Bad planning

Commission chairman's departure leaves panel in weaker hands

Two weeks before Christmas, on a nippy Monday night, there was a party at the Belo Mansion on Ross Avenue downtown. But as I entered the back door, I figured I had come on the wrong night. There was no activity in the back of the house, nothing happening in the bar.

It was so quiet you could hear a cocktail onion drop.
I wandered down a hall, toward the catering office. Two women sat at desks. It was approaching 6 p.m.

"Can you tell me where the party for...," I began.
The women looked up from their work. One, eager to be helpful, cut me off in mid-sentence.

"Oh, you mean the appreciation party for Ron Kirk?" she asked.
I smiled. Well, no, not quite. What I was looking for was the appreciation party for Dr. Ben Clark Jr., the recently resigned chairman of the Dallas Plan Commission.

"Well, the mayor's going to be there," she said excitedly, as though we were talking about, say, Jean Claude Van Damme.

Let's hope Ron Kirk is here, I thought, following the woman's directions to the front of the building, where there were indeed signs of party life (Mexican cheese dip, assorted wines and beers, lots of unclaimed name tags).

Like the opening of the movie Blue Velvet--where director David Lynch takes you below the manicured lawns of a picturesque small town to reveal swarms of lip-smacking cockroaches and other subterranean unpleasantness--this was a typical city of Dallas political party. Just below the hum of idle chitchat and tinkling highball glasses, there were the whispered political realities of the moment--in this case, the apparent beheading of a well-liked holdover from the Steve Bartlett reign.

How had it happened? Why was this beloved Plan Commission chairman of four years, a dignified African-American Dallas podiatrist, leaving a job he so obviously enjoyed and had, by all accounts, fully intended to continue under the new mayor? Had Ron Kirk really forced him out?

And where was Ron Kirk, anyway?
"So, Dr. Clark," I finally asked, "where's the mayor?"
"Oh, I was told he's out of town," Clark said.
"Where out of town?" I asked.
"In Phoenix," Clark said, "at some mayor's thing."

People around him nodded their heads knowingly. Important business. Mayor's things. Can't be helped.

Actually, it's a good bet that if we had turned to our right, to stare out the front window of the Belo Mansion, we could have waved to the mayor. Because as we were picturing hizzoner, out there in the desert somewhere, pondering weighty matters of governance, Kirk was actually rolling through downtown Dallas in the mayoral Town Car, headed for a big Christmas party at Le Meridien, formerly known as the Plaza of the Americas hotel. Two blocks away from Dr. Clark's goodbye party.

A story about the power struggles on the city's Plan Commission--not one of the sexier operations at city hall--might seem like way too much inside baseball for the casual political observer.

Then again, when your friendly neighbor opens an auto-repair shop in his garage, or the pet shop down the street decides to become a sleazy nightclub, or a giant movie theatre chain wants to put the world's largest cinema on your doorstep--remember Cinemark?--you'll suddenly find yourself passionately interested in the personalities on your Plan Commission.

And, let me tell you, they've changed enormously in the last 30 days.
For the past four years, under Ben Clark, if you had a zoning or platting problem, you could be assured of one thing: that you would be given a fair hearing. You would be given every opportunity to air your grievances or make your requests, no matter how many fellow homeowners or powerful developers with high-priced zoning attorneys were there to oppose you.

In the four years Clark served as chairman, he did not allow anyone to tell him what to do--not the politicians who appointed him, not the developers who courted him, not the commission members who tried to play their councilmembers' political games. City employees say he was the best commission chair in memory. Zoning lawyers praised his thoroughness and objectivity. Fellow commission members revered him.

So what happened?
The rumors have been swirling since early November, when Clark abruptly resigned--just two months after Councilman Al Lipscomb nominated him for his third full term on the commission.

Some blamed Clark's heart attack, which he suffered in September at the age of 51, putting him out of action for four weeks. (The heart attack was relatively mild. He was hospitalized for a week and put on a strict exercise and diet regimen. Today, looking at him, you'd never know he had had one.)

Some said Clark was tired of spending one whole day each week volunteering his time to City Hall instead of earning a living doing foot surgery.

But the biggest rumor--and the one that stuck--was that Mayor Kirk would not reappoint him as chair of the commission (causing him to resign) because Clark wouldn't do things the mayor's way. In particular, Clark supposedly had refused to demote three plan commissioners to whom he had just given leadership roles--all of whom were appointees of councilmembers who Kirk doesn't like.

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