Fluid Victory

DART acts as though it is accountable to no man. Especially my man Betz.

For one brief shining moment last week my man Roscoe Betz was in tall cotton. Dallas County Justice of the Peace Albert B. Cercone handed him a victory on every score.

I wrote about Betz two weeks ago ("Hardballs," June 12, 2008). He's an 89-year-old retiree and World War II B-29 bomber pilot who sued Dallas Area Rapid Transit for causing floods on his property in East Dallas. The day the Dallas Observer story hit the streets, the court ruled for him on nine counts and ordered DART to pay the five grand he had sued for.

It took a while for the ruling to reach Betz in the mail. He invited me over. In the sunny front room of his 94-year-old home not far from the Lakewood Country Club, Betz was all smiles and chuckles.

Asked if he will continue to fight DART in court, 89-year-old Roscoe Betz said, "I will if I'm alive."
Asked if he will continue to fight DART in court, 89-year-old Roscoe Betz said, "I will if I'm alive."

"I told my wife this morning, there's three things in my life that I'm the most proud of," he said. "One is getting my wings in the Army. One is marrying the wife I have. And the third one is getting this thing from Judge Cercone.

"I'm real proud of that. I went against DART's high-powered lawyers, and the judge agreed with me. He ruled in my favor."

He did, indeed. The judge ruled that a rent house Betz owns close to downtown has been repeatedly flooded over the years because DART built a parking garage that functions "as a dam preventing the natural rainwater runoff."

Cercone told DART to pay Betz the five grand he had sued for, which meant that DART would also have to pay the four other plaintiffs Betz had recruited to his cause.

Ah, but Mr. Betz's moment of gratification was to be short-lived. Soon after I called DART for comment, its spokesman, Morgan Lyons, told me DART lawyers had already filed an appeal in the County Court at Law.

I had to call Roscoe Betz and break the news to him. He was philosophical. I asked if he would fight them again, this time in a higher court.

"I will if I'm alive," he said.

Not that DART would take that into account. I'm sure they wouldn't try to outlast Roscoe Betz by dragging the matter into county court and letting some legal moss grow on it for a few years. Nah. Nobody could be that ruthless, especially a public agency paid for by our own tax dollars.

Or could they? The flooding caused by DART's three-story parking garage at Elm and Peak streets has been a threat to life and limb since the building was put up in 1988. Betz was able to present two major engineering studies, one commissioned by DART, both showing that the parking garage was the cause of the flooding.

DART's first line of defense was "sovereign immunity," claiming it couldn't be sued, no matter what, because it was a government agency. DART, you may know, is a regional agency set up by member cities. The people on the DART board don't run for office. They are appointed by city councils.

The judge ruled that DART couldn't claim sovereign immunity because DART was using repeated floods as a way to force Betz and his neighbors off their property without paying them. It's a process the law calls "inverse condemnation," and it's a no-no.

A government can't take your house by causing conditions that will ruin it. Amazing we even have to have a name for that, isn't it? Makes you wonder if we should close both eyes when we go to sleep at night.

Maybe we should ask for a general category called "inverse ruination." The government can't establish conditions that would cause us to shrivel up and die. It might be nice just to have that one on the books.

I say that because just as I was receiving news of Betz's victory and DART's appeal, I also received a second major delivery of private e-mails of the former DART board chair, the late Lynn Flint-Shaw. You may remember that I wrote stories and blog items based on an earlier trove of Shaw e-mails at the time of her death. Shaw and her husband were found dead of gunshots March 10 in what police ruled a murder-suicide.

There would be little reason to troll back through the messy affairs of a person whose life ended so unhappily, except for the pattern that emerges so clearly from this new batch of e-mails. What I wrote about before was the attempt by Shaw, who was a key political advisor to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, to set up what she called an "inner circle" of black gatekeepers for the mayor. In repeated e-mails she insisted that Leppert channel all dealings with the black community through Shaw and her cohort.

What emerges from this second batch is more or less the why—the pay-off, the gravy. Shaw should have been barred by DART board ethics rules from even discussing DART contracts with people outside the agency. But it's clear from this e-mail traffic that she was attending meetings with employees of major DART contractors where she urged them to steer subcontracts to her friends.

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