The making of an activist

Arena process stirs one woman to get involved

Julie Mote--whose name, I assure you, would not ring any bells at Dallas City Hall--was sitting in her North Dallas home with her husband two Wednesdays ago, eating baked chicken and asparagus, when something unusual happened.

The couple began discussing city politics. "We don't usually talk politics in this house because he tends to be more conservative than I am," says Mote, "but I brought it up. I wanted to talk about it."

Specifically, she wanted to discuss what she had just seen on the 6 o'clock news. The Dallas City Council had just held its umpteenth closed-door meeting on the sports arena project, and although a rare open session--the first in more than a year--had been scheduled for later in the day, it never happened.

It didn't happen because of a sudden--and a bit too coincidental--departure of five councilmembers, whose exit jeopardized the council's quorum, which was then deftly quashed by Mayor Ron Kirk, who publicly distances himself from the arena project while privately aiding it.

The need for an open briefing was clear--at least to people like Mote. The day before, a Channel 8 reporter had unearthed an explosive city document showing that the $35 million the city was offering to help build an arena was actually more like $200 million, thanks to $43 million in cash, $88 million in tax abatements, and five years of free rent at both the new arena and the old, both of which Mavericks owner Don Carter would control--and ultimately could buy outright for $1 apiece.

Watching the council chicanery unfold, Mote felt outrage and anger. Later, sitting down to dinner with her husband of two years, she was still stewing. "This is just wrong," she told him, though, quite frankly, she didn't expect much of a response. Her husband is a conservative lawyer--not a bomb-thrower. He is also a big sports fan. He and some of his friends own season tickets to the Dallas Stars hockey games. He wanted to see the Stars and Dallas Mavericks stay downtown.

"When I asked him what he thought, he said, 'You know, I want a new arena, and I want to keep it downtown, too, but I don't think the taxpayers should be paying so much for it either,'" Mote recalls him saying. "'I don't think it brings that much to the economy.'"

Among other things, Mote's husband had just read an article in the January 15 issue of Fortune magazine, which mocked the many cities across the nation which have bought into the myth that new, publicly built homes for rich sports teams will bring financial prosperity to the cities.

"I was so surprised," she adds. "I was expecting him to end up on the side of 'It's good for business'--you know, the party line on why we should build an arena. It made me think we aren't the only people sitting around the dinner table thinking this isn't right."

They're not, of course, but Mote is one of the few who have decided to do something about it.

The most surprising thing about the arena debate is how disdainful city officials are of the public--and how little the public cares about being treated that way.

The citizens of this city sit back month after month, year after year, watching the arena circus and doing nothing, no matter how much money City Manager John Ware siphons off other projects to feed the arena; no matter how many times city staffers lie to the council; no matter how often city officials, with the nod of city attorneys, violate state laws on open records and open meetings; and no matter how underhanded, sneaky, and scandalous the process has become.

"In my opinion, the people in the city of Dallas don't have any guts," says 80-year-old Frank Bodzin, one of a handful of citizens who, for no personal or financial gain whatsoever, have for years zealously monitored the goings-on at City Hall. "How the people--if they know what's going on--can sit there and take it, I don't know," says Bodzin.

Bodzin is living proof that one person who gets his or her dander up can make a difference. In 1980, he organized a tax-revolt meeting at W.T. White High School to which nearly 1,000 equally angry people showed up. Bodzin then helped start a group called the TEA Party, which collected tens of thousands of petition signatures, forcing the city council to put a charter amendment on the ballot in January 1981 that would have placed a cap on the city's tax rate. The measure failed 2-1.

Two years later, Bodzin was back. He led a new charge to collect petition signatures to force another charter amendment onto the ballot. Before Bodzin could file his 70,000 petitions with the city secretary's office, the city councilmembers--seeing the handwriting on the wall--adopted the homestead exemption Bodzin wanted.

Bodzin was arrested for such harmless efforts. A supermarket in North Dallas called the cops on him one day as he stood in front of the store collecting petition signatures.

Even with a motivated citizenry, fighting City Hall is daunting, Bodzin says. "All kinds of people would call me to urge me on, but as soon as I asked them to collect petition signatures, they had a million excuses. One lady even told me that her dog was about to have pups, and she just couldn't leave her alone. You can't get people to do anything. Today, I wouldn't even try."

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