West Dallas residents who want GAF shingle plant closed disappointed by council member's response
West Dallas residents have long said the decades-old GAF shingle plant along Singleton Boulevard is polluting their air and harming their health. Nearly two years into a campaign to shut the plant down, residents are asking for public support from their council member.
At a Saturday community meeting, they asked District 6 Council Member Omar Narvaez to vocally oppose a planned city ordinance that could limit one of the only remaining resources they have left at their disposal to shut down the plant.
But Narvaez told residents during the meeting that although he supports a resident’s right to file for a forced closure — or amortization — any attempt to “directly or indirectly" influence city processes goes against his personal ethics — and may be illegal.
When residents asked what specific city, state or federal ethics laws and codes Narvaez would be potentially breaking by advocating on their behalf, he said his lawyer could sit down with them and explain that.
Some who attended the meeting say they felt belittled by Narvaez — and that it has been roadblock after roadblock at city hall.
West Dallas resident Esther Vasquez said she feels Narvaez and city hall aren’t doing enough for her community.
“From what I hear from you, you’re just like hiding behind rules and ethics,” Vasquez said. “You’re not really trying…people are here because we want to see change. But you put up this wall of hiding behind rules and ethics.”
‘This is not…easy’
Residents who attended Saturday’s meeting wanted to know the status of an authorized hearing called last year to evaluate the zoning around the facility, an update on a zoning change request GAF applied for — and to ask Narvaez if he would publicly oppose a drafted amortization ordinance.
That ordinance could limit a resident’s right to file for a scheduled closure. West Dallas resident have tried twice to file but have been barred from doing so both times.
Narvaez said the situation is more complicated than that.
“This is not an easy, ‘Oh just shut GAF down’,” Narvaez said during the meeting. “The victory is that GAF said they are going to leave…I’m telling you that right now.”
In 2022 GAF executives said they planned to leave the area voluntarily and started negotiating with West Dallas residents. By the end of the year those negotiations had failed and the company applied for a zoning change. Their plan was still to shut down the plant and leave the area — by 2029.
That zoning proposal has been “getting closer” to a city hearing, according to Narvaez.
Residents say that’s not soon enough. The authorized hearing that was called last year by District 6 Plan Commissioner Deborah Carpenter, would potentially change the zoning of the entire area.
But Narvaez said West Dallas’ authorized hearing is number 11 of around 20 in total across the whole city. And officials use new ways to determine who gets to the front of the line.
“That’s with all the new policies that we have put in place that score it,” Narvaez said. “So racial equity plan, the environment plan…that’s where it scored was number 11.”
And that process is very slow — a minimum of two years — according to Narvaez. That’s when the item gets to the top of the list.
Janie Cisneros is the leader of Singleton United/Unidos, a community group advocating for the closure of the plant and clean air for her area. Cisneros lives a stone's throw away from the plant. She said every avenue community members hoped to use to shut the plant down have been stalled.
“Everything is going in favor of giving GAF more time to stay here,” Cisneros told KERA.
And Cisneros said her community sees the problem in very clear and simple terms.
“It’s not very complicated for us that we are out here inhaling poison,” Cisneros said. “It’s not complicated for us that we want the poison to cease, we want to toxins gone.”
‘Disrespected and belittled’
After Narvaez gave updates about the different processes GAF is currently involved in, community members asked questions and voiced their concerns.
Cisneros said that they hadn’t heard from Narvaez about the issue — specifically about standing behind their campaign, publicly. She described that as taking action and vocally opposing the city’s proposed amortization ordinance.
“We haven’t heard from you at all about advocating for us or supporting us, standing behind us,” Cisneros asked during the meeting. “How come we haven’t heard from you?”
Narvaez told the room that he is “ethically and legally” prohibited from voicing his opinion publicly.
“I am supposed to allow the process to go through without directly or indirectly influencing the commissioners and the commission,” Narvaez said. “Let’s say it’s a 50/50 split between the community — I’ve just told half the people that I’m never going to listen to you again.”
When asked if he would initiate a city council memo that takes a stance against the code change “unless a residents’ right to file remains in place,” his answer was no.
“That would be illegal,” Narvaez said. “Because I would still be directly or indirectly influencing the commission as far as what they’re trying to do.”
“Is it very ethical for you personally to continue to allow this to happen and not advocate for your community?” Singleton United/Unidos member Angel Garcia Donjuan asked during the meeting.
Again, Narvaez claimed he would violate his personal ethics and ethics laws by making his opinion known publicly about the issue.
Rolando Cerda is a West Dallas resident who attended Saturday’s meeting. He said he spent some time during the meeting reading the ethics rules.
“The rule of ethics say nothing about you expressing what the people want,” Cerda said at the meeting. “No where in there did it ever say that a councilman is not allowed to voice the opinion of the public because that’s the whole purpose of a [council member].”
At the meeting, Cerda asked Narvaez to point to specific city, state or federal codes that would prohibit him from talking about the issue or taking a stand and got a similar response to what Cisneros said he'd told her earlier.
Narvaez pointed to his past successes in getting cement batch plants removed from the West Dallas area — and for his contribution to the city’s environmental plan and commission. He told residents that he was once an activist too — but now things are different.
“My job is to get stuff done inside city hall,” Narvaez said. “You want me beating on a drum and walking up and down Singleton in front of GAF…yeah I can do that. It’s not getting you anything from city hall because they’re not watching that. They don’t care.”
After the meeting however, several residents said they were frustrated at the lack of support they received from Narvaez. Some said they think they might be asking too much of their elected official.
“I am appalled at how he disrespected and belittled his constituents,” Cisneros told KERA “He is not willing to fight for his frontline residents. It was very clear that Omar Narvaez is city hall first, not people first.”
A community coming together?
The meeting ended with no more information other than a confirmation that amortization is off the table, the zoning case is moving along and the authorized hearing could take years to begin and complete.
Residents said they’re not sure city officials have shown they are working for their benefit. Narvaez said he believes information and questions asked during the meeting had already been sent to residents — and maybe the communication breakdown was on the community organizers.
“I’m afraid that were asking too much of him,” Cisneros said. “We’ve been expecting a champion, a gladiator because that is what he claimed…turns out he’s not.”
And other residents voiced their concerns and frustrations after the meeting concluded as well. Those ranged from feeling like the council member was hiding behind other people to blaming residents and even telling lies.
Cisneros said though she is frustrated with Narvaez and city hall — she is encouraged by her community showing up.
“I am just so proud of the residents in the Singleton corridor,” Cisneros told KERA. “I am so proud they showed up, they were vocal, they were speaking their mind and asking tough questions. To me the unity in the room was just breathtaking.”
The city’s plan commission is scheduled to discuss the proposed amortization ordinance in early 2024 — possibly along with the GAF zoning change application.
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