Big Brother does Dallas

The longer you sit there, the creepier things get. Goose-bumps creepy. As you perch in a metal folding chair at one of three "discussion tables" in the all-purpose room of the Jaycee Zaragoza Rec Center, the evening's events somehow seem the opposite of deja vu: A familiar event slowly begins to appear stranger the longer it drags on.

It's a community meeting sponsored by the "Dallas Plan," and on the surface, it's the kind of earnest town-hall public hearing--let's all skip dinner, swill weak coffee, and talk about curbs and gutters till we're dizzy--that seasoned reporters rank right up there with a root canal in terms of how to spend an evening.

Everything is in place: There's the table at the back of the room with the hockey-puck cookies and the coffee that tastes like tea. Over in the far corner, city Councilman Steve Salazar, who represents this district in West Dallas, is leaning against a doorjamb searching the room for friendly faces.

There are bunches of chairs up front. A podium. An easel for the Dick-and-Jane visuals.

But something is seriously amiss. First of all, when they start the meeting and everyone is up at the front of the room, people aren't allowed to speak.

This is a public hearing that appears to be put on by the Dallas planning department and the city council, and it has a lot to do with the proposed $2 billion reconstruction of the Trinity River, which runs right through this part of town. But people are told they cannot speak.

Excuse us? Didn't we have a war with the British over this?
Then you're ordered to go to your "discussion group." That's where you are now, divvied up into small cells of people. And not only can the people at your table not talk to the people at the other tables, but you have to limit your conversations to a very detailed list of topics handed out by the monitors.

Yes, there are monitors. With clipboards and stopwatches. And they scold you if you try to talk about things that aren't on the list.

This is not made up. This particular meeting, one of a series of 17 held around the city and at City Hall since mid-January, actually took place at 7 p.m. January 21 at the Jaycee Zaragoza Rec Center. In real life on this very planet.

And then there is this: At one table sits a very suave, sharkish young woman in black pants and a black top, almost certainly not a neighborhood mom. She is way, way ahead of the curve on everything, but tries to come across like just another interested citizen who's wandered in off Westmoreland Road to chat about the Trinity River project.

Something about her just doesn't seem right. A little voice in the back of your mind keeps going, "Ringer, ringer, ringer."

Wise little voice, it turns out. As you sit there munching cookies under the glow of fluorescent lights, reality shifts. You've suddenly passed into Dallas' version of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth, where nothing is quite what it seems to be and the truth is whatever a passel of shady, spooky characters tells you it is.

The exact nature of these "Dallas Plan" meetings--the shape of them, the agenda, and the way they are being run--is important, because the stakes here are high.

Out of this process will come something that will be presented as a consensus on the Trinity River plan. And that consensus may well be the single most important factor anywhere on the entire local political landscape in determining the physical shape of the city in the next century.

You may be forgiven for thinking the Trinity River plan was a done deal by now. Last May, Dallas voters narrowly approved a $246 million bond issue, the biggest in the city's history, to pay for fixing up the Trinity River through downtown and into southern Dallas.

Unfortunately, the Trinity River plan remains much more unresolved than Mayor Ron Kirk would have you believe. Our $246 million in local money is a down payment on the total cost of the project, which will run somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion. Of course, we hope the rest of the money will come from the federal government or the state government or the Sultan of Brunei--anybody but us.

But before Dallas can get to the really big money in this deal, there is a serious hitch. There are still two strong camps at war over the project--those who want it so badly that they can taste it, and those who have now decided the whole project is so bad that they need to kill it. Serious environmental and political issues remain unresolved, and those issues are going to find their way into hard-fought lobbying efforts in Washington and Austin, as well as into the inevitable lawsuits.  

What the pro-project side needs to get its millions in state or federal funds is a big, warm consensus--something it can wave at a judge or committee chairman or whomever and say, "Look, the people of Dallas have spoken, and they're foursquare behind the deal, so what's the holdup?"

So what about the election last May 2? Wasn't that a consensus of sorts?
Well, it depends on who's talking. It was a hair's-breadth victory, and the plan has changed significantly since then. The people opposed to the current Trinity River plan can make a powerful argument that there is, in fact, no consensus on the river. That's because a real consensus process called the Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee did take place in 1995 and 1996 but has since been jettisoned, in large part, by the mayor.

Hundreds of residents devoted untold thousands of volunteer hours cobbling together a TRCCC plan for the river that everyone could support.

There was a major difference, however, between what the TRCCC came up with and what the local construction lobby wanted: The TRCCC design was light on construction. Instead of requiring a vast new system of levees and dikes to hold back the river, the TRCCC concept was tilted toward buying people out and moving them away from areas that flood when the river gets high, then letting the river rise naturally.

