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Amarillo’s City Commission is in the midst of one of its most important responsibilities as a governing body. The panel is finishing up its three-day intensive and detailed budget planning workshops in preparation for adopting the city’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Sure, hiring and firing the city manager, making policy, passing and rescinding ordinances and general oversight of the city’s functions are very much in the governing body’s purview. However, it’s the budget that drives and supports some of these decisions by funding (or unfunding) a City Commission mandate. With such a huge operation, of course, the devil is sometimes in the details and one devil in the details is the city’s unseemly support of Downtown Amarillo Inc. and its executive director Melissa Dailey. Included in this budget will be the DAI board’s recommendation that Dailey get a 3 percent salary hike to go along with the unjustified cloying praise the city leadership has heaped on her.
Here’s why we take this position.
Since 2008, the city has pushed about $1 million in support for the nonprofit that is contractually tasked with developing downtown — an effort that has been festering for some 20 years with the complaint from some quarters in the city that all we have to show for it is a pile of studies gathering dust. So it is, now too, with DAI so far. The most recent is the “wayfinding” study from Jacobs Engineering, one of several Fort Worth firms Dailey has retained to give DAI guidance. DAI and Dailey have sought consultation from firms in the Metroplex for everything substantive, including building its pathetic website. Amarillo has no one competent to build good websites? Please. We’re building another pile of studies for gathering dust.
But it doesn’t stop there. Ask around town and, if anyone dare tell you, you’ll find that Dailey has made more enemies than friends. She secretly undercuts projects she doesn’t like, with A&D Mortuary’s harmless plans for a crematory, the Fisk Building renovation and the Herring Hotel as examples. She is rigid. She is arrogant. She and her cohort, Les Simpson, who chairs DAI, have resisted with all their might transparency for the public with respect to DAI’s schemes. Sure, they make a nice Kabuki show of transparency, but when you ask for anything below the surface, they trot out the Underwood Law Firm to provide malicious compliance to the requests.
Dailey has brought this criticism on DAI herself, of course, through her own behavior and by fighting with The Amarillo Independent. We suspect one reason is because we don’t fall in line like Simpson’s city-prop Amarillo Globe-News to make everything wonderful, honest and hunky-dory. The other reason is because Dailey, from her lips to my ears, has called me “unprofessional” when I wrote a column some years ago calling her a third-rate planner. If she thinks that’s harsh, she should be glad she’s not still in the Metroplex under the scrutiny of the Dallas Morning News or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. When I was at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston in June telling some other journalists about how Downtown Amarillo Inc. and the Amarillo Globe-News are linked, they were aghast at the conflict of interest. Can you imagine what would be written in a real news town? Dailey needs to be more mature and professional. She needs to stop giving journalists advice in emails and face the reality that her board and the City Commission, which are poised to giver her a raise, aren’t the only source of accountability. She and the commission need to remember who pays taxes and who pays salaries.
But perhaps worst of all, DAI has foisted a second-rate and troubled master developer on the city.
In November 2009, The Amarillo Independent warned the City Commission of Wallace Bajjali’s past. All of David Wallace’s name-dropping about Mark Thatcher and then-Mayor Debra McCartt’s enchantment with British celebrity couldn’t change the truth that the firm has problems. The city chose a Dallas law firm to “vet” the concerns and this firm pitched back the softball. Turns out, the firm “specializes” in public-private partnerships (like this one) and now the city uses this firm. Yeah, I smell it too.
Meanwhile, since that warning, Wallace Bajjali has declared bankruptcy on a project in Waco, forked over $1.2 million in fines to the Securities and Exchange Commission while admitting no guilt in the matter (as if such a position means innocence) and is involved in litigation in Harris County. All the while, we keep hearing those complex explanations from David Wallace that those enforcement actions and lawsuits have legitimate and harmless reasons.
As the current City Commission, which to some degree inherited this fiasco, works its way through the budget, it has to face the reality that for all the money spent, the city has little real to show for the effort. One cleared lot does not a project make. And the commissioners need to understand that every time a deadline slips, modifying the contract to accommodate that delay serves no useful purpose. Oh, it gives DAI and Wallace Bajjali more rope with which to hang themselves. But that won’t develop downtown.
I have some sympathy for the current commission. They are a bit backed into a corner from the prior commission, perhaps as much as the prior panels were when the fund-raising for the performing arts center fell short and the city quietly ponied up the $1.8 million and then caved to the daily paper’s out-of-town owners by keeping the paper’s name on the building. But at some point the people who make the decisions need to step back and be a bit more rational and objective about downtown development. It is not too late to do so.