Miller vs. Gates: District 13’s Not-So-Great Jesuit Debate

At last night’s debate between District 13 Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates and former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, I fully expected the political point-scoring and backbiting that is politics. What I didn’t expect was the paucity of actual answers to questions. Part of that rests on moderator Tim Rogers for not calling out either candidate for being non-responsive to his questions. Each question was supposed to net both candidates 90 seconds to respond. With such a short time, you’d think they’d get to the meat of an answer. Not really.

Instead, we saw an hour of political brinksmanship with little hard substance from either candidate. One of two things was behind this – either they had no detailed answers, or more likely, those answers were thought to be unpalatable to voters. As you will read, I’m not afraid of unpalatable.

But before I go there, Miller’s opening remarks contained one of the few truthful moments. She described herself as someone of “action” compared to Gates’ “indecision.” While Miller meant this as a dig at Gates, I saw the opposite. Gates’ appearance of indecision comes from her wanting information to help guide a decision. For example, within PD-15,  Gates has spent two years trying to reach a compromise. Only after two committees devolved into factions did she finally ask city staff to come up with something.

Compare that to a quick-to-judge, uncompromising Miller, whom I’ve seen in action on the Preston Center Area Plan committee, the proposed Preston Center skybridge, Highland House, and now PD-15. She’s someone who doesn’t allow new information to cloud her initial judgment. I have the patience for those trying to learn more to get a better result.

In a more visceral display, before the debate, Laura Miller asked me to carry her suitcase to the stage (seen in photo) while Gates glad-handed me as she did many in the room.  To Gates, I was a constituent, to Miller, a lackey, apparently.

Roads are Bad and You Don’t Pay Enough Tax

The topic of roads came up …

Miller noted Dallas’ roads are terrible (yes, they are) and promised to fix them. This, moments after she lamented the undue tax burden born by District 13.

But here’s the thing, city taxes go into a hopper and are distributed citywide. Your individual taxes are not allocated to the roads you as an individual drive on. Also, there is no mysterious bucket of billions of dollars just waiting to be spent that city government has been either too lazy or hard-hearted to spend on roads.

Whine all you like, but Dallas is billions in the hole on infrastructure maintenance. Taxes are the biggest funder of all things government (outside pay-ya-later bonds). If you want the government to spend more, you have to give it more. It’s that simple. Any candidate for any office promising to do fantastical things that others haven’t is lying. There is no city sofa with billions lost in the cushions.

Gates’ reply was to note that the recent bond package had 50 percent dedicated to road repairs. Unsaid was the reason roads are in bonds to begin with – we haven’t been collecting enough taxes to keep up with maintenance. Unpopular, but true.

Preston Center and PD-15 Development

When Miller was again called out for her conflict of interest in PD-15 affairs, she again denied any ethical issue (why she thinks her reason for owning a unit at the Athena absolves her ethically is baffling – “Ohhhh, it was for your elderly mother-in-law … well, nevah you mind”). But then she spent the bulk of her time calling out Mayor Mike Rawlings for his wasting taxpayer money just asking the city attorney his thoughts on situational ethics like this – likely 10 minutes in a hallway – and the insult of having CandysDirt.com and the Dallas Morning News post the mayor’s comments. She also managed to work in Rawlings’ and Gates’ largely overlapping voting history: very true. But no detailed answer was uttered as to why it’s not an ethical violation to own an investment unit in an area where you will be making lasting fiscal decisions – despite mounting criticism from constituents.

Gates’ response (as noted above) was that she’s been working for two years to get a compromise. From those unwilling to compromise.

Preston Center development was brought up with the question: “What do you think Preston Center will look like in 2030?” Neither candidate answered this at all. Miller waved around the Preston Center Area Plan like it was a Bible. We all might agree there should be underground parking with a park on top but Gates touched on the reality. We can’t force the Preston Center business owners to approve such a plan – regardless of who’s in City Hall.

Neither candidate gave an honest answer. Here’s mine: In 2030, Preston Center will look almost exactly like it does today because short-sighted business owners want crap and they hold all the cards, while the city holds the purse strings. Stalemate.

Police and Fire and Crime

The police and fire pension fund debacle came up and was intertwined with crime and a short-staffed police department. Gates laid a lot of the groundwork on Miller’s administration for failing to fill slots on the board with city representatives – essentially leaving the city asleep at the wheel. She repeated quotes from the police union stating Miller was “single-handedly” the worst for police. Suffice it to say the police and fire departments hate Miller.

