Lee Kleinman City Council Exit Interview: Not Exactly Retired

Counting his time on the Dallas Park and Recreation board, Lee Kleinman has been serving constituents in District 11 for nearly 13 years — and while his tenure on the city council ended in June, he says he’s not quite ready to retire.

“I think it’s short term, some well-deserved downtime,” he said just prior to the June 5 runoff election that would determine his successor. “I’ve kind of still got 10 years of work left in me. All my career opportunities are clearly in Dallas and not anywhere else . So despite the fact that much has been made about the fact that I’ve got a vacation home in Colorado, I’m not moving out there —  as much as I would like to.”

Our “exit interview” follows.

This last term of yours has had some significant things that have happened to the city and to your district — a tornado, a pandemic. What is it like to have to kind of shepherd your district through twin disasters within a year of each other?

It definitely had its challenges, especially with the pandemic — we’re operating from home and didn’t have the opportunity to go out and have community meetings and, you know, give someone a hug because their house just got wrecked. When the tornado (in 2019) went through, we went to all the neighborhoods. I talked to people and just tried to give assistance where I could — a lot of it was moral support. But when the pandemic hit, that kind of one-on-one contact really got shut down, and that was really hard, because that’s a big part of how I like to engage with the district.

“When the pandemic hit, that kind of one-on-one contact really got shut down, and that was really hard, because that’s a big part of how I like to engage with the district.”

So the pandemic made that really hard — the tornado itself, and the windstorms before that, and the tornado after that — we’ve had a lot of weather damage in this district. And that even exacerbated some flooding issues that we have in the district because we’re so close to White Rock Creek, we’ve had some flooding issues here, too.

You just have to try to help people work through those issues. And some people are angry. Some people are upset, some people are, you know, depressed and you just try to help them where we can. The pandemic has definitely made it harder to do that because you just can’t really do that face to face work that I think is so important. You don’t want people to feel at a distance from their elected officials, you want them to feel like your neighbor, which you are. even want them to feel like you’re the neighbor, which you are. And we live right here in the district, we see the same stuff. Most people responded well to feeling like just one of their neighbors is representative of that city hall. And it makes a little harder to do that when you can’t see them face to face.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about D11?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s such a suburban district and dominated by single family homes. And in reality, half the district is a rental apartments. And generally, when those apartments were built, they were built anywhere from 40 to 60 years ago. So we have a lot of aging apartment stock that needs to be addressed in the city and in the district.

And you have a different set of problems in apartments than you have in the single-family neighborhoods, so a lot of times you get resistance from the neighbors – the single-family folks — who don’t want you to change the zoning on the apartments. But from my perspective, of course, I’ve been trying to encourage the developers to change out the housing stock. I’d rather have more new apartments with higher rents than the existing crummy apartments with low rents.

“I’d rather have more new apartments with higher rents than the existing crummy apartments with low rents.”

So there’s always some challenges getting neighborhoods to understand that. And single-family neighborhoods really dominate the district, and dominate the voting. You’re in a position where that’s where you need to be responsive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that really need your assistance and help, and you just try to balance that out.

One of the other things you see a lot of chatter about is the crime rate — but when you look at the actual police reports for D11, it’s a lot of what they call “crimes of opportunity” — leaving expensive items in unlocked cars, leaving the keys in the car, etc.

BMV, that’s the biggest one in district 11. And it has been for years — burglary about motor vehicle — and half the time people didn’t even lock their doors. I mean, you can see these, you see them on Next Door. There are videos of people walking through a parking lot and they’re just checking door handles. Our district has some of the lowest crime rates in the entire city/

We have a very low crime rate — especially in violent crime. We have a lot of neighborhoods that use this ENP, this extended neighborhood patrol, where you actually pay off duty officers to patrol the neighborhoods. And so one of my chronic complaints — and I’ve got council member Mendelsohn also joining me — is that we’re not even getting enough assigned patrol hours, because the department just basically leans on the fact that the neighborhoods are buying patrol hours. And what would be ideal would be figuring out how many patrol hours are ENP, and replacing them with regular patrol.

“It’s a little disturbing, but the neighborhoods who are carrying the biggest burden of taxation in the city are also paying for their own patrol.”

