Big Brother does Dallas

Jim Schutze unmasks the Orwellian Dallas Plan Inc.

The longer you sit there, the creepier things get. Goose-bumps creepy. As you perch in a metal folding chair at one of three "discussion tables" in the all-purpose room of the Jaycee Zaragoza Rec Center, the evening's events somehow seem the opposite of deja vu: A familiar event slowly begins to appear stranger the longer it drags on.

It's a community meeting sponsored by the "Dallas Plan," and on the surface, it's the kind of earnest town-hall public hearing--let's all skip dinner, swill weak coffee, and talk about curbs and gutters till we're dizzy--that seasoned reporters rank right up there with a root canal in terms of how to spend an evening.

Everything is in place: There's the table at the back of the room with the hockey-puck cookies and the coffee that tastes like tea. Over in the far corner, city Councilman Steve Salazar, who represents this district in West Dallas, is leaning against a doorjamb searching the room for friendly faces.

There are bunches of chairs up front. A podium. An easel for the Dick-and-Jane visuals.

But something is seriously amiss. First of all, when they start the meeting and everyone is up at the front of the room, people aren't allowed to speak.

This is a public hearing that appears to be put on by the Dallas planning department and the city council, and it has a lot to do with the proposed $2 billion reconstruction of the Trinity River, which runs right through this part of town. But people are told they cannot speak.

Excuse us? Didn't we have a war with the British over this?
Then you're ordered to go to your "discussion group." That's where you are now, divvied up into small cells of people. And not only can the people at your table not talk to the people at the other tables, but you have to limit your conversations to a very detailed list of topics handed out by the monitors.

Yes, there are monitors. With clipboards and stopwatches. And they scold you if you try to talk about things that aren't on the list.

This is not made up. This particular meeting, one of a series of 17 held around the city and at City Hall since mid-January, actually took place at 7 p.m. January 21 at the Jaycee Zaragoza Rec Center. In real life on this very planet.

And then there is this: At one table sits a very suave, sharkish young woman in black pants and a black top, almost certainly not a neighborhood mom. She is way, way ahead of the curve on everything, but tries to come across like just another interested citizen who's wandered in off Westmoreland Road to chat about the Trinity River project.

Something about her just doesn't seem right. A little voice in the back of your mind keeps going, "Ringer, ringer, ringer."

Wise little voice, it turns out. As you sit there munching cookies under the glow of fluorescent lights, reality shifts. You've suddenly passed into Dallas' version of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth, where nothing is quite what it seems to be and the truth is whatever a passel of shady, spooky characters tells you it is.

The exact nature of these "Dallas Plan" meetings--the shape of them, the agenda, and the way they are being run--is important, because the stakes here are high.

Out of this process will come something that will be presented as a consensus on the Trinity River plan. And that consensus may well be the single most important factor anywhere on the entire local political landscape in determining the physical shape of the city in the next century.

You may be forgiven for thinking the Trinity River plan was a done deal by now. Last May, Dallas voters narrowly approved a $246 million bond issue, the biggest in the city's history, to pay for fixing up the Trinity River through downtown and into southern Dallas.

Unfortunately, the Trinity River plan remains much more unresolved than Mayor Ron Kirk would have you believe. Our $246 million in local money is a down payment on the total cost of the project, which will run somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion. Of course, we hope the rest of the money will come from the federal government or the state government or the Sultan of Brunei--anybody but us.

But before Dallas can get to the really big money in this deal, there is a serious hitch. There are still two strong camps at war over the project--those who want it so badly that they can taste it, and those who have now decided the whole project is so bad that they need to kill it. Serious environmental and political issues remain unresolved, and those issues are going to find their way into hard-fought lobbying efforts in Washington and Austin, as well as into the inevitable lawsuits.

What the pro-project side needs to get its millions in state or federal funds is a big, warm consensus--something it can wave at a judge or committee chairman or whomever and say, "Look, the people of Dallas have spoken, and they're foursquare behind the deal, so what's the holdup?"

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