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.

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?"

If only it were that simple.
I've covered this city as a journalist for 15 years--10 as a columnist and investigative reporter--and I have to say that at this point in my career, I'm frustrated, fed up, and ready for a fight.

I know I've done my fair share of digging up revealing anecdotes about city leaders--I've exposed quite a few lies, deceptions, corruptions, and power grabs. (I also completely missed the Paul Fielding story--and it's been my greatest disappointment as a journalist. It's embarrassing to me that I never saw the Fielding indictments coming, perhaps because I wanted so much to believe that there could be a councilman who, despite his prickly, nasty demeanor, was smart, independent, courageous, and clean. Well, I sure know how to pick 'em.)

But tell me this: How many times do you have to catch Councilman Al Lipscomb horse-trading money for votes before the man gets indicted, or at the very least gets kicked off the council by his peers? How many times do you have to catch John Ware making a bald-faced whopper of a lie to his bosses on the council before you ship him off to another city and tell him to do his top-secret arena thing somewhere else?

The answer is apparently a lot more than I ever guessed, because they're both still around, playing all their insidious games. (Did you catch that time-honored Big Al shuffle these past two weeks, when he went from being staunchly pro-arena, to maniacally anti-arena, to oh-so-happy to be back on the team? I can only wonder what goodies Al got this time for coming back around to the rich white guys' side of things.)

Truth is, I'm tired of watching a small number of overly influential people manipulate the system to their own advantage. Worse, I'm tired of our elected officials letting them do it. Some of it naturally stems from that time-honored tradition of taking way too much stuff--money, gifts, lavish dinners, fancy junkets, luxury-box seats, and generous campaign contributions--from these people. Although I've never been a proponent of giving council members a paid salary, the situation we've got with this council makes me wonder more about the wisdom of not paying them.

Take Lipscomb and Kirk, for example--two variations on the same theme. Both need to put food on the table, something their unpaid jobs at City Hall can't provide. So they rely on the largesse of precisely those people you never want to owe favors to--people who want a handout from City Hall.

Lipscomb's been taking money from people who do business at City Hall for years. One of many examples of that is his relationship with Yellow Cab Co., which is owned by a man named Floyd Richardson--"Mr. Floyd," as he is affectionately known by Lipscomb's family. Two years ago, Richardson gave Lipscomb and his son-in-law a "loan" for $20,000 to cover their personal financial problems--a loan that, of course, was never paid back. Richardson also bought the two men a $21,000 bottling machine to use at their joke of a chemical manufacturing company.

Lipscomb was all too happy to return the favor to Yellow Cab in June 1996, when he spent most of that month trying to push through an ordinance that would have helped the cab company snuff out a lot of its smaller competitors.

When I called Yellow Cab to discuss this, the company's attorney, John Barr, called me back. Usually those are short conversations, but I'd known Barr for years, and so we had a long, interesting talk about just how tough the influence-peddling business has gotten down at Dallas City Hall.

Let me tell you something, I appreciated the man's honesty. I particularly liked his comments comparing Lipscomb to our mayor--how was it fair, he said, when Lipscomb gets severely beaten up for taking money and gifts from business leaders behind the scenes, when Kirk's doing basically the same thing--though he's raking in tenfold what Lipscomb is getting, just doing it more openly?

Kirk, it's true, pulls down a six-figure annual salary--about $200,000--from Gardere & Wynne, a prestigious downtown law firm where Kirk does absolutely no legal work in exchange for being trumpeted on the firm's marketing materials as the mayor of the city. Lest you underestimate the value of this arrangement, think how happy Gardere & Wynne client Donald Carter was with his legal representation when mayoral candidate Ron Kirk joined the firm and began actively pushing Dallas City Hall to build a new arena for the Dallas Mavericks.

In my mind, almost everything that happens down at City Hall is ass-backwards.

We have the first black mayor in the city's history--a personable, smart, funny, supremely confident guy whose election was this amazingly hopeful, joyful experience for many thousands of Dallas residents who expected a better, less racially charged, less financially fractured Dallas. But where did that man go? I've heard him make only one truly impassioned, straight-from-the-heart speech since he's been at City Hall--about changing a street name, for heaven's sake. And while his No. 1 campaign promise was to develop the Trinity River--a feat that could go a long way toward rubbing out that Mason-Dixon line between north and south Dallas--that project has been long overshadowed by this stupid arena pursuit.

I like Ron Kirk a lot, and I still believe he is our greatest natural resource--the one man who, through the sheer force of his charm and personality, could move mountains, inspire greatness, and generally improve the quality of life in Dallas for everyone.