The genuine grassroots leadership of the TRCCC effort started bailing within a year after Kirk was elected mayor in May 1995. In a letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News published on January 19, 1998, Linda Pelon, who had been co-chair of the economic development subcommittee of the TRCCC, expressed the frustration of her fellow community leaders:

"The committee's consensus-building process was immediately halted when Ron Kirk became mayor," Pelon said in her letter. "Since June of 1996 many citizens who served on the committee invested tremendous time and energy trying to restore our vision-building process. It is time to admit defeat.

"The original committee of over 400 citizens is now less than 40. Only 15 of the 40 served on the original Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee. Many of the remaining 25 are city staff and employees of consulting firms profiting, or hoping to profit, from Trinity River projects."

Pelon ended her letter by asking that the word "Citizens" be removed from the committee's name.

But what exactly was it that Pelon and others found so frustrating? Was the ill feeling merely personal, or was it tied to specific issues or findings?

An examination of the successive drafts of Pelon's subcommittee report sheds some light. Her group was supposed to produce a consensus report stating what people believed should be the economic development philosophy of the Trinity River project. The subcommittee's first draft talked about the river as a form of "environmental capital" that could be enhanced and preserved to make Dallas a more attractive place. The report specifically discouraged real estate development behind new levees.

Stuffed in old files, a long series of yellowing faxes and memos portrays a grueling process by which Pelon was pushed and nudged and edged along by one of her co-chairs to accept new language in the "consensus report"--language that talked much less about preservation, much more about opportunities for real estate speculation.

Seemingly out of the blue, and with no reference to what the subcommittee had said it wanted, a new draft of the consensus report appears in the files at one point saying, "New development, with a mix of high-density residential, office and other uses, can provide exciting options for living and working downtown. Vacant properties in the southern part of the corridor can become locations for new subdivisions or industrial parks."

The author of this new version of the report was Pelon's co-chair of the subcommittee, Karen Walz, who happens to be executive director of a private foundation called "The Dallas Plan Inc."

Aha! Suddenly, the picture begins to come into focus.
When you examine closely the materials handed out at the Jaycee Zaragoza Rec Center on the night of the weird public hearing in January, you see that the sponsor of all these "community review" sessions is not the Dallas plan department at all. But the Dallas Plan.

The Dallas Plan Inc.
What on earth is that?

The Dallas Plan looks and smells a lot like a city agency. It occupies rent-free office cubicles mixed in with the rest of the cubicles in the city plan department. It has used the official city of Dallas logo in public presentations in the past. It has a city of Dallas phone number.  

But it's not a city agency. The Dallas Plan Inc. (it drops the Inc. on most of its printed materials) is a "private operating foundation." A little-known fact about it, even among City Hall cognoscenti and apparently among some reporters for the Morning News, is that the Dallas Plan operates with major funding from The Dallas Morning News-WFAA Foundation.

Right now, the Dallas Plan is putting together a document called the Target 2000 Action Agenda, which will lay out major goals and proposed capital expenditures for the city over the next two years. The document, supposedly based on citizen input obtained through the Dallas Plan's series of "community review" meetings, will cover the Trinity River plan and other public-works projects.

In theory, this is how city officials will determine what the city--its people, that is--really wants. The city council officially gave the Dallas Plan this task back in 1992, and the private foundation has been telling the city what we want every other year since then.

The city council will receive the Target 2000 Action Agenda in mid-April and will decide whether to adopt it as official city policy.

With some justification, opponents of the $2 billion plan to rebuild the Trinity River through downtown Dallas call the Dallas Plan little more than a privately funded political lobby group for the river project.

That bias seemed to be evident at the first of the series of community meetings held during January and February by the Dallas Plan. A man named Ned Fritz, a member of a group called Save the Trinity, tried to rise and speak during the opening part of the meeting. Fritz--in his 80s, frail of health, considered the dean of the Texas environmental community--wanted people present to know what the broad objections were to Mayor Kirk's new Trinity River plan before they broke up to go to their assigned discussion groups.

When Fritz rose and attempted to speak, people came to each of his elbows--one of them was Karen Walz--and ordered him back into his chair.

Fritz says now: "These meetings are a subterfuge to put together a phony consensus on the Trinity River project, to be used later in lobbying efforts and litigation."

Some evidence for Fritz's theory may be found simply by examining the board of directors and contributor list of the Dallas Plan Inc. Both include people and companies with major business interests in city council decisions, especially those that deal with the Trinity River.

For example, the board includes Jack Corgan, chairman of Corgan Associates, architects who have been pursuing a deal to help redevelop the vast Sears Roebuck property on the Trinity River just south of downtown. As architects on a number of other big loft renovation projects in the city center, Corgan Associates has a direct financial interest in Dallas City Council politics.

