Blowup in City Hall

Councilman Duncan summons city staff for personal errand

The point here is that 13,000 employees live and die by the code of ethics. And unlike council members, who can get their tires blown up with a snap of a self-important finger, lowly employees pay the consequences for violating the code.

This includes the couple hundred people who work in equipment services, one of whom got fired a few years back, interestingly enough, after being accused of building a barbecue smoker on city time with city scrap metal for a superior--of all people, Dewayne Jackson. The employee, Mike Richey, hired a lawyer, produced witnesses and receipts that disproved the charge, and got his job back. "The rules and regulations, in the little red rules book, which they've fired so many people by, are not written for everybody," says Richey. "It's so unfair."

The point here is attitude. Arrogance. Those royal-like reflexes that seem to sprout, like mold on a mushy peach, on the brains of our local elected officials after five or 10 minutes on the hallowed fifth floor of 1500 Marilla.

Chris Luna, a congenial enough fellow, has the boorish bad habit of hitting his telephone as soon as a public hearing starts--yakking away as nervous citizens struggle and sweat to pour out their travails in the three miniscule minutes they're allotted to speak. Max Wells routinely spends council briefings with "bored" stamped on his forehead as he catches up on his magazine reading (in a new twist, he actually slept through a good portion of the arena renovation briefing two weeks ago.) Bob Stimson, a freshman who should still be feeling somewhat humble, recently chewed out a constituent for putting the councilman's published home number on a neighborhood flier about the proposed Oak Cliff racetrack.

Duncan, though, has always been the champion of the little people. He's the grass-roots guy, the stalwart defender of the smallest neighborhood, the most powerless constituent. He is the white guy who somehow managed to get elected to represent a district that is 61 percent black--twice.

Outwardly, there is nothing showy about him. He has "two suits and two ties," fellow councilmembers say fondly; a trashed-out office; and the hands-down worst car in the parking lot. He walks funny, talks funny, and barely ekes out a living out of his home as a computer programmer--a much less lucrative enterprise since he began spending all his daylight hours on public service.

"If anybody had to get hit on the behind with something like this, it's ironic that it's Larry," says one council colleague, "because he is the earthiest, the most home-grown--all that sort of stuff."

Then again, you could look at it a different way--as another councilmember does. "I absolutely love it that Duncan is the one who had his car worked on," the councilmember says, literally rubbing two hands together with glee. "If it had been one of us, he'd be high on his soap box, excoriating us publicly for our insensitive behavior."

Today, though, Larry Duncan is leaning low over his paper-strewn desk, his hands clasped before him like those of a schoolboy. He looks up with doleful eyes, as wide and wounded as Bambi. His shoulders are stooped. His cheeks are sunken. Even his moustache looks droopy. It is impossible not to feel this man's pain.

It's all so confusing, I say to him. You're the populist councilman.
"I am," he says weakly. "I am."
Duncan sinks lower as he hears the particulars: his tire repairman was one of his own constituents, making just $7.95 an hour, who had worked hard all day, only to get off work late thanks to Duncan's car "emergency."

Duncan digs around in his morass of papers, then pulls out two pages. One is a copy of the generic city invoice--which Dewayne Jackson had to go find in the ECI accounting department, since his division never uses such things. It seeks payment from Duncan for $25.80. The other page is a copy of Duncan's personal check for that amount--a check that he brought in the following day, he tells me, and one, I tell him, that another Canton Street employee was specially dispatched to City Hall to pick up. "We wasted another hour of time on that," an equipment services employee told me disgustedly.

Duncan insists that he never meant to get anything for free--that he always intended to pay for the service call, and that when Diane Harper returned from her parking-garage duty without a bill--"Do I need to sign something?" Harper had asked me in the garage that day, never mentioning money--he had insisted she go get one. (Dewayne Jackson insists that payment was his idea.)

One thing is clear, though. If Larry Duncan thought nothing two weeks ago of making city staff handle a pesky private problem that was impeding his public life, he won't do it again.

"It didn't strike me as unusual at the time," says Duncan, reflectively. "Because we had the equipment. We maintain a fleet of cars. Obviously it was not intended for people to run all over town. It was never intended for people to be late leaving work. Just as it's something that won't happen again. I don't make any excuses about it."

Which will certainly be music to the ears of city car mechanics everywhere.

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