As you saw here yesterday, Dallas mayoral candidate David Kunkle has made releasing financial data on the Trinity River Project a plank in his platform -- well, a stick, anyway -- in part in response to stories he has seen here about it.
Kunkle is making ethics a theme in his run-off campaign. The need for transparency on the Trinity project is an element in that theme.
The Dallas Observer requested months ago that the city release emails and detailed financial information for the project. Rather than release the information, the city appealed to the Texas Attorney General, asking for an opinion allowing the city to keep at least some of the information we requested secret.
The Attorney General's Office eventually ruled that the information was public -- that it belongs to the public, not City Hall -- and told the city to release it. The city then went to court to sue the attorney general and ask that the opinion be overturned.
The amount of money involved floats around all over the map, but the city concedes it has spent at least $240 million on the project so far, even though barely a shovel of dirt has been turned.
I spoke to Kunkle, the former Dallas police chief, shortly before he made a public announcement of his call for the city to release the data. He called me. I'm sure I was on a list. Kunkle is methodical and doesn't do things like this without running his traps first.
He was basically saying that if I knew of an obvious reason -- a good reason -- why the city was sitting on this information, he would appreciate my fessing up. I bet he asked them the same thing.
It's a fair question. The city sometimes does have fair reasons for keeping its mouth shut, especially where real estate transactions or litigation might be concerned. I'm sure he was calling around to get the lay of the land. His style is to think first, then make calls, then aim, then shoot.
I'm different. I like to shoot first, because then I have something to think about.
But I told him I honestly could think of no good reason for the city to sit so hard on this information other than fear of embarrassment. The city -- and I mean the hired staff and the elected representatives as well -- has gone to great lengths to give the impression that all of the zany fancy gewgaw elements of this project have been paid for by zany fancy private persons from the Park Cities.
That's extremely unlikely. The gewgaw tariff on the so-called signature bridges alone is in the hundreds of millions. What is more likely is that a whole bunch of that $240 million has been shifted and Fast-Eddied around to pay for zaniness, and the city is afraid of getting caught. And I bet a ton of that money has been wasted on the design for the toll road that will never be built.
Wasted, rat-holed, down the toi-toi and off to sea never to be seen again. That's what they don't want us to know.
The city's determination not to release the information we are seeking only makes sense as c.y.a. It was very heartening -- and I might even say exciting -- to hear a candidate for mayor say as much.
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This whole business of the city suing to overturn a public-records opinion should ring a certain bell for you: It's what Mayor Dwaine Caraway did when the attorney general told the city to release information about a police investigation of a fight he had with his wife about his apron collection (sorry, never fully explained) at his house. He went to court too. And lost.
This is the same exact scenario, but this time it's about hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. Or, as I could say, it's about purse strings, not apron strings.
This is gut-level stuff. I can promise you, if the money wasn't pouring into Mike Rawlings's campaign fast enough already, it will start to flow like Niagara now. There is nothing the Citizens Council types care about half as much as protecting the Trinity River project from public criticism and scrutiny. They're going to come after Kunkle hot and heavy for this.
It's a strong move by Kunkle. But the blow-back will strong too.