Dallas City Hall Uses Taxpayer Funds to Lobby Itself on Alarm Issue

If you're a Dallas taxpayer, you've helped fund a campaign by City Hall to lobby ... itself.

A response to a request under state open record laws indicates a Dallas City Council-appointed commission last month spent $3,750 from the city's general fund to produce 5,000 two-sided, full-color brochures advising residents to "tell your Dallas City Council member you support verified response" - a contentious policing proposal that council members are considering.

Verified response would require private alarm companies to verify the validity of an activated alarm before sworn police officers respond.

Mayor unhappy
When informed of the expenditure, Mayor Laura Miller gasped.

"It's inappropriate, it's inadvisable, and I'm very unhappy taxpayer money was spent on what's clearly a lobbying piece," said Ms. Miller, who says she remains neutral on the verified response issue. "When I see an abuse of taxpayer money like this, it makes me want to say that all expenditures like this should come before the council."

Council member Ron Natinsky, vice chairman of the body's public safety committee, said: "I can't remember when the city has used its funds to promote only one side of an issue. I have some serious concerns about the wording."

Routine city expenditures that don't crack the $10,000 mark don't typically require a council vote.

The chairman of Dallas' Commission on Productivity and Innovation requested in August that the city's public information office produce the brochures, Dallas Interim Assistant City Manager and Chief Financial Officer David Cook wrote in a reply to an open record inquiry.

Meant to inform
Larry Davis, the commission's chairman, said the city manager's office approved the brochure.

It's designed, he said, to inform residents how verified response is good public policy that would conserve police resources.

Almost all activated burglar alarms in Dallas are false.

Police say they would continue to respond to 911 calls reporting burglaries and alarm-system panic button activations as priority calls. By not responding to all activated alarms, police could spend more time fighting crime, verified response advocates say.

Opponents of the measure say it would encourage burglars and lead to a spike in crime.

"The reason our commission exists is to find inefficiencies and fix them," Mr. Davis said. "We need to keep the public in the loop on how to do that."

He described the brochure's cost as "peanuts," and said the benefits of the information outweighed the expense.

City staff distributed some of the 5,000 brochures at community meetings, gave others to Dallas Police Department division chiefs for distribution to homeowner groups and sent 500 to Mr. Davis himself, Mr. Cook's response states.

The brochure lists five "facts" about verified response, then states: "Let's FREE Dallas police officers to do what we need them to do: fight crime and catch criminals."

Dallas frequently produces printed material at taxpayer expense informing them about a variety of city projects and proposals, City Manager Mary Suhm said.

Official to keep watch
The verified response brochure "does contain a slight bit of advocacy, and I wish it hadn't been there," Ms. Suhm said. "I understand what the council's concerns are. I'm going to be very aware of this issue and make sure the brochures are more information, less advocacy."

Ms. Suhm added that she would investigate whether private citizens or groups that support verified response could reimburse the general fund for the brochure's production.

(c) 2005 Dallas Morning News