Wide open town

Unlike Big D, Houston thrives on open government

It was the dawn of a new day at Dallas City Hall.
The city's freshly minted, first African-American mayor--Ron "the-blame-game-is-over" Kirk--had finally slipped into the lead chair in the city's council chambers. It was his first day actually running a council meeting--his first real opportunity to seize his electoral mandate and lead his fellow elected officials into a new promised political era of peace, harmony and prosperity.

True, it wasn't the smoothest transition of power anybody had ever seen.
The new mayor clearly hadn't spent the previous evening clutching a copy of Robert's Rules of Order to his pillow (he'd spent it speaking to a group of women Realtors, actually). And he quickly showed that he didn't like being reminded of his lack of knowledge on parliamentary procedure--at least not when his tutor was councilman Paul Fielding, who, not unlike a puppy who had jumped up and soiled the new mayor's trousers, was verbally smacked on the nose by his fearless leader for merely raising a point of order on a matter.

And so it became a day of multiple historic firsts. Just not all of them good.

"I've never seen two executive sessions before," two-time councilwoman Donna Blumer told me, looking over the day's agenda and pointing to the two closed-door meetings that were scheduled. "I've just reread my charter, and it says executive sessions should be kept to a minimum. But instead, they almost dominate every meeting we have."

And it's a certainty that under our new mayor it's only going to get worse.
As a matter of fact, when City Secretary Bob Sloane received his copy of the agenda two weeks ago for Wednesday's meeting, he was surprised to see one executive session on the agenda, never mind two.

"Mayor (Steve) Bartlett just did not want executive sessions to be held unless they were absolutely necessary on a voting agenda day because they took too much time," Sloane told me. "So there were never any executive sessions on the regular agenda."

Don't misunderstand. Bartlett never met a closed-door meeting he didn't like. He just wanted to ghetto-ize those meetings, relegating them to alternate Wednesdays--to the council's more informal briefing days. In reality, there were plenty of executive sessions held on formal voting days because the city manager and city attorney often threw an executive session on the updated agendas that were posted just a few days before the meeting.

Now, though, under our new mayor of unity and inclusiveness, no one's even giving lip service to openness. Kirk's first big day in charge saw a shameful 60-40 split between public discussion and private scheming, respectively.

The day went like this: An hour in public, some of it listening to the paltry five citizens who are allowed to speak their minds before the biweekly meeting. Then it was an hour behind closed doors discussing pending litigation with the city attorney.

After that, the council reappeared before the masses for 75 minutes to discuss such earth-shattering matters as committee appointments, renewal of a carpet-cleaning contract at city hall, and whether or not to continue leasing public land to The Dallas Morning News for a song for their news boxes--an item that some council members found distasteful, but not newly re-elected Al Lipscomb, who stressed openly that he wouldn't dream of doing anything against the mighty News for fear of offending its editorial board, which he said he might need when it came time for re-election. (Trust me, this was not a joke.)

The council then took a one-hour lunch. It came back for two deadly boring hours of zoning cases. Then it was back behind closed doors for 90 minutes, during which time council members discussed the only meaty, interesting topic of the day--the one thing that engaged citizens listening on the radio or sitting in council chambers surely wanted to hear.

"I've asked this question in the past," Donna Blumer piped up, just before the council disappeared into the closed-door sports arena briefing. "May I ask the city attorney if there is anything that we will be discussing regarding the sports facility that could possibly be discussed in open session?"

Reluctantly, City Attorney Sam Lindsay approached the podium. This was not exactly a happy man. U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall had just issued an opinion the week before castigating him for his Swiss cheese-like legal advice on this very subject. And it was clear to anyone who had read the judge's opinion that Lindsay either didn't understand the Texas Open Meetings Act, or he just didn't feel like making the council follow it.

(It's not a tough law to figure out. Basically, city councils must meet in public, though there are four reasons they can cite for going behind closed doors during a public meeting. They are discussions of personnel matters, consultations with the city attorney, certain matters of safety and security, and sensitive real estate deliberations involving, specifically, "the purchase, exchange, lease, or value of real property.")

"One aspect that probably could be discussed is the condemnation process," Lindsay said. "If there's anything else that can be [discussed] in open session, I will tell the council they need to do that."

