suhm, all other details, problems, policies, etc have to take a back seat to fulfilling the secret deal Trinity East and the City made. Nothing else matters until these permits are in place. Those are the priorities at City Hall today.
Any doubt that Dallas City Hall is more interested in protecting the Trinity East gas leases than Dallas residents as it writes a new gas drilling ordinance was surely removed yesterday when City Attorney Tammy Palomino flatly lied and told City Plan Commission members that they had not decided on a 1500-foot setback, or buffer zone, between homes and other "protected uses," even though they had done precisely that at their June 20th meeting.
Employing the Orwellian language of a Soviet history writer, Palomino simply choose to ignore the results of a decision she didn't like and pretend the vote never happened. She argued that there was "no consensus" on the CPC for a 1500-foot setback – even though that very word was used to describe the results of June 20th meeting by CPC members themselves, as well as the media.
Instead, she handed out an official "summary" of CPC drilling recommendations to-date that not only only didn't include ANY mention of the 1500-foot setback decision, but instead listed a 1000-foot setback limit that had specifically been rejected by the Commission!
That missing footage is critical. 1000-foot setbacks, with a variance (or exception) up to 500-feet, were recommended by the city's gas drilling task force, but we now know those recommendations were tailored to fit the circumstances of the Trinity East lease sites along the Trinity River in northwest Dallas. That is, with a variance that could put wells 500 feet from homes, the Trinity East sites could be approved. With the CPC's 1500 foot-setback, there's only a variance to 1000 feet. That makes it impossible for Trinity East to set up shop where they want. And that's why Palomino deliberately, but unethically, left the 1500 setback out of her "summary."
The problem for Palomino in trying to pull this kind of disappearing act is that there were way too many witnesses to the original vote, including reporters. According to KERA's account "One of the first changes that grabbed consensus of the Plan Commission was an increase to the buffer zone or setback between gas wells and homes, businesses, schools, and recreational areas. Plan Commissioners want 1500 feet, not the 1,000 recommended by the task force." Channel 4 reported the same thing. There's also the fact that the city archives audio tapes of every CPC meeting, and citizens have have begun to videotape the meetings to catch this kind of bullying by staff.
What all of this will show is that on June 20th CPC member Paul Ridley took great pains to clarify that the CPC had indeed reached a consensus that they wanted a 1500 foot setback – considered the most protective setback currently used by any North Texas city. He even asked the question, "Do we have consensus on this?" and heads all nodded and not one verbal objection can be heard – other than from Tammy Palomino – who is stuttering that the city attorneys are going to have to make sure they can do this (no explanation of why Dallas can't). There's no question about what happened.
Which is why even the most cynical observers were shocked at the clumsy effort by Palomino to erase the decision from history by way of her "summary." It's like the City can't pass up an opportunity to create an ethical crisis whenever it deals with the Trinity East leases.
All the video and audio tape is being assembled into a nice neat package for the public and media. The case against Tammy Palomino will be devastating. As a result of her premeditated misrepresentations, Palomino should resign, or at the very least be re-assigned away from work on the new gas ordinance. She's representing Trinity East in these proceedings, not the citizens of Dallas.
Yesterday's episode was but the most extreme example of the kind of bullying and steamrolling that staff is employing against the CPC to end up with an ordinance that is Trinity East-friendly. As they have for the past three years or so, they're contorting the system to make it fit Trinity East's permits.
Besides the setbacks issue, staff really wants the CPC to OK gas drilling in parks, and a majority of CPC members today were willing to say out loud they supported that goal. That's right – after 7 months of crowds filling city hall to protest drilling in parks, Official Dallas is still moving toward approval of that idea. It's based on the idea of "unused" park land – a concept that has never been defined by the city or anyone else.
