Conspicuous presumption

Gardere & Wynne finds an unsubtle way to advertise that it owns City Hall

So why, you ask, does a major Dallas law firm pay the mayor of Dallas $200,000 a year when the mayor himself concedes he does little or no legal work for them? What does the law firm get out of the deal?

OK, this is not exactly the riddle of the sphinx. An equally tough question might be, "Why is your dog so friendly around feeding time?"

On the other hand, the firm of Gardere & Wynne has never been especially forthcoming about the special sinecure it provides Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, so it's worth paying attention whenever we do get a little peek.

Anne Carlson of Common Cause found that her presence wasn't appreciated in City Hall's Flag Room when she set up a press conference to criticize the city's new ethics code.
Anne Carlson of Common Cause found that her presence wasn't appreciated in City Hall's Flag Room when she set up a press conference to criticize the city's new ethics code.

And this is a little peek.

On June 26, when Common Cause, the citizen lobby group, wanted to hold a press conference at City Hall, they were told at first that they were flat not going to be allowed to do it. Eventually they figured out a way to pull it off, but only by jumping through a whole bunch of tricky little bureaucratic hoops.

Common Cause wanted to hold a press conference in the ceremonial "Flag Room" outside the Dallas City Council chambers--a big empty space with a bunch of flags at one end and a towering glass wall looking out on downtown. You've seen it on TV a lot. Whenever there's a press conference to announce a big Chamber of Commerce deal, something about the Trinity River project, or anything involving the "Dallas Plan"--booster things--that's where they do it.

Common Cause wanted to use the room to say something un-boosterish. They wanted to hold a press conference to say that the mayor and the private, secretive "Dallas Citizens Council" had screwed up the new city ethics code by watering it down and pulling its teeth in order to protect bid'ness as usual.

"I called down to City Hall on Thursday," Anne Carlson of Common Cause told me. "We wanted to have the press conference the next Monday. We had people coming in from Austin. I got pushed around from office to office. Finally, a woman called me back and said we couldn't have the Flag Room because there was a meeting going on in the city council chamber."

I checked. The woman who spoke to Anne Carlson was right. That's the rule. If there's a meeting going on in the council chamber, somebody else can't use the Flag Room.

Carlson asked whether they could do it down in the City Hall lobby by the front door. Somebody else called back and said, no, there was an art exhibit up in the lobby.

Come again? You can't have a press conference near an art exhibit? Well, now, a rule is a rule, and I checked, and according to the rules the art exhibit amounts to one group using the lobby, so another group can't use the lobby at the same time. So there.

Eventually, Anne Carlson and her colleagues in Common Cause found a friend who knew his way around City Hall; the friend figured out that the rules were being stretched waaaay too tight; and Carlson was allowed to do her press conference during a break in the day when there actually was not a meeting going on in the adjacent council chambers.

I asked Carlson what had been the overall attitude of city staff toward her and Common Cause.

"Really condescending," she said. "It was kind of like people trying to be nice, but at the same time you know they're gritting their teeth."

Oh, I do know that sensation. It's called "Persona Non Grata at City Hall." That's why I sometimes look around for a nearby manager and then ask in a fraidy-cat voice, "Excuse me, but does your person out here on the desk bite?"

So here's the contrast: Let's say you're not Common Cause. Let's say you're more like Uncommon Cause. Superior Cause. Screw-You Cause. Let's say, for example, that you are Gardere & Wynne, LLP, and you pay the mayor $200,000 a year for doing nothing, and you have decided that you want to have a big dinner party for your summer law-school recruits in the Flag Room.

Well, I am just sorry, Mr. Mayor-in-your-pocket, but I checked the rules for that too, and you would not be able to do that. And before we start getting that look on our face and talking smarty-smarty, let me just read the rules to you. This was handed to me by Ms. Phedra Amarante, special-events manager for the city of Dallas.

Ahem. "Guidelines for reserving a special event room..." Blah-blah, blah-blah, here we are. Rule five: "Nonprofit civic, cultural, professional and educational organizations may use meeting or special event rooms as schedules permit. Use of these rooms shall not be granted for religious meetings or commercial purposes."

Pretty clear, eh? And she handed that right to me. Now, I must say, I did have a bit more difficulty persuading Ms. Amarante to let me see who has actually used the room in recent months. I asked whether I could look through the file or just see a list or whatever.

"You know better than that," she said. "I am not going to allow you to just come down here and rifle through our files."

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