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Whose city is it, anyway?

Sitting at his modest desk at City Hall last Wednesday, Tracy Pounders couldn't help but smile as he spoke.

It wasn't the pictures of his six-year-old daughter and two-month-old son that were making him feel warm all over. It wasn't the compact disc of Vivaldi's Four Seasons that was filling the room with romantic violin music.

It wasn't even the framed words mounted on his wall--"Tracy Pounders, 'World's Greatest Lawyer'"--words uttered by Mayor Steve Bartlett at a city ceremony on August 17, 1994, according to the wall.

"Did someone make that for you?" I asked Pounders.
"No, I did," Pounders said. "I did it just to be obnoxious."
And so he would be today.

Pounders was smiling because he was feeling a sense of power--a commodity in short supply in this building. Especially for a 33-year-old assistant city attorney with a cherub's face, Buster Brown shoes, and a windowless office the size of a small U-Haul trailer.

"You have to remember, more often than not, release of public information isn't so much a legal decision as it is a management decision," Pounders said, picking at a large paper clip as he spoke.

Pounders pointed to four spiral-bound volumes--consultants' reports consisting of hundreds of pages--sitting on a nearby chair. Those volumes, which cost Dallas taxpayers $471,450, supposedly contained the justification for demolishing Reunion Arena and building a $170 million, 20,000-seat sports arena in its place, on land belonging to billionaire Ray Hunt, next door to Hunt's Hyatt Regency hotel.

Pounders smiled again.
"Like in this situation, where we have the consultant reports, I can tell you right now that, in my opinion, the city of Dallas has the right to withhold the information under the Texas Open Records Act. Whether or not the city exercises that right is a management decision."

Actually, management decisions are precisely what Texas lawmakers were trying to avoid when they passed the Texas Open Records Act.

"It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the State of Texas that all persons are, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees," the Texas Open Records Act states.

"The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

Tracy Pounders apparently constitutes an exception. Pounders seems to feel he knows what's best for the citizens of Dallas--where, incidentally, he does not live.

"You have to keep everything private," said Pounders, a proud resident of Cedar Hill and a member of its park board, which is an ominous thing for the people who reside there. "Because otherwise you're always going to get stomped on in negotiations. And citizens just have to trust their city councilmembers to make the right decisions."

There were several fatal flaws in Pounders' thinking.
For one thing, the city of Dallas gets stomped on, whaled on, and generally beaten bloody in all its negotiations with private business--especially when the details are kept secret from the public (good examples being Reunion Arena, Starplex, and the Pioneer Plaza cow park.)

For another thing, the current crop of council members absolutely cannot be trusted to make the right decision on a new sports arena--in part because, believe it or not, they're not getting the information they need, either.

And, worse, they're not doing a darn thing about it.
The weakest city council in memory is about to erect the most expensive single public building in the city's history. Largely in the dark.

This is not good for taxpayers.
But the council doesn't seem to mind--at least not enough to make a ruckus in public.

"There's no way anybody can fight this," one council member privately complains. "No way. We don't have the information. We're being buffaloed. And we're allowing it to happen because the staff has convinced us that if we don't do a new arena right now we'll lose the Mavericks and the Stars."

Let's start back in February, when this whole insane process started. A group of downtown businessmen--with an economic interest in building a new sports arena in downtown Dallas--decided to volunteer their expertise in real estate and finance to study the issue. (In other words, get a new arena on the city's agenda.)

The strategy was--and this comes from the leader of the group, realtor and former Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce chairman John Crawford--to make City Manager John Ware a part of the team so that he would embrace the idea and devote a lot of attention and staff time to it.

 

They did that.
But Mayor Steve Bartlett, who became mayor with Ray Hunt's help and is only too happy to support Hunt's site for a new arena, had additional advice for Crawford. In a private strategy meeting between Bartlett and Crawford at the beginning of the year, Bartlett told Crawford that it would be good to make the city council feel a part of what was going on, too.

Specifically, Bartlett told Crawford to put council members Max Wells, Glenn Box, and Barbara Mallory on the team.

This was a brilliant move. It offered a nod toward diversifying the group, while raising no risk of giving ammunition to a skeptic.

Box had not only served on the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association board with Crawford, but was giddy at the prospect of a new arena; Wells wanted the downtown business community's nod for a future mayoral bid and rarely questions the city manager's recommendations; and Mallory was deeply indebted to the downtown business community for helping her get elected.

Bob Stimson--a smart, independent thinker with no political ties to big business--was not included in Bartlett's hand-picked group, despite asking to be in the group. Stimson is from Oak Cliff. He is a certified public accountant who knows a phony number when he sees one. He is also an idealist who believes that weighty matters should be decided on their merits.