Trying to further this goal, staff actually came to Thursday's meeting with a US Parks Department definition of "active" and "passive" park land with the idea that Dallas could adopt something similar and allow drilling on the "passive" acreage. According to the list, "passive" park land is defined as land used for hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping, among others activities. Sounds pretty "active" doesn't it? Despite their propensity to allow park drilling it struck the CPC the same way and they firmly rejected staff's approach. Still, just like the 1500 foot setback issue, staff won't be satisfied until they get Trinity East what it wants.
Which brings us to a hard truth that the media and the public need to absorb. As bad and blatant as it is, Tammy Palomino's unethical behavior is only a symptom of a much larger rotten problem with this entire gas drilling ordinance process that has been present from before the task force was created right up until now. It's impossible for staff to both be advocates for the Trinity East leases in the writing of a new gas ordinance and give objective counsel to the CPC and Council on how to write the most protective ordinance. They cannot serve two masters.
Palomino and others have been told they need to find a way to make sure Trinity East gets what it wants in this new gas drilling ordinance. That makes city staff just another lobbying arm of Trinity East, not honest brokers trying to produce the best and most protective policy for Dallas residents. Every piece of advice they give is meant to further the leases, not the public good.
Because of this fact, an independent counsel needs to be brought in for the purpose of helping draft this new gas drilling ordinance. Policymakers need to have the best information, the most objective information, if they're going to make good policy. They're not getting it from city staff when it comes to drilling.
It's time to quit pretending this isn't a big problem. When city attorneys start trying to erase public policy decisions because they conflict with a private interest they're serving, the system is no longer working. It's corrupt and must be replaced before that corruption is allowed to spread.
Stay tuned. You're going to be hearing a lot more about this.
Scheduling Note: Although the CPC released a schedule for its work on the drilling ordinance only last week, including three public hearings, things may be changing quickly with additional workshop times and different dates and times for hearings. There was a lot of talk about schedule changes on Thursday, but nothing was decided. Right now the first opportunity for you to express outrage at this latest development is a public hearing slated for August 15th, 4 to 6 pm, at City Hall but stay tuned to make sure.
We've learned form sources inside City Hall that Trinity East – with a big assist from City of Dallas staff and Mayor Mike Rawlings – is preparing to once again attempt to permit its three proposed drilling and refinery/compressor station sites along the Trinity River.
While the company and city staff keep trying to win support for a weaker new gas drilling ordinance than citizens have repeatedly requested, a deal is being wheeled that would have Trinity East trading its lease on park land for another piece of city-owned property in northeast Dallas. Meanwhile, the City is also working feverishly to firm up support for its official position that it can't possibly turn down Trinity East without losing a lawsuit – an opinion no one outside of City Hall, save Trinity East, shares so far.
Yeah, the secret gas deal that the Observer uncovered in February got City Manger Mary Suhm to finally leave the building come December, but she's not going until she gets those Trinity East sites permitted the way she promised behind closed doors.
All of which makes the writing of a brand new Dallas gas drilling ordinance even more important now. And last week the City Plan Commission released its two-month schedule of how that's going to be done (see below), complete with three (daytime) public hearings with an ETA to the City Council by October.
There will be just six more meetings of the Plan Commission to review the almost two-year old Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force recommendations and decide to take them at face value, strengthen them, or weaken them. Scatted among these will be three public hearings – the first one in a little over two weeks on August 15th from 4 to 6 pm. The Commission goal is to get a new drilling ordinance to the City Council by October, when the terms of current members expire.
That's the official agenda. The unofficial one is trying to find ways to weaken the new ordinance enough to allow Trinity East to be able to get their proposed sites permitted. There's already been plenty of evidence at previous meetings indicating how desperate staff is in trying to give their departing boss a going-away gift.
We know most of you can't come to the Plan Commission workshops on Thursday mornings to follow the nitty-gritty of how this plays out. We'll be there reporting that to you, no problem. But what we can't do is manufacture warm bodies to put in seats for those three public hearings. Please make it a point to show up at one or more of these – and in particular, the very last one on September 26th as it rolls into the City Council.
