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Private dealing

Ron Kirk was being uncharacteristically subdued. He was standing up against a wall, a good distance from the political action, arms folded across his perfectly pressed denim workshirt, lizard boots planted firmly on the floor.

This was last May, two weeks after he'd surprised the city of Dallas, not to mention himself, by winning the heated mayor's race without a runoff. After months of sunup to sundown campaign commitments--endless coffee chats, church socials, candidate forums--Kirk had earned the right to sit back and relax with his family. To take a month-long breather before his city hall swearing-in ceremony.

Instead, on this warm Sunday afternoon, Kirk caught a 4 p.m. Southwest Airlines flight to Austin, where the hectic business of the last week of the 74th legislative session was in full swing.

During the previous legislative session in 1993--when Kirk was a private lawyer working as a lobbyist for private companies--it would have been nothing for him to sacrifice a Sunday to hustle state legislators to come over to his point of view. But those days were over.

So what was Kirk doing down there?
The members of the House calendars committee knew--all too well, actually. They knew that the newly elected, soon-to-be mayor of Dallas couldn't wait to get started on his new job, at least one facet of it.

The legislators, dressed casually for this brief Sunday meeting, smirked. Their old friend Kirk was there because there was a big, fat sports-arena tax bill stuck in their committee--the committee that puts proposed legislation on the House calendar for consideration. It was the last day bills could be considered for the calendar; bills the committee didn't release that day would die.

The arena bill before the committee would earmark as much as $180 million in state sales taxes over the next five years to help build new sports arenas in cities like Dallas. Several members of the committee believed the money could be better spent elsewhere. Then again, the new mayor of Dallas--the first black big-city mayor elected in Texas, their old friend--had come down to ask for his first personal and political favor. Sure, he was over there--humble, quiet, standing against the wall--but he may as well have been on his knees in the middle of the room sobbing and begging and holding a gun to his head.

The bill quickly passed out.
"Where's Mayor Kirk?" the chairman, state Rep. Mark Stiles of Beaumont, asked aloud from stage center in the ornate meeting room, located just off the House floor. "He can go back to Dallas now. Mr. Kirk?"

Kirk reluctantly signaled to Stiles from his position along the wall. "Yeah, you go back and worry about those school kids," Stiles joked, referring to life's bigger problems.

Kirk, raising his eyebrows at the remark, quietly walked out of the room.
I walked him down the hall. I was a little confused. After all, during the campaign, much had been made about Kirk's status as a new partner in a Dallas law firm that had Mavericks owner Don Carter as a client. He was going to have a huge conflict of interest if he pushed publicly for a sports arena--something he passionately wanted--while making a living, in part, off Carter's legal bills. Hammered on this point by his mayoral opponents, Kirk had finally vowed to stay completely out of the arena issue. He wouldn't influence it one way or the other if he became mayor, he said. He wouldn't act. He wouldn't vote. He wouldn't even sit in on the debate.

But here it was, a mere two weeks after the election, and Kirk had flown halfway across the state to execute a fantastic solo save of the arena legislation. Had he forgotten his promise already?

Absolutely not, he told me, clearly chagrined that a reporter was around. Technically speaking, he was living up to his promise, he insisted.

"I've got 30 days between the day I was elected and the day I'm sworn in," Kirk said, "and I'm going to take full advantage of those 30 days to do everything I possibly can to get this arena built."

As he hurried away--mission accomplished, off to catch the last flight to Dallas--I mulled over the integrity of Kirk's slender-as-a-thread rationale for blowing off his campaign promise.

I remembered wondering if, indeed, this was going to be Ron Kirk's last hurrah on the sports arena. I remembered...well, just hoping.

Eight months later, hope has blown out the window.
Ron Kirk is personally shoving a new sports arena down the city's throat, and he's doing it all behind the scenes in the same, incredibly noxious way his predecessor did: holding every arena meeting behind closed doors; fighting to keep information from the press; shunning citizen input; and protecting narrow private interests over greater public ones.

 

Same ol', same ol.'
Until last Wednesday--an absolute watershed day for the Kirk mayoral reign--Kirk's arena lustings had all seemed pretty innocent and fairly contained. Sure, everybody at city hall had figured that the new mayor was quietly spearheading the arena effort with the City Manager John Ware, who happens to be Kirk's personal friend. Still, nothing much had been happening. The tax bill in Austin had been unexpectedly killed by an Arlington legislator just days after Kirk's deft resuscitation, and arena negotiations between Dallas and Don Carter had stalled shortly afterward because of the financial instability of the Dallas Stars.

The council hadn't been briefed on the arena since June, Kirk's first month in office. At that briefing (behind closed doors, of course), Ware had asked the council for permission to increase his previous $12.9 million offer to Carter by another $35 million.

