MORE

Miller Behind Closed Doors

If she really wants to take on the Holy Trinity River project, Miller will have to continue playing brilliant political poker.
Peter Calvin

Wow. This Laura Miller thing is going to be different. I don't know exactly how or what different. But way different. Hold-on-to-your-top-hat different.

Miller invited me and Victoria Loe Hicks of The Dallas Morning News, along with David Gray, an environmentalist, to take part in a personal briefing that the city manager's staff and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were doing for her on the Trinity River project. It was extremely eye-opening to see her in action in this kind of intense mano-a-mano setting, in her private conference room behind the mayor's office.

So you're thinking, "Schutze is all giddy because he got invited into the mayor's conference room instead of being chased down the hall the way he should have been by her bodyguard."

OK. I admit it. Getting to see a mayor do battle with the bureaucracy behind closed doors is any City Hall reporter's dream. And there were some weird moments. Loe Hicks did way better than I at behaving like a reporter and keeping her opinions to herself. I may have been a tad blabby. Blame it on caffeine.

The really intriguing thing was getting to see how the staff and the Corps of Engineers tried to buffalo Miller and how she handled it. She doesn't get mad, she keeps her sense of humor, but she stays right in there with them every step of the dance. She's much cooler than you might think if all you'd ever seen of her was "6 o'clock Laura" fighting with former Mayor Ron Kirk on the evening news.

The day she invited us in, the city manager's staff was briefing her on a key campaign pledge to seek a "buyout" of the Cadillac Heights neighborhood, allowing residents to be moved from what they have long believed is a dangerously polluted area to some safer neighborhood. The city's plan under former Mayor Kirk was to leave the residents in place and build a big earthen berm or levee to protect them from flooding along the Trinity River.

The Cadillac Heights Levee is one of two planned levees that extend into Southern Dallas from downtown. The new southern levees were a selling point for the whole Trinity River project back in 1998 when the voters had to approve $246 million in bonds. The idea was to show minority voters in Southern Dallas that this was not just a flood-control project for downtown but that there was something in it for them, too. The bond package passed very narrowly, defeated in white precincts but heavily supported by black precincts.

The problem is that nobody bothered to go ask the people of Cadillac Heights, a very poor black and Latino neighborhood on the west bank of the river, if they wanted to be protected with a levee. In recent years they have been saying in an ever-louder chorus of unanimity that they do not. They say their neighborhood is hopelessly polluted with industrial poisons, and they want out.

Don't ask the Corps to spend money on a levee, they have been saying. Ask the Corps to spend its money helping the city to buy us out and move us away from here. Their cause has attracted sympathy throughout Southern Dallas, and Miller promised during her recent campaign for mayor that she would go to bat for them once in office.

In her private briefing, Miller pushed the Corps and the city manager's staff to admit some things they really didn't want to say. Finally they conceded to her that the Cadillac Heights levee will actually increase flood risks and potential damage downtown.

This seems like a complicated idea at first, but it's not. Think of the river as a pipe draining water away from downtown. The new levees just below downtown squeeze the pipe down smaller. In a big flood, that backs the water up and makes downtown flooding worse.

After considerable prodding, the city manager's staff and the Corps officials conceded that Miller could substantially improve flood protection for downtown and save $9 million by not building the Cadillac Heights levee.

So why build it? The Corps and the city manager's staff went directly to Ron Kirk's argument: These levees south of downtown, which make flooding worse and expose the city's most valuable real estate to greater risk, must be built anyway as a form of racial reparation. Then David Gray butted in and pointed out that the people for whom we are going to build these racial reparation levees don't want them. So how does that work?

Miller is sort of sitting there in the middle of this, not in the power seat at the head of the table but in the middle, watching this ball fly around the room. She's got her reporter's notebook out, taking notes. The wheels in her head are turning, but you can't tell which way.

 

This is where the Corps people went on the muscle--an interesting moment for us Miller-watchers. Will she blow or will she stay cool? They tell Miller that the city has to build the levee anyway, even if it makes flooding worse and even if the racial reparation argument doesn't hold water, because just before Miller got elected, the Corps and the city manager's staff persuaded the city council to sign a contract promising to build the levee.

Gene Rice, project manager for the Corps, tells Miller that the Corps would "terminate our agreement" with the city if the city fails to pursue the Cadillac Heights levee and that the city would wind up owing the Corps $5 million in contract costs and penalties. Other Corps officials in the room tell her that any failure to get going with the Cadillac Heights levee will "essentially kill the whole program."

It's like a book club that you can't get out of even if you recently went blind. Read the fine print, Sweetie. You buy two books a month for the rest of your life or we take your house.

But Miller was cool. She told the Corps guys she thought their $5 million whip could probably be negotiated. "Everything is politics," she said, smiling.

I spent much of the next day doing some reporting on things that had come up at the briefing, and as it turned out, Miller's instinct on the $5 million early-withdrawal penalty was right on. The Corps boys were shooting blanks at her to scare her into leaving their levee project alone. I talked to Mary Vogelson, who of all the critics of the plan is the reigning expert on the legal background. She faxed me tons of documentation to show that the Corps has regular procedures for reviewing its projects when a major city thinks it may want an alteration.

In 1997 when Houston decided midstream that it wanted to rejigger a major project on Clear Creek, the Corps didn't "terminate its agreement" or slap Houston with a fine or kill the whole project. It snapped to attention and pulled off a complete restudy and redesign of the project in six months.

Anyway, the Trinity River plan is now the target of a special White House war on wasteful public-works projects. The Corps officials reluctantly admitted at the briefing that they must drag themselves before Congress every year and plead for new money for the Trinity over White House objections. So if Miller can save $9 million by not doing the Cadillac Heights levee and vastly improve flood protection for downtown Dallas in the process, is the Corps going to want to be up in Washington explaining to some subcommittee why it beat her up for that and sued her for $5 million? For saving money and doing better flood protection? Puhleez.

The environmental interests, including those who are suing to stop the project, are close to a point where they might settle with the city: That is, Miller could turn this whole thing into the Laura Miller Trinity River Project, save the other down-river levee and even resolve the battle over the road that is to be built along the river. It could work and work right. All people have to do is be reasonable and not try to force the city to waste money and make flooding worse. You have to wonder why that's so hard.

I saw Miller's eyes go large when Mary Suhm, the chief assistant city manager, mentioned casually that a private planning group, "The Dallas Plan," is developing a concept by which the neighborhood of Cadillac Heights could be transformed into an office park. A couple of days later after some wrangling, I persuaded The Dallas Plan to show me its renderings.

Sure enough, lo and behold, there it was: a tidy drawing of Cadillac Heights without any houses in it, converted completely to someone's office park development.

You will remember that this is how Dallas "saved" the old traditional African-American entertainment district of Short North Dallas, now called "Uptown." By erasing it. There's your racial justice, Ron Kirk-style. In order to save these minority neighborhoods we have to redevelop them back into the Stone Age.

And where did Miller stand at the end of the briefing? Don't ask me. She was sphinx-like. I didn't get the feeling she agreed with me or them or David Gray. Loe Hicks hadn't offered opinions but had brought a whole lot of technical knowledge to the table. You couldn't tell where Miller was, except that she really didn't want to do anything sloppy that would screw up the whole project needlessly. But she was clearly energized by the give-and-take.

 

Wait a minute: Is it behind closed doors if I'm in there? Hmmm. They must have another smaller room with a tiny little door they can close. When I find my way into that room, I wonder if I will find a small table and on it a very small cake on which the words "EAT ME" have been beautifully marked in currants.


Sponsor Content