Call him a gadfly (journalist Michael Granberry did in a 2003 Dallas Morning News profile). Or a muckraker (he refers to himself as such on his blog at Dallas.org). Former Dallas councilwoman and neighborhood resident Mary Poss, fined $5,000 in 2003 for improper reporting of campaign expenditures because of a complaint filed by Gwinn, dubbed him a “longtime critic” and his blog a “rogue website,” dismissing his actions as “political posturing.”
Allen Gwinn is used to name-calling. But no one can call Gwinn apathetic. Since he began gaining serious readership as a political watchdog more than a decade ago, he has sniffed out many a public official doing less than his or her job.
He’s a computer geek by day, senior director of technology with SMU Cox School of Business to be exact. But Gwinn says he needed a hobby that “wasn’t computer related.” Enter Dallas.org, which has grown to between 50,000 and 90,000 monthly visitors, and 18,000 registered users. Though he has received numerous offers to advertise online, Gwinn accepts no money for the site, despite logging comparable hours with his “hobby” as with his job at SMU.
“I don’t sleep a lot,” he says.
Each of his blog entries draws a barrage of responses, but Gwinn posts only those that speak to the issue. And he edits for maximum readability (though Gwinn admits longing to post Dallas ISD educators’ comments as-is since, he says, they regularly are rife with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors).
In the age of e-democracy, Gwinn has “plogged” (internet-speak for political blogging) on the rise in Northeast Dallas residential burglaries, DART riders skipping out on paying up, Dallas Police Department placement of proceeds ($175 per DWI funneled to MADD instead of city coffers), and sailboats versus speedways along the Trinity River.
No Dallas citizen or official is beyond scrutiny, and Gwinn doesn’t mind naming names. But Gwinn’s whistle sounds most vehemently for Dallas ISD education reform. The reason, he says, is simple: “Money and kids. You may think public education is free, but more than 50 percent of your taxes go to DISD. If your child goes to private school or you don’t have kids, you are still paying for public education. It never ceases to amaze me that there aren’t 50,000 people like me watching [DISD] under a microscope.”
In a blog post last summer, Gwinn noted that out of 45,000 registered voters in Dallas ISD’s District 9, represented by Trustee Ron Price and encompassing Woodrow Wilson High School and its feeder schools, a scant 1,120 people went to the polls for the DISD school board election.
“It was electing one of nine people to watch over $1,858,572,459 of taxpayer money,” Gwin says.
Though he has no political aspirations himself — “Let’s put it this way: If I ever ended up a candidate, I would vote against me!” — after publishing DISD salaries on Dallas.org in the early ’90s (and the subsequent hullabaloo), Gwinn recognized the power inherent in using the internet to gain support in fixing what is broken in city politics, particularly schools.
Most months, Gwinn supplies a “live blog” from the floor of the DISD board meeting, providing running commentary on the agenda as it unfolds, replete with quotes and pictures, in hopes of educating citizens on current school issues.
Not content to be another talking head, he also has responded to a lack of computers and internet access in DISD portable buildings by coordinating volunteers to wire donated equipment. So far, both of his children have attended public school at Hexter Elementary (although he doesn’t shy away from private school if he believes the public school is not up to par — one of them now attends Dallas Academy instead of Hill Middle School).
Whether at DISD board meetings, Dallas City Council meetings or other civic functions, Gwinn is not afraid to make his presence known. Doug Woodham says during a recent neighborhood crime watch meeting where police were present that a homeowner reported disappointment with the Northeast Police Division because she had a surveillance tape of a thief in her home that detectives had not taken into evidence.
“Allen make a beeline straight to her,” Woodham says. “Lt. Thai told the woman he was astounded that was how it was handled, and that he wanted to speak with her after the meeting. But after the meeting, she disappeared.”
A couple of days later, a blog post appeared at Dallas.org with the aforementioned video footage and story from “Cindy,” a frustrated homeowner.
“Allen is aggressive,” Woodham says. “He got to her and reported her story before anyone else had a chance to. But I wish that she had also talked to Lt. Thai. And Mr. Gwinn might have put on his website the fact that the police asked to speak with her further.”
These comments could be considered a compliment compared to the choice words DISD trustee Ron Price has used to describe Gwinn: “He’s a bunch of BS and a bunch of crap!” That was after WFAA’s Brett Shipp questioned Price about a $14,000 discrepancy in his campaign reports, which Gwinn had revealed on Dallas.org.
Price punctuated the interview with: “I’m tired of this guy slandering me all the time. He needs to get a life.” (Later, Price admitted his accountants had “made an honest mistake” in reference to the inconsistency.)
But Gwinn has his fans, too. Tim Rogers, executive editor at D Magazine and fellow Hexter Elementary parent, is one of them.
“I love the guy. Follow his blog. He’s a natural digger. When there’s data to be collected, Allen is filing an open records report. I’m sure half the people at City Hall know him by sight.”
Love him or hate him, Gwinn claims not to care one way or the other.
“I write what I do in an effort to get someone to rectify the situation. I won’t publish an article if something is hopeless, if there isn’t a chance it could create change for the better. When people get interested, things change,” Gwinn says, and if poring over public records and publishing findings keeps public officials on their toes, Gwinn feels he has done due diligence. He claims that posting DISD salaries promoted “pay purity” and filing a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against Poss resulted in one of the highest fines ever imposed for such a violation.
And he’s not going to disappear anytime soon.
“I’m the garbage boy of Dallas politics — willing to take out the trash,” Gwinn says.
“If public officials won’t do the right thing for the right reasons, let them do the right thing for the wrong reason: That they might get caught if they don’t.”
- On Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa: “He is a wonderful educator and man, but he has surrounded himself with guys who are not top quality. He has not made effective decisions on whom he appoints to get the job done.”
- On neighborhood resident and Dallas ISD board member LeAnn Ellis: “If she hangs in there, she will be the best board member DISD has seen, but she’s still green for another year.”
- On Dallas ISD’s 10-year Dallas Achieves! strategy: “Best urban school district by 2010? Not the direction we’re headed now. If anyone could do it, though, it’s Hinojosa.”
- On Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway: “A total turnaround. Hope for what was historically hopeless; proof people can change.”
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