Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

"I started looking at this in January and February of 2006," she told me. "I had gotten really fed up with the very superficial way the council was presented information on the Trinity River project.

"I felt that they presented the information in a disjointed way. At the time I didn't recognize it as a purposeful, calculated means of keeping the council away from the depth of information. I just thought we're not getting the information in a comprehensive way."

But, you see, I've watched this for 30 years. City staffers make the council watch PowerPoints for the same reason hypnotherapists make people count backward. The staffers scroll this endless diorama of soft generality and half-baked detail past the heavy-lidded eyes of the council until no one who has a question can remember what the question was.

Council members, one must remember, only recently acquired any pay at all. It's still less than $40,000 a year. When Hunt left her position at the law firm of McKool Smith to devote herself full-time to council duties, she says her pay dropped to one-fifth what it had been.

Council members who aren't rich usually have to keep at least one eye on a business or paycheck somewhere else. The ones who are rich, in my experience, may look like they're paying attention to the PowerPoint but often they are mentally already on the golf course. Usually it's easy for the staff to slide things by them.

A friend of mine who has worked for the city for many years told me the staff refers to the council members as "the summer help." I would call them "the temps." But Hunt's focus was permanent.

She said, "I thought, 'I have a responsibility to look at this in greater depth. And I'm not getting enough depth.'"

Hunt went to Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who was over the project. "I said, 'Jill, I want to understand where the money's going and where it's gone. Where has all the money gone from the '98 bond?' So she gave me this spreadsheet that was several months old at the time."

Jordan gave Hunt the information she was seeking, but not in the form she wanted. "They always want to give me things in a PDF [portable document format] that I can't manipulate, and it really irritates me," Hunt said.

"I said, 'No, I want it in an Excel spreadsheet in electronic form so I can really look at it.'"

Because I have covered the Dallas City Council for about 100 years, I feel qualified to state that most city council members take the information they get from city staff on paper. The few who could even accept it in digital form would be thrilled with a PDF file, even though there's nothing you can do with a PDF file except open it in your computer and stare at it, as if it were a printed pamphlet or book.

Almost nobody would demand information in an Excel file or have the slightest idea how to begin analyzing that data and pushing it into charts and graphs.

Hunt said: "I'm a computer geek, so I took this spreadsheet. It was broken out in transportation, environmental, recreation and something else. I had to see it visually.

"I made a chart that went across horizontally. I did the parks in their own little chart. I made the things that were totally unfunded red and all on one bar. I made the stuff that is going to be funded outside of the city in a light green, and I did the stuff that's fully funded in kelly green.

"There was lots and lots of red. Lots of red.

"What I figured out was that this toll road was eating up all these transportation dollars and just eclipsing everything else in the funding. It was enormous."

Hunt decided she needed to know a lot more about the toll road. She said the staff had presented the council with artistic renderings to explain the road, rather than data.

"All of these watercolors were the same things, I learned later, that had been used as marketing drawings in 2003 to show how gorgeous this road was going to be."

Hunt didn't want to see the marketing drawings. She wanted to see the numbers underlying the drawings, assuming there were any.

"I sat down with Jill Jordan, and I talked to her about it. I asked her to explain it to me, because I couldn't grasp where this road was going to be.

"She said, 'It's inside the levees,' and she kind of sketched it out for me. I said, 'Jill, why do we have to have a toll road?' She said, 'Angela, we have to have the road. If we don't have the road we can't have the lakes.'

"And she gave me this very reasonable explanation about how we have to dig our lakes. We don't have the money to build our lakes. So the people who are doing the toll road need dirt to build their shelf. They're going to dig our lakes for us.

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