Another board member is Larry Good of Good Fulton & Farrell Architects, a major player in city-subsidized deals such as the Perot-Hicks arena project and the Farmers Market apartments.

Then there is Robert A. Estrada of Estrada Hinojosa, municipal bond underwriters who do lots of bond work for the city and school district. Bond work slips in under the legal exclusion made for professional services: It doesn't have to go through the bidding process. Especially for a second-fiddle firm like Estrada Hinojosa, which typically comes in as a local minority partner to the main underwriter, the awarding of bond contracts is almost entirely political and always lucrative. It's affirmative action for Republicans. Estrada Hinojosa hit pay dirt when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was state treasurer, handing out state bond contracts. Former school district CFO Matthew Harden also cut Estrada Hinojosa in on some of the juicier bond refinance deals at DISD.

The Dallas Plan board also includes Robert Hsueh, an Asian-American lawyer who started showing up in late-'80s photo ops as a minority who supported George Bush for president. Hsueh is now a partner in the very political, very Republican law firm of Friedman, Driegert & Hsueh. Hsueh's partner, Bob Driegert, is the Dallas Republican chairman with virtual veto control over every judgeship candidacy in the county. Since 1995, Hsueh's law partner, Larry Friedman, has netted the firm $1,256,651.72 in legal fees from the Dallas Independent School District for helping DISD get its legal affairs into their current condition.

The board also includes Robert Hoffman, who was the second-generation chairman of the board of Coca-Cola Bottling Group Southwest until recently, when the firm was sold. Hoffman created the Dallas Plan in 1992 and served as its first chairman.

From the beginning, the major financial supporters of the Dallas Plan have included such companies as Ross Perot Jr.'s Hillwood Development and Austin Industries, one of the nation's biggest public-works contractors, whose CEO, Bill Solomon, was Mayor Ron Kirk's campaign finance chairman.  

When it isn't dressing up like an official city agency, the Dallas Plan operates behind a carefully guarded curtain of privacy. Even though it is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, required by law to pony up its tax statements to the public and subject to daily fines for failing to do so, the Dallas Plan nevertheless needs a lot of prodding before it will say from whom it gets money and how much.

One thing is clear: No person or business entity looms larger behind that curtain than The Dallas Morning News, in spite of its efforts to minimize its role publicly.

In 1995, the Morning News published a glowing profile of Dallas Plan founder Hoffman in which he was painted as a 20th-century de' Medici stooping low to save the city from its own indecision. In a story that read like a hymn, the Morning News reported that the Dallas Plan was supported by "individual and foundation contributions of no more than $20,000 annually [from each contributor], including [a contribution from] The Dallas Morning News-WFAA Foundation."

As it turns out, the Morning News was far too modest in describing its role. Walz recently allowed the Dallas Observer to examine the Dallas Plan's official application in 1992 for tax-exempt status and its most recent report of income to the IRS. Walz permitted the Observer to take notes from the documents but said her staff was too busy to provide photocopies, which she promised to send by mail later.

The documents she did provide indicate, among other things, that the Dallas Plan was launched with an initial gift of between $250,000 and $300,000 from The Dallas Morning News-WFAA Foundation, a private organization funded by the Belo Corp., owners of the Morning News and WFAA-Channel 8. In a declaration to the IRS, Hoffman said he anticipated that about half of the total support for the Dallas Plan would come from the Morning News' foundation.

The Morning News, of course, has been a consistent and ardent champion of the plan to rebuild the Trinity River through downtown Dallas with massive public-works construction projects.

The Dallas Plan's current assets are $1.2 million. The most recent report of income to the IRS shows only $35,000 in contributions from three firms, including Austin Industries. Walz said it would be a "wrong assumption" to imagine that the Morning News foundation had accounted for half of the balance, or some $600,000, over the seven-year life of the Dallas Plan. But she said she was unable to provide the interim annual reports that would have shown the accurate scope of Morning News support.

The Observer's original request for information allowed Walz only two working days to come up with the documents, which she said were buried in files. Her organization was in the midst of producing a major public meeting when the Observer made its request. Walz said her staff did not have time to research the request right away.

Even so, at press time for this story a week and a half later, the additional documents Walz promised still have not been produced.

Time doesn't appear to be the problem, though, because Lorlee Bartos of the environmental group Save the Trinity says she requested the same information January 20 and still has received no answer from Walz.

