Hey, I wish you could have been at last week's Dallas City Council briefing. It was Friday night football. John Scovell, a lobbyist who had just won a huge city tax cut for Hunt Oil, was down in the end zone spikin' the ball and doin' a hula dance.
"I guess this is my celebration," he said, standing in front of the city council with an Oprah Winfrey mike in his hand. Earlier in the day, Scovell had mildly taunted Mayor Laura Miller ("Do you understand?"), but now at the end of the day with his big tax cut in hand, he was pouring it on.
Calling her "Professor Miller" and describing her to her face in front of the council as "possessed," Scovell was twitchin' itchy with it, like a cocky high school quarterback giving the finger to the team he just beat.
Only thing is, I'm sitting in the upper deck going over the notes I made on my program, and I keep coming up with a score that shows maybe Miller won this game. And if she won, how come Scovell's out there in the end zone waving his I.Q. around?
We always begin with a core perception of City Hall, after all. Miller was elected mayor the first time three years ago because a majority of the middle class voters in the city believed downtown had been run into the ground by arrogant rich white guys building sports venues; the streets had gone to hell; and half the council was crooked. People wanted somebody with a sharp pencil to go down there and count the damn money.
Two issues were in play last week. Hunt Oil is building a new $120 million headquarters on Akard Street in the central business district, and the company had asked the city to cut its property tax rate by almost 80 percent over the next 10 years. In addition, Hunt wanted the city to swap some land with it in the area around Reunion Arena and behind The Dallas Morning News campus in the southwest corner of downtown. Miller had raised questions about both deals.
Scovell, with lots of help from the Morning News and Hunt's many supporters on the city council, painted last week's briefing on both deals as a Thrilla on Marilla grudge match between Hunt Oil and Miller. And there is some grudge there.
In her years here as a columnist for the Dallas Observer and later in her career in elective politics, Miller has been a consistent scold and critic of Hunt Oil land deals with the city, especially having to do with our prematurely senile basketball venue, Reunion Arena.
Miller argued that the council should think about what it's starting when it flips one business an 80 percent tax cut. Her main argument was that other developers were already calling her demanding to know where their 80 percent tax cut was.
Miller never said don't do the land swap. I listened closely. She said do the land swap. But count the money. Don't just give them a blank check. Negotiate.
She went through a PowerPoint presentation on the history of the original Reunion Arena deal, ticking off a laundry list of unfulfilled promises and obsolete covenants, including air rights over a city-owned garage that still belong to Hunt Oil, for some reason, and a lease for the upper floors of the old Union Station, a city-owned property that Hunt continues to control in spite of never having done anything successful with it.
Miller said if the city is going to give Hunt what it wants on the land swap, then the city should use the talks as a chance to straighten out the kinks in the original 31-year-old "master agreement" with Hunt Oil on the land in that corner of downtown.
"As part of the swap," she told the council, "we would take back the air rights and take back control of the entire facility so that we could go and try to market Union Station as a destination location unfettered by the current lease agreement. I think that could be a win-win for us."
If anything, her little presentation was tempered, reasonable and very persuasive. The people on the council who occupy sort of the moderate center seemed to be won over. Of course the city ought to pursue its own interests and watch out for the taxpayer's nickel every little chance it gets. Right? Doesn't mean they should step on Hunt Oil's toe and run them out of town. But they shouldn't just throw open the vault and give Hunt a 30-minute wheelbarrow spree, either. You'd think.
But that was not what Scovell had in mind at all. He said the structure of the talks between Hunt and the city was strict: Only Hunt's demands for changes in the 31-year-old "master agreement" were to be discussed. There could be no revisiting old issues the city might want to discuss in the master agreement itself.
"We built a firewall," Scovell proudly told the council.
A strange exchange followed between Miller and Scovell: Miller said she could understand why Hunt Oil would want a firewall, since they are in the advantaged position on the master agreement.
"I don't want a firewall," she said.
Scovell, who had just finished saying, "We built a firewall," told Miller he had nothing to do with the firewall: "The important thing is, who authored the firewall? Not me. City of Dallas said, 'Do not touch the master agreement.'"
Miller was perplexed. Everybody looked perplexed. Why would the city insist that the city not be allowed to pursue the city's interests? Miller asked the city attorney if he had asked for a firewall. He half-rose from a chair in the back and said, "No."
Scovell grabbed the Oprah mike again and teed off: "What I'm having a tough time doing, and some of y'all know me better than others, is resisting jumping up and correcting the statements that are being made that are not accurate. So you are walking out of here with a bunch of assumptions from Professor Miller about this project that are not factual."
He turned to Miller and said, "I think you are losing sight of what's important. Mayor, do you want an entertainment center? I want you to focus not on us. You seem to be possessed with us."
Scovell started back to his seat, like he'd done another TD and was ready for some Gatorade, but Miller, cool as a cucumber, asked him to remain on the field. She pulled a crisp white sheet of paper from a meticulous file. "I want to get to the bottom of this issue on the master agreement," she said, "because I am holding the February 4, 2005, letter of intent that Woodbine [Hunt Oil] sent. "In section No. 5, you specifically create a section which you call, 'Master Agreement.' And in this language, it says that, 'but for the parcel that will be traded specifically in this land swap, the various rights and obligations set out in the existing master agreement will remain in effect.' I.e.,the firewall. Now that was put forward by Woodbine, not the city."
Scovell said, "What's the date of that agreement you're looking at?"
She told him again.
"So that was some 40 meetings ago," he said. "Lots of things have changed since then.
"The instruction I got was to eliminate the master agreement. I was told to take all references to the master agreement out. Unlike you, I am not going to name those people and cut their legs out from under them. I do not think that is appropriate. We have had a number of discussions, a number of meetings.
"Maybe I am misunderstanding what I said. That's irrelevant, who created the firewall. There is no firewall."
Yeah. Got it. Is no firewall. Was a firewall. City did it. But if you have a letter saying I did it, it's irrelevant. You're possessed. Never was a firewall. Do you not understand me? You're a witch.
Meanwhile, the portion of the city council currently under FBI investigation for bribery and corruption is blowing air kisses across the room to Scovell and making speeches to the effect of, "Forget the mayor. Deal with us, Mr. Moneypants. We won't take a sharp pencil to you. We don't even use pencils."
So I'm sitting in back trying to imagine how all of this looks through the other end of the lens, because in politics that's how you know who won the Friday night game. I haven't been Miller's biggest fan in the last year or so. She certainly has seen some rough times.
But if I were Miller, and if I were saying my prayers for redemption, I would ask specifically for a scenario in which a really arrogant white guy in a suit says stuff to me he would never say to a male mayor; I would ask for the FBI wing of the council to make speeches about how the suit can have all the money he wants, no problem, don't even bother to count it; and I would ask to have the camera trained on me while I pull pieces of paper out of a file labeled "The Taxpayer's Interest."
At the end of the week, I talked to a guy who's working against Miller on a ballot initiative--nothing to do with this. He said his people were deeply disappointed by some recent polling they did on Miller. "She came back stronger than dirt," he said ruefully.
Well, see, that's just the thing. It's like that Friday night football I'm talking about. I know everybody on the Scovell school bus went home high-fiving and mooning out the window and stuff. I know Miller went home on her bus alone with her file. But when it all shakes out, who won the game?
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