News Analysis

In a first for the Dallas City Council, an existing member of a Board or Commission unwilling to resign was dismissed from serving the City. And our neighborhood was at the center of the fracas.

At the Aug. 25 Council meeting, new District 14 Council member Paul Ridley triggered a never-before-used provision in the City Charter, asking the full Council to remove neighbor Kristin Scholer as the District 14 representative on the Redistricting Commission.

As called for in the City Charter, Council members held a hearing at Scholer’s request, heard charges against her presented solely by Ridley and voted 10-5 in favor of removing her from the volunteer job.

The dynamics in the Aug. 25 action are complex and concerning. Every other board and commission member appointment made by Council members expires Oct. 1, making for an awkward situation when there is turnover in a Council seat in a May election or June runoff. A new council member must wait several months to replace the previous Council member’s appointments with a new team of neighborhood volunteers.

City Council member Paul Ridley

That’s the situation Ridley faced after beating incumbent David Blewett in a June 5 runoff. Sworn in June 14, the new sheriff in town worked to assemble his team. Ridley says he sent notes to all of Blewett’s appointees, asking them to voluntarily resign prior to the expiration of their terms October 1. Few agreed to voluntarily quit, forcing Ridley to wait a couple of months before assembling his own volunteer team of neighbors.

But there’s an exception.

Every 10 years, coinciding with the U.S. Census, the City of Dallas examines existing Council boundary lines and considers making changes to reflect the changing city population. The work is done by the Redistricting Commission, a 15-member body comprised of one appointment from each Council member and the mayor.

The Redistricting Commission holds public hearings on potential changes to Council boundaries and issues a report to the mayor, who presents it to the Council for review and approval. Current members of the Redistricting Commission were appointed earlier in 2021; unlike any other commission, their term doesn’t expire until the Redistricting Commission’s work is done and the report issued to the mayor.

And there’s the rub.

Kristin Scholer

Neighborhood resident Kristin Scholer was former Council member Blewett’s appointment to the Redistricting Commission. Scholer is a seven-year resident of the Belmont Addition, has volunteered for her neighborhood association, served on the Dallas Arts District Master Connect Plan Committee, holds an undergraduate degree and MBA from Texas State University, and has a career steeped in data and analytics. She serves as associate vice president of data science and Insights for the the marketing technology company Ansira. She routinely navigates Census data and mapping software as part of her job.

She also volunteered for Blewett’s Council campaign in 2019.

Scholer was approved April 28 as a Redistricting Commission member by unanimous Council vote. To date, the Commission has not met.

In a normal universe, Scholer would be considered a model appointee: well-educated, enthusiastic, a heart for service.

But the Council horseshoe is not a normal universe.

The City Charter provision used by Ridley has a unique feature. A board or commission member subject to dismissal by the Council has a right to make a case in a public hearing, called by the mayor at the commission member’s request. Scholer exercised that option, and a public hearing was held for anybody to speak for or against Ridley’s request to remove her from a commission that had yet to commence work.

The Charter provision states a board or commission member may be removed “for any cause deemed by the City Council sufficient in the interest of the public.” The language also notes the commission member must hear “charges that are publicly made.” The word “charges” seems ominous, but that’s what the Charter says. That word, the use of it during the meeting, and the nature of the charges Ridley spoke to seemed to make the hearing more personal for Scholer, intended or not.

Before Scholer spoke, Ridley met the requirement for making his “charges” public. Ridley could have simply stated that a Councilmember deserves to name his own team. But he went further.

First, he said Scholer is “not representative of District 14 as a result of a mandate by the voters for new leadership.” Second, he said Scholer “failed to respond to multiple attempts to communicate with her regarding her background, qualifications and suitability.” Third, he said Scholer has an “inadequate history of leadership in District 14.”

Scholer started the public hearing by responding to Ridley’s charges. She spoke of her experience in the neighborhood and addressed the “lack of communication” charge. Scholer said she only received one email from Ridley and chose not to respond, citing the rule that Redistricting Commissioners cannot speak to Council members about “the work of the commission,” inferring a non-partisan role as a Commissioner free from political pressure.

Scholer told the Council her “no response” to a request to resign was actually a response that she did not intend to resign.

