What's That Smell?

The stink of broken promises in the last big bond election

This is all I ask. Remember the sailboats. I know we've been over this before. But since we last talked about it, the Dallas City Council has passed final ballot language for the bond election on May 3. I just want to make sure we're on the same page:

The sailboat page.

Exactly five years ago, the Dallas City Council passed an ordinance calling for a bond election on 11 different propositions, of which No. 11 was to authorize borrowing $246 million for the so-called Trinity River project. The centerpiece--shown to you and me again and again on television in the days before the election--was a glamorous lake downtown with a glamorous you and a glamorous me slipping around in brief garments on sailboats with big goofy grins on our faces.

Sure. Gimme one of them sailboats.

That was five years ago. Do we see any sailboats downtown? Not to mention a lake? No, we don't, you and me, and by now we have accepted the fact that we are never going to see a lake downtown, not a lake-lake, a jump-in-the-lake lake, a body of water with fish in it and sailboats on it. We have resigned ourselves to the fact that the most we will ever see downtown is a lawyer. That lawyer will explain once again why the city doesn't have to build us the lake it promised it was going to build with the money it borrowed in our name, and that we have to pay back.

As we have discussed here before, City Hall is proud of the fact that it has spent our tax money on legal fees to perfect its right not to build anything remotely like the lake we were promised before the 1998 bond election. Doesn't have to, not going to, we can't make them, na-na na-na-na.

The Trinity River project promised to voters by then Mayor Ron Kirk and his city council and by a host of civic leaders in detailed brochures and handouts and briefings was, as we now know, hot air and puffery designed to get us to OK the bonds. There had been no design work or engineering for a lake. The reasons they gave for doing the project in the first place had no bearing on the real reasons they admitted to after they got the money.

We thought the goal was to create a big lake downtown with us on sailboats. We were wrong for several reasons. We were wrong because after we authorized them to borrow $246 million for the project, they conceded that during many months of the year the only water in the Trinity River downtown is doo-doo water, unsafe even for splash contact. And we wouldn't want to sail on doo-doo now, would we? They were looking out for us, you see. If they'd wanted to be honest, the graphics looped endlessly on television in the weeks before the Trinity bond election would have shown glamorous you and glamorous me sailing on the lake in bio-hazard suits with clothespins on our noses.

But we were also wrong because City Hall acknowledged after we'd approved the bonds that it didn't really want to create a "Central Park" along the river after all, as Kirk had promised in speech after speech. Instead, City Hall admitted it really wanted to build an eight- to 10-lane freeway on top of the river in order to enhance speculative land values in the aging Stemmons industrial corridor northwest of downtown. We had voted to allow the city to borrow $246 million to save the river. The actual plan was to spend the money killing the river.

The technicality that made all of this perfectly legal had to do with ballot language. Attorneys for the city argued successfully in court that the promises made by the mayor, the council and civic leaders before the election were not legally binding. In its decision--affirmed by the Texas Supreme Court--the Texas 5th District Court of Appeals said only the ballot language is binding. The court went on to show that the ballot language in 1998 was very broad, not to say vague. All the ballot said, really, was that the city would spend the money planning, designing and building some kind of big project along the river.

That's why several weeks ago when the council was still deciding what should be included in the upcoming bond election, I called Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson to go over the question of ballot language. The council was arguing about just how much money to allocate to which kind of project in the overall $555 million package. We might assume all of this debate meant the council intended to be very parsimonious in pinching out the money--just exactly this much for that and that much for this and so on, according to a Betty Crocker recipe.

But I thought I remembered the court had said none of the public theater leading up to a bond election means anything. If the ballot offers only very broad language that could be interpreted any which way by a good lawyer, then the council can spend the money any which way it wants, once they've got their hands on the moolah and the lawyer.

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