Too bad he is not free to be his own man. Too bad he is so incredibly flattered by all this newfound attention from the monied and powerful. Too bad he whittles away his political capital running hither and thither, obsessing about what he can do today to help Ross Perot Jr. improve his net worth.

Kirk gets lots of help from City Manager John Ware, one of Kirk's best friends before he ran for mayor. Ware is an equally formidable personality--a tough sonofabitch who developed his unmistakable style fighting in the trenches in Vietnam. He's infamous around City Hall for reaming out city staffers in an always fabulously profane and embarrassingly public way. He's a master at keeping his fingerprints off his decisions so he can blame any screwups on his underlings--the splashiest scapegoat of all was First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley, who resigned in disgrace over a secret sports arena study that Ware denied knowing about, even though former Assistant City Manager Ted Benavides told me he'd regularly briefed Ware on its progress.

The strength of the Ware-and-Kirk team should not be underestimated. City Hall's agenda is their agenda, period, and the majority of the council members--a third of whom are new and clearly intimidated by both men--are only too happy to follow right along.

"The standard joke around City Hall is that it's just become the John and Ron show," says one veteran City Hall employee of 12 years. "Sure, we've always been a place with a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of control issues--people being discouraged from questioning the system, or thinking for themselves--but it wasn't like it is now, where there's just fear. And silence. It reaches into every nook and cranny and corner, and it's all about looking for someone to blame for some screwup, and massaging all this information, and being told not to say anything unless you're specifically spoken to. It's terrible. We really do have a lot of good employees, but they can't do their jobs."

If they could, just think of the possibilities. Maybe they could spearhead a big, fat push to rehabilitate our much-deteriorated library system; or beautify our scrawny, long-ignored city parks; or build a decent place for our police officers to work; or create a zoo at least as nice as Fort Worth's; or find ways to help former mayoral candidate Darrell Jordan raise private funds to dome the Cotton Bowl. Maybe they could actually get White Rock Lake dredged, and Fair Park fixed up, and the Commerce Street viaduct fixed at the Beckley Avenue entrance.

I don't know about you, but when I call that much-ballyhooed City Hall action line of John Ware's, I get no action--the city code enforcement inspectors don't show up; the dog catcher doesn't show up; and nobody seems to care about apprehending the punk kid who lives around the corner and smashed into my husband's car two weekends ago in a hit-and-run that bloodied my daughter's lip, scared my five-year-old to death, and just about totaled the car.

The tales of mixed-up priorities in this city are many and memorable.
Remember when a man named Bruton Smith came to Dallas from North Carolina and offered to build us something called the Texas Motor Speedway? His first choice of location was a remote chunk of land in South Oak Cliff--the area of this city that every mayor talks about bringing growth and prosperity to, but never does. But Smith wasn't allowed to spend millions of his dollars in a depressed part of town to bring millions of tourists to our city. (Unlike the anemic economic benefits of a sports arena, it's all too obvious what kind of return race car driving--the No. 1 spectator sport in the nation--could have brought us.)

The reason he couldn't is because Ray Hunt and his real estate lieutenant, John Scovell, decided to try and beat Smith at his game. They decided to get City Hall to back their own, inferior plans for a racetrack. Then-Mayor Steve Bartlett carried Hunt's banner, cajoling just enough of his fellow council members to support the substandard proposal that it mucked up any chance of snagging the good project--which finally sent Smith over to Fort Worth.

Then there was the steer park. At the northeast corner of Griffin and Young streets, there used to be a city-owned parking lot that brought in about $250,000 a year in revenue. It was great that the city owned the lot, because one of these days it was going to need that space to build a hotel for the ever-expanding convention center next door.

But Dallas real estate developer Trammell Crow didn't like the idea of building a hotel there. Why? Because he owned the huge Anatole Hotel just north of downtown, and he needed to keep the conventioneers coming out to him to keep his hotel full.

But, of course, that's not the spin he put on it. Instead, he came up with an alternative use for that parking lot--a bronze steer park, complete with bronze cowboys, a man-made stream, and some rocky landscaping. Crow pitched the idea to the city, offering to get a nonprofit nature organization he chaired called the Dallas Parks Foundation to build it. The organization also helped draft the legal papers that made it impossible for the city ever to reclaim the land to use for something useful.

