City Councilman Scott Griggs Is Tackling The Issues We Really Care About.
As we sat around the office, mulling over who should be Central Track's Dallasite of the Year, we thought about all of the usual suspects — the musicians, the artists, the chefs, the athletes, and even the animals.
Each of these people — and, sure, even the animals — is but a part of the fabric that makes Dallas so great.
Still, the more we thought about it, the more our minds began to wander toward something of an unlikely place. Well, for us, at least.
As we recalled many of the things that went down in Dallas this year that we actually cared about — be it improved conditions for bicyclists, the fight over Uber or even the still-murky situation revolving around the city's public housing policies — we realized that there was actually, shockingly a local politician who seemed to be on our side on this most stuff.
That politician? City councilman Scott Griggs.
Griggs was born in Pittsburg, Texas, raised in North Dallas and moved to District 1, the district he currently represents, which now encompasses essentially the entirety of Oak Cliff, in 2002. He was first elected to the council in 2011, after he ousted incumbent David Neumann from what was then District 3. After a contentious round of redistricting in 2012, Griggs was drawn into District 1, a seat he proceeded to win in an unexpected blowout over another incumbent, Delia Jasso, in this past spring's city council elections.
And, throughout the year, Griggs has used his post well, standing out as a voice for the Dallas we do our best to cover here on this site — the vibrant city that is what it is specifically because of the amazing diversity of its inhabitants.
So, yeah, the more we thought about it, the more our choice was obvious: Scott Griggs is our Dallasite of 2013.
To celebrate this distinction, we met up with Griggs to ask him about the role he played in shaping Dallas' 2013 landscape and the challenges and opportunities he sees the city facing in 2014.
One of the biggest stories that you were involved in this year was the whole Uber mess. Would you mind talking about your role in that situation and tell us about why you think it was placed on the consent agenda?
So, typically, an agenda comes out two Fridays before the voting. So, roughly ten, 11, 12 days before voting, you get an agenda that gives you time to look at everything that's coming up. Then there's whatâï¿½ï¿½s called an addendum. An addendum comes out the Friday night before the Wednesday. The addendum has two parts once the items are actually through: There's consent, and then anything that requires more of a hearing. So consent is a whole bunch of typically administrative things that don't need to be debated, and they're passed in a big block. There can often be 30 or 40 items at once because they donâï¿½ï¿½t really need any discussion.
So, in a Friday night addendum on the consent agenda was placed this item [about Uber]. There were two things that came out in the packet — we get a packet every Friday night. One was the various amendments to the city's limousine, taxi and car for hire service ordinances. There was also a memo from an assistant city manager about a number of tickets that had been written to Uber.
That evening, I got a call from my colleague, [District 14 representative] Philip Kingston. He asked if I had seen this memo yet, about these vice tickets that had been written to Uber. I said, 'No, I havenâï¿½ï¿½t seen that yet, but have you seen the agenda yet? Because, buried in the consent agenda, there's this item about changing the rules car for hire services.' So then we started in on reading all the memos that we get, and I started with the packet in the reverse order. Then we put it together that two were connected and we said, 'This has got to be pulled.' I think it was later that evening, or about the same time, that Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News published something about the item going up. That's how we discovered it. So, we pulled it for discussion, we removed it from the consent agenda and it was going to be individual consideration.
[The ordinance changes] were essentially going to outlaw Uber. What was so strange about it, in addition to being on the consent agenda, was it being on the addendum to the consent agenda. So many things in Dallas City Hall go through committees. This had never gone through a committee, it had never been briefed to the full council. So it was a complete change. It was obviously something that we needed to talk about.
The letter really sparked concern, too, because a number of tickets had been written — it said 63 tickets or something. On Monday, we asked the city manager and the chief of police 'How in the world did you write 63 tickets to Uber? How did you even find them to write these tickets?' That's when we found out there had been this vice task force, and these stings had been set up. The whole thing started to unravel: finding out the involvement of Yellow Cab in drafting the ordinance, finding out that at the time our interim city manager had set up a vice squad to investigate and run stings on Uber.