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.

"We haven't had a closed-door meeting of the council in a long time," says Houston City Secretary Anna Russell. "There was one time they did go into one executive session--back in the '70s I think it was--and I believe the mayor cited the charter and refused to participate."

Russell was right. Fred Hofheinz was the mayor. It was 1975. And he remembers the incident quite well.

"It involved the selection of a city attorney," says Hofheinz, a lawyer who retired from politics when his mayoral term was up in 1978. "I had nominated the first black city attorney in the history of Houston. And the city council took the position that going into executive session to discuss him was an exception to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and I said it was not. Eventually, they voted on whether or not to vote to support his nomination in secret session, and I sat outside in the hallway while they had their little session. My picture was on the front page of the Houston Chronicle the next day."

Justice did prevail: The black attorney was supported unanimously. And the city council never met behind closed doors again--never even tried, near as anyone can recall.

Those elected officials down in Houston just don't like doing things behind the public's back. Examples abound.

Six months ago, the city attorney wanted the council to approve a $150,000 settlement he had negotiated with some people who had sued the city for wrongful demolition--the council had no problem with the amount of money, but they did have a problem with the attorney's request to seal the deal so the public wouldn't know the details of the settlement. The council refused. And like all their other legal settlements, that one was made public.

City Controller George Greanias can also tell you about the one time he asked the council to go behind closed doors to review a highly sensitive audit he had just completed on a fraud investigation involving some private supply companies that were ripping off the city.

"The city attorney and I proposed an executive session to just discuss it--we weren't asking for any action to be taken because in our system the decision to go after someone legally can be made by the city attorney and the controller," says Greanias. "But the council decided no. So we made copies of the audit report, and they came to the controller's office and received it individually."

True, the public didn't get to see the audit until the city attorney filed the lawsuit, but the council's review of it did not advance the ball any. Unlike our council, which has advanced the ball significantly over the course of a year on the arena--we've spent $500,000 on studies and countless more on staff time, for example, and it's been almost exclusively behind closed doors--the Houston city council cannot build an arena in the dark.

Greanias thinks his city's approach works best. "In the long term, especially when you have a controversial project, you're better off doing it out in public," Greanias says. "It may be more painful to do it on the front end, but in the long run, you're bringing people along with you, and that's more likely to be embraced by the public, rather than if you pop out from behind closed doors with the solution."

But popping out from behind closed doors--with done deals and smug demeanors--is what the Dallas City Council does best. Which is why, with the exception of Blumer and Fielding, who alone push for more openness, our city council will never voluntarily adopt Houston's arrangement. The mere thought of it makes some of them damn near apoplectic. Especially the new mayor.

"I can't believe that Houston acquires property or makes personnel decisions in open session," Kirk sputtered at me on the phone one evening last week. "There are some things the Texas Open Meetings Act requires you to do in closed session."

Not true, I explained to lawyer Kirk--who, it dawned on me, had somehow survived six years as an assistant city attorney and city lobbyist down in Austin without having to learn the state law regarding open meetings. The TOMA, I explained, requires that all governmental meetings be open--though it allows exceptions, all of them narrowly defined.

Also, a city's charter overrides the provisions of the TOMA, according to veteran Houston assistant city attorney Paul Bibler, who can cite chapter and verse on his city's right to ban closed-door meetings altogether.

Kirk then quickly shifted into another gear, another defense of the status quo. "They have a different form of government," he said.

True. They have a strong-mayor form of government--something Kirk can only fantasize about in his current hot pursuit of answering all of Don Carter's financial prayers. Down in Houston, Mayor Bob Lanier can go cut the deal with the private sector, just like John Ware is trying to do, but he still has to bring the deal back to the council for approval. And the minute the council gets its hands on it, it's a public free-for-all.

With that, Kirk had only one thing left to say--the thing that somehow, sadly, has become the mantra at Dallas City Hall, where more and more people just simply refuse to talk openly about important issues.

"The long-term problems we have here in Dallas aren't because we did a land deal or a personnel review in executive session," Kirk said. "The bottom-line is we're going to rebuild this city."

With or without the public's blessing, apparently.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...