What's That Smell?

Before the 1998 bond election, Mayor Ron Kirk promised you a "Central Park" along the river. As soon as the bonds were approved, the city hired a lawyer to get out of it.
Peter Calvin

This is all I ask. Remember the sailboats. I know we've been over this before. But since we last talked about it, the Dallas City Council has passed final ballot language for the bond election on May 3. I just want to make sure we're on the same page:

The sailboat page.

Exactly five years ago, the Dallas City Council passed an ordinance calling for a bond election on 11 different propositions, of which No. 11 was to authorize borrowing $246 million for the so-called Trinity River project. The centerpiece--shown to you and me again and again on television in the days before the election--was a glamorous lake downtown with a glamorous you and a glamorous me slipping around in brief garments on sailboats with big goofy grins on our faces.

Sure. Gimme one of them sailboats.

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That was five years ago. Do we see any sailboats downtown? Not to mention a lake? No, we don't, you and me, and by now we have accepted the fact that we are never going to see a lake downtown, not a lake-lake, a jump-in-the-lake lake, a body of water with fish in it and sailboats on it. We have resigned ourselves to the fact that the most we will ever see downtown is a lawyer. That lawyer will explain once again why the city doesn't have to build us the lake it promised it was going to build with the money it borrowed in our name, and that we have to pay back.

As we have discussed here before, City Hall is proud of the fact that it has spent our tax money on legal fees to perfect its right not to build anything remotely like the lake we were promised before the 1998 bond election. Doesn't have to, not going to, we can't make them, na-na na-na-na.

The Trinity River project promised to voters by then Mayor Ron Kirk and his city council and by a host of civic leaders in detailed brochures and handouts and briefings was, as we now know, hot air and puffery designed to get us to OK the bonds. There had been no design work or engineering for a lake. The reasons they gave for doing the project in the first place had no bearing on the real reasons they admitted to after they got the money.

We thought the goal was to create a big lake downtown with us on sailboats. We were wrong for several reasons. We were wrong because after we authorized them to borrow $246 million for the project, they conceded that during many months of the year the only water in the Trinity River downtown is doo-doo water, unsafe even for splash contact. And we wouldn't want to sail on doo-doo now, would we? They were looking out for us, you see. If they'd wanted to be honest, the graphics looped endlessly on television in the weeks before the Trinity bond election would have shown glamorous you and glamorous me sailing on the lake in bio-hazard suits with clothespins on our noses.

But we were also wrong because City Hall acknowledged after we'd approved the bonds that it didn't really want to create a "Central Park" along the river after all, as Kirk had promised in speech after speech. Instead, City Hall admitted it really wanted to build an eight- to 10-lane freeway on top of the river in order to enhance speculative land values in the aging Stemmons industrial corridor northwest of downtown. We had voted to allow the city to borrow $246 million to save the river. The actual plan was to spend the money killing the river.

The technicality that made all of this perfectly legal had to do with ballot language. Attorneys for the city argued successfully in court that the promises made by the mayor, the council and civic leaders before the election were not legally binding. In its decision--affirmed by the Texas Supreme Court--the Texas 5th District Court of Appeals said only the ballot language is binding. The court went on to show that the ballot language in 1998 was very broad, not to say vague. All the ballot said, really, was that the city would spend the money planning, designing and building some kind of big project along the river.

That's why several weeks ago when the council was still deciding what should be included in the upcoming bond election, I called Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson to go over the question of ballot language. The council was arguing about just how much money to allocate to which kind of project in the overall $555 million package. We might assume all of this debate meant the council intended to be very parsimonious in pinching out the money--just exactly this much for that and that much for this and so on, according to a Betty Crocker recipe.  

But I thought I remembered the court had said none of the public theater leading up to a bond election means anything. If the ballot offers only very broad language that could be interpreted any which way by a good lawyer, then the council can spend the money any which way it wants, once they've got their hands on the moolah and the lawyer.

Johnson, a good lawyer, wouldn't comment on any of my moolah theories. But she was candid about the significance of the court's ruling in terms of what the council can do with bond money:

"I think what the court is zeroing in on is the fact that the voter approval is for a sum of money that outlines the general parameters of what the project is," she said. "The bigger the project is and the longer the time frame over which it will take place, the more it's likely to be a dynamic process.

"The voters are basically focusing on the general parameters of what the project will be. 'Do we do it; do we not do it; and how much are we going to spend?' But the details are worked out over time."

As in: We vote for sailboats on a pretty lake downtown. They spend the money on a freeway. Lakes are a project. Freeways are a project. We voted for a project. We got a project. What's our problem?

Here's my problem. This is why I have been waiting with bated breath to see the ballot language for the upcoming election: If the Dallas City Council had one ounce of regret over what happened with the Trinity River project, if there were a scintilla of intention to do better this time, if anybody were at all interested in telling the truth, then it would all be in the ballot language. The council would have instructed the city attorney to write specifically binding ballot language designed to make sure the money will be spent the way the council has promised.

I've been reading the proposals for the May election. May I summarize? Basically the ballot says, "Hey, thanks for the moolah, dude. Anything more you need to know, call 311."

For example, the ballot says the money will go for: "...to wit: planning, designing, constructing, reconstructing, improving, extending, and expanding streets, thoroughfares, freeways, alleys, sidewalks, bridges, pedestrianways, and other multi-modal transportation facilities, including related storm drainage facilities and improvements, signalization, signage, video roadside cameras, and other traffic and signal controls, street lighting, streetscape and median improvements, and the acquisition of land therefor..."

Ummm...which streets? Doesn't really say, does it? I especially like the part about "multi-modal transportation facilities." The city manager should be able to squeeze a new limo out of that one and maybe some tassel loafers.

Some of the other proposals are more minimalist. Proposition 16 is almost a financial haiku: "The issuance of $23,470,000 general obligation bonds or police facilities."

Ummm...what facilities? Doesn't really say, does it? Do you figure that's an oversight? They just forgot to say? They didn't have room for a single additional word on the ballot, just a little something to give us a comfort level? One word?

If you have had any personal contact with the city on any of this--you went to a town hall meeting or you attended a city council meeting or you got something in the mail from your council member--then you may have in your possession one of the long laundry lists of specific intersections, traffic lights, curb and gutter projects and so on that this money is supposed to pay for.

Throw it in the trash. Doesn't mean diddly.

It could have meant something, easily. All the council had to do was put language in the ballot propositions referring to the detailed documents it has published listing specific planned expenditures. That much is also clear in the court's opinion in the Trinity River project case: If the council votes as a body to include any kind of limiting language, then those limits are a binding contract. Everybody on the city council knows this. They've been fully briefed on the case. They know the outcome.

The council could have said to itself, "Oh, we want to be very sure to keep faith with the voters on this next bond package, so that there can be no accusation of slippery business. And the way for us to do that is insert language into the ballot stating specifically that the money the voters are authorizing us to borrow will indeed be spent on the things we have told them it will be spent on."  

That would have been easy. And it would have been binding. So what did we get? "The issuance of $3,200,000 general obligation bonds for farmers market improvements."

Ummm...what improvements? Doesn't really say, does it? They couldn't have said, "...as listed in such-and-such a document?" You figure they forgot?

Just don't forget those sailboats. We let them borrow $246 million for those suckers. Sailing, anyone?

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