DFW Airport Board Member Ousted Because of Opposition to Trinity River Toll Road

Categories: Politics

elba_garcia.jpeg
Brian Harkin
Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Elba Garcia admits she helped remove John Loza from the DFW Airport board based on his position on the Trinity River toll road referendum.
When the Dallas City Council last week replaced former council member John Loza on the DFW Airport board with Brenda Reyes, we were reminded of the memorable 1997 battle between the two for the District 2 council seat. Reyes struggled with controversy early in her campaign, and she later spent time in the slammer after a nasty eye-scratching episode with her hubby.

Aside from Reyes's foibles, what really piqued our interest is why Loza, a seemingly effective board member, was ousted by someone with such obvious links to Mayor Tom Leppert. Reyes donated to the mayor's campaign, meets with him regularly and has collected nearly $200,000 in advertising and consulting payments from Leppert's mayoral campaign, Friends of Mayor Tom Leppert and Vote No! Save the Trinity, according to campaign finance reports and Leppert's calendar.

When we reached Loza for an explanation, he said "a certain Oak Cliff council member" told him "in no uncertain terms" that his appointment was not renewed because of his position on the Trinity River toll road referendum, as he actively supported the effort by TrinityVote to remove the road from Dallas's floodway.

We had a feeling Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Elba Garcia, chair of the committee recommending the appointees, was the council member in question. "That would be a good guess," he said.

Loza, a lawyer who served on the city council for eight years and began his term on the airport board in June 2007, says his removal has nothing to do with his performance or qualifications, and he was told by one of the five council members who supported him that the decision amounted to retribution.

"[Garcia] was under the impression that I had told her that I was not going to get involved in it -- I don't think I told anyone that -- and that I betrayed my promise when I got involved," Loza tells Unfair Park. "She just couldn't trust me is the way it was phrased to me."

Garcia says she told Loza before the 2007 referendum that the three Latino council members (herself, Steve Salazar and Pauline Medrano) supported the toll road, and they expected appointees to follow the leadership of the council. She then urged Loza to stand with them.

"He told me he would, but he didn't," Garcia says. "I take very seriously the commitment of the appointees to the council, especially when the three Latino council members supported him. There were no surprises. I was very open with him. He betrayed ... he didn't follow his word. OK? Let's put it that way."

But did she have any reservations about supporting someone so close with Leppert?

"Ms. Reyes was nominated by Mr. [Dwaine] Caraway and Mr. Salazar," Garcia says before darting off into her office to avoid further questions. "I supported that nomination."

Council member Angela Hunt, who voted to give Loza a second term and led the TrinityVote campaign, says she is unsure of the decision-making process used to select the appointees, and there was little discussion about the nominees as the process moved forward. Hunt claims she was never given a reason by Garcia regarding her support of Reyes over Loza.

Hunt says Garcia's decision is fiscally irresponsible because the DFW Airport is "such a huge business," and the city needs "the very best people" to run it.

"For Dr. Garcia to be basing her decision on political payback because John Loza didn't toe the line on the Trinity issue and actually came out in support of the common sense position, to me, that's irresponsible on her part," she says. "Elba was charged with a very large task of chairing this committee to find the very best candidate for the DFW board. To know now that her decision was based on petty political payback, that's just not good leadership."

Lillie Biggins, chair of DFW Airport board and vice president of operations at Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth, hadn't heard about the two new appointees (Betty Culbreath, also nominated by Salazar and Caraway, replaced Sanmi Akinmulero) because she has been out of town. She describes Loza as a consummate professional who never missed meetings and always came prepared.

"I'm disappointed that John wasn't reappointed," Biggins says. "He made a very powerful, strong and committed board member. I will miss him because he added a lot of value to the board."

She cites Loza's political background as making him a "natural fit" for the board, and she says he asked the right questions and gave detailed and structured feedback.

"I thought he did an awesome job," Biggins says. "I'm very proud to have served with John on this board. He has certainly made the airport a better place for being there, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart."

Biggins has served on several boards and says serving on the airport board has proved to be the most important. "So much is dependent on it, but it's such a political instrument," she says. "I don't know how these mayors make these decisions."

Mayor Leppert was asked to comment, but he refused to do so through his chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, continuing a trend of staying silent. (He recently snubbed The Dallas Morning News regarding his plans to take over the Dallas Independent School District and his ties to Washington Mutual.) "The Mayor is not going to comment on this," Heinbaugh wrote in an e-mail.

Unfair Park submitted an open records request regarding the board nominees and received a list dated January 21 that did not include Reyes or anyone else in consideration for Loza's seat, with Loza receiving his nomination from Medrano. A subsequent request showed that Reyes's application was received January 22.

An analysis of campaign finance reports for Mayor Leppert, Friends of Mayor Tom Leppert and Vote No! Save the Trinity revealed that Reyes and her company, Arriba Solutions, has received a total of $197,739.65 from the three committees. Reyes also contributed $3,500 to Leppert's mayoral campaign.

After considering running for county judge in 2010, Loza says he has backed out of the race because "the waters will be too crowded." Dallas County Judge Jim Foster is expected to run for another term, with fellow Democrats Clay Jenkins, Sam Coats and Larry Duncan expected to compete in the primary. Cedar Hill City Council member and lawyer Wade Emmert is gaining momentum on the Republican side, and there has also been chatter about former Dallas City Council member and mayoral candidate Gary Griffith throwing his name into the mix for the GOP.

Loza remains steadfast in his position on the Trinity Turnpike, claiming it will never be built. "It's just real ironic, especially because the deeper we get into this whole Trinity thing, the more it turns out those of us on the other side were right about it," he says.

As for Leppert, Loza isn't optimistic that the mayor will be coming around to his way of thinking any time soon. "He's not the kinda guy who has enough guts to admit he's wrong," Loza says. "I wouldn't hold my breath; let's put it that way."


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