"I wanted to participate because this is a $200 million question," Stimson says, "and I felt I could bring a little common sense to the process, and I also wanted a little better understanding of what goes on. I'm not going to be able to participate in-depth in every single issue we face, but on this one I felt I should."

But interest and objectivity were apparently not priorities for this particular study group; Bartlett did not put Stimson on the team.

Stimson did not give up at that. He began asking to sit in on some of the team's work sessions. Sure enough, one day he got a call to go over to the architect's office where consultants and city staff were working. But when Stimson got there, the work stopped, and a dog-and-pony show began.

"I went there with the understanding that I would be involved in the process and would help in the decision-making," Stimson says. "But when I got there, it turned into a very generalized briefing on the stuff they had been doing. They refused to give me any backup information on the details of site selection and how they were ranking different sites, saying that they were still working on it. I was furious."

Councilmembers have gotten very little information ever since.
Last June, John Ware presented the council with the results of the Crawford group's four-month study--in essence, recommending that the city proceed with plans for a new downtown sports arena and hire high-priced consultants to get the ball rolling.

All of which the council did, even though it was given absolutely no detailed, convincing information about why the old arena couldn't be renovated, why the new arena had to be downtown, how the city might pay for it, and why this all had to be done immediately when the Mavericks remain under contract to play in Reunion for another 14 years.

"I really think the city council is really fearful," first-term councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw told me last week. "They don't want to go down in history as the council that lost the Mavs and the Stars to the suburbs--like the previous council lost the Dallas Cowboys."

On August 10, the council approved $471,450 to hire more consultants.
Then, on September 21, the city staff took the council behind closed doors--completely away from public scrutiny, either by citizens or the press. Armed security officers, looking as though they were guarding a bank vault, were stationed at the briefing-room doors to prevent people from entering, or even peering through the glass at the proceedings.

Of 13 possible downtown sites for an arena, the consultants and staff had determined, five were the best. Council members were given skimpy little handouts to this effect--all of which were collected at the end of the closed-door briefing. The handouts were even numbered so that if a council member tried to sneak one out of the room, the staff would know who did it.

The council members--treated like suspected shoplifters at Neiman Marcus--dutifully gave back their handouts to the bureaucrats.

The next briefing was October 19. This time, after a short 30-minute discussion before citizens and reporters, the council retreated into a closed-door session to discuss--away from the glare of public scrutiny--the results of the consultants' study.

 

There, in closed session, staffers handed each council member four large spiral-bound volumes--the entire consultants' study. Each set, of course, was individually numbered.

"We sat there, staring at 15 inches--and that's no exaggeration--of material, and we were told to hurry up and make a decision as to whether we agreed with the results," says one councilmember. "And everyone said, 'well, when are we supposed to look at this?' And staff said, 'sorry, we need an answer from you today, and besides, we can't let this out of the room.'"

Bob Stimson and Paul Fielding cried foul. There was a long discussion about how this project was being rushed; the dearth of information given to the council members, who, after all, were elected to protect the citizens' interests; and the mistrust of the council every time information was given.

The staff, led that day by First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley because John Ware was absent, agreed to a compromise. A secretary in the city manager's office would keep the briefing materials, and any council member who wished to review them--to actually read the loaded, $471,450 study that was the basis for proceeding with a $170 million project--could go to her and sign it out.

Like schoolchildren borrowing a library book.
Having not yet read the material, every council member nonetheless emerged from that session agreeing, based on what they had been told about the unread study, to allow Ware to proceed with negotiations with the two sports teams and landowner Ray Hunt.

Stimson, Fielding, Don Hicks, Domingo Garcia, and Glenn Box did, though, violate the rules by emerging from the briefing with the top-secret arena materials under their arms--they weren't about to hand them back docilely and then beg for them later. Says Stimson: "They would have had to rip it from my little hands." As for the rest of the 15-member council, no one else has checked out the material.

And only one news organization in the entire city--the Dallas Observer--has asked to see it.

An obsession with secrecy--with hiding information from the council, press, and public--has characterized this arena crusade from the start.

For four months, the Observer has been asking Pounders for all documents in the city's possession concerning the study of a new sports arena.

And for four months, we have gotten nothing.
At first, Pounders told me, with a straight face, that the city had no documents in its possession to turn over. He wrote me a letter to that effect, too. "The project has been developed mainly by private parties, and the most correct, complete and timely materials are in their possession, rather than the City's," Pounders wrote on June 13 in response to my first formal records request.