Although Crow's dream--a place called Pioneer Plaza--was an extremely impractical use of prime public property, Crow gained an important political ally in a woman named Diane Scovell, a former president of the organization that became the Parks Foundation. Scovell was married to--surprise!--John Scovell, who runs Ray Hunt's real estate projects, including another convention-dependent hotel called the Reunion Hyatt.

City officials had the temerity to drag their feet on this--so Hunt simply increased the pressure. In one of the most astonishing documents I have ever culled from city files, Hunt and Scovell devised a list of 23 demands on the city--things they wanted the city manager and city council to do for them immediately, or else. They were mad because the city auditor had just figured out that Hunt and Scovell owed the city about $155,000 for unpaid security fees at the old Union Station building. Hunt's grievance list was his subtle way of saying he wasn't going to pay--and, by the way, you're going to pay for bothering me with this crap. Hunt won his bluff, snagging a check for $440,000 from the taxpayers. And Crow got his steer park.

I will never forget the day the first bronze cow was unveiled at a party in the Dallas convention center. I was still marveling at the weakness of the city council, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of this thing, even though it would cost $200,000 a year to wash the steers. At the convention center cow unveiling, I remember a short, highly groomed, fireball of a woman spinning out of nowhere and coming to a stop just to the right of my face.

"It's so nice to meet you," said the woman, who turned out to be Diane Scovell. As her little lipstick mouth moved, I vividly recall her digging a set of manicured fingernails into the skin of my arm and slinging me around to face her as though I were a badly behaved five-year-old. "You ought to be ashamed of the things you say about people!" And then she was gone, leaving Carol Reed, the public relations diva who was handling the party, standing there in stitches at my expense. (For anyone watching, it was certainly an amusing scene.)

Steer parks. Speedways. Sports arenas.
The list of Projects of the Rich and Famous goes on and on, but there's nothing more shameless than this proposed arena.

We have been calling John Ware's seven-month-long dance with Perot and Hicks a "negotiation." And we have had no reason to doubt that. God only knows what's being said behind closed doors, where the entire arena story has played out.

On the day Kirk wrapped his arms around Perot and Hicks and announced a deal, little was said about how the sausage was made: Yes, Ware was hoarse and the mayor hadn't slept much, but as far as who gave in on what points and how far each side had come from their original demands, no one was saying. And no one's saying now.

Thank goodness for documents. Because the truth of the matter is, there was no negotiation. There was only a cratering--a complete collapse on the part of Ware and Kirk, who just couldn't stomach Perot's threats to start negotiating with the suburbs. When goofball Perot began zooming around the Metroplex in his private chopper, picking up practically anybody willing to say they were the mayor of a town, Ware and Kirk responded exactly how Perot wanted them to--they flat-out panicked. And then they sold the family farm.

The proof is all on paper, and it's a sight to behold. It's contained in a slew of written offers that went back and forth, back and forth, between the city and the teams between March and October. And while none of this material was available on October 3, the day the arena deal was announced, it was quietly and grudgingly made available to the media a few weeks later when the state Attorney General's Office made it clear that the city no longer had a basis for withholding it from the public.

That fat packet of letters--some of the best nighttime reading I've ever done--instantly exposes the lie that Mayor Kirk utters each and every day on the pro-arena campaign. "This is not a good deal for Dallas," Kirk likes to say. "It's a great deal for Dallas."

But the letters prove that Kirk knows better. He and Ware know it's a lousy deal for the taxpayers.

In retrospect, I should have known it all along. On October 6, two days after the arena deal was forged between the city and the teams, I showed up at City Hall for the first time in 10 months, and the first thing I did was walk right up to Ware.

"So, is this a good deal for Dallas?" I asked him.
Ware paused--for far too long. "It's the best deal we could get considering the competition out there," he said.

In other words, they didn't cut a deal. They caved.
The master agreement that was adopted by the council last week looks almost exactly like Perot's first offer to Ware, detailed in one of the letters released by the city, dated March 10. Perot wanted a $220 million arena, the cost of which would be split 50-50 between the teams and the city. He wanted total control of the design, construction, and management of the new arena--as well as management of the old arena--and all the revenues from both. He wanted the city's eminent domain rights to commandeer approximately 50 acres of downtown land, and he wanted every conceivable tax exemption the city could give him.

Ware responded to the offer in writing on July 2.
"Regarding our investment...we are not prepared to make an outright gift, be it called equity or otherwise, to ArenaCo, the Stars, the Mavericks or any other party," Ware wrote. "The project must demonstrate quantifiable, specific returns to the taxpayers and the City. Our simple understanding of the concept of equity is that when one invests in a new operation (ArenaCo), most investors get either a stake in the company or guaranteed return on their investment. If this is not in the benefit of the franchise, then we need the specific and quantifiable return that does accrue to the taxpayers."

