Taking It to the Street

Want to get elected to city council in southern Dallas? Forget the race card and patch that pothole.

Pate's theory--a more sophisticated version of what people tend to say when you walk door-to-door--is that when you call City Hall, you get a story. Some story. Long story, short story, good story, dumb story. But what you don't get is sidewalks. And what you never sense is an active will to get out there and help make life better.

Pate sees a universe of honest, well-intentioned city employees who have nothing to gain and everything to lose by bending a single rule a single inch. All of the incentives from above are for them to go cautiously and slowly.

"My spin is that the city council has declared affordable housing to be a matter of public priority," he says, "and that's good, but where it falls off the map is where you get to the departmental and agency level. Their hands are really tied."

But are they? Is it really a case of our political leaders wanting to do the right thing by us but being thwarted by an overcautious bureaucracy? Or is Pate too generous in his assessment of the city council?

District 7 candidate Sharon Middlebrooks, 39, suggests the people she talks to are beginning to get antsy about the political paradigm of recent years.

Since Ron Kirk's election as the city's first black mayor with principal support from the Dallas Citizens Council, all of the deals have worked the same way: The white leaders downtown go to the black community, offer a slice of the pie, and then carry the big-ticket items at the polls mainly on the backs of black southern Dallas votes. What Middlebrooks says she hears when she walks District 7 is that the bill is due. Now.

Her campaign headquarters is in a huge retail space in an aging, underoccupied mall on Buckner Boulevard near Interstate 30. It's an interesting choice, closer to the more affluent eastern extreme of her territory. A short distance north, the district begins to look much more like Poss' fashionable adjoining District 9. But what Middlebrooks says she hears from the people at the affluent end of the district is the same thing she hears from people in the poorer areas.

"They talk about traffic on Buckner, the potholes on Samuell Boulevard, how $1.6 million was approved to repair the streets in one area of the district in the 1995 bond issue and the work has still not begun. And they're not scheduled to sell the bonds until the year 2000."

This is where the rubber meets the road, in Middlebrooks' view. District 7 was one of the key districts where voters, especially in black-majority precincts, supported the mayor on the Trinity River project and the arena.

"The voters in this district feel that they have partnered with the city on the big-ticket items," she says. "Now they want the city to partner with them by delivering cost-effective city services.

"They are saying, 'Give me some of that now.' Not in the year 2000. Now."

Leo Chaney's family made money in the dry cleaning and real estate businesses. His mother was president of the black PTA when the schools were segregated. He was a member of the NAACP Youth Council formed by the late Juanita Craft, a revered civil rights leader of the '60s and '70s. Twenty years ago, he joined Kathlyn Gilliam in forming Clean South Dallas Inc., an early attempt at forming a southern Dallas political machine.

Chaney has worked on the executive staff of the Dallas Independent School District for 21 years, almost always in a community-relations capacity. He served on the City Plan Commission for eight years before resigning this year to run for city council.

"I've worked under four superintendents, and they have all supported my involvement with the city," he says quietly at a table in the fourth-floor library of DISD headquarters.

Better than any of his competitors for the District 7 seat, Chaney can speak the language of public finance, but he also hears the language of the neighborhoods.

"What I'm hearing from my district is street repairs," he says. "Repair these streets! People would like to see some old-fashioned street sweepers come and clean up the streets. It's simple everyday-type stuff, but people want it done. Now."

What Chaney sees is exactly where the big-ticket items and the curb-and-gutter items meet. Bond sales.

The mayor and the Citizens Council had their victory at the polls last year authorizing the sale of $246 million in bonds to pay for the Trinity River project. And according to legislation now being developed in Austin, voters will be asked to approve the diversion of sales taxes and the sale of additional bonds to pay for the 2012 Olympics, if not through the city then through some sports authority or other entity.

Selling bonds is a way for the city to borrow money. The public, however, has to put up the collateral--in the form of local property taxes. (A little-known aspect of the Trinity River project is that the bond vote authorized not only the bonds themselves but whatever kind of tax the city needs to levy to pay for them.)

If something happens and the bonds don't get paid off in time, local property owners must make up the deficit.

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