Who's the boss?

Council needs to take charge in arena debate

Someone in the Dallas city manager's office is not telling the truth.
Fabricating. Covering up. Dissembling.
And almost no one seems to care about it.

That's disturbing--because it's not a lowly clerk or mid-level stiff who's bending the truth. It's city manager John Ware and his top deputies, first assistant Cliff Keheley and assistant city manager Ted Benavides.

The occasion, of course, is the crusade by the city manager's office to bring Dallas a new sports arena. That may or may not be a good idea--it is impossible for the public to know for sure. There have been so many preconceived notions about what to do (yes, build a new arena) and where to do it (downtown, on land owned by billionaire Ray Hunt) that alternative sites and ideas--such as renovating Reunion Arena--have never received honest consideration. Instead, the city manager's office has orchestrated a dishonest process--one that's played out not in the open, where public officials are supposed to discuss spending up to $200 million in taxpayers' money, but in corporate boardrooms, on private jets, and in closed-door meetings at city hall.

It is this corrupt process, in fact, that may ultimately doom plans for a new arena.

As Observer columnist Laura Miller has revealed, the city manager's office secretly organized a rush-rush study group--appropriately known as "ASAP"--in early April to consider a single Reunion-area location. It failed to say a word about the matter to the council, even when it became clear that the study would require outside consultants--consultants whose fees would quickly exceed the $10,000 limit that city administrators can authorize.

Instead of going to the council, city administrators came up with the brainy idea of paying for the consultants with bond money set aside for the convention-center expansion. The feeble rationale: the consultants were examining (albeit as a secondary issue) what impact a new arena would have on the center. Although the consultants would ultimately cost $49,750, the city manager's office didn't want to go through the time-consuming process of submitting the question to the council.

All this remained a secret--until the Observer forced the manager's office to open up city files on the arena. That's when Laura Miller discovered the existence of the ASAP arena study--and the clandestine methods used to pay for it.

How did the powerful men in the city manager's office react upon learning of Miller's inquiries about the matter? Ware, Keheley, and Benavides blamed it all on a scapegoat. They came up with a cover story: A mid-level bureaucrat, eventually identified as public works staffer Louise Elam, had authorized the consultants' work on her own--deciding, without any approval or authorization, to spend almost $50,000 to study a new arena.

Elam's motivation for this wanton act was unclear--a personal passion for arena studies perhaps? Nonetheless, the city manager's office--furiously practicing spin control--turned the secret study over to the city council and offered this tale to the Morning News, which ate it up. "Sports-site study was drafted without OK," read the November 16 News headline. Benavides was quoted calling the ASAP study "an unauthorized report." He said he hadn't known it existed until about two weeks earlier. Ware said he had known nothing about the study until a week earlier, was "upset about it," and considering disciplinary action against the city staffer.

Then Ware and Keheley went before a closed meeting of the city council--and told the councilmembers the same thing. It was all Louise Elam's fault. They had known nothing about the ASAP study, nothing about the spending of $50,000 on outside consultants.

One might have expected the council to ask some tough questions. How could a mid-level city employee spend $50,000 on her own? If true, wasn't that a frightening revelation about the fiscal controls in Ware's administration?

Nonetheless, the majority of this remarkably timid council similarly gobbled up Ware's tale. If it were up to the council, the matter would have been dropped. Louise Elam might even have been disciplined.

Unfortunately for Ware, Keheley, and Benavides, Miller had uncovered documents proving that Elam had not acted on her own. The ASAP committee, in fact, had been assembled at Keheley's direction. Keheley, in turn, had delegated Benavides to keep in close contact with the panel.

The group included several high-level city administrators, including city budget director Pat Parrish and Elam's boss in public works, Ramon Miguez. All had been aware that the consultants had been hired--with full authorization. First assistant city attorney Charles Bierfeld even confirmed to Miller that he had given his legal blessing for the byzantine method of paying the consultants.

The documents combined with an outcry among city employees against the slimy attempt to blame Elam--a public official with an impeccable track record. So despicable was this act, this attempt by city hall's most powerful men to blame an innocent woman, that several stood up and told the Observer that what their bosses had said was a lie. "She hasn't done anything wrong," Bierfeld declared, about Elam. "And everybody knows that."

Keheley, while denying any personal knowledge that the consultants had been hired, told Miller that spending convention center money on an arena study was wrong. "The contracts were to design and build the convention center expansion, not to do an arena study. Even if there were money left in those contracts...the money goes back into the fund that it was initially authorized."

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