Miller Behind Closed Doors

She's cooler and more collected than the harpy you saw in those Dunning ads

Wow. This Laura Miller thing is going to be different. I don't know exactly how or what different. But way different. Hold-on-to-your-top-hat different.

Miller invited me and Victoria Loe Hicks of The Dallas Morning News, along with David Gray, an environmentalist, to take part in a personal briefing that the city manager's staff and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were doing for her on the Trinity River project. It was extremely eye-opening to see her in action in this kind of intense mano-a-mano setting, in her private conference room behind the mayor's office.

So you're thinking, "Schutze is all giddy because he got invited into the mayor's conference room instead of being chased down the hall the way he should have been by her bodyguard."

OK. I admit it. Getting to see a mayor do battle with the bureaucracy behind closed doors is any City Hall reporter's dream. And there were some weird moments. Loe Hicks did way better than I at behaving like a reporter and keeping her opinions to herself. I may have been a tad blabby. Blame it on caffeine.

The really intriguing thing was getting to see how the staff and the Corps of Engineers tried to buffalo Miller and how she handled it. She doesn't get mad, she keeps her sense of humor, but she stays right in there with them every step of the dance. She's much cooler than you might think if all you'd ever seen of her was "6 o'clock Laura" fighting with former Mayor Ron Kirk on the evening news.

The day she invited us in, the city manager's staff was briefing her on a key campaign pledge to seek a "buyout" of the Cadillac Heights neighborhood, allowing residents to be moved from what they have long believed is a dangerously polluted area to some safer neighborhood. The city's plan under former Mayor Kirk was to leave the residents in place and build a big earthen berm or levee to protect them from flooding along the Trinity River.

The Cadillac Heights Levee is one of two planned levees that extend into Southern Dallas from downtown. The new southern levees were a selling point for the whole Trinity River project back in 1998 when the voters had to approve $246 million in bonds. The idea was to show minority voters in Southern Dallas that this was not just a flood-control project for downtown but that there was something in it for them, too. The bond package passed very narrowly, defeated in white precincts but heavily supported by black precincts.

The problem is that nobody bothered to go ask the people of Cadillac Heights, a very poor black and Latino neighborhood on the west bank of the river, if they wanted to be protected with a levee. In recent years they have been saying in an ever-louder chorus of unanimity that they do not. They say their neighborhood is hopelessly polluted with industrial poisons, and they want out.

Don't ask the Corps to spend money on a levee, they have been saying. Ask the Corps to spend its money helping the city to buy us out and move us away from here. Their cause has attracted sympathy throughout Southern Dallas, and Miller promised during her recent campaign for mayor that she would go to bat for them once in office.

In her private briefing, Miller pushed the Corps and the city manager's staff to admit some things they really didn't want to say. Finally they conceded to her that the Cadillac Heights levee will actually increase flood risks and potential damage downtown.

This seems like a complicated idea at first, but it's not. Think of the river as a pipe draining water away from downtown. The new levees just below downtown squeeze the pipe down smaller. In a big flood, that backs the water up and makes downtown flooding worse.

After considerable prodding, the city manager's staff and the Corps officials conceded that Miller could substantially improve flood protection for downtown and save $9 million by not building the Cadillac Heights levee.

So why build it? The Corps and the city manager's staff went directly to Ron Kirk's argument: These levees south of downtown, which make flooding worse and expose the city's most valuable real estate to greater risk, must be built anyway as a form of racial reparation. Then David Gray butted in and pointed out that the people for whom we are going to build these racial reparation levees don't want them. So how does that work?

Miller is sort of sitting there in the middle of this, not in the power seat at the head of the table but in the middle, watching this ball fly around the room. She's got her reporter's notebook out, taking notes. The wheels in her head are turning, but you can't tell which way.

This is where the Corps people went on the muscle--an interesting moment for us Miller-watchers. Will she blow or will she stay cool? They tell Miller that the city has to build the levee anyway, even if it makes flooding worse and even if the racial reparation argument doesn't hold water, because just before Miller got elected, the Corps and the city manager's staff persuaded the city council to sign a contract promising to build the levee.

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