Crocodile Tears

City Hall is sorry it can't help the White Rock water main victims... or anybody else, for that matter

Next May we will vote in a citywide referendum on whether to pay the Dallas City Council its first full-time salary in half a century. The people who oppose council pay say they don't want us to have a city council of full-time "professional politicians."

Here's my question. What do you think we get out of the system now, with a council full of unprofessional politicians?

Let me offer what I think may be the absolute pluperfect best example ever: the water main break that flooded 30 townhouses near White Rock Lake last February 8.

Even if you think City Manager Ted Benavides is a nice guy, the office of city manager is a hick-town anachronism.
Martin Menocal
Even if you think City Manager Ted Benavides is a nice guy, the office of city manager is a hick-town anachronism.

Right after it happened, Mayor Ron Kirk, City Manager Ted Benavides, and City Councilwoman Mary Poss rushed to the site and, while the TV cameras shone brightly on them, made all kinds of pledges about how the city was going to help the people whose homes had been flooded by millions of gallons of water from a broken city water main.

So last week, as if it were a big surprise to them and a terribly sad thing, these same city officials announced that even if the water main break turns out to be the city's fault, the city will not be paying anybody any money.

No money, no way.

Why? If the city's so sorry, and if the mayor of the city and the city manager and the council member from that district all swear they're going to help on television, how come they're not going to help? Help me with this.

So here is the official answer: It appears the city discovered, after much legal research, that a special exception in state law says cities are not liable for damage from water main breaks. They are liable for all kinds of other things. But state law says specifically they're not liable for water pipes, even if the pipes are bad, even if the city knew the pipes were bad, even if they knew they needed to fix the pipes, even if they didn't fix the pipes, sorry: not liable for pipes.

Wow, what a strange law. What a coincidence!

But you can see the city's dilemma. It says it would like to help, of course. But if the law says it's not liable, it's not liable. And it can't just give the money away.

But this is what you also need to know: While they were crying crocodile tears about not being able to help the people in the townhouses, the same city officials forgot to mention that the city of Dallas spent taxpayer money--money from those people in the townhouses, for example--lobbying in Austin four years ago to get the exception added to the law that exempts cities from liability for water main breaks.

I came across the city's lobbying efforts last summer while working on a story about Melton and Cora Barnes, a couple in their 70s whose home, high on a bluff over Woody Branch Creek in southern Dallas County, is in danger of tumbling 35 feet over the precipice with them in it ("Tribal Vengeance," July 20, 2000).

One of the Barnes' most heart-rending complaints was that the city staff had aimed a big storm-sewer pipe right at the creek bank beneath their home. When heavy rains swelled the storm-sewer system in a new subdivision across the creek from them, the city's new pipe turned into a water cannon, severely eroding the creek bank beneath the Barnes' property.

I called several lawyers who are experts in municipal law to see if the Barneses could sue the city for the damage to their property caused by the city's sewer pipe. One of the lawyers with whom I spoke, himself a former member of the Dallas city attorney's staff, told me about the exception protecting municipalities from lawsuits for damage caused by water pipes. He knew about it because he had been on the lobbying team that went to Austin in the pay of Dallas and some other cities to get it passed.

"It may not be very fair," he said, "but cities are a pretty powerful force in the Legislature."

I don't know what it cost the city to pay the lobbying team to get the law changed, but I would be willing to bet the farm on one thing: It was way cheaper than fixing the pipes.

I am not saying that Kirk, Benavides, and Poss went out to the neighborhood where the water main broke and lied through their teeth about their intentions. Poss and Kirk probably had no idea what the law provided or forbade. Benavides certainly would have known about the exception for water main breaks, but what was he supposed to do with the mayor and a council member walking around like the Red Cross promising everybody help? Obviously, he's going to wait until they're all back safely at City Hall before he gives Kirk and Poss the wake-up call.

Bottom of the page: The people whose homes were ruined by the city's bad water main will get nothing from the city. Many do not have insurance. Of those who do, several already have been told by their insurance companies that the damage is not covered. And you watch: None of those people at City Hall will ever say another word about this.

Day in and day out, the issue at Dallas City Hall is much less about chicanery or duplicity than about the simple element of will. What is the real will of Dallas City Hall to help people in the position of those whose homes were flooded?

If City Hall had an absolute determination to devote its energy and assets to community-building and to the nurturing of neighborhoods, that water main would have been fixed with the money we gave away instead to Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks for a sports arena. We wouldn't have a City Hall that's run like a sharp loan company. We would have a mayor who told the staff, "Don't go lobby in Austin for a special law letting you out of your responsibilities to the citizens of my city. Go fix those damned pipes!"

You have to juxtapose this kind of thing with the massive moving of heaven and earth that Dallas City Hall will do for people such as Hicks and Perot when they want to build some kind of neon casino downtown. Or what they will do for Tom Luce when he wants to bring the Olympics to town and run roughshod over historic Fair Park in the course of getting it done.

It's really a question of will. What do we have to do to instill in our City Hall a real will to serve citizens, to serve neighborhoods, to help build real communities inside the city?

The unpaid volunteer council system is only half of that picture, maybe the less important half. The other piece of the puzzle is the city manager system, a holdover from an earlier era when the city was run by a small group of businessmen who saw themselves as a benevolent oligarchy. The city manager was a tool of top-down control, set up specifically to make sure none of those ward-heeling rowdies out in the neighborhoods ever got any power.

The ward-heeling rowdies are all long gone. They moved to Mesquite 50 years ago. The oligarchs are either dead or living in Forney (same thing).

And the city manager system has been taken over by diamond-toothed river-boat gamblers--rich hoods who want what they want and couldn't care less about broken water mains.

In spite of all that, these could be promising times for the city. The old racial bigotries and fears that drove white people out to the far suburbs or into the monoracial enclaves of Highland Park and University Park are softening. Close-in neighborhoods are swelling with prodigals who have come back in order to be near the action. The coming round of redistricting based on the 2000 census will be shaped by a raft of new Supreme Court rulings since the last redistricting.

What bodes well for city neighborhoods is that the racial quota system on which current districts were based has been materially disassembled by the high court. What we have seen under the existing system is that cutting the city into racial enclaves has tended to defeat the process of community-building.

What we need are districts built on true communities of interest. People in Oak Cliff--white, brown, and black--need to come to City Hall for Oak Cliff reasons, with their Oak-Cliffness in common, having overcome all of their other differences before coming downtown. City Hall can't do anything about whiteness, brownness, or blackness. City Hall can do something about Oak Cliff.

Some of that is going to happen in the next redistricting. For Dallas to pass muster under the new rules, the city must come up with a city council that reflects true communities of interest: a very important first for the city.

We need to seize this moment, and paying the council a real-life salary is only step one. It's an essential step. We can't get around it or do without it. But it's only step one. Step two is either ditching or very seriously reforming the city manager system.

We need a no-excuses system. We need to be able to look those folks in the eye and say, "Find a way to help the people whose homes were flooded. Find a way to fix the pipes so there won't be any more homes flooded. Don't talk to us about any more casinos until you get the streets fixed. And take off those damned sunglasses."

That's what council pay is all about. It's step one in the creation of a political system that cares about the city. If we care, we have to make them care.

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