Mr. Mayor, Meet Your Nightmare

Frustrated, fed up, and ready to fight, Laura Miller trades muckraking for a run at City Hall

I am walking down a Dallas street on a beautiful December day, and I am confused. For more than a week now, my mayor, Ron Kirk, has been telling me--and everybody else who pays taxes in the city of Dallas--not to worry. Not to fret. Not to pay any attention to all the naysayers out there who, in the mayor's mind, have nothing better to do than complain about how much the proposed sports arena is going to cost.

The so-called naysayers have been very vocal lately, quick to point out that the cost of the new arena is ever-escalating--that every time our city council members think they have a deal, the mayor and City Manager John Ware are behind the scenes, giddily offering millions more to two of Highland Park's most needy citizens, Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks.

Last month, staff members told the council that the city's contribution would be no more than $125 million. Last Wednesday, when the details of the deal were committed to paper, it was clear--at least to those of us sitting in the City Hall briefing room with our hearing aids on--that an additional $20 million in roads and sewers was now on the table. And if that wasn't enough to ruin our breakfasts, the fine print of the agreement also revealed that Perot and Hicks were going to give themselves $10 million of the $230 million arena cost as fees--for managing and financing the arena, from which they will take every dollar of revenues for the next 30 years.

Sitting there, listening to these and other equally worrisome details, I recall being relieved that there was no mirror in the room--otherwise, how could the mayor possibly face himself? "Our costs on the arena are $125 million, and they're not going to go a penny higher," Kirk said in that big, booming, don't-mess-with-me voice of his.

But how to explain that extra $20 million? "All we're doing now is accelerating something we said we'd do notwithstanding an arena or any other development," Kirk proclaimed. "The deal is exactly as we outlined it. There are no more unanswered questions."

Just unexplored truths. Which is why I took a walk down Alamo Street.
I have lived in Dallas for 15 years, but until last week I'd never been on Alamo Street. For good reason. Alamo Street is an obscure, two-lane blacktop road that runs parallel to Stemmons Freeway but doesn't connect anything to anything. All it does is skirt much of the polluted, undeveloped 46-acre tract where the new arena will be built if the voters approve funding for it on January 17.

But now that Ross Perot Jr. wants an arena, we're gonna see a big, fat six-lane freeway roaring from here to downtown--virtually all at taxpayer expense.

Right now, though, Alamo is more like a donkey trail. For almost a mile, there are no curbs or gutters; no homes or businesses; and no traffic to speak of. As you drive down this road, straight for the hulking, now-defunct Texas Utilities power plant that looms just ahead, you suddenly envision what it must be like on those desolate roads on Long Island, the kind you see in gangster movies where the Mafia goes to dump its dead bodies.

Then just before the power plant, you run smack into those abandoned grain elevators--the big, crumbling gray ones streaked with soot--that serve as a lovely backdrop to the power plant. At that point, Alamo Street turns sharply left before descending into a short, narrow tunnel that is in such disrepair and in such danger of flooding that one entrance is partly barricaded.

Which is why I was walking--I thought the barricades meant I couldn't drive onto the road. During the 10 minutes that I strolled around out there, only three cars passed me. But every driver stopped--clearly startled to see someone walking alone down such a deserted road.

"Are you all right?" one young man asked. "Do you need a ride? You know, you need to be careful out here."

I couldn't have agreed with him more. Standing there on this road to nowhere--on a street that clearly would never be improved anytime soon but for Perot's need to get people to his palace--I admit that I did feel unsafe. Because for a moment, I thought I felt the mayor's fingers tugging on my wallet.

I spent much of last week skulking around City Hall, trying to decode the mayor's doublespeak on the arena road improvements.

Like so many other trips to that building, it was a fairly frustrating experience. I had to do my usual begging for documents--public documents, mind you, executed by public servants, about public projects, paid for with the public's money. City Manager John Ware and his top lieutenants like to play a game with reporters like me, and it goes like this--no matter how innocuous or accessible a particular document is, if we want it, chances are good we'll have to file a formal open records request to get it. The problem is that the city gets 10 full days to respond to any such written request, and so by the time we get our document, we've usually moved on to other matters.

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