Miller deflected that the pension mess was brewing long before her time as mayor (true). She also dragged out a Gates campaign flyer (from the suitcase) that said all manner of things about Miller that she characterized as untrue. But remember, this is politics. As you can see in the picture above, that’s a Miller supporter from Preston Tower blanketing the area on Easter in doomsday predictions resulting from another Gates term.

A Preston Hollow People reader submitted a question that began, “I bought a Ring doorbell” … and now they see a lot of crime stats … and so they’re now more afraid.

Both candidates placed blame on an understaffed police department with a shortage of 500 officers. A side-question asked how to fix Dallas losing officers to the suburbs. “Pay” was echoed by both candidates with Miller perhaps over-rotating on touchy-feely programs to increase officers’ feeling of community support.

Here’s the thing: When anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.

Dallas police move to the ‘burbs because of the lifestyle their salary enables. Rookies take the training we pay for, much as you might go to university, and use it as a résumé builder.  If you want them to stay, you have to offer a life similar to what’s being offered elsewhere. The starting salary is apparently ~$60,000 per year. According to the Census, the median income in Dallas was $67,382 in 2017, making Dallas police officers’ starting pay 90 percent of the city median.

Put into perspective, if we paid $7,000 less, they’d qualify for affordable housing. Whereas if they became Highland Park motorcycle officers (the speeding ticket brigade), they’d be starting at $75,000 a year.

If we want officers to stay in Dallas once their training is over, the job must be good and enable a reasonable quality of life. Neighborhoods should be tripping over themselves to attract police officers to live in their areas. Is there any police-level housing in Preston Hollow where officers can live and raise a family? How about Behind the Pink Wall? Better money and more housing options are the suburbs’ siren song that Dallas must reverse. It’s not a difficult equation to reverse engineer, and yet neither candidate offered as concrete of an answer as you’ve just read here. Instead, we got pithy bon mots.

Trinity River vs. Army Corps of Engineers

There was a question on the latest plan to utilize the Trinity River as a recreation area. Both candidates support using the area for Dallas citizens (who’s against parkland? Not me!) – especially if private donors are willing to foot the bill. But darn those pesky Army Corps of Engineers for not liking the plans. Are you kidding me? The Army Corps of Engineers has issues and they’re the problem?  Neither candidate mentioned climate change and the expectation of increasingly erratic weather. I’d think you’d want to take the Army Corps of Engineers’ recommendations and exceed them, not try to scrimp – especially for a location between levees that protect the City of Dallas from being confused with Houston after a hurricane. After all, we see what happens when you use value engineering on a certain Trinity bridge.

There were a few other questions with an equal measure of political arrows slung back and forth with little substance, but you get the picture. I’d have preferred an hour spent on a single question where the calculated zingers would quickly run out of steam. Then, constituents could judge candidates on how they actually approach an issue.

I don’t know about you, but that would really help me decide who to vote for.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

18 Comment

  • Why do you insist that there is not enough taxes to maintain our roads and highways. There is no evidence of efficiency or planning. Malfeasance and direct slovenly management is overwhelming and almost as bad as very poor planning. Roads are re-surfaced with no collaboration with other utilities; as soon as repairs are completed roads are closed for utility repairs and ruined again..

    • mm

      Very true. Like the bike lane painted on Boedecker? That is a City Manager issue… but most cities use bond money for the big ticket items. And then there is the “value engineering” deal…

    • mm

      I insist because there hasn’t been enough money in the pot for decades. Yes, government is inefficient, but the level of inefficiency required to get us so far behind in all infrastructure is simply not possible (billions and billions). Were the city an HOA, there might be a special assessment to catch us up on this neglect. As it is, dribbling increases to property taxes are the only option, but they will never catch us up. Worth mentioning, a big reason we’re not collecting enough are commercial property owners who are grossly under-taxed.

    • It’s not far from what should have been near Fair Park; visit the Cawboy Stadium in Arington or the Frisco complex and think they would have been near Fair Parl today , one place of the poorest in Dallas! Unfortunately, then we had the mayor Laura Miller! Will Dallas make another catastrophic mistake?

  • It was of note that Miller-Wolens makes her mind up and that is it. While Gates listens to build a solution that most will appreciate. With the state of our City politically fractionalize the reaching best solutions is the greater need not just for District 13 but all of Dallas.
    Not really sure why D Magazine brought up so many issues that are Citywide vs. District 13.

  • oh but gates does have a plan …. change the 10 story height limit behind pink wall to 20 stories. how could yoh ignore this frequently repeated opinion. which she got from developers. maybe..seems like… you were against miller from getgo. what is picture of blurry individual walking away from what appears to be a residence ? and. again. not one word about the slum called vickery-the funded but unbuilt library. without major improvements, this area will soon be even worse: violent crime affecting all of dallas, hundreds, becoming thousands of uneducated vagrants becoming hardened criminals before out of their teens.

