The scapegoat

A mid-level staffer bears the brunt of a sleazy City Hall coverup

This one started to unravel on Friday, November 4, after the Dallas Observer--months after its first request--persuaded city officials that state law requires them to release city files on the arena project. That day, I was led into a conference room at the municipal building in Oak Cliff and given three cardboard boxes filled with arena documents belonging to the Public Works Department.

On the top of one of the boxes was scrawled "ASAP Study"--referring to a matter that, until that moment, only a handful of city employees knew about. It was a secret to the city council, the press, and, of course, the citizens of Dallas.

The bulk of the papers regarding the ASAP Study--the so-called "unauthorized study"--were from the files of Louise Elam.

Elam declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a November 9 memo--issued shortly after the Observer found a draft of the ASAP study--forbidding all city employees from discussing the arena project with the media. No one but the project director, Mike Marcotte, who was pulled out of the water department on July 1 to work on the arena full-time, may talk to the media about the arena, Benavides ordered.

With that memo, anybody who knew anything about the study--in essence, anyone who can help Louise Elam, now formally under investigation for hiring outside consultants without permission--was ordered to remain silent.

But on this issue, those in City Hall who know the truth are sickened by John Ware's attempt to blame Elam. So many people agreed--albeit reluctantly, because they fear retribution--to be interviewed for this story. Others are working hard behind the scenes to call off the witchhunt.

It is a witchhunt that is clearly intended to continue obscuring the truth. Who has City Manager Ware assigned to investigate how Louise Elam supposedly decided on her own to spend $50,000 on arena consultants?

New city controller Eric Kaalund. Before being promoted from a position in the city budget office, Kaalund--now charged with investigating the unauthorized ASAP study--was a member of the city's ASAP task force. Ask Kaalund how well he can investigate a study group on which he served, and he freezes like a deer caught in headlights. "I have no comment," he says. "That's between me and my boss."

And Keheley? How does he justify selecting Kaalund for this particularly sensitive job?

"If he feels uncomfortable, or anyone does, no one's told me that," Keheley declares.

City council members, for the most part, have been docilely accepting of the city manager's version of events. They've been wondering aloud why City Auditor Dan Paul, who normally handles these kinds of thorny matters, wasn't appointed to do the investigation. But with the exception of a comment or two, there's been no outcry, no expression of outrage at how the manager's office--consistent with its entire handling of the arena crusade--has kept critical information from them, not to mention the public.

City employees laugh miserably at the council's passiveness and naēvete--and their own sorry predicament. "We are just appalled by all this because how are we supposed to work for these people?" asks one public works employee. "If they are going to sacrifice someone of Louise's caliber, they'll sacrifice anybody."

Sentiment in City Hall about Louise Elam is pretty much universal.
"Louise Elam is a first-class city employee," says former Public Works department director Ramon Miguez, now interim director of the city's housing and neighborhood services department.

"Do you know how long I've known Louise Elam?" asks First Assistant City Attorney Charles Bierfeld.

Bierfeld, like Miguez, flatly--and courageously--declares that his bosses are falsely accusing Louise Elam. Both men say they know because they were aware of Elam's actions--and in Bierfeld's case, consulted with the city manager's office about them.

"I've never known her to not follow procedure exactly or not fully inform everybody about what she was doing," Bierfeld says. "She hasn't done anything wrong. And everybody knows that."

Elam is a soft-spoken, hard-working woman with a reputation for unflagging honesty. A registered architect who earned her degree with honors from the University of Texas at Austin, she is so skilled that her superiors appointed her as project manager on three of the city's most important, high-profile construction projects: the $85 million Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall, the $89 million Dallas Convention Center expansion, and the $42.7 million J. Erik Jonsson Dallas Central Library.

Elam has been in her job for 15 years. While Ware received a hefty raise this year, Elam, like most other city employees, has received only two small cost-of-living raises in the past nine years. She makes a little more than $44,000.

Despite underwhelming pay and bureaucratic headaches, she has remained on the job through the tenure of five city managers. They rewarded her performance with top assignments--as did John Ware, who named her project manager for the proposed new arena.

But the arena project has turned into a nightmare--and not just for Elam. From the beginning, the imperative has been to hurry up and get this damn thing built, with as little disruption as possible from the council or the tax-paying public.

Unlike Elam's other projects--which involved dozens of town meetings (as in the case of the library), years of study (as in the case of the convention center expansion), and several public votes on bond proposals (as in the case of the Meyerson), the sports arena has been on such a fast track that public--and even council--opinion has often been treated as an afterthought.

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