Un-chartered Territory

Plus: Coming Attractions; Torah, Torah, Torah!

Un-chartered Territory
Who's behind the strong-mayor petitions? That's a secret.

What does it tell us that the mayor and city council can't even discuss a "strong mayor" charter reform without coming close to a food fight, but a total outsider with no experience in city government may succeed in a dramatic end run around all of them? Probably everything we need to know.

Last week political novice Beth Ann Blackwood delivered 30,000 petition signatures to City Hall--10,000 more than the number required to force a May referendum on charter reform. Blackwood's petitions call for the complete abandonment of the city manager system in Dallas in favor of a strong mayor system.

Blackwood, a lawyer and first-time city council candidate, believes her version of a strong mayor system would give City Hall a badly needed infusion of accountability by transforming the office of mayor from figurehead to true chief executive.

"Whoever is the mayor, the bottom line will be that the mayor is responsible, that the buck stops with him or her," she says.

Two weeks ago when Mayor Laura Miller attempted to talk the council into her own version of a strong mayor election, the debate broke into acrimony so bitter that the meeting had to be adjourned.

The mayor seemed flummoxed by the Blackwood petition drive. She says Blackwood's idea is too radical: Dallas voters will never go for a change, she says, that includes ditching the statutory office of city manager.

At the briefing two weeks ago Miller was still hopeful of getting her own version of reform on the ballot, in which the city manager would still exist but would be hired and fired by the mayor. She asked city staff to tell her what options she and the city council would have if the Blackwood signatures are certified.

"What could we then put on the ballot, if anything?" Miller asked city attorney Madeleine Johnson.

Johnson told the mayor she could only answer her question in a secret "executive session" because of "anticipated litigation." Later in open session the mayor and other council members peppered Johnson with a fairly bizarre range of questions.

For example, Miller wanted to know if it would be legal to put conflicting propositions on the ballot so that voters might theoretically enact two different and conflicting forms of city government at the same time.

Johnson diplomatically replied that it might be technically legal to do so but also might not be a smart idea. She and other staff, all of them speaking very gingerly, informed the mayor that Blackwood's petition drive may make it difficult--probably impossible--for any other strong mayor proposition to go on the ballot next May.

In the hallways and cubicles of City Hall there is huge paranoia over the whole issue of strong mayor charter reform and who is really pushing for what. The morning after her own attempts went down in flames, Miller put more fat on the fire by cheerfully endorsing Blackwood's idea. The Blackwood plan, she said in The Dallas Morning News, was "better than no plan."

It may have been an off-the-cuff remark, but it was taken by several minority council members as proof that Miller and Blackwood had been playing a bad-cop-good-cop game from the beginning. Minority council members, along with a few white members, fear that strong mayor reforms are all about undermining their own hard-fought gains, allowing the old oligarchy to regain control.

Blackwood hasn't helped by not providing information about her own support base. Her most recent campaign finance report improperly omits the source of more than $28,000 she has spent on her District 14 council campaign so far. She also has refused to name the committee behind her petition drive, other than to describe them tantalizingly as "wealthy businessmen."

In a city where the term "wealthy businessmen" still evokes the era of white citizens councils, Blackwood's description of her own support is either brazen or very naïve.

Blackwood seems to regard curiosity about her support as nosiness. "I think most people are just trying to look for a way to shoot at the petition campaign," she says. "They'd like to see some list that they hope gives them some ammunition to use, which frankly isn't there."

That attitude doesn't comprehend, of course, that in politics the better ammo is in the fact the list is secret, not who's on it. But she's getting there.

"I think the real question that people are asking is 'Who is behind this?'" she says.

Bingo.

"Who is behind this really, when you get right down to it," she says, "is myself and my husband [lawyer Tom Thomas]. Now, that's about to change, because now that the signatures have been filed, we have had a lot of other people call."

She promises the names of those people will be forthcoming. The Dallas Observer is aware from other sources that those names will include some former major financial backers of the mayor. Of these, some have become quietly disaffected from the mayor because of what they see as her abandonment of core principles, especially with regard to the Trinity River project.

Blackwood insists that her petition campaign is exactly and only what she says it is--an effort by a total outsider to do something about the stalemate at Dallas City Hall.