Trinity East lobbyist Dallas Cothrum is on record as saying the company's three previously proposed sites on parkland, flood plains and near a new soccer complex that have now been rejected twice by this same CPC were the "best possible" places the company could have chosen for drilling and processing. So now the battle is over the less-than-best possible places. We can't wait to see what part of town the City and Trinity will decide to sacrifice for that designation as part of their possible land-swap deal.
Making sure a new drilling ordinance is the most protective it can possibly be is the only way left to finally drive a stake through the heart of the Trinity East gas permits. You have no idea how much we hate to ring the alarm about these damn permits again, but the stakes are very high and we're on the verge of winning one of the Barnett Shale's biggest citizen victories – if we can just keep the pedal to the metal. Bring your lead feet to the first hearing on August 15th.
Schedule for the City Plan Commission's Workshops and Public Hearings on the New Gas Drilling Ordinance
(All workshop meetings start at 9 am and take place on the 5th floor at 5ES in City Hall unless otherwise indicated. Specific Room locations for the Public Hearings at City Hall will be announced. Topic #’s refer to the Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force Recommendations Matrix.)
THURSDAY, JULY 25
9:00 am – 12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 4 – Pad Site Operations
THURSDAY, AUGUST 8
9:00 am -12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 9 – Gas Drilling/Well Permit
• Topic 14 – Bonding Requirements
• Topic 15 – Site Monitoring and Review of Permit Application
THURSDAY, AUGUST 15
1:30 pm – 3:30 pm Workshop
• Topic 13 – Required Plans
THURSDAY, AUGUST 15th PUBLIC HEARING: 4:00 – 6:00 pm
THURSDAY, AUGUST 22
9:00 am to 12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 1 – Air Quality
• Topic 2 – Water
THURSDAY AUGUST 29
9:00 am – 10:45 am CPC Workshop
• Topic 3 – Physical Pad Site
• Topic 16 – Emergency Response
• Topic 5 – Abandonment and Restoration
THURSDAY, AUGUST 29th PUBLIC HEARING: 11:00 AM -12:00 NOON
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
9:00 – 12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 10 – Seismic Permits
• Topics 6 – Pipelines and Compressors
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26th PUBLIC HEARING 1:30 PM -?
(Agenda: What to recommend to City Council)
Rebuking city attorneys, the Dallas City Plan Commission agreed on Thursday to require 1500 foot setbacks, or buffer zones from gas wells to "protected uses" such as homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, recreation areas, and parks. A waiver to get as close as 1000 feet would have to come with a three-fourths vote by the City Council. No well could be closer than 1000 feet.
City staff was pushing hard to retain the 2012 gas task force recommendations of 1000 feet, with a waiver to as close as 500 feet, something even the Dallas Morning News said was unacceptable. Those less-protective distances are seen as a way to get the twice-rejected Trinity East permits approved under a new ordinance.
Plan commission members also agreed to include more kinds of businesses in the protected use category, such as laundry services and vehicle pool operations, somewhat erasing the blue collar/white collar double-standard of protection sanctioned by the task force.
Left pending, and full of skullduggery potential for city attorneys, is where to begin and end that 1500 feet. Most citizens would probably go from property line to property line to ensure the entire protection of the "protected use." But city attorneys want to begin at the well bore hole itself and go to the "structure" of the protected use – not your front yard, but your front door; not the soccer field itself, but the recreation center next to it. This will be the next big battle over how to define these setbacks.
Also left pending were what, if any, exceptions for park drilling there should be in the new ordinance. Even more important to the Trinity East permits than the residential setback requirement is the current prohibition on drilling in parks. Here, city staff also was lobbying very, very hard to retain the special loophole for the Trinity East permits the task force abruptly voted to make at their very last meeting and without any public comment. Preservation of this loophole – you can drill on "unused" park land despite there being no legal definition supporting that term – means that Trinity East would have a fighting chance to come back and re-file.
