By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Mayor Tom Leppert is still the pilot, but the plane is in stall. No rudder. No engine. Leppert and the whole city council gaze out at the silence of the clouds.
He could pull it up. He probably will pull it up. But this is a ragged moment, and I like that.
Last week Leppert and his loyalists on the city council tucked tail on two big agenda items—a city-subsidized convention hotel downtown and a troublesome key appointment to an important regional board. Both retreats were strategic but humiliating, especially the one on the hotel.
Leppert and his cadre on the council didn't eat crow, exactly, but they did put the crow between slices of bread, and they may even have prayed for it to stop wriggling. The man that I am, I stood by with the butter.
Does it please me to see Leppert take a little licking? Did the pope just visit us? Look, the mayor doesn't need support from the likes of me. He's got the city's only daily on his side.
The Dallas Morning News in recent weeks has been on a gigantic, drunken toot of lick-spittle sycophancy, praising Leppert to high heaven over and over again, especially for taking a City Hall trade junket to China in the face of international calls for a boycott.
The News had already published a full editorial and a kissy-face op-ed page piece about it when Metro page columnist James Ragland weighed in on April 22 with another soft-hitting analysis: "But if you know Mr. Leppert—and we're just now beginning to get a real sense of how he operates 10 months into his first term—you know he's not jetting 15,000 miles round-trip to Beijing and Shanghai just to shake hands."
So true, so true. And Neville Chamberlain didn't go to Munich just to shake hands, either, did he? I just love the way everybody in The Dallas Morning News Army Chorus is able to sing in such sweet unison on these things. Sometimes when I drive by the building, I imagine I can hear the tromping of happy boots inside.
My point here is that before Leppert's April 25 departure to be wined and dined by a brutal authoritarian regime on the other side of the world, he received quite a sharp little lesson in democracy here. The bigger kick-in-the-teeth had to do with the purchase of a $42 million tract for a city-subsidized hotel next to the convention center downtown. Faced with defeat on it at the April 23 council meeting, Leppert had to agree to postpone a vote until May 14.
My colleagues here at the Dallas Observer are much more dignified and professional than I am—it has to do with my role—so they are never going to point this out. But Leppert took this one on the chin just a week after we published a cover story by Sam Merten making all the same salient points that then came up at the council meeting where this dog got bit. Merten hit especially hard on the amount the city was to pay.
The April 17 Observer piece, "No-Tell Hotel," explained that the city was relying on two dubious appraisals to justify paying $42 million for 8 acres of land valued by the county appraisal district at $7.3 million. I am not saying that members of the city council read Merten's story, slapped themselves on their collective smooth forehead and decided to buck the mayor.
But let's do stop and observe that trenchant critical reporting sometimes raises the ante and gives political cover to people who might otherwise be reluctant to poke their heads from between the leaves. I don't want to give away shop secrets, but we find here at the Observer that printing things that are interesting and true seems to be good for readership. Something the News might want to ponder.
Meanwhile, the delay in the convention hotel project is going to open the door for much more than a simple reconsideration of the appraisals. I have been talking to people close to some of the bidders on this deal, and they have expressed serious dissatisfaction with the way the bid requirements themselves were structured.
As Merten pointed out in his piece, all bidders were required to proceed on the assumption that the first priority was building a hotel on the particular piece of property the city is now considering buying. But some bidders were frustrated they wouldn't have an opportunity to suggest that the city may be buying the wrong land.
Now they'll have the time.
Leppert had made the convention hotel his full-bore, dead-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes priority. His line from the beginning was that the hotel project "is going to determine the future of the downtown," as he told the council at its February 13 meeting.
The council, at his urging, tossed half a million dollars into this pot as non-retrievable earnest money. The deadline on the city's option to buy the land had to be extended by the seller to keep this recent delay from tanking the whole deal.
This has been a rush deal from the beginning, which has been Leppert's style from the beginning. Brand-new to politics, from an inner-sanctum background as a CEO, Leppert's approach since taking office last July has been to build momentum and urgency, almost as if debate itself were the enemy.