The making of an activist

Julie Mote--whose name, I assure you, would not ring any bells at Dallas City Hall--was sitting in her North Dallas home with her husband two Wednesdays ago, eating baked chicken and asparagus, when something unusual happened.

The couple began discussing city politics. "We don't usually talk politics in this house because he tends to be more conservative than I am," says Mote, "but I brought it up. I wanted to talk about it."

Specifically, she wanted to discuss what she had just seen on the 6 o'clock news. The Dallas City Council had just held its umpteenth closed-door meeting on the sports arena project, and although a rare open session--the first in more than a year--had been scheduled for later in the day, it never happened.

It didn't happen because of a sudden--and a bit too coincidental--departure of five councilmembers, whose exit jeopardized the council's quorum, which was then deftly quashed by Mayor Ron Kirk, who publicly distances himself from the arena project while privately aiding it.

The need for an open briefing was clear--at least to people like Mote. The day before, a Channel 8 reporter had unearthed an explosive city document showing that the $35 million the city was offering to help build an arena was actually more like $200 million, thanks to $43 million in cash, $88 million in tax abatements, and five years of free rent at both the new arena and the old, both of which Mavericks owner Don Carter would control--and ultimately could buy outright for $1 apiece.

Watching the council chicanery unfold, Mote felt outrage and anger. Later, sitting down to dinner with her husband of two years, she was still stewing. "This is just wrong," she told him, though, quite frankly, she didn't expect much of a response. Her husband is a conservative lawyer--not a bomb-thrower. He is also a big sports fan. He and some of his friends own season tickets to the Dallas Stars hockey games. He wanted to see the Stars and Dallas Mavericks stay downtown.

"When I asked him what he thought, he said, 'You know, I want a new arena, and I want to keep it downtown, too, but I don't think the taxpayers should be paying so much for it either,'" Mote recalls him saying. "'I don't think it brings that much to the economy.'"

Among other things, Mote's husband had just read an article in the January 15 issue of Fortune magazine, which mocked the many cities across the nation which have bought into the myth that new, publicly built homes for rich sports teams will bring financial prosperity to the cities.

"I was so surprised," she adds. "I was expecting him to end up on the side of 'It's good for business'--you know, the party line on why we should build an arena. It made me think we aren't the only people sitting around the dinner table thinking this isn't right."

They're not, of course, but Mote is one of the few who have decided to do something about it.

The most surprising thing about the arena debate is how disdainful city officials are of the public--and how little the public cares about being treated that way.

The citizens of this city sit back month after month, year after year, watching the arena circus and doing nothing, no matter how much money City Manager John Ware siphons off other projects to feed the arena; no matter how many times city staffers lie to the council; no matter how often city officials, with the nod of city attorneys, violate state laws on open records and open meetings; and no matter how underhanded, sneaky, and scandalous the process has become.

"In my opinion, the people in the city of Dallas don't have any guts," says 80-year-old Frank Bodzin, one of a handful of citizens who, for no personal or financial gain whatsoever, have for years zealously monitored the goings-on at City Hall. "How the people--if they know what's going on--can sit there and take it, I don't know," says Bodzin.

Bodzin is living proof that one person who gets his or her dander up can make a difference. In 1980, he organized a tax-revolt meeting at W.T. White High School to which nearly 1,000 equally angry people showed up. Bodzin then helped start a group called the TEA Party, which collected tens of thousands of petition signatures, forcing the city council to put a charter amendment on the ballot in January 1981 that would have placed a cap on the city's tax rate. The measure failed 2-1.

Two years later, Bodzin was back. He led a new charge to collect petition signatures to force another charter amendment onto the ballot. Before Bodzin could file his 70,000 petitions with the city secretary's office, the city councilmembers--seeing the handwriting on the wall--adopted the homestead exemption Bodzin wanted.  

Bodzin was arrested for such harmless efforts. A supermarket in North Dallas called the cops on him one day as he stood in front of the store collecting petition signatures.

