Culture Wars

The toll road referendum will squash the big-hairs

But most of them do not pay attention and are led around like hogs with rings in their noses by the city's professional staff. I am reminded of the words of a friend of mine who has worked for the city all his life, who refers to council members as "the summer help."

Hunt told me last week she found that few of her colleagues on the council knew squat about the toll road project before TrinityVote announced its petition drive. "I talked to some of my colleagues, and I just said, 'What do you think of this? Did you know we're putting a toll road down in between the levees?' They really didn't believe me. They thought I was mistaken.

"One of my colleagues said to me, 'I think you're mistaken about that. It's going to be on top of the levees or right outside.'"

This is what most council members get when they ask the city's professional staff for information about the Trinity project—watercolors in PDF files. No wonder they don't know squat.
This is what most council members get when they ask the city's professional staff for information about the Trinity project—watercolors in PDF files. No wonder they don't know squat.

She told me that once she convinced fellow council members they were wrong—that the plan was to build a superhighway right through the park and inside the flood control levees—their reaction was to try to talk her out of bringing it up again.

"They said, 'Look, this toll road has been planned for a long time. This is the only place it can go. It's on track and you don't want to destroy the project. We can't really change this now. It's too late,' and blah-blah-blah.

"So I knew that if we were going to make a change that it would not be through the political channels, because there simply weren't eight votes [a majority] to make the type of changes that need to be made."

In talking about her efforts to analyze the Trinity project, Hunt dropped one little off-handed detail that told me volumes. It's a small but very telling window about the generational and cultural difference between her and the rest of the council:

When she asked city staff for numbers, she told me, the staff always gave her the information in "PDF" computer file formats. She told them she didn't want PDFs. She wanted Excel.

PDF files are the computer equivalent of PowerPoint Presentations. Usually you can't change or manipulate a PDF file. You sort of turn it on and then sit there like a dummy and click through it as though you were reading a comic book.

With the information in Excel spreadsheet format, you can go in and compare things and see if all of it adds up. That was how Hunt figured out that the money for parks in the overall program had shrunk down into a sad little stub on her bar chart while the money for the road had exploded out so far it took page after page after page of spreadsheet just to find the top of it.

I can guarantee you that most of the rest of the city council still think it's way cool even to have a laptop. Give them a touch screen, and they squeal with amazement.

The people behind Hunt in the TrinityVote effort are extremely interesting—as smart as anybody in any big urban grassroots effort anywhere in the country, I believe, but tougher, perhaps, for being battle-hardened by this particularly butt-headed city. They assume, for example, that the other side will spend money to knock the pins out from under them at every single step of the way—from the verification of signatures, to the campaign, to vote day, even to legal challenges to the outcome if they win the referendum.

They're ready. I had a little impromptu chat one day at City Hall with R. Michael Jung, the lawyer who wrote the ballot language for the petitions. Jung is a guy who went to Ohio Wesleyan, M.I.T. and Harvard Law School. He has serious credentials in local grassroots politics but works now for a major law firm where he sometimes represents the other kind of roots. He has looked at life from both sides now.

When I asked him if he was worried about a legal challenge to the ballot language, he grinned like a Cheshire cat.

I think Mr. Jung sees this coming and has his claws all sharpened up.

They're going to win. The people who want a park, not a highway, are going to win this. I don't care if the city secretary tries to ditch the petitions because she claims they didn't sign the right people the right way. I don't care if the other side spends five million bucks on a campaign or if they lose and sue.

This thing is rolling. It's the city, the new city. It has the one advantage that cannot be overcome—inevitability. Full speed ahead. Big-hairs be damned.

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