Muddy Waters

Dorit Rabinovitch

Laura Miller is trying to do this mayor thing the hard way. The Trinity River plan--our version of Boston's "Big Dig," a megapolitan pork-barrel chain reaction that has escaped all human control--is a good example.

Miller's predecessor as mayor, Ron Kirk, did the job the slick way. He didn't spend time getting headaches trying to figure out the actual right and wrong of specific deals. Kirk's a lobbyist by trade. Right and wrong to a lobbyist is whether your client's check clears the bank.

Kirk was hired from Austin by a bunch of Dallas business types, especially those in the public-works contracting industry, to come to Dallas and play the lead role in a story about the city's first black mayor. They told him what to do the way a movie director tells an actor what his motivation is.

"OK, Ron, you're a mayor, and you are in favor of this mammoth public-works campaign that's going to sluice zillions of dollars into our pockets, because...? Come on, Ron, you know this."

"Tell me one more time."

"Because it will help the little people."

Laura Miller, on the other hand, is actually sitting around in a mountain of paper with people groaning darkly on all sides, knives drawn, wiggly little fingers reaching for her purse, and she's trying to figure out what's right.

The backers of the Trinity River project, including people whose opinions Miller respects, like Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson, want her to accompany them to Washington a week from now to lobby Congress for money. But people opposed to the project, including some who kicked in serious money and wore out serious shoe leather for her in her race for mayor, will be aghast if she lobbies for certain aspects of the plan without first hearing the other side.

The brittle seam of the issue is the proposed new levee for Cadillac Heights, a poor Latino and African-American neighborhood down-river from downtown. People there don't want a dirt berm or levee to protect them from flooding. They believe city streets in their neighborhood and even their own lots are soggy with birth defect-inducing industrial toxins, and they want the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help them move away.

Miller went down to Cadillac Heights during the campaign and had her picture taken shoulder-to-shoulder with the folks, vowing to seek a buyout for them. Now the city manager and the Corps of Engineers are leaning on her to turn back from that vow. They are telling her she can support the proposed new levee, go to Washington and ask for the money, and still seek some kind of a buyout for the folk.

Two problems: A. not true, B. no sense.

The city is broke. It can't come up with money to buy out the poor residents of the area but also the much more valuable industrial property that would have to be bought out. The city is precluded from spending this kind of money by an ancient principle of common law called the Rule of No Dinero. No money, honey. Busted. Broke. Tapped out. Fuggetaboutit.

The only money available for a buyout would be money from the Corps of Engineers, which the Corps can only spend on a buyout if it doesn't build the levee. Either or. We can't marry both sisters.

And why would anybody want to build a levee if all the people who would be protected by it are going to go away? What is this, a wooden leg for a dead guy?

The opponents of this big boondoggle say they know why the city manager and the river gang, who include some of the city's oldest land-holding families, want to make sure the federal government never has anything to do with a buyout. Part of any federal buyout deal, they point out, is an agreement that the bought-out land must remain forever as undeveloped flood plain.

Mary Vogelson, an opponent of the river plan, says the idea of permanent flood plain is anathema to the city's old riverbank land hustlers. "They don't want to leave that property as flood plain, and they jolly well know that that's exactly what has to happen if the Corps buys it out," Vogelson says.

A private planning organization, The Dallas Plan, heavily funded by The Dallas Morning News and other major landholders, is already floating an idea for the redevelopment of Cadillac Heights as an industrial office park.

This kind of thinking, by the way, is illegal. For a decade it has been illegal to use federal money to create new private real estate. You can't use tax dollars to dry out some private guy's land just so the guy's land will be worth more money. And think about it: Why should we spend our tax dollars creating private profit for somebody? Especially when we then must keep spending tax dollars forever repairing the levees as they get washed away by the river and rain. "The rest of us are saying, 'Fine, leave it as flood plain,'" Vogelson says.  

This is really the issue that has put the Trinity River plan in the center of a crossfire between the White House and the Corps of Engineers. On March 6, in a dispute that had its origins in the Trinity project, the administration summarily terminated Assistant Army Secretary Mike Parker, a former congressman who was the civilian overseer of the Corps.

A year earlier the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had singled out the Trinity project for criticism because, it said, the Corps had violated its own "principles and guidelines" in designing the project, specifically by not looking harder at a buyout for Cadillac Heights instead of a levee. Some Washington insiders think it was Parker's stubborn defense of the Trinity project that kindled the coals that flared into his full-blown firing a few weeks ago.

David Conrad, a lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation, said, "Probably the first fight, the first battle where it went from the Cold War to the Hot War [between Parker and the White House], was this project."

The OMB, of course, has way bigger fish to fry than the Trinity project: It is engaged in a larger struggle with Congress over a Bush campaign pledge to ensure that federal projects are cost-effective and not just pork-barrel money sluices. But because the OMB has a point to make about the Trinity--because, in fact, the Trinity is emblematic of the OMB's larger crusade--top OMB people have been signaling to Miller in recent weeks that they might be willing to do a little seminar for her on what's wrong with the Trinity project.

When I talked to Miller recently, she confirmed that she had a phone message from a top OMB person, and she also confirmed that she had not returned it. Of course, in the same conversation she pointed out she had only been in office four weeks, that she had just found my own fax to her about all this in her garage (I thought it might have been indelicate to point out that I sent the fax two weeks ago), that she had just returned from taking her kids to Disney World, that she was cooking for Passover, and that "this is one tennis ball out of 20 that are in the air right now."

She said the city attorney has been warning her to be careful whom she talks to about the Trinity plan because there are lawsuits involved, "and we could be deposed." She also expressed some caution about just willy-nilly sticking her head into a bunch of black-helicopter politics in Washington.

Fair enough. But I had been talking all week with various Miller supporters on both wings of her odd coalition. Some are conservative North Dallas Republicans who support their president on this one and believe if it's a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer dollars, it shouldn't be done.

Others are from the greener, leftier, liberaler wing of the Millerite movement. They say Miller ran for office on a pledge to let the light shine in, and if there are powerful people in Washington who might have light to shed, whether men in black or not, Mayor Miller needs to hear what they have to say.

The hard-core enviros who are sophisticated about the issues know that Miller is much more favorably disposed toward the river project than they. "I knew going in that she wasn't in lock-step with our view," said Rita Beving of the Dallas Sierra Club.

But Beving, an independent public relations consultant, thinks Miller owes the Sierra Club an open mind: "I shut down my office for five solid weeks for her, doing no business, nothing but Laura. Rita was at the office from seven in the morning until as late as 11 at night. I had 16 Sierrans calling 900 people. I had two precinct walks at my office, and I probably called another 1,400 people myself, and we sent out two mailers, all with our donated money."

For that, Beving thinks Miller should talk to the OMB before she agrees to lobby Congress for money for the Cadillac Heights levee.

If this were Ron Kirk, it would all be so easy. He gets on his cell: "Hey, Bill, I got a bunch of people calling me about some stuff about some river. Could you remind me what I do in that scene and then maybe have your little longhair guy over there write up some lines for me?"  

Miller told me: "If there is one thing I want to do, I want to do what has never been done before, which is look at all sides of it."

Bottom line: "I don't know whether I'm going to Washington or not."

That can't be easy. Hope it works.

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