The shallow end

Personal vendettas drain Dallas' wading pools for poor kids

"I don't disagree with the policy," Isenberg says. "I'm just saying that this particular pool needs to be an exception to the rule."

The kids here aren't really bus-able. It doesn't work that way. The families come down together. They're not all going to get on a bus and go spend the afternoon in another part of town. When you feel the closeness and intimacy of this little park, it's clear why the pool here needs to be an exception to the closing policy.

Isenberg went to the city council member who had appointed him to the park board, Laura Miller, and convinced her it was important for this distant little pocket of the city to keep its pool. Miller made contact with ExxonMobil Corporation through an intermediary.

Park board member Ralph Isenberg pledged to save the wading pool in Arcadia Park. But fellow board members Joann Baggett, Dwaine Caraway, and others blocked his way because of personal politics.
Mark Graham
Park board member Ralph Isenberg pledged to save the wading pool in Arcadia Park. But fellow board members Joann Baggett, Dwaine Caraway, and others blocked his way because of personal politics.

After Miller announced she had found money to save the pool in Arcadia Park as well as a second pool in South Dallas, Park Board President Diane Curry called ExxonMobil. Curry did not return multiple calls from me to her home and office phone numbers. She has admitted publicly that she called ExxonMobil.

Council member Lois Finkelman also called ExxonMobil, but says she only left them a phone message. Finkelman told me her only aim was to warn the company that their gift might put them in the middle of a controversy. She suggested that several other people may have called the company as well.

Miller says the overall thrust of the calls from Curry, Finkelman, and whoever else may have contacted the company was that "they scared the crap out of Exxon."

In fact, shortly after the calls were made, ExxonMobil sent out a second letter saying the money was an "unrestricted grant," instead of being for Arcadia Park in particular. At its April 12 meeting, the city council voted to accept the money and not spend it on Arcadia, effectively closing the Arcadia pool.

If you try to sort this out according to any kind of typical public politics, you will never get to the bottom of the page; you will never find the real answer for why the park board and the city council would deliberately screw up a corporate gift, embarrass the socks off the donor company, and then shut down the only pool in a terribly needy neighborhood.

You want the answer? I found it. I'll share it with you. It's here, on an official audiotape of the April 6 meeting of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board. At that meeting, almost the entire board took turns upbraiding Isenberg for his efforts on behalf of Arcadia Park.

Board Vice President Dwaine Caraway could barely contain his anger and shouted at Isenberg several times: "We have never had, since I have been on this board, so much unnecessary, in my personal opinion, press, media, minute circumstances, penny-ante discussions...

"Every time we turn around, the press is being called. I don't really appreciate the press. The press was here the other day, and I told them how I feel about them for covering such trash...It's about the pools...personally I'm tired of being played to the press on issues that are one-sided and are packing personal agenda. I'm tired of filling up that woman's Web site [probably a reference to anti-arena activist Sharon Boyd's dallasarena.com], reading the things that are going on up here and are going on at City Hall.

"It is the most disruptive destruction I've ever seen."

Caraway, who is the appointee of his own wife, city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway, blasted Isenberg for bringing in Laura Miller.

"I don't run to Barbara," he said, "and I sleep with her. I don't tell her a dang thing about what's happening up here, 'cause I handle it myself, like I'm handling this. I don't need her to handle nothing for me."

On the tape, in a strange kind of parliamentary gantlet, each member of the park board takes his and her turn slapping Isenberg around. Park board member Joann Baggett, the wife of a prominent lawyer (her own name has never once appeared in The Dallas Morning News), told Isenberg: "When you call the press, we're going to shut it down."

There it is. It's personal. It's all about ego, image, and personal enmity.

Isenberg and Miller are pilloried and ridiculed for caring.

Look, this is what we get with this kind of system, with an unpaid city council, a hired mayor, and a bunch of appointed weasels on the boards and commissions. No real people, no people with jobs and families, flesh-and-blood people who live the life of the city: No people like that can even get to the table.

So we get mean, not very bright, small-minded self-seekers. Penny-ante chiselers. People looking for personal prestige. People looking for money. But damned few people with hearts.

And that's it, right there: Mrs. Baggett has expressed it succinctly. When the school year ends and the children come down from the chalk hills of Arcadia Park this summer, their swimming pool will be padlocked and dry because Ralph Isenberg and Laura Miller went public with the issue.

I only wish there were a way to force Mrs. Baggett to stand there in that park and explain it to those kids, all summer long.

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