That new offer, however, was bogus. Ware, who makes sport out of sandbagging his bosses, promptly hauled off and offered Don Carter much more than the $47.9 million maximum he had discussed in the meeting.

"Based on our recent conversations I have significantly modified the City's proposal for a new arena for the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars," Ware wrote in a letter to Carter dated July 18, 1995. "Attached is a copy of the City's proposal, which is marked to highlight the changes."

The proposal in-cluded, among other things, giving the Mavericks all the revenues from both the new arena and Reunion Arena for the first five years that a new arena was open. (The city had previously wanted 25 percent of the revenues.) Likewise, it offered rent-free status for the Mavericks during that period. "This proposal represents a total reduction in payments of at least $180.8 million," Ware wrote. "Note also that we continue to offer to transfer to you one or both of the arenas and the underlying footprint land at $1 each at the end of 30 years occupancy...provided the Mavericks then agree to stay in Dallas for a subsequent 10-year period."

If the reasonably minded and fiscally responsible few on the council--namely, and almost exclusively, Paul Fielding, Donna Blumer, and Bob Stimson--had seen those numbers at the time, they probably would have asked Ware to do a lot of explaining. (Stimson has spent months trying to forge a public-private partnership with some Utah developers to build a convention-center hotel. The deal fell through last week, in part, Stimson said, because Ware refused to ante up more than $3 million for that project even though it would arguably have been a much more potent shot in the arm for the economy than the sports arena.)

As it was, no one even knew about the deal. That's because Ware's letter remained strictly confidential--even to the council--until Channel 8 reporter Dave Evans, after hearing rumors that the arena offer was much bigger than previously disclosed, formally requested all correspondence between the city and Carter.

The city only had the one letter--but, of course, it didn't turn it over. Instead, it asked the Texas Attorney General's Office for a legal opinion on whether it had to release the letter.

This is the number-one scam at city hall--city attorneys spending most of their days playing hide-the-ball-from-the-public for John Ware. These guys actually keep pretending they don't understand the Texas Open Records Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act--never mind that they've been repeatedly reprimanded, admonished, and rebuked by state and federal courts for violating those laws over the years. In truth, they know that the attorney general takes forever to make a ruling on an open-records matter, rendering the documents stale by the time they're released. (I'm still awaiting a ruling on arena documents I requested 10 months ago. In Channel 8's case, the attorney general took two months to review one letter.)

In response to the attorney general's opinion, Ware's letter to Carter upping the arena ante was released Tuesday to Channel 8 and the rest of the media.

Not surprisingly, Ware had scheduled a closed-door arena briefing with the council the following day to deal with the fallout. What was surprising was that he also scheduled a public briefing for later that day.

Incredibly--the attorney general's letter notwithstanding--Ware began the closed-door briefing by launching into a discussion of how he planned to spend the public's money, a matter that was supposed to be discussed only in public. As usual, councilman Paul Fielding pointed out that Ware couldn't do that. This time--and this is very unusual--City Attorney Sam Lindsay agreed with Fielding, and it was decided that any discussion of taxpayer money would take place later, during the public briefing.

 

But the public briefing never happened. As soon as the closed meeting ended at 5:20 p.m. and the public one began, councilmembers started disappearing. By the time Paul Fielding began pressing the mayor to begin the arena briefing, the mayor could looked up innocently--he has a very obvious innocent look--and proclaimed a lack of a quorum.

The daily media all dutifully reported that it was awfully coincidental that five of the 15 councilmembers had to run just as they were about to embark on the first public briefing on the arena in more than a year.

Charlotte Mayes seemed to have the most bona fide reason--she had a flight to catch. (Still, why are any of the councilmembers scheduling anything for the day of the council's meeting, which rarely ends at 5 p.m.?)

Donna Halstead had a best friend with a heart attack. Halstead told me that she knew that if she left, there might be a problem keeping a quorum. "I asked my colleagues, and I don't remember how I phrased it, but the question was, 'Are you all able to stay for the remainder of the meeting? I don't want us to lose a quorum, but I have to go to the hospital.'"

Halstead says no one responded to her question, so she left assuming that everybody in the room was staying.

She was wrong. Within minutes--as Fielding continued to press for the arena briefing--Max Wells, Craig McDaniel, and Chris Luna slipped out.

I called all three after the meeting. McDaniel didn't return my call; Luna said, "I had a personal commitment"; and Wells said, "I had an appointment." Both Luna and Wells declined to say exactly what that important business was, and why it was more important than the public knowing how hundreds of millions in public money might be spent.

Luna confirmed that, as he walked out the door that day, he approached Lindsay to privately ask if his departure would affect the ability of the meeting to continue.

