City Hall's Slam-Dunk Gang

Quick--someone take a pulse. The Dallas City Council hasn't peeped in months. And John Ware and Ron Kirk are looking awfully well-fed.

Why instead do they seem to be devoting all of their muscle and energy to shutting down small, community-driven issues in favor of things like the $246 million Trinity River bond package?

Neither Kirk nor Ware would talk to the Observer for this story. Kirk did return one call, which the Observer missed, but he declined to return several more after his press spokeswoman determined the story would contain criticism of him. A spokesman for Ware said he was "not interested" in commenting.

There are recurring rumors that Ware is a short-timer and will jump to a job in the private sector. It's possible he sees big, high-profile projects like the new sports arena and the river project as better career monuments than a lot of little pothole jobs scattered around the city.

It's easier to speculate about Ron Kirk's motivation. From the moment he was first mentioned as a candidate for mayor, his main backers have included people like William T. Solomon, a past chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council who was co-chairman of Kirk's campaign finance committee.

Austin Industries, founded by Solomon's grandfather, is a Forbes 500 company historically involved in public-works projects, especially roads and bridges. Austin Industries built the downtown Triple Underpass, the old Fort Worth toll road (now Interstate 30), and more recently has been a major player in the construction and expansion of the Dallas Convention Center.

The river project promises to be a $2 billion roads and bridges and levees public-works bonanza for someone with solid connections at City Hall--probably one of the biggest public-works projects of its kind anywhere in the nation.

Kirk draws a salary reported at about $200,000 a year from the downtown law firm of Gardere & Wynne, consistently one of the top 10 biggest law firms in Texas over the last decade.

Gardere & Wynne does not publicize its client list, but the list is known to include American Airlines. Also on the list in recent years have been Electronic Data Systems, U.S. Homes, and Donald Carter, former owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

Larry Schoenbrun, managing partner of Gardere & Wynne, says the firm never seeks to influence city decisions and turns away clients who want help at City Hall. He concedes that being mayor is "substantially a full-time job" and that Kirk spends little time at the firm's offices, but he says Kirk does maintain "rather regular hours here, though limited."

If Kirk seems to march to some drummer other than community pressure, and if one were inclined to guess who that drummer or drummers might be, it would be hard to resist guessing that it's probably the same old drum major who has always made Dallas City Hall march.

Bid'ness. The Citizens Council. The crew downtown that has a dollars-and-cents interest in public-policy decisions coming out of City Hall.

So what does any of that mean for real people? Kirk and Ware will say it doesn't mean anything, of course. All is well. Show's over. Everybody move along home now.

The numbers are sufficiently rubbery, to say nothing of the people spouting them, that's it's difficult to come up with a precise measure for what the Kirk-Ware slam-dunk bond program will do to neighborhood needs. The duo have conceded that it means the city will have to push back the basic streets-and-gutters items at least an additional year, to the end of the four-year cycle.

But even that assumes a great many things--that the city's tax base will continue to grow by at least 2 percent a year, that conditions in the national economy will remain favorable. A dip here or a blip there in the trends, and the city might not be able to sell those street bonds four years from now, whether the voters have approved them or not.

Meanwhile, the anecdotal evidence everywhere is that the manager is already scouring the landscape, searching hard for projects he can shut down or put off in order to take the heat off the trophy deals.

In the Claremont neighborhood, near Ferguson Road and R.L. Thornton, fate has thrown together a mainly white middle-class subdivision with what were some ghastly Soweto-style slum tenement buildings only a few years ago. People from the two sides of the tracks pulled together, and they have accomplished miracles in cleaning up the apartments and fighting for other improvements.

In this bond election, the people of the Claremont Addition Neighborhood Association anticipated they would finally get three street-improvement projects that would be the culmination of years of activism and working with City Hall. Vikki Martin, an artist who is a mainstay of the group, was excited when her council member, Charlotte Mayes, sent her the city manager's bond proposal and told her all three of the street projects were included.

"But I looked through it, and two of them were gone," Martin says. "I called Ms. Mayes, and I said I couldn't find two-thirds of our stuff. She said, 'Oh, don't worry, it's in there.'"

No. It wasn't. You really have to read the whole thing. Two-thirds of the projects the neighborhood had worked for years to get--all of which Mayes had told them they would get--were gone. Disappeared.

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