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Leppert and City Council Loyalists Retreat on Convention Center Hotel Plan

Mayor Tom Leppert has demonstrated in 10 months that he can be a good cheerleader. Now we will see if he knows how to lead.
BRIAN HARKIN

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.

It's an approach that probably made sense in the construction business, where he was last employed. But politics can be stickier than that.

At the April 23 council meeting where Leppert had to back down on the convention hotel deal, he also found himself contemplating embarrassment in the matter of replacing the late Lynn Flint Shaw, former chair of Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Shaw, whom Leppert had helped become chair of DART, was found dead March 10, apparently shot by her husband who then killed himself.

Shaw had resigned from the DART board January 30 under a cloud of criminal and ethical charges. She was also chair of Leppert's political fund-raising committee.

For three months Leppert and the city council have been dead-locked over an appointment to take Shaw's place. Half the council want to replace her with Joyce Foreman, whom Leppert helped remove from the board last August. Leppert believed he had thwarted that effort by backing another candidate, who was to be nominated April 23.

But it all went boom. Several different versions of what went wrong are floating around. One is that Leppert's candidate, Dr. Beverly Mitchell-Brooks, who is head of a nonprofit, got cold feet at the last minute. Dr. Brooks did not return my call seeking comment.

Leppert said the council needed to delay its vote on the appointment because the city attorney was investigating allegations of conflict of interest involving contracts between Brooks' agency, the Greater Dallas Urban League, and the city. But that version didn't fly for some council members, because those allegations had been around for weeks. The city attorney had never even wrinkled his nose, let alone expressed concern, until the morning of the vote.

The version believed by council members who spoke to me off the record is this: On the day of the vote, Leppert came to the council horseshoe and learned that a key vote had flipped and he was going to lose. City Attorney Tom Perkins was pressed into service to come up with a pretext. And Leppert pushed through a quick vote to delay without discussion.

His problem was that some members wanted to discuss it anyway and did so after the vote. Council member Carolyn R. Davis, first-term representative from District 7 in near southeast Dallas, called for an executive session so that the city attorney could explain his issues. But Leppert refused.

Davis blew up. "We've got to stop this behind-the-closed-door stuff here at City Hall and put this stuff out there," she said to a burst of applause from the audience. "This behind-the-closed-door stuff is going to stop."

Leppert wheedled: "Miss Davis, I appreciate it. Miss Davis, we have voted on it. It was voted on."

But she stayed on him: "It is wrong, Mayor. You know I will support you any way I can. I am for you. But right is right, and wrong is wrong at the end of the day."

Leppert said, "Miss Davis, I don't think it has anything to do with support or anything else."

And there you have it. Inadvertently, I'm sure, the mayor sort of put his finger on it. He doesn't think it's about support. So what does he think it is about? What does he think anything is about in politics?

Thus far he has been carried by the enthusiasm of his backers and the happy tromping of boots at the Morning News. He has been able to suffuse the air around him with the scent of money, especially the lucrative public contracts that the late Ms. Shaw was so eager to help him hand out.

But now it's about more. It's about politics—the means by which we govern our affairs in this democratic land. And it is all about support.

Leppert needs to go out and get some. He's going to have to start talking to some of the people at whom he has turned up his nose so far. He's going to have to do deals. The only way he can pull out of his stall will be by building support among some of the people who don't especially like him.

Can he do that? Does he have those skills? Can he become a politician? Or will it be crow, crow and more crow on his dinner plate?

 

I can't even begin to tell you how interested I am to watch and find out. He may do it. I know that he will have lots of support. I can hear the boots now. For my part, just in case he is in for another serving, I'm still here standing by with the butter.


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