It’s a little disturbing, but the neighborhoods who are carrying the biggest burden of taxation in the city are also paying for their own patrol. I’ve talked about that for years and not gotten that far with it, but fortunately Mendelsohn’s also joined the chorus, and even I think (Jennifer Staubach) Gates has been part of that chorus because North Central also doesn’t get patrol hours.

And you know, we should.

People often point to their ENP’s as being a reason that their crime rates in their neighborhoods dropped, but other things can also factor into that – like how rapidly a neighborhood is gentrifying, for instance, don’t you think?

You have to also look at national stats. In Dallas, we had a 10 or 12-year decline in the crime rate, but that corresponded with a 12 year decline in the crime rate across the nation, and the small uptake in crime we’ve had in the past year or two corresponds to that as well.

Listen, I would never say that an increasing crime rate is a good thing, but relative to where it was 10 years ago, or I guess at this point maybe even 12 to 15 years ago, we’re still way below that. I feel that Dallas is pretty safe. I think it’s important, though, that people do feel safe in our city and do feel like they can be in our parks and be on our trails and be on our streets, and be safe in their homes.

That’s the most important thing. And we show that in our budget – that’s why 65% of our budget is public safety. People are screaming at me about police all the time, but they also want everything else. They want the trash picked up and they want their streets fixed, and they want their libraries to be open, and they want their parks to be clean. And I’m like, “OK, but you realize that 65% of our budget goes into this one thing, and everything else the city does is the other part, right?”

“OK, but you realize that 65% of our budget goes into this one thing, and everything else the city does is the other part, right?”

And they want you do to all that, but they don’t want to pay for it. I hear that all the time. They want to keep their taxes under control.

Part of the reason I went to city hall, in addition to keeping taxes low, was to root out fraud, waste, and abuse. The biggest department is the police department, but you don’t want me touching anything going on with the police department. So then you get vilified because you’re looking at the biggest budget item in the budget, and calling out a lot of the financial abuse in the department, and they you get in trouble for it, but it doesn’t seem to stop people from voting for me in 80% of the votes, so for the most part, they like me.

Jennifer Gates talked about how so many projects are about having to be OK with the fact that you may not be the one that sees it all the way through to the end — you’re probably going to hand it off.

Oh, but you pick it up from somebody else also. And that’s what I’ve frequently said to incoming council members, as well as even people that sit on our boards of commissions — “Pick it up where it is and get it across the goal line and take credit for it because, you know, your predecessor did that and your successors will do that.”

And these projects take forever. I was on the park board for five years before I got on the city council, and there are projects that I started. So I at least had the good fortune of having 13 years serving in that capacity. And that’s what kind of brought me to the council was the quality of life of the citizens of Dallas. I just love doing that. I love opening parks and making sure they’re clean and safe, and having people out and enjoying the environment.

I had the fortune of having worked on a number of park projects before I got on council, so I was able to see some of them come to fruition. But others were started by Linda (Koop) before me, and some of them Lois (Finkleman) before Linda, by the time we finally got them, you know? So you have to keep them moving along, and you’ve got to be tenacious. Create a vision, create a plan, and work the plan.

“But for me, quality of life was always important. You may have heard me refer to it as the ‘Ministry of Happiness.’ I’m a big believer in that.”

If you keep working the plan, people respond to it and they know you’ll get stuff done. But for me, quality of life was always important. You may have heard me refer to it as the “Ministry of Happiness.” I’m a big believer in that.

During the discussion about the new cultural center in the Midtown area, people mentioned that the one thing North Dallas didn’t have that every other district did have was a cultural center – it was the one place where parity was actually lacking in the area. Do you think that people in other parts of the city might’ve been surprised by that?

Yeah, I do. I feel that people are probably a little surprised, I think because there’s such a focus on cultural centers — and the reality of it is that Dallas has three cultures that we focus on – the White culture, the Black culture, and the Hispanic culture, and all our cultural centers have been focused around that. So the general impression is, for lack of a better word, so much White people culture in downtown. But there aren’t local cultural centers in North Dallas and Far North Dallas.

