UPDATE 4/13/21: Dallas Councilmember Cara Mendelsohn said it was the Regional Transportation Council, not Dallas Area Rapid Transit, that has a $1 trillion budget.
Last Thursday evening, Dallas Jewish Conservatives held a forum of candidates running for city council in the May 1 elections. Last year’s police overtime cut made public safety the dominant topic of the night, with candidates proclaiming they wouldn’t defund the police.
Participating in the forum were District 2 candidate Michael Fetzer, Wendi Macon for District 6, Israel Varela for District 7, Barry Wernick for District 11, Leland Burk and William “Mac” Smith for District 13, Elizabeth Viney for District 14, and incumbent District 12 Councilmember Cara Mendelsohn, who was greeted with loud applause from the crowd.
Last year, Mendelsohn was one of the four votes against cutting $7 million from police overtime.
“My main priority is to improve public safety so, that way, we could stop seeing our kids getting murdered in the streets,” Varela, a realtor, told the crowd. Varela is running against incumbent Councilmember Adam Bazaldua, who spearheaded the effort to cut police overtime.
Forum moderator Brad Namdar, a Dallas resident who serves on the U.S. Chamber Task Force to Eradicate Human Trafficking, asked Mendelsohn about the overtime cut.
“When you hear candidates or current city council members say, ‘But look, [the] DPD budget went up,’ well, it went up because of our first-year allocations for [public safety officer] raises,” she replied. “My first term in our first budget, unanimously, we gave a raise to all of our public safety officers, and we did that because [of] all the news stories about people who go through [the] academy, and then they leave and go to other cities.”
“This past year was the first year that we actually felt the full effect of that raise,” she said.
Viney, a lawyer, was asked about her opponent, incumbent Councilmember David Blewett, who voted for the overtime cut and claimed police funding was increased.
“Now, they’re realizing that vote wasn’t quite so popular, so they’re backtracking,” Viney replied, adding a warning. “I learned this from the police just last week, or just a few days ago: Our murders in 2021 now are outpacing the record-breaking 2020 murder rates.”
Mendelsohn also said not all of the officials who voted on police overtime read up on how they’re spending taxpayer dollars.
“I want to tell you that I actually chair the budget committee, and not even all of our council members read the budget,” she said, adding how she’s “the council nerd that reads all the documents.”
“You have to understand the city budget because it’s our taxpayer money,” she said.
Mendelsohn was asked if Dallas was 1,000 officers short a decade ago and how many more need to be hired.
“I don’t know if we’re a thousand officers short,” she replied. “We are for sure several hundred short. And if we hired several hundred more, then we could determine if we still need several hundred more.” She added the city can’t afford to hire a thousand officers.
Speaking of the budget, Mendelsohn revealed jaw-dropping numbers for how much city taxpayers pay to Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the taxpayer-funded public transportation system. “[City taxpayers] give $325 million a year to DART. … We are not getting the transportation services that we deserve,” she said.
“I serve on the Regional Transportation Council,” Mendelsohn continued. “It’s got a not $4 billion budget. It’s got a trillion dollar budget.” Among the RTC’s activities, whose membership includes a number of locally elected officials, are “ensuring” compliance with “state and federal laws and regulations regarding transportation and air quality,” and assigning state, federal, and regional tax dollars designated for transportation. They are an arm of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Citizens attending the forum were able to submit their own questions to the candidates. One citizen asked if there is a connection between economic development and crime reduction, and what can be done to help that.
“What does economic development do? It creates jobs,” Wernick, an attorney, replied. “When you have jobs, what happens? You get safer neighborhoods. … When you have safer neighborhoods, it reduces crime.”
Wernick was asked how he would reduce the homeless communities in District 11, particularly around the freeways. “That is a State of Texas issue on the highway, that isn’t Dallas. That’s not our legal responsibility,” he replied, adding it is “our issue we need to take care of.”
“I think that if we reach out to the experts who actually have solved these situations, that would be great.”
Namdar then asked the candidates about human trafficking. “When we have 1,000 less police officers today than we did 10 years ago, we can’t just not answer domestic violence calls. We’ve got a human trafficking and sex trade problem that cannot be addressed,” Wernick replied, adding that in the city, the practice is “a $99 million-a-year business.”
Another question asked for solutions to address illegal immigration. “I think that is a federal issue, and we absolutely must continue to fight for real immigration policy,” Burk, a Dallas businessman, replied.
Namdar asked Smith, a retired civil engineer, if a “Citizens Oversight Board” was needed for the police.
“You know, there’s a lot of talk about police brutality. The truth of it is, in 2020, a total of four police officers out of 3,000 actually fired their weapon,” Smith said. “It was all self-defense. Police brutality is a myth.”
One citizen took exception to that.
“That one comment by Mr. Mac [Smith], saying that police brutality is a myth, is completely false,” said Trenton White, a Republican. “We’re up against a big machine called the liberal Democrats, and it’s [an] ideological war, and that kind of talk right there will not help us grow.”
Another voter asked about steps to replace City Manager T.C. Broadnax and if candidates would participate in such a process. Mendelsohn told the crowd that Broadnax—along with the city attorney, city auditor, and city secretary—report to city council.
“The evaluation process that’s been used in the past is extremely informal and has really not put any kind of measurable metrics or goals in place for any of those positions,” Mendelsohn said.
She mentioned a recent council meeting where Broadnax listed his top goals.
“The only goal he had as a top goal for government performance and financial management was a balanced budget,” Mendelson said. “He did not like my comments that this is not a goal, it’s a requirement of our charter.”
I want to see a goal that says I’m going to lower the tax rate. I want to see a goal that says I’m going to 100 percent fund the maintenance of our infrastructure, and I expect to see those in future evaluations.
When asked why Broadnax’s salary is $408,000, Mendelson replied that a “prior council” set his salary and it was within “the scope” of city manager salaries in large cities.
“We’re probably going to have record-low turnout for this election,” Mendelsohn warned voters. “You need to step up and get people to the polls.”
If you see somebody up here that you think should be on council and they’re not in your district, you should reach out to them, and you should help them.
Early voting for the May 1 election runs April 19-27. All 14 Dallas City Council seats are on the ballot.
This article has been updated since publication.