Although seemingly rejecting the task force recommendations, Plan Commission members still expressed desire to carve out some kinds of exceptions for park land that was perhaps not publicly or readily accessible, but had trouble articulating the definition of "unused." Under the law, park land is park land; there is no A to F park grading system. That's why the easiest and most protetive thing to do is ban drilling from parks all together.
The devil will be in the details, but in the first real test vote for a more protective gas drilling ordinance, citizens won. And it drove city attorney Tammy Palomino crazy. As Plan Commission members got more and more independent over the course of the two-hour briefing, you expected her to start reaching for the cattle prod. After calling for a reconsideration not once, not twice, but three times after she got beat bad on the vote for the 15000 ft setback she announced that staff would return at the next meeting with a "presentation" on the 1500 foot setback. No doubt it will focus entirely on why it's a bad idea for all kinds of reasons other than it'll make it harder for Trinity East to get their permits.
Make no mistake, the City Manager's office, through staff like Palomino, is still fighting on behalf of those Trinity East permits, and the permits she expects to come after those. She's trying to minimize the number of protected uses and the spaces between them and your house, school or playground.
If you want to fight back but can't show up in person to tell the Commission what you think, please consider sending a qucik click N send e-mail message to the members via our "Featured Action of the Week."
The Plan Commission will be getting briefings from staff on different parts of the new ordinance every two weeks throughout the summer (July 11 and 25 August 8 and 22) with at least one or two public hearings on the finished product after that. All meetings begin at 9 am and are conducted at Room 5ES on the fifth floor of Dallas City Hall downtown. The next meeting is supposed to focus on the operations of a well site, i.e. hours of operation, noise, dust, plus the all-important landscaping requirements. Stay tuned.
Mary Suhm’s Revenge:
Pretending Last 7 Months of Public Outrage Didn’t Happen,City Staff Writing New Gas Drilling Ordinance Allowing Twice-Denied Trinity East Permits To Get Approved
(Dallas)—Citing what they say is a blatant disregard for the consensus that’s formed after intense public debate, homeowner and environmental groups accused city officials of drafting a new gas drilling ordinance that would allow permitting of the same Trinity East sites that have already been voted down twice in the last seven months.
“It’s clear that Mary Suhm and Mayor Rawlings are still trying to get that Trinity East deal cut,” said Mountain Creek Neighborhood Alliance member Claudia Meyer. “Having failed to overcome citizen opposition to drilling in parks, flood plains and neighborhoods, not once, but twice, the City Manager and Mayor are now proposing an ordinance that pretends none of that opposition took place and allows drilling near where people live, work and play.”
On Thursday morning, city staff will begin to brief the City Plan Commission on the process of updating the current version of the gas drilling ordinance, passed in 2007. It will take at least several months for the commission to work through a full revision. City Attorneys are expected to rely exclusively on the 2011-2012 Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force recommendations as the basis of a new ordinance. These recommendations are now almost a year-and-a-half old and the source of growing controversy because of their suspected link to the secret deal negotiated between Suhm and Trinity East revealed publicly for the first time this year.
In its initial deliberations, the Task Force recommended a 1000-foot setback and a ban on park drilling. But then city staff briefed the Task Force, explaining how these recommendations would essentially prohibit the permitting of the pending Trinity East sites. A week later, during its final meeting, the Task Force voted to reverse the park land recommendation and weaken the setback requirement. Some Task Force members were absent, and there was no public warning or opportunity for comment. Meyer and other critics say it’s now clear that the rollback was to protect the then-still secret deal. “That’s why Dallas City Hall wants to start with the Task Force recommendations: they were re-written to make sure Trinity East got its permits.”