    • mm

      1. There is no 10-story height limit in PD-15. Going by straight Chapter 51 zoning guidelines, there is unlimited height. Outside PD-15, the Pink Wall has MF-1 zoning limiting height to 3 stories, but those parcels are also deed restricted to their existing footprints.
      2. The blurry picture I shot of a Miller supporter dropping equally incendiary leaflets that Miller complained Gates supporters doing. Point being pots calling kettles black.
      3. Vickery Meadows was only brought up once by Gates as a place that needs to be turned around in District 13 without displacing everyone with scrape-clean gentrification.
      4. While crime is up VERY slightly in Dallas and many locations nationwide, the multi-decade trend has been almost non-stop declines. Increased crime is troubling, but in context not as bad as people are made to fear (by using doorbells like Ring that whip up fear).
      5. If I don’t like Miller, it’s because of the four years of public meetings (I’m guessing you didn’t attend) where I saw her actions. If you read back what I wrote about the Preston Center plan, you’ll know I was no fan of Gates during that process. Point being, I call what I personally see and I have no prior history with either candidate.

  • A suitcase?? Why did she bring a suitcase?

    • Howzabout posting the 2 flyers side by side for readers to compare? ? There’s no comparison.! JSG’s flyer with ominous black & white photos of Ms. Miller, is straight out of the Donald Trump/Steve Bannon playbook; classy. And it’s been splashed all over publications ( PAID FOR BY THE JENNIFER STAUBACH GATES CAMPAIGN) as a pop-up ad on DMN & CANDY’S DIRT!!!So to say that your not up to your eyeballs in JSG sycophantic mode is hogwash!
      And that you’re out taking secret spy pix of Laura Miller supporters who on their day off choose to support
      their candidate, is downright creepy and an indicator that you might consider getting a hobby.

  • I agree the debate was largely worthless (although if your just scoring on debating style IMHO, Miller bested Gates by a country mile). That being said, the poor choice of questions posed along with the nonsubstantive responses of both were truly disappointing. It also looked like the audience was packed with Gates supporters easily identified by their Gates stickers they wore outside the auditorium.

    I had and still have so many questions about the Preston Center Garage including who and how much the City pays to the private entity that operates and maintains it, including the beneficial owners of that entity.

    The only way to get answers to any of the cozy dealings between the City and developers is through meaningful disclosure and transparency and following the money trails. My personal experience is that There seems to be a lot of stonewalling by Gates and her staff on the whole Preston Center Garage issue. I smell bond money being used for it instead in of maintaining our City’s crumbling streets. That garage benefits the adjacent commercial properties. Whatever is done over and above the existing structure should be paid for entirely by the commercial owners.

    I am old enough to remember former Mayor Kirk touting the Trinity River boondoggle with pretty drawings of sailboats and other amenities rather than a a toll road built on dirt levees. When’s the last time you’ve seen a sailboat?

    I believe Gates voted for the Trinity River Bond funds and also the funding of the faux suspension bridge at a court three times what an equivalent traditional structure would cost.

    Voters need to realize that every bond package that is touted that it won’t raise your taxes is pure fiction unless you naively believe there will be no more recessions.

    If anything the same groups that composed the old Dallas Citizens Council have an even stronger grip than they used to. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

    • mm

      My experience with Gates’ office has not been stonewalling on the Preston Center Garage. There have been two public meetings. What’s complicated/bad about this is the ownership/responsibility structure that ends in stalemate. Just because the PC Garage Parking Corp. presented some (greedy) plan to put an apartment building on it, doesn’t mean it’s supported by anyone but the parking corp.
      .
      The parking corp doesn’t have the money for much (although I hear they’re paying for the recent repairs), let alone their own plan (which required the land to be given to them and tens of millions in incentives). I can see the city chipping-in if it benefits the surrounding neighborhood. A park would increase area values and likely encourage more residential construction in Preston Center.

      • And btw, congrats on the double endorsement by Ms
        Gates on your writing. Looks like you two are pretty cozy pals, which is evident in your every defense of
        her. Sadly doesn’t make for much journalistic
        integrity, but I guess that’s not your shtick, clearly.

        • mm

          If you took time to investigate (anything) before you write, you would see that while I think she’s trying in PD-15, the Preston Center Plan was a debacle. This very column on the debate is hardly a love letter to Gates.
          .
          I judge based on actions whether it’s a politician or a commentor like you who makes un-researched and often wild accusations simply because she doesn’t agree. When you’re called on it, you change the subject (as you have here).

        • Sharon, do your homework before you comment; you sound like an unhinged idiot.