"This was something my husband and I talked about a year ago in the context of 'Surely there is some way to get this issue on the ballot without going through City Council.'

"We went and looked it up and found out that it's a 20,000-signature requirement."

City staff began verifying signatures on the petitions this week. If the 30,000 submitted signatures include at least 20,000 good ones, the Blackwood proposal goes on the ballot next May.

And she and her husband didn't even have to go into executive session or have a food fight, that we know of, in order to get it done. --Jim Schutze

Torah, Torah, Torah!

What Does The Torah say about abortion? Adoption? What does the Torah say about the age of the earth? A harder question to answer: Is there a market for an orthodox rabbi and an ordinary Jewish guy to discuss on the radio what the Torah says about contemporary issues?

This Sunday at 5 p.m. marks the fourth broadcast of Damon and the Rabbi on KSKY-660AM, a conservative talk radio station based in Dallas.

"We're just trying to take contemporary issues and see what the Torah might say about them," says Damon Oran. "I believe the Torah can provide a moral compass to anybody."

Oran, a Dallas businessman, teaches Sunday school at Temple Shalom. Orthodox Rabbi Shimshon Silkin, a 30-year-old English scholar who moved to the United States in 2000, is educational director of the Dallas Area Torah Association.

As the adopted son of the late Jack Oran, a Holocaust survivor and castrated victim of the notorious Auschwitz officer Dr. Josef Mengele, Oran's childhood was dominated by his father's mental and emotional scars. He co-founded the Second Generation Holocaust Survivors Group of Dallas.

Oran and Rabbi Silkin got the idea for the show about nine months ago. By Torah, they mean first five books of the Bible, the Tanakh (the rest of the Old Testament), the Talmud, or "oral Torah," and other Jewish writings.

The two sold veteran radio producer Michael Spears on the idea. He warned the odd couple that it might take time to find an audience, but calls began lighting up the boards during the first few shows.

"There's really not much live radio of this type," Spears says. "I think it has a good chance of making it on the national basis."

It will take four or five months to know whether the show can make it in the competitive national market. The scholarly but feisty tone suggests the show fills a unique niche. "I wanted to call the show The Rabbi and the Schmuck," Oran says, "but I was over-ruled." --Glenna Whitley

Coming Attractions An elderly man stands silhouetted by bright sunlight in the open doors of the Inwood theater. The lobby is empty, stripped down to the bone, with wires dangling from the ceiling and shattered bits of tile strewn across the worn carpet. Outside, the marquee promises that within a few weeks "an improved Inwood" will reopen. The man, nonetheless, is undeterred. "Are they showing movies here?" he asks the tall Australian standing amid the rubble the day after Thanksgiving. "Not till January," says Tearlach Hutcheson, director of development for the Landmark Theatres chain, which counts the Inwood among its 57 theaters across the country. Hutcheson's guest, though, cannot help but rib him: Man, this place was such a dump that old man couldn't tell the difference. Hutcheson, whose first job in the movie business was managing the Inwood in 1997, isn't entirely amused.

For years, the former management at Landmark promised it was going to renovate the crumbling Inwood, built in 1947 and apparently retouched last in 1948. But it took the purchasing of Landmark last year by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban to actually get things done. The project is extensive: There will be a brand-new concession stand, expanded bathrooms downstairs, a restoration of the murals and light fixtures, a door connecting the Lounge to the theater lobby (which means you can now take booze into the screening rooms) and other major touch-ups. "It's a dramatic overhaul," Hutcheson says. "The Inwood's going to get the tender, loving care it's needed for a long time."

For a year, rumors have circulated that Landmark's former L.A. bosses were going to shut down the Inwood; now, with local owners and a local president (Bill Banowsky), it looks to become the centerpiece in the chain. If this redo lures back moviegoers who've drifted to the Angelika or even Landmark's Magnolia, the chain could use the Inwood overhaul as a template for future renovations across the country. "When I started at the Inwood, most theaters that showed independent films were old theaters," says Hutcheson, who also oversaw the construction of the ultra-modern Magnolia. "But if this works, we will look at a lot of theaters to see which ones could benefit from a face-lift." --Robert Wilonsky

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