Coming almost a full year before the Mayor’s decision to try and push the Trinity East permits through, the final Task Force recommendations were never the subject of any public hearing. Instead, the fight over the Trinity East permits became a proxy public fight over the shape of a new Dallas ordinance, with residents winning denials in December and February. “If one thing is clear from the last seven months of debate, it’s that Dallas residents don’t want drilling in parks, flood plains or near people. But the very places that were rejected as inappropriate by the public and the City Plan Commission for the Trinity East sites are now the same ones being recommended by city staff,” said Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
To avoid depending on City Council “supermajorities” of 12 or more to overcome permit denials by the Plan Commission, Trahan predicted that Trinity East would seek a slight alteration for one its proposed sites to submit a new application under the resulting new, more permit-friendly rules. “If this kind of ordinance is passed, despite everything that’s happened over the last seven months, we expect Trinity East to seek permits to drill in Dallas parks and floodplains. That’s why we’re sounding the alarm now, at the beginning of this end-run. Residents won the first two times. Third time’s the charm.”
What: City of Dallas staff briefing to City Plan Commission on new gas drilling ordinance
When: Thursday, June 20th 9:00 a.m.
Where: Dallas City Hall 5ES
At Issue: Will the most important Dallas environmental victory in 20 years be sabotaged by City Hall?
On Thursday, Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm announced that she was resigning. Just about every news account of her announcement connected it to a series of missteps over the last several years, most prominently, the February disclosure by the Dallas Observer that she had signed a previously unknown agreement with Trinity East promising to work with the company to overturn current policy and help secure permits to drill for gas in city parks.
Although superficially dealt with by an official airing in front of the Council where most members forfeited their roles as keepers of the public trust, the issue kept floating to the top of any discussion about not only the Trinity East permits, but the general issue of gas drilling in Dallas. Every City Council race questionnaire this election cycle had queries about not only the specific permits, but also about the performance of the City Manager in wrestling with the scandal. This wasn't going away.
Suhm had what she believed was a plausible public explanation for how she made an honest mistake in misleading the Council over the agreement….for five years. What was always lacking was an explanation for why she continued to lie to Dallas residents about it for that long. Not one word of any defense of her focused on why it was wrong for a city official to align herself against citizens fighting irresponsible drilling and not tell them about that alignment as the entire city went through a multi-year reassessment of urban drilling, first with a moratorium on new permits, then a gas drilling task force, then the permitting process for the Trinity East permits themselves.
instead she directed city staff to distort the system to enable illegal permits to appear legal. Zoning classifications appeared or disappeared depending on the forum. One-off exemptions were carved out as necessary. Park drilling? Perfectly fine under these "special" set of circumstances. Flood plain drilling? No problem either. Anything to make these square pegs fit in otherwise round holes.
Common decency and allegiance to democratic principles demands that she should have publicly disclosed the agreement with Trinity East the minute a review of current city drilling policy began. She did not. When it was involuntarily disclosed for her by the Observer, she looked exactly like the co-conspirator she was.
There's no question that the fight citizens' groups have waged against the Trinity East permits led directly to the disclosure of the agreement. Based solely on circumstantial evidence, it was clear that there was some kind of unpublicized deal that had been "cut" between City Hall and Trinity East. Looking for it became the political equivalent of looking for Dark Matter in the Universe. Everything happening pointed to its existence, but you couldn't actually see the thing itself.
But here's the punch line. Citizens only started to look for that deal after Suhm and the Mayor decided to fast-track the Trinity East permits in late November. It was that decision, made without any warning to the residents that had been involved in the drilling fight, and abruptly ending a year-plus long moratorium on new gas permits, that re-energized opposition and led to Suhm's resignation only six months later. Suhm fracked herself the minute she began to plot with the Mayor to undercut due process and try to pull a fast one on citizens. If they hadn't been in such a clumsy rush to get the Trinity East permits approved, none of this would have happened like it did.
Last week's municipal elections solidified a slightly more independent Dallas City Council, with new and re-elected members who openly oppose the Mayor's pro-drilling stance. Trinity East's permits, which needed a Council super-majority to be approved, look to be doomed. Rawlings' own political future is clouded – how many North Texas mayors have unpopular proposed refineries named after them? The landscape of city politics has changed over the last six months. Citizens fighting City Hall did that. But it was City Hall itself who set it in motion.