I foolishly failed to press the matter.
Now it was October. The council had been briefed three times. Six days earlier, my second, more insistent, request for all documents relating to the arena had come across Pounders' fax machine. Clearly, the city had plenty of documents in its possession. And clearly the law stated that the city had 10 days to produce them or request a legal opinion from the Texas Attorney General as to whether it had to do so.

Sitting in his office, smiling at me as he spoke, Pounders gave me all the reasons why it was going to be awfully hard--really too hard--to produce anything for public consumption.

It was too broad of a request--we wanted too many documents, he told me. It was also too time-consuming for city officials to put together."

"I think it's better for you and I if we can find something I can give you that will satisfy you," Pounders said, as though I were a contestant on Let's Make a Deal. "What I find doing this a lot of times is that what you're wanting isn't what you've got in here in writing. My hope was that there was something you really wanted that we could set up so we didn't have to get the Attorney General involved."

But I wanted everything, I told Pounders--because for four months I had gotten nothing.

Pounders stopped smiling. His voice became hard-edged. He was not happy. "I'll send a letter down to the attorney general's office, and we'll hash it out there," he said. "We'll send a request down that preserves the city's rights."

And what about the citizens' rights?
The people I talked to last week about my conversation with Pounders--City Attorney Sam Lindsay, Cliff Keheley, Sandra Crenshaw, and several councilmembers--all gave lip service to the idea of releasing some information to the public, though no one was able to cite a specific example of something they felt should be released. And no one offered to fax anything right on over.

 

And certainly no one was suggesting anything radical--like holding a public hearing to inform citizens about the arena issue, or even submitting the $170-million project to a public referendum.

Generally, everyone's position was that unprecedented secrecy was needed on this deal--from meeting behind closed doors to keeping documents under lock and key.

"The way that the information has come back to us is that there are a lot of sensitive things that they can claim privilege on," Fielding told me, reiterating that real estate-related documents are privileged.

In fact, the law does not automatically exempt from disclosure all documents relating to a real-estate transaction--only limited information meeting specific conditions. In this case, the potentially sensitive issues--such as the identity of the landowner (Hunt) and the value of his land--have already been publicly disclosed.

Besides, only a fraction of all the consultants' work directly relates to such issues. There is no reason why the public should not have access to reports addressing, for example, why Reunion could not be renovated, what a new arena would look like, why it needs to be downtown, and why it would cost $170 million.

And last Monday, Tracy Pounders' superiors in the city attorney's office decided to agree. It was the last day of the 10-day deadline for responding to the Observer's records request, and First Assistant City Attorney Charles Bierfeld called me on the phone.

"We'll make arrangements for you to review all the documents you've requested with the exception of a couple," said Bierfeld, who subsequently explained that he'd discussed the matter with City Attorney Sam Lindsay, reviewed some of the requested material, and determined that the vast majority of it could not be withheld. "I have no problem releasing this. I'm a believer in open records, open meetings."

Maybe on Monday--the last day of a formal records request, after all Pounders' attempts to make the problem go away had failed.

In truth, such scare tactics have worked before--they've successfully bamboozled the city council since February. Because the fact is that our elected officials (who are supposed to be in charge) believe, they swallow whole, just about anything the staff serves up. And if they don't believe it, they rarely, if ever, have the guts to say so.

This is the same council that became absolutely terrified last January at the thought of voting against a movie theatre company--never mind Ray Hunt--when it wanted to put an enormous multiplex in North Dallas. City Attorney Sam Lindsay told the councilmembers (in private session, of course) that they could be held personally liable--have their personal assets seized, for heaven's sake--if they voted against Cinemark Corp. and were later proved wrong in court.

The council did, finally, vote against Cinemark, but only after half of North Dallas came down to city hall and threatened to tear the place apart.

Unfortunately, no one's screaming at them on this issue. There are no homeowners--the backbone of potential grassroots opposition--in downtown Dallas, no taxpayers who feel threatened yet by this project. In large part, that's because the city staff and consultants have refused to say how we're going to pay for this $170 million arena--not to mention what it would cost to run it and pay off the debt on Reunion after we tear it down. The council doesn't know that either--but it somehow, irresponsibly, last week approved negotiations with the teams and Hunt anyway.

That approval, by the way, took place without even an on-the-record council vote. After emerging from executive session, Mayor Bartlett announced that the council had unanimously agreed to authorize the negotiations--"informally," behind closed doors.

Is this any way to handle the public's business?
The bottom line is that the city staff, from the top guy, Ware, to the little guys, like Pounders, are in control here.

Because our bad elected officials are more indebted to the people promoting a new arena than the citizens who voted them into office. And our good elected officials are either too lazy or too scared to get in the path of the train.

Says one scared councilmember: "I'm not convinced we need it, but we are getting a new sports arena.


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