Even with a motivated citizenry, fighting City Hall is daunting, Bodzin says. "All kinds of people would call me to urge me on, but as soon as I asked them to collect petition signatures, they had a million excuses. One lady even told me that her dog was about to have pups, and she just couldn't leave her alone. You can't get people to do anything. Today, I wouldn't even try."

Today, Bodzin says, taxes--how they're raised, how they're spent--do not spur people to action. "When you're talking about abortion rights or animal rights, you'll get a lot of people involved," says Bodzin, "but for taxes, people will go to those meetings these councilpeople have and shake their fists at them, and they think they've done their duty. But they won't help you. It's a crime. I don't blame the councilmembers for doing what they're doing because it's like taking candy from a baby."

But the babies are beginning to get irritated, it seems.
"I'm calling to talk to you briefly about how I might get started on fighting City Hall," Mote said in a voice-mail message she left me two weeks ago. "I'm a little bit fed up with the arena project, and after yesterday's antics by the city council I was a little frustrated. I've never fought City Hall before, and I don't know where to start, but I'd like to try and convince the city that there are things they need to do before they take on an arena."

"Things like what?" I asked Mote when I returned her call.
"It seems like we have a city council and city government that can't multi-task," says Mote, who is 30 years old and works in marketing for a media company. "They can't take care of White Rock Lake. They can't fix the streets. I grew up in Oak Cliff--my grandmother lived on Kessler Canyon Drive--and my husband and I looked over there for houses. But get outside Kessler Park, and it doesn't look good at all, and there's no reason for that. It's a pretty part of town with a lot of history."

Mote has thought about this quite a bit, obviously.
"It seems every waking minute is spent wining and dining these people to keep the arena here," she says. "I'd hate to lose it--it's a concern--but that doesn't mean we should pay $100 million. That might be different if the city was doing what they said they would do, but there are unglamorous things--the maintenance things--that have to be done."

Actually, it's not like the council and staff are unaware of what kind of shape the city is in. Like the rest of us, they live it.

Councilman Bob Stimson spends most every weekend driving around the city, his car stuffed with greasy spaghetti-sauce jars, sticky aluminum cans, and sour-smelling milk jugs. He's just one of the city's many recycling nomads, searching desperately for some place--any place--that will take household trash that the city refuses to pick up and recycle for anyone living south of the Trinity River.

Councilwoman Donna Blumer's husband Roland sacrifices a weekend a month pruning and planting trees and flowers along the enormous city-owned greenscape near his home. He and his neighbors do it because the city says it can't afford to.

Councilman Don Hicks can be found most weekends with his neighbors plucking trash off the medians and vacant lots in South Oak Cliff where they live. The city doesn't have the manpower to clean up the area for them.

Go ask Jerry Bartos about city priorities. Bartos is the former city councilman who disappointed a lot of people by not throwing his hat into the mayor's race last year. He owns a small business on Oradell Lane near Bachman Lake, a part of town the city surrendered to smut shops and other seedy establishments some years ago.

"When people ask me about the arena, I tell them about Oradell Lane," Bartos says. "I went up and down the street not too long ago, and I counted four businesses in my block--75 jobs--and I asked Donna Blumer, 'What would the city manager and the mayor do if you could bring 75 new jobs to town?' and she said, 'They'd fall over themselves--offer you all kinds of tax breaks and incentives.' Yet there are 75 jobs over here on this little street, which everyone considers an eyesore neighborhood, and the city doesn't know it and couldn't care less."  

Just how little does it care?
"We fixed our own pothole last summer," Bartos says. "We bought a bag of asphalt at Home Depot and fixed it. We haven't seen a city service truck out here since God only knows. We don't want tax abatements. We just really would like some city services."

It's a familiar cry--one the current council hears at town-hall meetings, bond-program workshops, budget hearings, and in plenty of less formal venues. "I was at the supermarket the other day, and I ran into Jane Ventura, the ferocious neighborhood protectress in Preston Hollow," says councilwoman Blumer. "She said she was at a meeting the other night, and everyone at the meeting was just incensed about the arena deal."

