Mr. Mayor, Meet Your Nightmare

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

But I had other begging to do last week. I had to hope and pray that some of the lower-ranking city employees would talk to me about my innocent topic of the day: sewers and road construction. It's a gamble, because under Ware, city employees more often come to the sober conclusion that it's better to remain employed than try to help some reporter meet her deadline. And that's no exaggeration, since Ware has specifically decreed that no city employee but him can speak to the press about the sports arena.

So last week was frustrating, yes--but also surprisingly cathartic. Unbeknownst to the people who dared talk to me, I was contemplating a radical approach to this age-old problem of getting routine information from Dallas City Hall.

I was going to stop whining and get even. I was going to run for the Dallas City Council.

Not that there was a seat available right then. But I had just learned that my Oak Cliff councilman, Bob Stimson, was seriously thinking of resigning in the middle of his term to run for the Dallas County commissioners court. All of my instincts from 20 years in journalism were ordering me to do no more than simply cover the story.

But I had other ideas. And I saw some pretty novel possibilities.
What would it be like, for example, to ask John Ware a question and actually get an answer before he hustled me off the phone or took off running down the hall?

How would it feel to get my hands on just one revealing arena document whose contents had not been selectively blacked out by an assistant city attorney with a trigger finger on a marker?

What would it feel like to be able to visit somebody in his City Hall cubicle without having to worry about the certain retribution that would fall on this perfectly nice person, who had done nothing more heinous than show me a city street map?

What if--and this was most intriguing of all--I could actually sit inside one closed-door, executive-session, city council meeting--dozens of which have been held in flagrant violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act since the sports arena project went underground four years ago?

Maybe I'm just sick to death of our city wasting so much time and energy on a misguided attempt to help some disgustingly rich guys get richer. To me, the arena quest is a perfect metaphor for a city government stunningly out of touch with its citizens. It's the mayor of the moment teaming up with the Hunts and the Crows and the Perots and the Decherds to once again drag Pettis Norman and Roger Staubach out of political mothballs--thinking we're still going to be impressed. (Here's a question for the next millennium: Is there anything those two guys won't attach their name to?)

As the days pass, and it becomes more obvious to me that the taxpayers are going to hand Ron Kirk a resounding rejection of the proposed Perot Palace, I can't help but feel this is going to be a pivotal moment for the city, a rare opportunity for taxpayers--who are tired of sharing the dinner table with those boys from Highland Park--to strike back.

By the time you read this, Bob Stimson should have announced his resignation. If that happens, I'm going to be a candidate for his vacant council seat, which will be filled by a special election in May.

Consequently, this will be my last story for the Dallas Observer--at least until I get this thing out of my system. My bosses and I agree that journalism and politics just don't mix very well (which is what my husband, state Rep. Steve Wolens, and I thought on our first date 13 years ago, though I'm happy to say we worked that one out). So I'll be packing up my thousands of arena records, my Rolodex, and my sense of perpetual outrage about the bizarre goings-on at City Hall, and if I'm lucky, I'll return them to good use in about five months--albeit in another venue.

I'm well aware that this is a highly unusual step--one that will be seen by some, I'm sure, as a stunt, or an ego trip, or a sell-out. One of my fellow reporters at the Observer has already informed me that in her opinion I have--overnight--completely betrayed my profession and destroyed any credibility I ever had as a journalist. (My first reaction was that she's going to make a hell of a City Hall columnist.)

Michael Lacey, executive editor of the Phoenix-based newspaper chain that owns the Observer, was far more understanding--though not exactly thrilled. He gently pointed out that writing a column that reaches an estimated 330,000 people every week has got to have more impact than sitting around the horseshoe with a bunch of people I've repeatedly savaged in this newspaper, trying to convince them--and the three other people listening to the meetings on the radio--to see things from my perspective.

Lacey even saw the humor in this. After watching me spend 1997 jumping in and out of his newspaper--taking 10 months off to be with my kids, leaping back into the paper to blast the arena deal, now running for public office? Lacey said dryly, "Can't you just have a nervous breakdown, like normal people?"

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