Wide open town

Unlike Big D, Houston thrives on open government

Sure he will. Councilman Paul Fielding knew better--he'd complained to Lindsay behind closed doors a number of times without result when his colleagues veered off into impermissible territory. So Fielding spoke up, too, at that point, with his own small plea for openness."It would seem that when we have private sessions first and then go into public sessions on these matters," Fielding said, "there's a lot less information to discuss publicly."

The other council members looked on with clear disdain. These two jerks, Blumer and Fielding, were always mouthing about public disclosure, especially when it came to the sports arena. What a couple of bores. Mayor Pro Tem Max Wells--sitting in for Mayor Kirk, who had disappeared to take a long-distance phone call--quickly decided to nip the whole foul subject in the bud.

"I will assure you that if I believe there is anything being discussed that shouldn't be under the Texas Open Meetings Act, I will stop the meeting, and we will come back out and talk about it," Wells said.

Actually, that was a bit of an exaggeration. Wells couldn't stop the meeting himself because, unfortunately, he didn't know the law regarding open meetings--after eight years on the council, he (and virtually everybody on the council) still had to ask the city attorney (with his lousy track record on the subject) to explain open government to him--which he did twice in that meeting.

And twice, Lindsay told him that everything was hunky-dory. (Convention center refinancing and the creation of a sports authority to issue arena bonds are closed-door subjects?)

Judge? What judge?
So, where does the $35 million come from?
That seems like an easy enough question. After all, if the city of Dallas--in other words, the taxpayers of Dallas--has tripled the arena offer to Carter, which is what the council members agreed to do behind closed doors last week, then the taxpayers deserve to know where all that lovely money comes from. Right?

"I'm not talking about the arena," says our new mayor of inclusiveness Ron Kirk. "There are enough people leaking information about it as it is."

Okay. If the mayor won't talk to the people, let's try Max Wells--a man of great lip service to openness in government and the only person who was officially blessed by the council to lobby the Texas Legislature this session for truckloads of state money for the public subsidization of professional basketball in Dallas. (I say officially because the two mayors, Bartlett and Kirk, unofficially fell all over themselves to get on those Southwest shuttles to Austin--their repeat visits made Max Wells' presence look like indifference.)

Wells is even less chatty than Kirk when asked about the origins of the $35 million. "I just don't talk about executive session."

And how about you, David Morgan, director of the Downtown Sports Development Project--which is an entire department that was set up by John Ware a year ago to make this arena happen. Does Mr. Morgan want to tell the good citizens of Dallas how it is that we have magically discovered $35 million for an arena, yet we have no money to buy library books, or fully staff the rec centers, or water the medians and parks?

"It was discussed in executive session, and I can't talk about it," Morgan says before adding, as though we're playing a great mystery game, "I can't even confirm that that number was the one that was discussed."

(It must be noted here that Morgan at least returns phone calls on this subject--even though the results are often worthless--which is more than can be said for his boss, City Manager John Ware, who did not return our calls. As a matter of fact, Ware must be getting tired of answering questions about a lot of things because he recently had his home phone number changed to an unlisted number.)

The most ridiculous thing about these people trying to play three-card monte with the public is that the answers are out there. There are a handful of elected officials, bureaucrats and private citizens who are in the know and willing, in the interest of public disclosure and the realization that we are spending other people's money here, to go off the record and spill the details. Which we will repeat in gory detail at a later time.

There are people, in other words, who see that openness in government is important--especially when you need to convince large masses of people that the No. 1 priority in an aging, cash-strapped city is a spanking-new $142 million arena for professional basketball players to run around in.

Houston, Texas' largest city, toys with this idea of building a new sports arena too, mind you. But there's one enormous difference between us and them. A mind-boggling difference actually: Houston's city charter prohibits the 15-member city council from meeting behind closed doors. Ever. "All meetings of the Council and of all committees thereof shall be open to the public..." Sec. 3 of the Houston city charter states.

And it's been this way since 1942 when the citizens of Houston voted in a charter election to ban all executive sessions of the council.

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