This happened because of two things: 1) Residents elected anti-drilling candidates outright (Griggs and Medrano, with a run-off for Kingston), and 2) a couple of hard core supporters of the Mayor's and Mary Sumh's drilling plans were replaced by candidates who are more conditional in their support for how and where to drill than their predecessors (Kleinman replaces Koop, Griggs replaces Jasso).
Both of those factors can be traced directly back to all the constructive hell-raising citizens have been doing over the past two years or more. Every single candidate questionnaire had a query about gas drilling in Dallas. It came up at debates and forum and interviews. You made it an issue that even business-backed candidates had to address in a citizen-friendly way. You changed to tone, the content of the debate. You did that.
Our citizens' slate won two out of five races outright, with a chance to make it three out of five if Kingston wins the June 15th run-off. Unfortunately, Claudia Meyer lost her race to Vonciel Hill despite a lot of hard work and grassroots effort. And drilling opponent Leland Burk lost to Jennifer Staubach-Gates.
The June 15th run-off is now very important indeed, because it could give us up to 6 votes on the Dallas City Council against irresponsible urban drilling, with a possible 2-3 more swing votes coming over to our side depending on the permit and the site. You need 8 votes out of 15 to win. We're very close.
Besides the Kingston run-off with industry-backed Bobby Abtahi, there's also the District 5 run-off pitting Jesse Diaz against Rick Callahan – both very conditional drilling supporters who appear to be against park drilling.
So here's the Dallas Drilling scorecard as of today:
Opponents of Drilling
June 15th run-off:
Unconditional Supporters of Drilling:
June 15th run-off:
Conditional Supporters – based on public statements
June 15th run-off: Diaz or Callahan
Short-term, these election results look like they doom the zombie Trinity East permits. We only need four Council votes or more to uphold the City Plan Commission denial of those permits. We have at least five now, with the chance for 6 or more after June 15th. So the Mayor's plan to hold off on voting on these permits until after the election in hopes of finding more supporters has failed.
This is no small accomplishment. Last November, when the Mayor held a press conference and announced that he was breaking the informal moratorium that was holding back all permit requests until a new ordinance was written and pushing the Trinity East permits through for approval, it indeed looked like a "done deal." And as recently as April, some Dallas City Council members were telling their peers in Irving not to fret, because, despite the Plan Commission vote, the Trinity East permits were still a "done deal."
Well, folks that deal is done now. Well done. As in, put a fork in it. Congratulations. The Mayor tried to pull a fast one and he didn't succeed because of the fierce resistance he got from his own residents. We should know soon when the Trinity East vote will be, and when it's scheduled, we'll need you at City Hall once again to show the new city council that fierce resistance in person. Maybe that will make an impact on their future voting.
Longer term, the new Council will have more members who are opposed to all drilling in Dallas, not just in parks and flood plains, but they don't yet constitute a majority. They're at direct odds with the six Council incumbents who are avid supporters of drilling everywhere and anywhere. Somewhere in the middle – at least until the first vote or so – will be the three freshman members who are possible swing votes.
Their views will be increasingly important if one or both things begin to happen – there is movement to actually write a new gas drilling ordinance after the Trinity East permit denials are upheld, and/or Luminant follows through on its plans to drill and build a compressor station at North Lake and submits permit applications that will be at the center of yet another round of public controversy.
For now, let's concentrate on the June 15th run-off and getting a 6th anti-drilling vote on the Dallas City Council. Its not 8 yet, but it's pretty darn close and construction is still in progress.
– Dallas City Council member and District 3 candidate Vonciel Jones Hill, offering Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm moral support after questioning by Angela Hunt over the Trinity East gas permits, Wednesday, February 27th, 2013