Profile: Judge Clay Jenkins

Profile: Judge Clay Jenkins

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Contributed by:
Ezra Loh
Assoc. AIA

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Profile: Judge Clay Jenkins

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins began his first term in office January 1, 2011. A native to the DFW area, he and his office have been involved in issues including Dallas public health, transportation, education reform, and security. Responsible for county disaster recovery and emergency preparedness, Jenkins has had to lead the charge against several key events that Dallas County has faced in recent years. These efforts have affected Dallas County on both a local and international scale—from extreme weather destruction to national health-related viruses like Ebola and West Nile. An advocate for public health, Jenkins was awarded the Millard J. and Robert L. Heath Award for his commitment, leadership, and service to the community.

Columns met Judge Jenkins at the County Judge offices in the West End to discuss the ways he has dealt with issues impacting the growth and resilience of Dallas.

The tornadoes that damaged many parts of North Texas in December 2015 left hundreds without homes and claimed several lives. In what ways did the surrounding communities respond to the devastation? What steps were taken to assist with the immediate response to the event?

We had a large number of community groups and volunteers assist in the aftermath cleanup of the tornadoes. Volunteer organizations like Red Cross and VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) came together to provide temporary shelter and assist with immediate repairs like tarping roofs and mitigating debris. It is similar to the dynamics of a family. When a member of your family is hurt or injured unexpectedly, it brings the rest of the family together. No matter what the event may be, it is important to establish trust and communication within the community so that in times of devastation people will look to you to provide leadership and guidance. You have to work together collaboratively through these sorts of things and treat everyone like you would want to be treated if you were in the same situation. There was the “resiliency of the people” that involved the response from people in our immediate area, but also those from both East and West Texas who came in and wanted to help. We had volunteer groups like the Baptist Men from as far away as Georgia and South Carolina provide assistance and expertise and supplies and feed people with giant trucks of food.

Aside from food and shelter, what were other concerns for those affected by the destruction?

One of our main priorities was to protect our citizens from the scammers that tend to take advantage of these situations. Therefore, we worked quickly with the insurance companies locally, the state Department of Insurance, and other law enforcement offices to make sure that every town required permits before any work could be done on the damaged homes. In order for individuals to perform repair work on roofing for example, they had to prove they were a company with a bond able to do the work. This helped to prevent fraud and other illegitimate businesses from exploiting individuals. Most of the homes in the hardest hit areas of Glenn Heights, Rowlett, and Garland were in the 5- to 20-year-old range and roughly 83% of these homes were covered by homeowners’ insurance that allowed for the owners to be placed in hotels. There was still a percentage of uninsured victims, and therefore with the assistance of the Red Cross we set up temporary shelters until we could move these individuals into hotels as well.

As head of the county, what are some of the responsibilities you and your team are tasked with?

When it comes to both public health and mental health responsibilities, Dallas, like most cities here in the United States, has ceded that role to the county. Therefore, mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika and West Nile, or even Ebola fall under the responsibility of the county. From a governmental body standpoint, there is a heavy county focus on public health, but that rarely stands alone. There are mental health issues that must be looked at as well. Take “Tent City” for example. Those who live outside of the city limits might say the homeless individuals are the City of Dallas’ responsibility. However a lot of those individuals suffer from mental illness as well and that’s where the county steps in. There is no money in the City of Dallas’ budget to assist those with mental illness; it’s the responsibility of the county.

The Ebola virus presented a public health scare for over six weeks here in Dallas. How did you and the team you assembled deal with the issues at hand? How did you deal with the public at large?

We have to be prepared for the unexpected. We reached out to our friends at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) who we had worked with closely during the West Nile virus epidemic in Dallas back in 2012. I was asked by CDC Director Tom Frieden to take charge of the crisis here in Dallas. That night, we literally had to create the incident command structure for Ebola on a whiteboard because at the time there was not one in the United States. The problem with emergencies is the next emergency you face is not the same as the previous one. There was a fear amongst people. As a leader in charge, you have to remain calm because people are scared and in fear and the most important thing you can do is to communicate.

Tell us your immediate thoughts upon being placed in charge of the Ebola crisis? What did you want the public know?

In every emergency situation, there is a science. It may be the science of public health or epidemiology. In the case of weather disaster, it may be the science of climatology or first response to weather-related disasters. We have great subject matter experts spending their lives studying these topics and giving you the best advice. What I was told by the CDC and our local health officials was that there was no way to get Ebola from a person who had not yet shown signs of having the disease. The key things we had to keep in mind were disease-tracking with anyone who had come in contact with the infected individual Eric Duncan, moving his family to safety, and communicating directly with the public to assuage any fears and unrest. Therefore, we made it an absolute priority to communicate with the public at 7 a.m. every morning—either myself or Mayor Mike Rawlings—if events took place overnight. If there was breaking news during the daytime, then we would ensure our subject matter experts gave an update as soon as possible. Leaders can pave the way for certain types of community responses. They can incite fear and even violence or they can call for compassion and reason. Ultimately, a community will decide how the community responds.