We got enough votes on the council to launch an investigation and have an outside investigator go into some detail about everything that had happened. And, the conclusions of the investigation weren't just one bad judgement or one mistake but a series of misjudgments and mistakes to place this ordinance on there. It was the responsibility of the interim city manager. I really thought it spoke to a whole culture here at City Hall that we need to change.
Certain interests can pick up the phone, make a call and not all only get meetings, but get whole ordinances presented and changed and actually put someone out of business. That's just not a very transparent way to do business. It represents this legacy here at the City of Dallas that has to change. We need to be more open, we need to be more transparent.
Do you think that culture is reflected in things like the HUD report that just came out?
I think that's something different. They overlap but I really felt that Uber/Yellow Cab represents the influence certain lobbyists and other people have with City Hall, where the HUD report is something institutional that we need to change.
We need to change our approach to history and have a housing policy. The HUD report brings up Walker. The Walker consent decree happened in 1990-91 after a decade of litigation where it said that the [Dallas Housing Authority] was conspiring with the City of Dallas housing department to segregate housing in the City of Dallas. So then the City of Dallas had to do all of these remedial measures with the DHA that cost over $100 million. Then this report comes out and essentially the allegation is that the housing department is conspiring with economic development to segregate housing.
Fundamentally, what needs to change is our approach to housing. Instead of having a housing policy that addresses the whole city, our housing policy's been too dedicated to how to get and spend federal funds. And it's doing it in a vacuum without looking at the needs of the whole city.
Both situations represent things that need to change in the City of Dallas.
It seems like the aversion to having mixed-income development is protecting interests in certain areas.
I would say there's not an intent to be discriminatory. But discrimination legally isn't determined by your intent, it's determined by your result. So, the policies that have been adopted — essentially the housing policy, whether it's written or not — is that: 1) we're going to take federal funding for low and moderate income housing, and 2), we're going to put this funding to use in areas where land is the cheapest. That, intentionally or unintentionally, does result in segregation, so that needs to change.
You've said before that you favor developing a diversity of choices for people who need lower or middle income housing.
We need mixed-income neighborhoods, and, particularly, we need a mix of incomes in Downtown Dallas. You need an urban core that's vibrant and that allows people of all different means to live there, and that's what our current policy hasn't been achieving. The other issue raised by the HUD report is there is this policy issue over here, but there is this compliance issue [over there]. You took federal funds, you told us you would use federal funds on low and moderate income housing, but you took these funds and you built market rate and luxury housing downtown.
Another thing we've been interested in this year is the marriage equality resolution you've fought for. Do you want to tell us about where the resolution is now after it was shut down this summer?
It did [get shut down] earlier this year, but it's restarted. The resolution had five signatures, and one of the signatories [Delia Jasso] withdrew their signature, so it went off the agenda. But, in that process and that discussion, Jerry Allen, chairman of the Budget, Finance and Audit Committee, offered to look at the marriage equality resolution as well the economics of our whole benefits package for partners.
So, earlier this month, we actually had the first of two briefings. We looked at DOMA and the rules. Next month, weâï¿½ï¿½re going to have a second meeting of Budget, Finance and Audit on our pension plan and our benefits for partners. Then after that, I believe, it will be up to the committee's discretion. But I believe the committee is going to [discuss] these various items — the marriage equality resolution and some changes that we make to our pension plan to benefit same-sex partners to our LGBT Task Force, which is led by Councilmember Medrano. Then they'll come up with some recommendations and the council will vote on their recommendations.
So what does it mean, then, when the mayor says things like that he would sign the marriage equality resolution if it got to his desk, but it's not a priority of his because the city has no control over marriage? That sounds different that pension benefits for same-sex city employees.
