Cursed are the peacemakers

Councilwoman Laura Miller steps right into the line of fire--and ends up wounded--in a neighborhood war over a parking lot

Burns says, "Laura said, 'Fine, fine; let me see if I can get you some money anyway,' and she left."

Both Burns and Conley mentioned that Miller used a lot of curse words in expressing herself during their meeting. Burns tends to use a few himself, and Conley admits she does too, but both of them expressed "shock" that a city council member would curse in a neighborhood meeting.

Miller, who grew up in newsrooms at a time when women could be fired for not swearing, let out a very pained sigh when told she had offended some people with her language. "I'm trying really hard on that," she says.

The parking-lot case is not officially over, but it is virtually over. All but one member of the plan commission voted recently to change the zoning on Methodist's Bishop Street lots, allowing Methodist to keep and use its new parking lot. After the issue returns to the plan commission on June 25 for a technical vote, it will go to the City Council for final resolution, probably in mid-August after the council's July recess.

Miller has made it clear she will vote for Methodist there, which normally means the rest of the council will too.

But there is also another end of the story. By the end of last week, it looked as if Miller had come up with the $500,000 the neighborhoods had been seeking for improvements to the Bishop Arts district.

For starters, and in less than two weeks of work, and given the fact that the neighborhood had applied for this same money already and had been turned down--half a million bucks isn't bad.

If she pulls it off, this level of funding to improve an Oak Cliff neighborhood will be fairly revolutionary. Oak Cliff has a history going back into the early '80s of similar studies that have sat on shelves forever and were never funded, mainly because of the area's history of ineffectual council representation. With the exception of a few like former council members Jim Buerger and Bob Stimson, most North Oak Cliff representatives have been old white guys who spent their time kissing up to North Dallas and never getting a dime in return for their constituents.

As miffed as he may be about the denouement of the parking-lot battle, Gary Burns is clearly intrigued by the possibility that Laura Miller may be able to go out and get that one commodity so achingly rare in the recent history of Oak Cliff: cash.

Cash to fix things. Cash to build things. Cash to make things happen.
Therefore, Burns wants to make it clear he is still willing to allow Miller to atone. "I understand she's new at this," Burns says, "and I'm not sure I wouldn't have screwed up the same way if I had run for council."

He says it's obvious that she is taking the job very seriously and very personally. After the plan commission vote in support of Methodist, Burns wrote Miller a letter explaining why the parking lot issue was so important and why he was concerned that she seemed to have taken up the cudgel for Methodist before even hearing his side of it.

"She left me two phone messages the first day she got the letter and two more the next day," he says. "She said, 'I went home last night, and I was almost in tears, I was so upset.'"

Miller says she read Burns' letter as somewhat harsher than an expression of concern. "Gary Burns sent me a 'the-fix-is-in' letter," she says.

Burns says that was not the point. He merely wanted her to know, he says, that as wonderful as it may be to get some money for Bishop Arts, none of it is worth a plugged nickel if developers and big-money interests can continue to ride roughshod over the city's zoning code.

When Miller talks about the parking-lot battle, there is a mixture of shock and excitement in her tone, as if she is seeing all the same old City Hall stuff from some exhilarating new vantage point.

The meeting where the Methodist guys looked at her like a crook was clearly the worst moment so far. "My big plan to be the peacemaker died at that meeting," she says.

But she's already on the trail of new dragons. An abandoned plating company that the neighborhood has fought unsuccessfully for years to get demolished is finally coming down after Miller told then-City Manager John Ware it was her No. 1 priority (Ware resigned last Thursday).

"My hope is that if I can help these people with the plating company, maybe they'll get over the parking lot."

Uh-oh. The old quid pro quo.
And anyway, Pam Conley says she's the one who's getting the plating company torn down. "I've been on that for years," she says. "She can't take credit for that."

And speaking of the quid pro quo, what about Ralph Isenberg, the Kidd Springs Park guy? He says a major chunk of the $500,000 Miller is getting for Bishop Arts is coming out of money that was to be spent on Kidd Springs Park.

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