It has been almost two years since Ebola landed on U.S. soil. There was obvious fear and panic in the general public and the press, but as the saying goes “Time heals everything.” What did we learn as a city from this event? How do you think other cities across the U.S. viewed our response to the crisis?

It is interesting that the year before Ebola landed in Dallas we had marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy here in Dallas. People were very focused on working to have the appropriate remembrance of the solemn occasion and move Dallas beyond the ugly pejorative as the “City of Hate.” The way Dallas reacted to the Ebola incidents was an example of showing its status as an exemplar city. The citizens and the city dealt with that in a mature way. I think what we have seen more in Dallas in recent years is a place of love and acceptance. I have heard this traveling across different parts of the country and even places as far away as the Vatican. That is one of the things that sets Dallas apart. It is one of things that makes Dallas resilient. The opposite of fear is not actually bravery and courage. The opposite of fear is love. And they exhibit love toward their fellow man. We tend to show this in a bi-partisan way here in Dallas, which can be very different from other cities.

As Dallas continues its progress to becoming a world-class city, what other vital issues are we focused on improving?

I think it gets down to one thing and that is what kind of city do you want to be? When compared to other cities across the globe, we have shown our resilience as a city. Geographically, Dallas is not situated next to an ocean or the plain between mountains. It is here because people built it. They chose to build in North Texas and because of that we now attract talent from all over the world. We have a diverse economy within an urban context that is unique to this region of Texas. There is a huge need for urban planning ideas and initiatives as we tackle these issues. We have a TXDOT-led initiative called the Dallas CityMAP that is looking at the urban core and the role the surrounding highway system should play in quality of life and economic development, not just connecting people and places along these roadway corridors. Their engineers are looking at the cost analysis of additional deck parks across downtown freeways like I-30 and the impacts of taking down highways like I-345. These studies will improve regional mobility and safety, improve neighborhood quality of life, and enhance economic development.

In addition to establishing more connectivity in our neighborhoods, what other priorities are important to consider for the growth of downtown Dallas and the surrounding communities?

One of our focuses has been strengthening our public school system first and foremost. We have to find ways to keep families here and I think we are achieving that in places in small scale. We are continually making efforts to improve Dallas ISD so that when young people have their first child they are able to stay here in the city. There has been great success with our magnet schools here. Your child can get an exemplary education at a DISD magnet school. However, only our top 2% to 3% of kids who test and are eligible can attend a magnet school. One of the upcoming initiatives we have is the partnership with the Dallas County Community College District to introduce eight new collegiate academies in fall 2016 that will allow DISD high schools to offer dedicated programs geared towards health sciences, information technology, culinary arts, and even law enforcement. This would ultimately enable students to earn associate’s degrees tuition-free while in high school. We think that’s a practice that could keep a lot more parents and taxpayers in Dallas, as opposed to moving to the suburbs up north.

Downtown Dallas has experienced a resurgence in commerce, housing, and connectivity to its surrounding neighborhoods. How will these changes continue to affect the rest of the city? Where do you see the role of architects in this development?

Five years ago, we had a fledgling Cedars neighborhood and an Arts District that were beginning to mature. There was a grocery store that had just closed downtown. There was one hotel and maybe one block of Main Street and Elm Street that was safe and fun to visit. Today, there is much more going on there. We are getting close to achieving that crucial critical mass downtown. I also think architects have a role to play in the preservation of buildings. Sometimes it is in the developer’s best interest to give the highest quality of life to the neighborhood. Other times that same interest doesn’t necessarily fit into the fabric of the neighborhood, but it is the best rate of return for their shareholders. Having architects on board with the revitalization of communities like the West End will help mitigate these decisions. We want to be the cool place for companies wanting to do their start-ups. We already rank highly as a city where college graduates come to get a good job. Our housing stock is affordable, there is good entertainment with nightlife, sporting events, parks, and outdoor spaces. Setting the table so we can continue to grow and have more of these amenities is important to attract not just those in their 20’s, but older adults as well.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work as Dallas County Judge?

What's not to love? I enjoy meeting new people and working on challenging projects. Being able to positively affect our community in a "macro way" is very rewarding.

What are some of your favorite places to go or activities to do here in Dallas?

I enjoy taking trips to the Dallas Zoo and Dallas Arboretum with my daughter and anything that involves spending time with friends and family. I also enjoy biking around White Rock Lake, jogging, skeet shooting, and eating great Mexican food at Mr. Mesero, 4444 McKinney Ave.!

You mentioned bike riding as a hobby of yours. Do you have a favorite route or trail here in Dallas?

A group of us including AIA former President Larry Good ride on Saturdays and either ride a northern loop through Preston Hollow and Northhaven or a southern loop through Trinity Strand and Bishop Arts. 


Interview by Ezra Loh, Assoc. AIA with Corgan.