(Perot's people had no patience for any talk of equity sharing; in a response to Ware the next day, Frank Zaccanelli, the president of Perot's Hillwood Development Corp., replies snottily: "...It is puzzling that anyone would characterize the City's investment as a gift. No request has been made for charity. To the contrary, the City can now seize an opportunity to jump-start a downtown revitalization. The opportunity requires an investment, and, as with any other investment, there is no guaranteed return.")

But Ware made it clear he wanted a piece of the revenue stream--especially the lucrative naming rights, whereby a big corporation will pay an estimated $1.2 million a year to plaster its name all over the inside and outside of the building. "Providing for 100 percent of the naming rights revenues to go to the teams is not in keeping with an equal sharing between the three major parties with a stake in this project," Ware wrote in the July 2 letter.

Way to go, John Ware--thataway to fight for the taxpayers!
Too bad he subsequently dropped that demand, giving Perot and Hicks every dime of the projected $86 million a year in arena revenues, including all proceeds from naming rights.

There was, of course, that $1 billion in private development that Perot promised to do. He addresses this in his March letter to Ware: "Hillwood Development Corporation envisions a revitalization of downtown Dallas spurred by the development of a state-of-the-art sports arena. The development will include offices, residences, shops, hotels and entertainment facilities. A revitalized downtown area will attract investment, thereby expanding and diversifying the City's tax base."

But Ware, who didn't win a Purple Heart fighting the Vietcong for nothing, smelled a rat. "We need to clarify some kind of assurances that the private development build-out will occur on some future schedule, so that we may determine the value of this project," Ware wrote in his July 2 response.

Of course he was right to doubt Perot on this--in the end, we got nothing more from Perot than 43 acres of surface parking and one ugly, abandoned power plant. Gee, Ross, could we keep the old grain elevators too?

But there's more. And it helps explain why Ware and Kirk waited a few weeks after the final deal was cut to tell the council that it would have to pony up another $20 million. Lest anyone believe Kirk's current contention that "we're not going to go a penny higher" than $125 million, just read Perot's original offer. He spelled this all out long ago.

"The $220 million cost estimate for the new arena covers only the land, the arena building, and on-site infrastructure and parking," Zaccanelli wrote to Ware on May 14. "Typical off-site infrastructure and related facilities would be provided separately by the City."

So let's review this extra chunk of money going to the arena.
In the master agreement the council just approved, Perot and Hicks agreed to contribute $7.3 million on top of the city's $11.2 million cost of extending Houston Street past the Texas School Book Depository, through the West End, under Woodall Rodgers, and out to the arena site. (That new road will then merge with Alamo, for which the teams and city will split the cost of widening and improving.)

The teams' contribution to Houston Street is just smoke and mirrors, though--because the city is obligated to pay back the money.

The mayor insists that we don't mind spending those millions one bit because, hell, we were going to do it all anyway. We were going to extend Houston Street out as far as the lovely TU power plant, then veer right onto a little cross street called Wichita and over to Harry Hines and the Dallas North Tollway.

And why in the world should we believe that? The proof, the mayor says, is that $750,000 was included in the 1995 bond package for the design and right-of-way purchases necessary to begin construction on that half-mile of improvements.

Well, not quite, Mr. Mayor. Go back and look at the 1995 bond package documents and something called the 1982 Wichita Street Abandonment Ordinance. The abandonment ordinance clearly states that the city will indeed pay to extend Houston Street--but only from the book depository to Woodall Rodgers. But from Woodall Rodgers to Wichita Street, the cost of that part of the extension will be paid for by the private developers who own adjacent land and have a keen interest in seeing the road built.

Well, those developers went bust in the '80s real estate crash, but the ordinance lived on, and today the current owners of the land are still obligated to pony up that road money as soon as 50 percent of the land specified in the ordinance is developed. JPI, the Las Colinas-based residential developer, is one of those owners--the company is currently building a 540-unit apartment complex on 11 acres right there at Wichita and Field. To avoid having the abandonment ordinance kick in, JPI was careful not to develop more than 50 percent of the land described in the ordinance.

The city's been waiting ever since for another developer to trigger the 15-year-old ordinance and thereby contribute to the very costly extension of Houston Street.