Finally, Scholer emphasized her background in data and analytics, saying her analysis could offer a “perspective different from other commissioners.” Her deep analytical experience could be “impactful” and a “fundamental element to inform the commissioners of the makeup of the neighborhood.”

Four people spoke on her behalf. A colleague from the alumni foundation at Texas State, two associates from her work at Ansira and former Council member Dave Blewett spoke of her desire and qualifications to serve the City. No speakers backed up Ridley’s charges. Ridley later said speakers supporting his case were “unnecessary.”

For 50 minutes, Council members debated the decision.

In the eyes of some Council members, Scholer hurt her case by not responding to Ridley’s correspondence. District 6 Adam Bazaldua said her non-response to Ridley was “troublesome” and “problematic in itself”. He spoke to the discrepancy between Scholer’s (one e-mail) and Ridley’s (multiple attempts) description of the communication. Bazaldua said someone was being “dishonest,” and he had “no reason not to believe Mr. Ridley.” Ouch.

Other Council members expressed concern about dismissing a well-qualified candidate eager to serve less than four months after a unanimous approval vote, saying it’s hard enough to encourage citizen engagement on boards and commissions without the threat of public “charges” of poor communication and lack of leadership.

District 10 Council member Adam McGough said he couldn’t “determine a cause for removal.” District 9 Council member Paula Blackmon called it “a slippery slope” with anybody’s appointment at risk if you could round up eight Council votes. District 12 Council member Cara Mendelsohn called it “embarrassing” for the City and for Scholer, who “clearly meets the qualifications” and “has the guts to stand up and defend herself.”

Ridley didn’t back down during the debate. His raised his voice a little when emphasizing the “multiple attempts” at communication and the “unique circumstances” of beating an incumbent whose appointee has no Oct. 1 term expiration like all other appointees. There is “no more important commission” than the Redistricting Commission, Ridley told his fellow Council members, and Scholer’s appointment several months prior to his defeat of Blewett was “premature”. He repeatedly used the word “mandate” to describe his 22-point runoff win to “bring about change.”

Ridley’s motion for Scholer’s removal passed 10-5. Voting against her dismissal were McGough, Blackmon, Thomas, Mendelsohn and Mayor Eric Johnson.

“I am not upset or bitter about being voted out as a Redistricting Commissioner, I absolutely respect the City Council’s decision on that,” said Scholer after the Council meeting. “I was expecting that would be the way this unprecedented event ended, and if I was going to step down, I wanted to do it standing up for myself.

“What I feel affronted about is being seen as dishonest in front of City Council due to Council member Ridley’s claim that he called and left a voicemail that I never received. Seeing as his first communication with me was a request to resign my position, I don’t see him having a change of heart and wanting to contact me again to learn further about my background and consider keeping me as the Redistricting Commission appointment. The story just does not make sense.”

Norma Minnis (Photo by Deborah Brown)

Ridley says he intends to appoint Norma Minnis to Scholer’s vacated spot on the Redistricting Commission. Minnis has been a neighborhood activist since the late 1970s.

There is a significant contrast between Minnis and Scholer. Minnis has over 40 years’ experience in neighborhood issues. Scholer is part of a new group of leaders with experience in data and analytics. One is a local legend, helping build the foundation for neighborhood voices at City Hall. One represents an energetic new generation interested in technology that can make Dallas work better.

The Dallas City Charter was approved by City voters. Voters who approved the City Charter with this provision saw it through the same lens as Blackmon and McGough. They intended to set a high bar for removal of a board or commission member. Charges must be brought against the member, and removal must be in the “interest of the public.”

Was it in our interest to remove Scholer?

It’s in our interest to remove a commissioner if the member misses 90% of the commission’s meetings. It’s in our interest to remove a commission member if the member accepts a bribe. There are reasons to dismiss an appointee, but do Ridley’s charges meet the test?

It’s understandable for a Council member to want to make his own appointments from his district. Scholer’s appointment by Blewett was inconvenient for Ridley.

Is that enough?

Sam Gillespie is a freelance writer and longtime neighborhood resident who has served on several City commissions. The opinions expressed are Gillespie’s; Advocate Media and its staff have no opinion on this or other civic issues, other than our intent to give our readers the information necessary to make informed decisions that will improve our neighborhoods.