Ted's Excellent Adventure

City manager fires chief, finds self in hell

The near-total meltdown at City Hall last week was solely the work of City Manager Ted Benavides. It seems to have been a very clumsy piece of work, indeed, setting the stage for a horrific city council meeting the next day. But it was his work alone.

Don't look for a conspiracy. Our system of government is too dumb for conspiracies. The people in the medium-security dayroom at Terrell State Hospital could pull off better conspiracies.

In fact, Terrell State Hospital was very much on my mind as I surveyed the scene at the city council chamber on the afternoon of August 27, barely 24 hours after Benavides had fired Terrell Bolton, the city's first black police chief. The mayor and the council were out of their seats, huddled like ducks at the back of the room. People were racing all over the council chamber screaming.

Former council member Sandra Crenshaw was standing halfway up in the seating area with her chin pointed straight up in the air and arms outstretched, yodeling like a madwoman.

And I thought, "Jim, let's be careful not to speak unfairly of Terrell State Hospital." This was more like the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's famous work, "Hell."

In Bosch's painting, flames in the background consume dark castles. In the foreground naked souls are tortured by snouted creatures in a landscape of gigantic body parts. From the center of this horrific tableau, one man stares with an oddly serene gaze. I figure he must be the city manager.

Take this scene: It's 1 p.m. the same day. All morning a black radio station has been urging people to converge on City Hall at this hour. The place is packed. The crowd is angry.

Finally it's time for the first guy to go to the microphone and let loose. The room is tense. Everybody's on pins and needles. What's he going to say? Remember: The police chief and city Councilman James Fantroy have been on television and in the newspaper all week promising a race riot over Bolton's firing.

The speaker is Kevin D. Felder, a black real estate agent and one-time candidate for council. Everybody is straining to hear this opening salvo.

It's something about hills. A little garbled. Hills and views? No, it's about the Hillview Terrace Homeowners Association. They're fighting the construction of 280 affordable apartment units in their area. Felder is demanding that black council member Leo V. Chaney "acknowledge that the majority of the residents of Hillview Terrace and the Las Casas Homeowners Association are not in favor of the above-mentioned apartment project..."

Hey, wait a minute, I'm sorry, but I'm from Detroit. You cannot have a race riot in which a middle-class black neighborhood is protesting the intrusion of too many affordable housing units. Not that I don't sympathize. But it's just not proper race-riot material.

After Felder, a bunch of people do get up and speak very angrily about Bolton's firing. The biggest hurrah of the day comes when one speaker levels a finger at Mayor Laura Miller and calls her "a slimy journalist!"

The crowd goes crazy. I'm sitting there thinking, "Please! Let's leave the slimy journalists out of this."

Then a black minister gets up and grabs the lectern. When the mayor tells him someone else has the podium, he shouts back, "I've got the podium!" He looks like he's going to defy her and the City Hall security cops.

And I think, "OK. This really is it." If he chains himself to the lectern or hugs it hard or something, Miller will have to order the gendarmes to carry him off. The sight of cops manhandling a respected preacher will go out live all over the city. And this, in fact, is the kind of thing that can jump it off.

But the next thing I know, the preacher is racing up the aisle toward the door, calling all of the other black clergy out of the chamber, shouting as his war cry, "Press conference! Press conference!"

Preeeeess conference? You've got to be kidding me. Why not do a nice little reception with canapes?

Speaking of which: On this same day a rally has been scheduled for 7 p.m. at Bolton's church, Antioch Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Hampton Road in Southern Dallas. Since Bolton himself is the one who has most consistently suggested over time that his dismissal could produce riots, then maybe the church he belongs to will be the point of ignition.

A huge cavalcade of dish trucks and media vans descends on the church at the appointed hour. Antioch Fellowship is a vast new complex of stylish buildings surrounded by newly developed neighborhoods, a stone's throw from the suburban Meccas of Duncanville, DeSoto, Cedar Hill and Lancaster. The sprawling parking lot is jammed with gleaming new automobiles.

A large security staff steers me to the media parking lot. I find my way to an open door beneath a sign marked "Media Entrance." Inside, a huge crowd of fashionably dressed church members and guests is waiting patiently in long lines at tables laden with floral arrangements and finger food constantly resupplied by a uniformed waitstaff from a catering company.

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