A major hurdle facing backers of the Trinity River project now is that they won the election largely by promising voters a big new lake downtown with sailboats and fishing. A relentless trickle of hydrological data since then has shown that building any significant body of water downtown will require rebuilding many of the major bridges across the river--an unplanned, undisclosed public expense that will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since those revelations, backers of the project have been promoting what they call a "new language of bridges" on the Trinity. At a recent meeting of the mayor's advisory committee on the river, employees of Albert H. Halff Associates, an engineering contractor on the river project, displayed conceptual drawings of space-age bridges with decorative fake suspension systems resembling huge butterfly wings. Promoters of the river project are arguing that Dallas should rebuild all of its bridges anyway and use these or other flamboyant designs to "make a statement."

The hard data on just how many bridges would have to be replaced in order to make any kind of lake downtown is expected to come out in the long-delayed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' final environmental impact statement on the river project. Like the Morning News, the Corps has been an ardent champion of the project.  

The Corps announced last week that it had completed its report, but when the Observer asked for a copy, a Corps spokesman said the report was "in reproduction" and would not be available to the public for several weeks. That would put its actual release to the public at some point after the Dallas Plan has concluded its ongoing "consensus-building" process on the river, to be wrapped up this week.

A second series of citywide public hearings on the river begins this month, this one sponsored by the reconstructed TRCCC under the chairmanship of former city council member Craig Holcomb. Unlike the Dallas Plan, the TRCCC is a truly public entity, created and funded by the city council.

But the first of the TRCCC's public meetings on the river plan--the one where the butterfly bridges were unveiled--was structured exactly like those of the Dallas Plan: First, there's a general session in which the experts and authorities, all from the pro-project side, do the talking. No one in the peanut gallery is allowed to speak. Then everyone must go to his discussion group. Quietly.

Later, people may reassemble in the auditorium, where discussion leaders present their answers to the scripted questions. Most people leave.

At that point, people who want to stand up and give speeches to an empty room have every right to do so, this being a free country and all.

During the first part of this meeting, when everyone was present and Halff Associates representatives presented the fancy bridges--before the 100 or so people present had divided into their discussion groups--Ned Fritz was sitting near the front row. He noticed that the slide-projector images of the river, with their new language of bridges, did not include any reference to the high-speed multi-lane toll road along the river banks that is supposed to be a major element of the plan.

Leaving out the toll road is a tricky bit of business, because many of the most difficult questions about the project--from where to put the lake to whether the whole project will make flooding worse--depend on where the toll road will go and what it will look like.

Every time Fritz tried to ask what had happened to the toll road--Where had it gone?--he was shouted down from the podium by Holcomb, who told him he was not allowed to speak or ask questions.

A few days later, Holcomb accused Fritz and other environmentalists of trying to sabotage the TRCCC's meetings by asking questions during the opening general session of the meetings, when questions are not allowed.

"That is not polite," Holcomb said. "They are psychologically engineering the meetings to be disruptive and to be unproductive and to run everyone off."

Down at the level of nitty-gritty discussion--what people actually get to talk about once they've gone to their discussion groups--the meetings held by the Dallas Plan Inc. were especially Orwellian. These were discussion groups in which people were discouraged from discussing so that everyone would have a chance to discuss.

At the January 21 meeting at the Zaragoza Rec Center, you are informed after going to your table that you have only 45 minutes to discuss all the stuff on your agenda. A laundry list of things to do in addition to discussing is provided--put green dots on maps, fill out personal questionnaires asking nosy questions about how close you live to the river and why you've come to this meeting, etc. Then you're supposed to answer some blue-sky questions about things like three ways to improve economic development downtown.

By the time you finish all of that, the monitor with the clipboard and the stopwatch reappears to inform you that you have only five minutes left to discuss the Trinity River.

So you start to discuss it as fast as possible, at which point the lady in black throws her head back, holds up a hand for you to stop, and says in a very spooky voice, "Close your eyes."

"Look out at the corridor," she says. "What do you see?"
You suddenly are getting very, very sleepy. Which corridor? Not the hall, right? No. The Trinity River corridor. You knew that. But wait! You only have two minutes left.

The Trinity River questions cover two entire pages and include items such as "The following are most important along the Trinity River Corridor (rank in order of importance from 1 to 5 with 5 being the most important): clearly marked entry locations, significant nighttime lighting, strong police and security presence, parking close to the features that I would visit, places to eat with restrooms, improved appearance of the river and the corridor."  

You have 45 seconds left. This is not a joke. The monitor is reaching for your forms. You are scanning madly for choices like "No levees!" or "Don't do it!" or "How come you won't let Ned Fritz talk?"

They're taking your forms away. You ask the spooky black-clad, close-your-eyes lady who she is.

That little voice is still talking to you, saying, "Ringer, ringer, ringer."
And what a surprise. She's a planner for Halff Associates, the engineers who have been gobbling down feedbags of money on this deal since it began a decade ago.

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