Ventura is president of the affluent and powerful Preston Hollow Homeowners Association that pretty much dictates the success or failure of any zoning application sought in its neighborhood, which includes Preston Center, where Ventura's husband Sam owns some commercial property.

True, Ventura says, she was just at a small, amicable meeting about a proposed zoning change for a drive-through bank in her area when the subject of the arena came up. Says Ventura: "We were asking each other, 'Do we need this? Is it a benefit to us? How much does a sports arena really help Dallas?' and every time you have a tax abatement, the rest of us have to pick up the tab."

Although Ventura's neighborhood association isn't political beyond zoning--and has never formally discussed the arena as a group--she applauds Mote's desire to do something about it. "I think she's great," Ventura says. "If she wants to be the fireball, what she needs to do is contact every homeowner representative, all of whom are supposed to be on file down at City Hall. I'd kind of like to help her on this. I don't know if I'd like to be in the thick of it--but I'd love to help her."

This could all add up to a nice, fat nightmare for the Dallas City Council. Mote is articulate. She is smart. She is not a radical, or a crank, or a person with any kind of political aspirations. She's just a taxpaying, voting, home-owning citizen with a sense of fairness and a good dose of moral outrage.

Last April, Mote and her husband bought their first house, near Hillcrest High School. They have three bedrooms, two baths, two cars and one mutt named Coco who likes to beg for scraps at their dinner table. "I guess once you buy a house, and you realize where your taxes are going, and people aren't doing what they said they were going to when you elected them, and you pass a bond issue but nothing's happening, you get more motivated," says Mote.

Mote is not sure what her plan of attack is going to be. First, she says, she wants to learn a lot more about the nuts and bolts of the arena project. She wants to go beyond media reports and search out the facts for herself--collect some documents, sit in on some meetings. She's never stepped foot in City Hall, but she hopes to start today--the day this article is printed--because Mayor Ron Kirk has decided (thanks to the avalanche of criticism the council received two weeks ago) to hold that elusive public briefing on the arena.

Mote plans to miss a morning of work to be there, but the whole idea intimidates her a bit. "I'm afraid of being eaten alive down there," she says. "I have so much to learn. I had to call around just to find out who my councilperson is."

Another thing Mote--and others--might do is visit the city's Downtown Sports Development Project office on the third floor of 500 S. Ervay, right across from City Hall. That office has been collecting thousands of arena records from departments all over the city since December 20, when it received a formal request from a reporter at The Dallas Morning News to see any and all arena records generated since June 8, 1995 (the ending date of records requested by Dallas Observer).

In typical anal-retentive, control-freak form, the city manager's office and the city attorneys have been sifting through the documents for a month now, weeding out the most revealing ones that they don't want the public to see.

The city ships those documents to the Texas attorney general's office for a ruling on whether it has to release them under the Texas Open Records Act--knowing that by the time the attorney general's office makes a decision, the records will be so old they'll be obsolete. (I guarantee that by the time we get all those documents that are sitting in Austin released, we'll be watching dirt fly on the new arena.)  

This latest batch of sterilized material is about to be made available, and when it is, anybody in the world--not just the reporters who keep requesting it--will be able to go down to 500 S. Ervay and sit in the conference room and pore over it.

You'll no doubt have a Big Brother baby sitter assigned to you while you do it--at least that's how it's been with the media. The baby sitter will be some low-level city employee who, besides staring at the wall for hours, keeps a log of the documents that the reporters want copied so the Big Boys at City Hall know what's being disseminated and, in case it's potentially troublesome, can quickly get a copy of it to city councilmembers with appropriate explanations before the media airs it.

For a minimal charge of 10 cents per page (don't let them charge you more), anyone can have copies of the arena documents for their own purposes. (Just don't expect immediate service--they don't even have a copy machine over there.)

"Once the records are open, they're open," says Margaret Hudgens, the office's overworked secretary, who can be reached at 670-5948. "People just have to call the office and tell me when they're coming."

Mote will come, you can count on it, and--who knows?--she may just inspire others to come along with her.

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