Congratulations! You’re the Proud Owner of a Convention Center Hotel!

The council voted 11-2 to purchase land for a convention center hotel AND for the city to publicly own the hotel.

We all knew the vote on the land purchase was coming. We’ve been discussing it for months. What we didn’t know — what no one knew until Friday night — was that we were also voting on approving a publicly-owned convention center hotel that will put taxpayers on the hook for $500 million.

Didn’t hear anything about that? That’s because the very first time public ownership was even discussed was last week, when the economic development committee met behind closed doors. And suddenly, without public discussion or debate, the city was getting into the hotel business.

To add insult to injury, these two separate issues were mashed together into one voting item. You either voted to purchase the land AND public ownership of the hotel, or you voted against both.

A little background: on May 2, less than two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News reported on the mayor’s trip to China:

….Mr. Leppert acknowledged that a break-neck sprint toward a convention center hotel deal perhaps isn’t the most prudent course.

“You come to Hong Kong, and you see the benefits this has for a city,” the mayor said. “But the public money – you want to try to get to zero if you can. I don’t think that’s possible. But I want to take time to minimize it as much as possible.”

How is putting taxpayers on the hook for $500 million “minimizing” public money? How is $500 million anywhere close to “zero”?

Then, on May 6, just a week ago, the whole concept of public ownership was first discussed. Before, we’d only been talking about a public subsidy to encourage a private developer to build a convention center hotel. For example, the city could have purchased the land and given it to a private developer to construct and run the hotel. Now, instead, the city’s suddenly getting into the hotel business.

Here’s what really bothers me about this: the process, or lack thereof. There was NO public discussion about the city owning a hotel. Supporters keep saying “We’ve had months of discussion!” But they know that’s not true. We may have had months of discussion about buying the land, but we have not had ANY public discussion about public ownership.

Even the Dallas Morning News — a convention center hotel supporter — agreed the vote on public ownership was all going too fast:

[F]or those playing along at home – the taxpayers – this appears to be a dizzying sequence of events that did not allow for their participation.

Council members should delay a decision on the hotel’s ownership until this idea has been publicly vetted. The hotel will be an important asset for the city. But the project’s advocates must do more to make the case for the $500 million deal before committing public money to it.

Some council members have asked: Why wait? After all, their questions were answered during last week’s meeting. But Dallas residents who were left on the other side of that closed door might not share their view.

Because these were separate items, Councilmember Hill moved, and I seconded, “dividing the question” so that the two matters (purchase of land and public ownership) could be voted on separately.

The two issues (land purchase and city ownership of the hotel) should not have been combined. Councilmember Hill brought up a very important point: While the first issue — land purchase — may be time-sensitive (we might lose our $1 million option fee if we don’t purchase the property now), the second issue — public hotel ownership — is NOT time-sensitive. There is no urgency to approve public ownership. We didn’t have to do that today, and I can guarantee you we didn’t have enough facts to support it.

To me, this is a no-brainer. If someone really wanted to vote for the hotel, they’d get to vote twice — which is twice the fun. But we lost 7-6, with Hill, myself, Koop, Salazar, Medrano, and Atkins voting to divide the question. Unbelievable.

So forget about transparency. Forget about public discussion. Let’s just do it.

So we voted on both issues, together, even though they are not properly the same question. It passed 11-2 (Rasansky and Garcia could not vote due to a conflict).

The problem with this process is two-fold: One, there has been no public discussion. There has been no real vetting of the pros and cons of the city’s OWNING a convention center hotel.

Two, the city’s core competency is NOT hotel ownership. The city’s core competencies are, or should be, public safety and public infrastructure. We should be focused on providing the safest city, the smoothest streets, the cleanest neighborhoods. Once we master those basics, then we could consider moving on to things like hotel ownership. But to my knowledge, we’re not there yet.