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Oakley-dokey

The land use plan that Ed Oakley helped create has an effect on the property he owns along the Trinity River. How is that hard to understand?

I can't stand reading The Dallas Morning News because it gives me a gigantic headache. Why would I pay to have something delivered to my doorstep every day when I always wind up wanting to hurl it back at the guy who threw it at me?

Four days before the June 16 mayoral election, the News published a story about candidate Ed Oakley under the headline, "Oakley's land near Trinity project poses no conflict of interest." The subhead said, "Tracts near Trinity project don't violate code, city says."

I was the one who had suggested Oakley might have conflicts of interest as chairman of the city council's Trinity River Committee because of land he holds near the Trinity River. Oakley told me later he requested an opinion from the city attorney because of my articles.

"This was asked specifically because of the allegations you made about the road alignment," he said.

Oakley has been outspoken and adamant in opposing the goal of the petition drive and referendum to remove a high-speed toll road project from within the proposed downtown river park. I said taking the road out of the park and putting it on Industrial Boulevard would have a direct impact on Oakley's holdings near Industrial Boulevard. But I also said an entire stream of other zoning and land-use decisions related to the Trinity River project had affected Oakley's properties.

Great. So here in my morning newspaper is an article that is going to give me the answer. No conflict. Says so right here in the headline: "Oakley's land near Trinity project poses no conflict of interest."

But when I get way down to the bottom of the article on an inside page, I see this statement: "City lawyers have not investigated the issue of Mr. Oakley's land holdings. In releasing its May opinion to Mr. Oakley, the city attorney's office emphasized its limited scope."

Uh. Wait a minute. The allegations were about land holdings. And when I look at this story carefully, it sounds as if the city attorney's opinion doesn't clear Oakley of squat. He could still be under suspicion for the Chicago Fire.

So is this one of those Morning News stories I'm supposed to hold up to a mirror? Should I warm the back of the page with a match to see if secret writing appears? Or should I just roll the paper back up and run downstairs spilling hot coffee all over my bathrobe and throw the front door open and see if I can hit a dog-walker in the face with it?

No. I should calm down. I should get a copy of the opinion for myself.

I do that. City Attorney Tom Perkins is very nice about it. Faxes it over. I read. And I guess this is the kind of opinion you get if you go to the city attorney in the last two weeks of a neck-and-neck campaign and ask his office to crank out a letter that will decide the election.

You get a letter that will not decide the election.

As you know, Oakley did not win the election. But the conflict issue persists because the Trinity River project is very much in play, especially because of the petition drive.

Oakley's conflict question has to do with multiple parcels of land he owns in the old Trinity industrial district right down by the river. Since 2002, Oakley has been chairman of the city council's Trinity River Committee, giving him great influence over the project. Five years ago when Mayor Laura Miller assigned him to this post, questions were raised about his possible conflicts of interest.

At the end of May when I spoke to Oakley campaign aide and advisor David Marquis about all this ("The Magic Touch," May 24), Marquis told me Oakley had sought a city attorney's opinion on his land holdings near the Trinity five years ago.

One mystery, then, would be this: If Oakley had a city attorney's opinion in hand five years ago, why did he have to seek a new one in the last weeks of his campaign? I asked Oakley that.

He said, "You don't need a written opinion unless somebody raises an issue. Because it became an issue I asked them to reduce it to writing."

OK. So he didn't actually have a city attorney's opinion five years ago. He had some advice. I raised the issue in the paper. So then he wants it in writing. Fair enough.

But when I sit down with the opinion and actually read it, I have even bigger problems than I had before. With Oakley. With the Morning News. And the headache.

For example, the city attorney's opinion, actually a letter to Oakley, says: "The Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan would have an economic effect on the properties you own within the Trinity River Corridor, and you have informed us that you have not participated in any matters involving the Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan; however our office has not conducted an independent review to confirm that you did not participate in matters involving the Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan."  

What? Huh?

The man is chairman of the Trinity River Committee. This land use plan they're talking about is a scheme to take all of the land along the river completely out of the normal zoning process, put it under its own staff and apply all-new rules and concepts to it. It's totally a creature of the committee that Oakley has been chairing for five years! More to the point, the city attorney's staff has been present for all of those committee meetings.

What do they need an independent review for? If they can't remember the meetings, they need prescription drugs. Or other work.

I asked Oakley if it was not true he had presided over the whole effort to split zoning and land use for the river away from the normal zoning process and put it into something called the Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

He said, "What does that have to do with anything?"

I said, "That shows that there has been an overall effort, an overall look at the Trinity River and at rezoning the Trinity River under your watch."

"And?" he asked. "Go on. Let's run the trail. And what does that create?"

"That creates the Trinity River Land Use Plan," I said.

"OK," he said. "Show me where the conflict is."

I wound up reading and re-reading the same line to him from the city attorney's opinion: "The Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan would have an economic effect on the properties you own..."

But I got nowhere. Oakley insisted he could have no conflict as long as he recused himself from specific votes on specific zoning changes directed at specific properties owned by him. "Even if it's under my watch, the only thing that creates a conflict of interest by city charter is if you own land where you're doing a zoning change itself."

I looked at the city's ethics code, and nowhere does it make this wiggly fine-print distinction about zoning-votes-only that Oakley keeps harking to. The code says, "To avoid the appearance and risk of impropriety, a city official or employee shall not take any official action that he or she knows is likely to affect particularly the economic interests of the official or employee."

I'm not a lawyer, but I am a fairly decent interpreter of C.Y.A.-ese, and I have to say I sniff more than a whiff of it in this opinion. For example, the opinion makes many references to state law on conflict of interest, which is much more broad and permissive than the ethics code Laura Miller got passed after becoming mayor.

Far from the kind of technical narrow tests Oakley suggests, the city's ethics code goes big and broad. It calls on city officials "to carefully consider the public perception of personal and professional actions and the effect such actions could have, positively or negatively, on the city's reputation both in the community and elsewhere."

The code also states emphatically that not voting is not enough. An official with a conflict must "immediately refrain from further participation in the matter, including discussions with any persons likely to consider the matter."

City Attorney Perkins and Assistant City Attorney Gwendolyn Satterthwaite called me late last week to echo the defense Oakley had offered of himself the day before (this gets complicated). They said the comprehensive land use plan was divided into sub-areas. Oakley was OK, they said, if he had stayed out of any discussion of his own sub-area. He says he did.

But Perkins and Satterthwaite conceded they hadn't studied the plan. They agreed they did not know if the plan has overarching elements that affect all areas and therefore would affect Oakley's area. I would suggest that's why they call it "comprehensive." I think I'll hold them to the language in the letter: "The Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan would have an economic effect on the properties you own..."

Look, I wouldn't blame you if you thought this was beating a dead horse, given that Oakley didn't win and he will leave the council this week. But I believe there's a much larger and more important point here.

This is the kind of stuff that the stupid toll road comes from—all this clever speech and fine print and cards up the sleeve. That's why having an election on it is so vital.  

It's not even that the road needs to be taken out of the park. That's to be decided by the voters. Much bigger and more important for the health of the city is that people get a chance to ask questions and hear honest answers. And only an election will make that happen.

We need less cleverness, more honesty. And I need a quart-sized bottle of Excedrin.


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