Did a developer offer to buy votes of approval for his proposed residential project in North Dallas?
On Sunday, I received a note from Doug Bedell, a resident who seems to be leading the opposition to the proposed Northaven Trail Village project that would see 35 homes constructed on a 4.4-acre parcel zoned for 19 homes. The development was part of former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller’s anti-development campaign rhetoric and one of three precincts she bested council member Jennifer Gates. (Background here, here)
Bedell forwarded me an email from another resident, Amy Wallace titled, “Northaven Trail Village buying votes.” The brief email, dated June 12th, stated, “I was approached Sunday by Mr. Gleeson, who wants to build the homes where the school is. He was trying to collect my blue form for the city. I didn’t give it to him. Today he called me and offered me $300 if he could pick it up and deliver it downtown. He’s trying to buy us off!” (Emphasis theirs)
For reference, “Gleeson” is David Gleeson who’s working with David Weekley Homes on this project.
There was no evidence supplied that this offer was made to more than Ms. Wallace and Gleeson responded that, “I made such an offer to one person — out of frustration and exasperation at trying to get that person to take the time to fill out the form. I have hand delivered letters/presentation to 49 homeowners who have not turned in their forms; placed MANY phone calls and follow-up calls; knocked on doors; follow-up emails. MOST of the 119 residents in the Notification Area designated by the City obviously do not care about this case.”
A second response clarified, “no payments have, or will be made.”
Nowhere does it say that Gleeson is trying to influence a vote, just that he would pay $300 in order to collect and deliver a ballot (presumably reflecting any sentiment) to City Hall. Now he’s the developer, so clearly he’s looking for as many positive votes as he can get, but he doesn’t say that. He just offered $300 instead of a 55-cent forever stamp.
Response rates for city notification cards in development areas are notoriously low and typically lean towards the opposition (because there’s a lot of “just don’t care” in the world). Is Gleeson/Weekley simply trying to up the response rate to get a more accurate picture and hopefully pick up some apathetic-homeowner support?
During the election, there were just 42 votes cast in the precinct where this project would reside. Within the city’s 500-foot notification area around the proposed development, the city sent ballots to 119 property owners – as of this moment, just 32 have responded – or 27 percent – which is actually pretty high (sadly).
Of course, the whole complexion changes if there was proof that a collected ballot’s vote had been changed – that would be big. But as the offer was seemingly made to and denied by one person, any tampering is unlikely.
Yes, we all see cash as being sleazy, but what’s the difference if a developer offers to put up a taller fence or increase landscaping to gain support from an individual property owner? How about when a developer pays for a bus and a box lunch to take supporters to City Hall to stand up for key votes? Are these common acts bribes? Is a bush and a fence different than $300? How?
If anything, the fence comes with strings that $300 just to cast a vote doesn’t seem to. And there’s an argument to be made that in this neighborhood, $300 isn’t much enticement balanced against the permanence of a development (possibly an August electricity bill).
I have not reached anyone at City Hall willing to go on the record on this situation. Bedell’s email to me stated that, “Neighbors have brought this to the attention of Sarah May and Margot Murphy. We were assured the proper authorities have been alerted to this issue.” These are absolutely the right steps to take.
However, Bedell continues, “Certainly it should be disqualifying for a developer to bribe a neighborhood into approval for his PD. Many of us have urged the city to suspend the entire process because he has corrupted the balloting.”
Gleeson/Weekley are not city employees, subjected to city ethics policies, and so far, all that’s been done is an offer to “buy” a single response – any response. Regardless of the city’s response, Gleeson’s tactic has just made this case a whole lot more difficult – part of a pattern of self-inflicted wounds that have dogged this project. Regardless of reality, this action’s bad smell may very well increase opposition and make the project untenable.
This brings me to what Bedell writes next, “It is also odd that Mr. Gleeson evidently has access to the ballots as they arrived at the city. We understood the ballots are only revealed at the zoning commission meeting, which has now been postponed until July 11.”
Actually, it’s not odd at all if you know where to look. The city posts real-time updates of the person-by-person responses to zoning cases on their website. As of this moment, the city is reporting, of the 119 notified, 32 have responded and 26 oppose the project while six support.
One can imagine why Gleeson is shaking the bushes trying to increase the response rate.
In the end, we’re left with the question of whether paying people to simply vote is a deal-killer? Is $300 considered a bribe or the price a developer is willing to pay to get some portion of the 73 percent of non-voters to vote at all? If Dallas offered $300 simply to cast a vote in the recent Dallas City Council and Mayor’s race, would turnout have been more than a laughable 10 percent of registered voters?
We may all think it’s more than tacky to pay a “concerned citizen” to check a box and drop an envelope in the mail. But what if that’s what it takes to chisel away at apathy and get a more accurate picture of sentiment?
For the record, while Amy Wallace (nee Bradley) had the time to alert the neighborhood about being approached by Gleeson a week ago, she still doesn’t appear to have found the time to mail her ballot.
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