(Read: Council Approves Purchase of ‘First Step’ For Dallas Midtown Park)

What we’re going to do here is create an international cultural center, truing to focus on communities that have put down their roots in Dallas in the last generation or two, as opposed to historically. The Hispanic culture has been here before there was a state of Texas – thousands of years – and the Black culture has been here for 400, 500 years, and of course the White culture has been here hundreds of years. But for example, the Asian culture is pretty new to Dallas, relatively. So the idea was, instead of watching these communities move further into the northern suburbs, to try to have Dalals be a center for that kind of international culture and push for that.

What do you consider to be the biggest frustration of your tenure on the council? Was it a project like the Galleria/Valley View construction, or a policy, or …

The biggest frustration over the eight years is not getting our property taxes reined in. I mean, they’re just really huge in this city. And there’s a huge demand for services. But the burden of property taxes falls on North Dallas — 85% of the teaxes come out of North Dallas, and 15% come from Southern Dallas, and the services used to be delivered – or at least the attempt was to try – equally, but now the attempt is to serve what they refer to is equitably, which means providing additional services to areas that there’s a perception of being underserved for years. So it’s frustrating to see the Southeast and South Central patrol divisions getting twice as many patrol hours, but you know that North Dallas is paying for. You know, 65% to 70% of the park system is south of downtown. We have a dearth of cultural centers here. We’re in a transit desert.

So there’s a frustration level by my constituents with regards to the amount of property taxes they’re paying, including myself. I moved less than two years ago because my property taxes were so out of control – I had to move to a smaller place in the district.

“And on the council, right now everybody’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get property taxes under control,’ but then when we get to budget season, it’s just amnesia.”

And on the council, right now everybody’s like, “Oh, we’ve got to get property taxes under control,” but then when we get to budget season, it’s just amnesia. And people try to misdirect the residents, “So we brought the rate down,” and it’s like yeah, but the value went up so high, you’re still causing an increase in taxes.

So that’s probably my biggest frustration. I tried to get the taxation reined in, but I didn’t have a lot of support for that on the council. Even where you consider it to be conservative North Dallas, they talk a big game, but when it comes time to vote tax rates, they vote to spend the money.

And if you want to talk about the Galleria/Valley View area, there’s actually a ton of stuff going on there. You’ve got one or two really bad property owners there that are acting like it’s all about them – they’re just bad actors. But you’ve got three or four brand-new apartment complexes, two hotels under construction right now, big mixed use stuff — a lot going on over there. And it tends to be happening more down at the Galleria end, because the property owners and developers down there have just taken action to develop and do the hard work.

(Read: A New Neighborhood For North Dallas)

But even up on the Valley View site, the people that spun out of that Sears area, they’re all going. They have their infrastructure in, and they’re probably going vertical this year. And then the old Sanger-Harris site, they’re going to be close behind them. But that northeast corner is just a wasteland. And that property owner owns the half-torn down mall and won’t complete the demolition of the mall, and just wants to blame their incompetence on everybody else.

And unfortunately, the city can’t help the project – it wouldn’t be appropriate. We offered like a $30, $36 million incentive package to the Becks to be the first people on the ground over there. And it all required that we put certain milestones that they had to meet in order to get the funding. And after two years of doing zero, the agreement expired and they got nothing, and now they’re trying to blame the city.

They could’ve done the first couple of milestones and the money would’ve started rolling out.

Scott Beck mentioned to us that part of the hold up was the sewer lines.

He could spend a million or a million and a half and put in his sewer lines like every other development in this city does. And the city already spent tens of millions of dollars to bring the sewer line to the development. We brought a sewer line underneath LBJ, underneath Lincoln Center, all the way down Inwood Road, like past Jesuit, to create new capacity. And it was paid for by the taxpayers to increase the capacity for that development because we’ve increased the density. All he’s gotta do is put a million dollars worth of sewer lines in his piece to that.

“Hopefully people see through that crap, and whoever gets elected won’t get sucked into that BS.”

Hopefully people see through that crap, and whoever gets elected won’t get sucked into that BS. Because you know, for the first couple of years I was all about those guys. I wanted them to be successful. But there’s not going to be anything offered to any developer — not just in that development, anyone in the city — that doesn’t come with strings attached, that doesn’t come with milestones they must achieve. We’re not gonna let them just get money out of the city without performance.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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