Accusations over unpaid taxes, political attacks dominate three open Dallas City Council races

Accusations over unpaid taxes, political attacks dominate three open Dallas City Council races

Voters on June 5 will choose between Jesse Moreno and Sana Syed in 2, Jaynie Schultz and Barry Wernick in 11, and Gay Donnell Willis and Leland Burk in 13.
Six of the Dallas City Council’s 15 seats will be decided in the June 5 runoff. All 14 council seats were in play this spring; the mayoral term is four years and will next be on the ballot in 2023.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

By Everton Bailey Jr.

This is the second of two stories previewing the six Dallas City Council races in the June 5 runoff election.

Accusations are flying in three open and hotly contested Dallas City Council races north of Interstate 30.

Two involve candidates attacking opponents over unpaid taxes, and in District 11 an attorney is lobbying claims against his competitor about last summer’s protests and two failed ballot measures.

In all, six candidates are looking to succeedthree term-limited council members. People can vote anywhere in the city on election day but only have to choose between the two candidates seeking to represent the district where they live.

Twelve candidates total are competing in the June 5 runoff for six Dallas City Council seats after no one claimed more than 50% of the vote in the May 1 election. That includes races for districts 4, 7 and 14, which feature incumbents trying to ward off challengers.

Early voting started Monday and runs till May 30 and on June 1. Polls are closed next Monday for Memorial Day.

Here’s a look at the three open races:

District 2

In the District 2 race, Sana Syed says voters should think closely about electing her opponent, Jesse Moreno, who recentlypaid off a $148,000 state tax lien.

Levied in 2015, the lien, which stemmed from a sales tax audit of a restaurant he used to own that has since closed, was still active last week, according to state records.

Moreno, who is in the restaurant business, used to own the now-defunct Peak & Elm, which had been a spinoff of another family business, La Popular Tamale House.

Moreno, a former Park and Recreation board member who served from 2013 to last year, referred questions about the lien to his treasurer and tax attorney Mark Melton. Moreno declined to comment on his taxes except to say that he paid around $25,000 last week to settle the lien and was still waiting for a letter of release from the state comptroller’s office.

Jesse Moreno, a Dallas City Council candidate running to represent District 2, is shown on Saturday, May 22, 2021. He is one of two candidates competing in the June 5th runoff for the open council seat. (Allison Slomowitz/ Special Contributor)(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

Kevin Lyons, a spokesman for the state comptroller’s office, confirmed that Moreno had made his final payment on a plan.

Dallas’ city charter prevents people from serving as council members if theyowe city taxes and are not attempting to pay them off by the time they are elected. Part of the original $148,000 tax lien included $18,000 in taxes owed to the city, according to the lien document.

Syed is a real estate investment firm executive, nonprofit founder and former Dallas city spokeswoman. If elected, Syed would be the city’s first South Asian and first Muslim council member.

Dallas City Council District 2 candidate Sana Syed posed for a portrait at her home in downtown Dallas on Friday, May 21, 2021. Syed is one of two candidates running to represent parts of downtown and North and East Dallas in the June 5 runoff. (Lynda M. González/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

Both areseeking to represent an area that includes Deep Ellum, Oak Lawn, parts of downtown and the medical district.

Lyons said he couldn’t comment specifically on Moreno’s case but said it wasn’t uncommon for businesses to fail to pay their taxes or to collect the incorrect amount.

”People sometimes make mistakes,” Lyons said. “They don’t calculate the tax properly and then we go back and look at the books and have to make some decisions on what the tax is.”

Syed, 38, said she believes questions remain regarding her runoff opponent’s “ethics and integrity.”

“However you slice or dice it, at the end of the day he owed thousands of dollars to the city of Dallas,” Syed said. “For him to owe that much money and not move to pay it all off until recently speaks to whether he only does damage control when he’s held accountable. And that’s concerning.”

Moreno, 36, said he hoped his years of service around the district would resonate more with voters.

“[Syed] is a very intelligent person and has some great ideas, but I have a volunteer record of service to District 2 since I was in high school,” he said, “and my commitment and service to this district can’t be questioned.”

District 11

In this North Dallas district, Jaynie Schultz has accused the campaignof her opponent, Barry Wernick,of sending mailers to voters that she said either misrepresented or lied about her position on the summer protests and two recent ballot measures.

This June will mark the first time votersin this district will select their elected city official in a runoff since the council expanded from 11 to 15 seats in the early`90s.

Wernick says he believes addressing public safety concerns is Dallas’ main priority.

Schultz said that while she believes public safety is important, the city needs to tackle other issues such as homelessness, improving the city’s infrastructure and lowering property taxes. She served six years on the city’s Plan Commission before stepping down last fall.