In talking to several councilmembers about the "walk-out," I learned several crucial things: The exit of Wells, McDaniel, and Luna was as much a direct frontal assault on the public's right to know as it was a solid missile hit on Fielding, who all three councilmembers sincerely despise. (Don't worry, the feeling is mutual.) By breaking the quorum, Wells, Luna, and McDaniel not only did their new mayor a favor--and all three are very much bonded to the new mayor--it also deprived Fielding of his chance to do what he does best, which is to moan and complain about the arena.

On this particular issue, Fielding is absolutely right to moan and complain. But he's also vastly outnumbered.

"I don't quite understand the flap," Wells told me when I asked him why he walked out on the meeting last week, "because I don't know anything the public doesn't know, or the council doesn't know, on this issue, and I think that's all I want to say."

Actually, Mr. Wells, the public knows very little about this issue because you, for one, don't seem to believe it has the right to know anything, and it would know absolutely nothing about it if the media didn't win a records battle every six months or so.

Still, the pettiness of small-minded people who forget to whom they're accountable misses the bigger picture here. The big picture is the new mayor and, specifically, the hope that he would usher in a new era of openness and inclusion.

"We won't [have a quorum]," Kirk said aloud last Wednesday when Blumer and Fielding began calling for the open arena briefing, "because I have to leave."

Kirk had to leave, you understand, because of that campaign promise he made (and because the council's rules of procedure state that a councilmember with a conflict of interest has to leave the room during debate of that issue). But then, nothing compelled him to start counting noses and point out that he was breaking the quorum by leaving the room.

The parliamentary handbook, Robert's Rules of Order, states: "When the chair has called a meeting to order after finding that a quorum is present, the continued presence of a quorum is presumed unless the chair or a member notices that a quorum is no longer present," and, "If the chair notices the absence of a quorum, it is his duty to declare the fact, at least before taking any vote or stating the question on any new motion."

One could debate all day long whether Kirk acted appropriately by shutting down the meeting. When I asked City Attorney Lindsay last week whether Kirk had to shut down what was merely an informational briefing--after all, anybody who watches C-Span can tell you how often a lone U.S. Congessman speaks passionately to an empty chamber--Lindsay couldn't even tell me. After three phone calls and a fax analyzing the rules regarding quorums, Lindsay eventually concluded, of course, that Kirk did the right thing.

 

But the bottom line is this: By counting noses as his council buddies deliberately took a hike, Kirk conveniently avoided a public briefing he absolutely didnt want.

Kirk made that stunningly clear a few minutes later, shortly after being saved from a throng of prying, incredulous reporters by trusty administrative assistant Kristi Sherrill, who waded through the crowd to usher him away. "We have to go," she kept saying, tapping her watch urgently, even though, in truth, Kirk had absolutely nowhere he had to be.

Running after him as he hustled down the back stairs to his office, I pressed him about why he had shut down the briefing. After insisting that everything had been handled by the book, Kirk said, "You know, we're in the middle of negotiating this thing. We shouldn't be discussing this just so you all can have it on the six o'clock news." Well, how about doing it for the good of the public and the council? "As I understand it, the council was already briefed on all of that," Kirk said. "Go ask them."

I already had--and they hadn't been. In fact, Ware had admitted to me upstairs that the council had been unaware of the details of the offer he'd made Carter, though Ware claimed to have acted "within the parameters the council set for me."

Would the mayor, who sets the schedule, include the arena on the next briefing agenda in two weeks? I asked. Upstairs, he had just told The Dallas Morning News he would.

"It will be on the agenda if the city manager decides there's some new information that must be presented to the council," Kirk said (meaning no). I asked again. "I don't expect another briefing until John Ware comes back to us with a deal," Kirk said (meaning no).

Hell, let's just have a briefing when we start digging the hole. That's how the public learned it was getting Reunion Arena--the city just started shoveling dirt one day.

What's most astonishing here is how blatant all of this is--how Ron Kirk, for all his public hands-off posture, is working overtime to protect his firm's client, Don Carter, who is well-known for flying into rages whenever the media get a crumb of information out of city hall.

So, with his back up against the wall, and his client threatening, as always, to walk at any moment, what does the mayor do? He squelches all public dialogue about the arena by brandishing--of all things--his conflict-of-interest problem to kill the quorum.

City hall aficionados know that former Mayor Steve Bartlett's Waterloo was his maniacal period--the entire first half of his term actually--when he decided to practice the fine art of neck-chopping by wielding the axe on Jan Hart, who, unfortunately for him, was a very popular city manager at the time.

And Kirk? His Waterloo started early--two weeks before he was elected, on a brief flight to Austin.


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