The Arena Papers

Inside the secret City Hall files: A tale of dupes and deception

Dallas city councilwoman Donna Blumer could tell that her constituents were not happy.

For one thing, they wouldn't break into small discussion groups, which the city staff was asking them to do. For another, they weren't opening their city-issue manila envelopes, pulling out their city-supplied ballpoint pens and colored 3-by-5 cards--a waste of taxpayer money, people grumbled--and thinking of what they wanted to put on their capital-improvements wish list.

"The format laid out for us tonight includes an exercise," city aviation director Danny Bruce said brightly, sizing up the crowd that had gathered for this public hearing on the city's $150 million May 1995 bond program. "What's really important is to get data from you. The information you give us on your cards tonight will go into a data bank."

Eyes narrowed. These 60 people--all of whom had sacrificed home and hearth on a Tuesday night in November to come to the Walnut Hill Recreation Center in North Dallas--were not interested in playing games with the city staff. They wanted to get to the point--to the source of their enormous irritation.

And so they did.
"Unless we speak up right now, we're going to have to pay for a new sports arena," declared Mike Wilson, a 38-year-old husband, homeowner, and store-fixture distributor who stood up from his folding chair to address the group. "I just don't think it's practical to spend the $200 million they're saying this is going to cost when you have to weigh it against all the improvements we need in this city. I say put the item in the bond election--so we can kill it off."

Dr. Marvin Noble, a North Dallas resident and anesthesiologist at Presbyterian Hospital, was on his feet next. "This arena has me concerned, too," said Noble, looking at Blumer. "I know there is a significant amount of debt still owed on the old arena. Do you know how much?"

Blumer, standing in front of the room, wasn't sure. "We had some difficulty getting that information from staff the last time we had a briefing," she said, a bit embarrassed.

Noble shook his head. "I think the city council needs to insist that a new impartial party look at this and give us a real appraisal," he said. "If they don't, the citizens of this city will insist they all resign. And the council must insist that this arena be a publicly voted item."

Fix the roads, people began saying. Clean up the alleys. Dredge White Rock Lake. Restore Fair Park. Replace the 78-year-old downtown police headquarters.

North Dallas resident Bill Marx, a retired auto executive who lives in the neighborhood, had a more modest plea. "We need a maintenance man in this building," he said, referring to the 27,525-foot recreation center, one of the city's largest. As he spoke, a broken light fixture in the ceiling buzzed. "We haven't had one for three months--the city says we can't afford one."

Ed Oakley, a 42-year-old Oak Cliff resident who had driven north for the meeting, then rose to ask the staff a simple question: "How did we spend the last bonds--the $99 million from the '85 bond program that we issued this past June?"

The staff looked on blankly. Then the assistant director of housing, De McCombs, answered: "We don't have a list here with us."

The audience was not impressed.
"I'm kind of struck by the fact that it seems nobody's in charge," said Dick Hamilton, who works in commercial real estate and has lived for 25 years in the same North Dallas house. "People talk about things, and no one gets any action. The city staff runs amok--off running around, going after grandiose plans like sports arenas when the citizens are concerned about other things like crime and streets. It seems they are out of touch. At least that's the impression I get."

Blumer grimaced, then asked The Question.
"How many people here think we should build a new arena?"
No one raised a hand.

It was extremely quiet in the room as Blumer surveyed the audience, searching for a sign of support.

Finding none, the councilwoman seemed to get the message. "I personally think if we ask you to finance this, it's a big mistake," she said.

The group remained skeptical.
"If everyone's feelings seem to be the same here, why doesn't it ever echo down at city hall?" a bearded man asked from the back of the room. "All the people from the city stand here and shake their heads when people voice their concerns, but I guarantee you when they leave nothing will happen."

Blumer sighed. She had only been on the council a year. She was a former school teacher, not a politician. Quite frankly, she was baffled, too. "I wish I could answer that," she said. "I think your point is well-taken. We have a huge bureaucracy down there and a big turnover on the city council--every two years. And while we're trying to get answers, life goes on."

More than you know, Ms. Blumer.

The sad truth of the matter is that the members of the Dallas City Council are not in charge of the city's business. They are certainly not calling the shots on this crusade for a new arena. To the contrary, they don't even know the shots.

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