Monday, August 26, 2013

Lessons learned attending Dallas budget town hall meetings

This season I attended five budget town hall meetings around the city — one in East Dallas, one in Central Dallas, one in Southeast Dallas, one in Southwest Dallas and one in Far North Dallas.

After attending the first two — the East and Central one — I thought the domineering theme of these budget meetings was going to be those descendants of Punxsutawney Phil, that rodent-like critter in Pennsylvania who peeps his head from his hole in early February and then ducks back in before Bill Murray can whack him with a golf club. Or something like that.

Anyway, these relatives I’m referring to are the Friends of the Library who poke their heads out of their holes every August to attend budget town hall meetings and, following some sort of script from Hole Central, proclaim the budget simply doesn’t contain enough funds for the libraries. These folks are relentless. I’m betting if the City Manager devoted the entire budget one year to the libraries, it still wouldn’t be enough to suit these people.

There were five of them poking their heads out in the East Dallas meeting and four more in the Central One. But then there was only one in Southeast Dallas, none in the Southwest and only one in Far North, an event during which City Council member Sandy Greyson told the story about how, at one of her earlier town halls, some stupid chap recommended cutting funding for libraries completely.

City Council member
Sandy Greyson
That’s when I realized the real theme of this comparatively benign town hall season is that while most of the city has escaped the August heat relatively unscathed and unharmed, it has resulted in craziness, kookiness and outright racism running rampant in Far North Dallas. These folks are living in some sort of time warp, imagining it’s still the 1970s and 1980s when the city council was comprised of only white men from North Dallas who could hand out all the goodies they pleased to their friends north of I-30.

This is Tea Party land. These people think Ted Cruz is normal and rational, and that Rand Paul, the presumptive 2016 Republican presidential nominee, is too liberal. They despise Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Grow South campaign (although at one point, the most vocal racist in the audience whispered to his friend sitting behind him "What’s the mayor’s name again?") The aforementioned racist was particularly critical of the City Council’s decision to invest in a mixed-use development in South Dallas’ Lancaster Corridor, an investment the council believed would return handsome dividends to the city’s coffers. They also don’t believe litter is a problem and that the city should take no initiative to curb anything that, in their minds, is not a problem.

These folks believe the city’s budget should be used for one thing and one thing only — to make sure their alleys are the very best alleys in the world today and to keep Wal*Mart from gaining a foothold in their community.

I walked out of that town hall meeting shook and stunned. I took off my rose colored glasses, wiped my brow and thought to myself "I can’t believe there are still people this insular living in this world today." I know none of these people have ever driven through the streets or ventured into the neighborhoods of South Dallas. Who am I kidding? These folks probably remain at least a mile north of LBJ Freeway at all times.

I must give council member Greyson, a Tea Party advocate herself, credit, however. She finessed the most outrageous comments from her constituents with style and grace.

Now back to those library fanatics.

I am convinced there is a role for public libraries these days, although it might not be the one it was when the institutions were conceived. I am convinced it was a brilliant move to devote this year’s city library funds to additional materials, especially the replacement of outdated computers, and not additional staffing.

Today’s libraries must become less of a place where citizens go to check out books and more of a place where citizens go to learn. To learn about citizenship and how to vote. To learn English as a second language. To learn how to craft and submit resumes. To learn how to search for jobs and how to prepare for that job interview. And more.

And here is how those Friends of the Library can be of real public service, much more than just showing up at budget town hall meetings every August. They need to find and recruit the volunteers that have the capabilities to instruct these programs. These instructors should not be on the city’s payroll. It won’t be easy finding these volunteers, but if the Friends of the Libraries are the friends they claim to be, they should do whatever they can to unearth them.

Just don’t try to locate them in Far North Dallas.

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