Iâï¿½ï¿½m not going to speak for the mayor or on his position, but I'll tell you how I look at things. Oftentimes, I look at a triage of control, if you will, or of responsibility. There's things that are under our control, there's things we can influence and then there's things that we don't have any influence on. On these LGBT issues, a marriage equality resolution, of course, it's not a municipal law that controls marriage — that's state and federal. But we can certainly influence which way our state goes by being lawmakers and advocating the resolution.
But, you're right, over in this category, what kind of pension benefits: We haven't had the briefing, but we may be able to change our own internal rules to put same-sex partners and even people who have been married in different states under our pension and benefits system in the same position as married couples. That's what we'll be looking at. I think there is quite a bit that we can do that's in our control so that we can have an influence.
Do you anticipate that effort being successful next year?
I do. I think it will start in January 2014 with a second briefing to Budget, Finance and Audit and then, from that, I see it in late January or early February going to the LGBT Task Force and then back to the council. Certainly, it's on a different trajectory, but it's on one that nevertheless is going to be a success.
Bikes are another focus of yours, and Dallas is notoriously bike-unfriendly. What's happening there? How is that changing?
We're going to continue with the bike plan, focusing on the bicycle infrastructure in Downtown Dallas. You're going to see a focus on East Dallas and Oak Cliff, the areas that have the highest concentration of bike riders. How do we make connections and a bicycle system that works? Probably in the next year, something that you'll see is we're going to figure out how to launch a bike-share program in the City of Dallas and the infrastructure that draws more ridership, which is the physically separated bike lanes as well as the buffered bike lanes not just the shared lanes. The big step was getting Jefferson done. For the first time, we have a safe way to get from Downtown to Oak Cliff. Before we had the physically separated bike lane on Jefferson, you had one of two choices on how to take your life into your own hands. One was the triple-underpass and the other was Houston. They're both terrifying. I've ridden both before and they're both just absolutely terrifying.
You won what looked like it was going to be one of the most difficult city council races pretty handily. What's next for you?
Right now, this is just such an exciting time for Oak Cliff. [District 1] is such a beautiful district. We've got North Oak Cliff, where I live. You've got Kessler/Stevens Park. You have Lake Cliff, which is so exciting with the streetcar coming. You've got the Bishop Arts District, all the historic neighborhoods that are coming back — Jefferson and then, y'know, Wynnewood is exciting and then even out to the west of that, Elmwood and everything around the Clarendon Corridor. So, really, Oak Cliff is poised to grow for the next decade. We've got a window here, so it is going to be about how we go about growing. It's just a great honor to be here and to help out with this. It's exciting. This is the place to be — in Oak Cliff.
You're not thinking about running for mayor?
[Oak Cliff] is the place to be, and it's a fantastic district. There are so many opportunities: The streetcar is coming, all that we're doing with bikes; what weâï¿½ï¿½re doing with the growth of Bishop Arts. We've got big zoning cases going through. It's exciting.
You're still in your 30s and it seems like you're representative of this generational transition that's happening in Dallas of people who want more traditional urban living and greater equality within the city — things that are different from what a lot of people want in the rest of the state. For whatever reason, you represent a lot of progressive ideas on the council. Do you feel like that's a responsibility that you have or just something that has happened because of who you are?
I think it's a reflection of Dallas and, really, what people want from their local government. In Dallas, they want us to be progressive — not just on social issues but on issues of urbanism. Dallas is a city that has never turned from tackling the big questions and taking those things on. You do that, but you always want to do it in a pragmatic way. So we're very pragmatic about our approaches to these issues. We need to be solution-driven, so there is certainly a progressive pragmatism on everything we're trying to get done.
In Dallas, it's such a great time because of the people. The core was a vacuum — particularly downtown. There were no residents. We need to provide urban living and a full spectrum of choices to remain competitive with other cities and our suburbs.
The youngest people on the council represent the core districts — the younger, more urban districts. It's good to see younger people involved in city government and a younger city council. When I got here, the average age of the council was 58. Dallas is a young city. It is too young of a city to be governed by a group of 60-year-olds.