Jaynie Schultz, pictured in her home on May 20, 2021, is running to represent District 11 of the Dallas City Council. She’s one of two candidates competing in the June 5 runoff for the open council seat. (Shelby Tauber/Special Contributor)(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

Schultz, 60, received an endorsement from Hosanna Yemiru, who finished third in the general election. She said Yemiru has been helping broaden her support ahead of the runoff.

Wernick, an attorney, said he believes he appeals more to conservatives in the district. Wernick also said that his pledge to not cut police funding and an endorsement from the Dallas Police Association have helped him.

“I’ve felt confident that if I got out and speak to people and they hear my message that I would get support,” said Wernick, 50.

District 11 candidate Barry Wernick photographed in Richardson, Texas on May 22, 2021. He is one of two candidates for the open council seat. (Lawrence Jenkins/Special Contributor)(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

Schultz said Wernick misrepresented one of her Facebook posts in support of racial equality by claiming she condoned property damage that occurred during some protests last summer after George Floyd’s police killing in Minneapolis.

Schultz also pointed to a second mailer from Wernick’s campaign that claimed she supported two propositions on the May election ballot. The failed measures would have allowed non-citizens to serve on four city advisory boards and commissions.

The mailer falsely claimed that the propositions would have allowed “convicted felons, the mentally incapacitated … non-residents, and even minors,” to serve.

Schultz said she never issued any public statements about her stance on the ballot measures.

Wernick, who stood by the claims on the mailers, said he felt voters should trust him over his opponent on issues concerning public safety.

“I’m not going down to City Hall to make friends,” he said. “I’m going there to do the right thing.”

Schultz said she didn’t believe her opponent had a broad platform for voters and was focusing on public safety to overcompensate.

“I wish I had an opponent where we could debate issues,” Schultz said. “But because he doesn’t have any qualifications for this, he’s chosen to make the whole thing personal.”

District 13

Candidate Leland Burk demanded that his runoff opponent, Gay Donnell Willis, drop out of the race for this northwest Dallas council seatafter his campaign created a website claiming she owed $500,000 in unpaid federal taxes from 2007 to 2011.

Donnell Willis has demanded an apology and that the website be taken down, accusing Burk’s campaign of “playing fast and loose with the facts.”

Whiledivorce records state that her ex-husband is “solely responsible” for any tax liabilities from the time they were married in 2000 until Dec. 31, 2012, her attorney says she owes nearly $16,000 in federal taxes.

“This is theatrics and a desperate campaign in a panic that is going super low because they may lose,” Donnell Willis said.

Burk, 59, said in a statement that elected leaders must be role models ”especially when it comes to abiding by the law, including tax laws. It’s also critical that we are honest. Gay Donnell Willis has missed on both of these points.”

Leland Burk, a Dallas City Council candidate running to represent District 13, poses for a photo at his campaign office in North Dallas, Friday, May 21, 2021. He is one of two candidates competing in the June 5th runoff for the open council seat. (Brandon Wade/Special Contributor)(Brandon Wade / Special Contributor)

Jason Freeman, Donnell Willis’ tax attorney, said a federal judge last year determined that his client personally owed the Internal Revenue Service $15,801.

In a statement, he described the owed taxes characterized online by Burk’s campaign as “incorrect and misleading” and that the full amount of unpaid taxes was “not properly attributable to Ms. Donnell Willis under the federal tax laws.”

“Ultimately, Gay Donnell [Willis] successfully demonstrated that she did not owe the tax amounts that are reflected on the website,” Freeman said.

Donnell Willis, 56, told The News last week that she said she didn’t know how much she still personally owed the IRS, saying a portion was paid off with prior tax returns. She called the release of her and her ex-husband’s tax documents “a big smokescreen.”

Gay Donnell Willis, a Dallas City Council candidate running to represent District 11, at her home on May 20, 2021 in Dallas. Willis is one of two candidates competing in the June 5th runoff for the open council seat.
Gay Donnell Willis, a Dallas City Council candidate running to represent District 11, at her home on May 20, 2021 in Dallas. Willis is one of two candidates competing in the June 5th runoff for the open council seat. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

This year marked Burk’s second attempt to claim a council seat.

Burk, a real estate developer, edged out Donnell Willis, Turtle Creek Conservancy chief executive, as the lead vote getter by about 100 votes.

Of the 14 council races earlier this month, District 13 had the highest voter participation and the narrowest gap between the top two finishers.

In campaign finance reports covering late March and late April, Donnell Willis reported raising close to $37,000 compared with more than $103,000 by Burk. At the time, she reported having no cash left to spend, while he claimed over $96,000.

“Having an opponent who is willing to spend so much money has been daunting at times,” Donnell Willis said, “and it’s been challenging to drive the awareness that’s been needed.”

Burk said he thinks the smaller runoff field will be an advantage to him. He said he felt his finance and business background experience make him “a very clear choice in this race.”

Staff researchers Meagan Hurley and Erin Sood contributed to this report.

Texas Metro News


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