"We've never had the money to do Houston Street before," says one city employee who is familiar with the history. "It's very complicated and very expensive--and there's nothing on the thoroughfare plan that indicates how we're going to take this new road across Continental Avenue, where there's that old tunnel right now. If we had built only our portion of the Houston Street extension--instead of all of it like we're going to do now--we would have done something very makeshift at Continental for now."

Well, thanks to Perot, we're not doing anything makeshift now. We are going to do all of the Houston Street improvements--there's no time to wait for a developer to share the costs with now--and we're going to demolish the tunnel and bring in enough fill material to bring that whole stretch of Continental up to grade.

In other words, we're going to be putting a ton of arena-related roadwork on the 1998 bond package.

Last week, I popped in on the city's Director of Public Works and Transportation, David Dybala. I asked him if there were going to be a whole lot of other roads in the area of the proposed arena that would be sneaked into the bond package. He just smiled at me and declined to answer. "The city manager will make all his recommendations next Wednesday at the bond program briefing. I suggest you be there," Dybala said.

Hey, you can count on me. I'll be the one staring at the Mapsco--studying all those silly little roads to nowhere.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my usual spot in the sixth-floor briefing room at Dallas City Hall, and I was steaming.

For two months now, the city council and the public had been anxiously awaiting a look at the actual written agreement between the city and the sports teams. It had been the hope of the council members, reasonably enough, to get their hands on the master agreement before the city staff briefed them on the contents of it.

But when Bob Stimson--the person on the council most likely to do homework on any given issue--had called City Attorney Sam Lindsay the night before, hopeful of getting his copy of the agreement, it hadn't even been finalized yet. Now, with a briefing that was supposed to start at 8 a.m., it was clear that the two sides had been hammering out various sticking points through the night. It would be 9:45 a.m. before the briefing doors opened and city staffers entered with the long-awaited copies of the master agreement.

Those of us in the media--and there were about a dozen of us there that day--stood together expectantly in the back of the room, waiting for staff to hand us our own copies of the agreement. But that didn't happen. Instead, they passed out what they had to the council and slinked away, without so much as a word to us.

Furious at yet another screw-you gesture from City Hall, I jumped out of my chair, navigated the almost impenetrable wall of TV cameras and tripods, and ran up to the rope that separated the Anointed Ones from the Unanointed.

A security guard bolted toward me, wanting to make sure I wasn't an assassin. But in a flash, I was on the Other Side--streaking by the council members, most of whom were at the doughnut table.

I walked up to some city staffer I'd never met before who was standing in the middle of the room holding three extra copies of the master agreement.

"Excuse me," I said evenly, trying not to betray the intense exasperation I felt. "Do you think I could have one of those master agreements?"

The man looked at me with something resembling sympathy--for a moment, I thought I was actually going to be given the document. But no. Within seconds, a city manager's assistant named Kristi Aday had swooped down on us, forcing herself between me and the male staffer. "We don't have extra copies for the media right now," she said. "We're making them. You'll have to wait."

So typical. Here I'd been covering the arena for almost four years--I knew more about the history, the politics, and the financial details of this arena than most of the elected officials in this room. But, as usual, the city manager wanted to play games--to make it as difficult as possible for a reporter to get public information to the public. It was just another disillusioning day at City Hall.

And it would only get worse as the details of the master agreement emerged.
There were lots of surprises, one of which I'll mention right now, seeing as how no one in town has focused on this outrageous provision. According to Article 1, subsection 11: "The city shall assign at all times a sufficient number of City personnel to the Arena Project who shall, as necessary, be available at the construction site on a full-time basis during the construction of the Arena Project."

Unbelievable. How many hundreds of employees are going to be dispatched to Perot's palace over the course of two long years while dozens of other, more important city projects go unstaffed? Is there no end to this hemorrhaging of resources? Apparently not.

But only Stimson and Councilwoman Donna Blumer had any real concerns. "This is a sad day for Dallas," Stimson said when it was his turn to speak.

I wanted to speak too--God, I had a lot of questions. I'd been scribbling notes to myself for 90 minutes, and I was eager to dissect the legal language of this 44-page document, page by page by page. But I was the vermin on the other side of the rope. I was just another flunky reporter with no standing to say or do anything except sit in my designated spot with my notebook open and my mouth shut.

And for the first time ever, I was mad as hell about my ghetto status. In fact, it was all I could do to keep from jumping the rope and hurling questions of my own.

I realize now that a big part of me has already crossed the line that separates the watchers from the doers. It's a short trip, but I have no idea how I'll feel if I actually get a place at the table.

All I want is a chance to see what I can do--to see if I can make a difference.

Which sounds, I guess, an awful lot like a politician.

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