Big, honking white lies

Want to know the truth about the Trinity River project? Don't ask city staff. They fib.

The thing about the current Dallas City Council is that the truth tends to get them all upset, whereas they never seem to mind all that much being lied to.

At the April 21 council briefing, North Dallas council member Sandy Greyson asked David Dybala, the city's head of public works, about a key point in the Trinity River deal. She wanted to know whether it is true that Dallas would have to get an exception or variance from regional flood-control regulations to carry out the project.

It's a key question for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important of which is why Dallas would need an exception: The only reason for a variance is that the $2 billion city, state, and federal project, which critics say is a road deal dressed up as a flood-control deal, will make the overall flood situation in the region worse, not better.

The specific process involved is called the Corridor Development Certificate or CDC. It's an agreement Dallas signed in the early '90s with Fort Worth and the mid-cities promising that no one would do anything to reduce the overall flood-handling capacity of the Trinity River watershed.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in its environmental impact statement on the river project, admitted the project will reduce the watershed's ability to store water and let it soak into the ground naturally--just what all the cities promised not to do in the CDC process. The Corps said Dallas would have to get a variance from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, administrators of the CDC to do the project.

It's a highly technical point with a major potential for political fallout. If taxpayers had known this massive undertaking was going to make flooding worse, not better, they might not have passed the $246 million river bond issue last summer.

But the Corps' finding was not released until two weeks after the election. And since then only the Dallas Observer has reported it.

Last week during a long council briefing on flood issues, Greyson asked Dybala, "On this CDC, you know, the corridor development certificate. Are we asking for an exception to that on the Trinity?"

Dybala said, "No."
Greyson said, "We're not? OK."
She paused. Then she asked again, "Definitely no?"
Dybala said, "Definitely no."
But the real answer was definitely yes.

Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who was present when Dybala told his fibski to Greyson, must have heard alarm bells. Jordan spoke up:

"What is your question?" Jordan asked. "Do you mean other projects on the Trinity, or do you mean our Trinity River project?"

Greyson said, "Our Trinity River project. I'm curious, because I was reading this..."

At that point Dybala cut both women off and jumped in with a long-winded, contorted answer that seemed to say no variance or exception would be neessary because the CDC, as it exists, already allows for the amount of flood-worsening that the river project will cause.

When he was done, Greyson said, "So because that's true, we are not asking for an exception. We don't have to, because it's already provided for in the process..."

Dybala interrupted: "It is. Yes"
Greyson: "... for the CDC."
Dybala: "Yes."
Greyson: "OK."

Greyson folded her cards and withdrew, apparently having stood up to Dybala all she could stand. The matter was dropped like a rock, in fact, until council member Laura Miller's turn to ask questions came around. She asked Jordan to explain why she had balked at Dybala's answer to Greyson.

Jordan suggested that the whole idea of a variance was something that had been claimed by opponents of the river project. "That allegation is out there that this project will require that," she said, giving the impression the city staff had made no hard decision whether a variance would be required.

Several days later on the phone with a reporter, Jordan said it quite differently: "The project will need a variance in accordance with the provisions of the CDC process," she said.

Definitely yes?
"Yes. This project will need it," she said.
Earlier, when Jordan spoke at the council briefing, Greyson briefly took courage and came back to the two of them again.

"David said no, but you're saying maybe," she said to Jordan.
But at that point Mayor Ron Kirk unilaterally cut off debate on the issue on the grounds that talking about it might give aid and comfort to enemies of the project.

"The opponents are going to say everything requires that, because they're going to kill the project," Kirk said. "Realistically, we have to defend the project."

Greyson objected: "I just don't think I have a consistent answer here."
But Kirk insisted the council shouldn't even raise or discuss such questions because doing so might help critics. "The one thing I don't want to do is do their legal research for them."

Greyson did not return calls from the Observer this week.
Kirk was served with a subpoena last week by a group seeking to depose him on whether or not he and other city officials deliberately misled the public about the river project before last May's bond election.

Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer representing the critics, says the truthful answer to Greyson's question could never have been in any doubt.

"In fact, there are two variances really to be obtained," he says, pointing out that the Corps and the city will have to get a variance from the Corps' own "Record of Decision" in 1987 and then obtain a separate variance from the CDC process. Both things--the Record of Decision and the CDC process--reflect the same central finding in the late 1980s: Real estate development and land-use decisions made during the boom years of the late '70s and early '80s are the reasons Dallas has flooding problems now.

That only makes the Trinity River Plan more remarkable. The Corps admits the project will reduce the water storage capacity along the river and says the reason it's worth allowing that to happen is that the plan will encourage more real estate development in the floodplain.

"The communities upstream from Dallas should be very concerned about this," Blackburn said.

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