Dallas to Bush: Drop Dead

We sort of get tricked into these debates about whether the people on the city council are being polite enough with each other. I get tricked, too, all the time, worrying whether Domingo Garcia or Laura Miller will be able to build coalitions if one of them gets elected mayor. And then something like the recent Trinity River vote comes along, and you realize that we just need to pick City Hall up by the roots and shake it upside down over the ash can until all of the bats and the cobwebs and the goony birds and the pirates come tumbling out.

And slap that lid on fast!

Let me try to put this in context. On October 3, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who is director of the President's Office of Management and Budget, wrote to Thomas E. White, the Secretary of the Army, informing White that the OMB had found serious flaws in the Trinity River project in Dallas. The project is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertaking.

Daniels said the most egregious flaws were centered on three things: 1) a failure to look at a simpler, much cheaper fix that would have provided far superior flood protection to downtown Dallas; 2) a fiddling of the Corps' own rules and regulations for determining the economic benefits of the program; and 3) a failure to look at ways to solve downstream flooding, especially in the heavily polluted area of Cadillac Heights, by buying people out and moving them from harm's way instead of building an expensive new levee to more or less lock them into place.

When Daniels' letter became public, the proponents of the river plan took to the airways and even the courts with all sorts of hyperventilated attacks on the OMB. Example: The city of Dallas, in a formal pleading in federal court in Fort Worth (the regional headquarters of the Corps), claimed that the OMB had been hoodwinked by an environmentalist working for the plaintiffs, and they cited as proof an article by me in the Dallas Observer ("Chinatown," October 18, 2001). I had reported in that story that Larry Dunbar, a hydrology expert and consultant to the plaintiffs, had been consulted by the OMB in its investigation of the project.

I feel very aggrandized by the whole notion of my having a part in a potential hoodwinking of the Office of Management and Budget. I tried to suggest to my son at dinner that I was being accused indirectly of helping to pull a fast one on the West Wing, just like on TV, and that it all had to do with a letter from the OMB. He seemed to ponder it for a while and then asked me again not to wear his letter jacket when I walk the dogs. I'm gonna run that kid for city council some day.

But we make silly here. The OMB has entire staffs of subject-matter experts who review programs and appropriations in all the major areas of activity of the federal government. The "Dallas Floodway Extension," as it is officially known, is an example of just the kind of federal waste George W. Bush vowed to root out when he took office. In his budget agenda for 2002, the president promised "to provide a greater focus on performance."

The Trinity project doesn't do what it's designed to do. It makes flooding worse, not better. It costs a lot of money and doesn't deliver a good enough benefit to justify the expense.

The Trinity River project is the very first one of its kind nationally that the OMB has chosen to red-flag under these new criteria. They are sending a great big loud Roman candle across our bow.

With a lot of lobbying help from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Dallas delegation was able to push through this year's appropriation to begin construction on the project anyway, essentially end-running the OMB for now. But the Dallas project is still very much in the crosshairs of the OMB. The 2003 presidential budget is due out in February, and the Dallas Floodway Extension Project will not be in it.

The focus on this project is only going to get sharper over the course of the next year. If the Bush people allow the Trinity River project to slip through again into next year's budget, given the truly devastating findings of the OMB, they can forget about horsing around with anybody else's pork-barrel goodies anywhere else in the country, at least in terms of this initiative.

At a recent city council briefing, the staff of City Manager Ted Benavides made an all-out hard-sell pitch for the council to ignore all of these problems and go ahead and sign a binding agreement to complete the project as it is currently designed, including all of the features the OMB has red-flagged. First Assistant City Manager Mary K. Suhm, in particular, insisted to the council that being removed from the president's budget was a sort of minor bookkeeping detail that changed nothing about the project's ultimate fate.

The most astonishing thing is that they believed her. I know from private conversations with some council members that many of them still don't know what the OMB is. They have no idea what the real issues are. The technical flood-control aspects of the plan are 10 feet over their heads.

The other aspect of the Trinity project that will only come into sharper focus in the year ahead is the question of environmental racism in Cadillac Heights. Former Mayor Ron Kirk, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, has insisted for years that building new levees downriver has nothing to do with building a new truck route for a few zillionaires: It's a form of racial reparation, he says, because the poor black and Hispanic families in Cadillac Heights never got their own levee in the old days.

These poor people have been trying desperately for years to get Kirk or Congresswoman Johnson or anybody else in power to hear them when they say they don't want levees; their families are dying of cancer and birth defects, possibly from decades of deliberate poisoning of the ground beneath them; they want out. The evidence of their plight is overwhelming. No less mainstream an organization than the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has joined in calling for justice for Cadillac Heights. In a recent letter to acting Mayor Mary Poss, the Reverend Terri Morgan said the CLF believes the people of Cadillac Heights "bear the direct burden of ill health, poverty and racial exploitation."

In a heartrending display of political desperation, the poor people of this neighborhood undertook a letter-writing campaign recently to Mitchell Daniels of the OMB, without having any clear sense of who or what he is, only because they had heard that a powerful man in Washington knew of their plight. Daniels had the personal decency to answer these letters with his own signed letter, in which he said in part that the Corps should have considered buying out the residents of Cadillac Heights instead of walling them in with a levee.

"The Administration believes that the Corps should not enter into a Project Cooperation agreement or begin any physical construction work on the authorized project until this and other concerns with this project are resolved," Daniels said in his letter to the residents.

Make no mistake about this. That's the White House speaking. That letter bore the presidential seal at the top. When it referred to the administration, it was with a capital A. That's the Executive Office of the President of the United States saying that this project smells to high heaven.

In the week before the council was to vote on signing the agreement, all of the members were lobbied by opponents of the project who pointed out that the project's future is extremely uncertain and that by signing the agreement the council would needlessly lock itself into the levee-building part of the project and forever preclude a federal buyout of Cadillac Heights. Several council members insisted that there would be nothing binding about the agreement and that they could get out of it or change it at any time in the future.

On the day of the vote, The Dallas Morning News published a Page One story by Victoria Loe Hicks establishing that the agreement would be binding and that a yes vote on it by the council would rule out the federal buyout for Cadillac Heights forever.

Councilman John Loza, who represents Cadillac Heights, made an eloquent plea for a no vote. He was joined by council member Dr. Elba Garcia, who said she was "voting from the heart" in opposing the agreement.

The rest of them ignored the testimony of the Baptist General Convention, ignored the damning report by the OMB, ignored all the evidence of fraud and chicanery brought to them by civic groups such as the League of Women Voters, and they voted for the city to sign the agreement anyway.

There is only one lesson here. Who cares if they get along with each other? If we put a mayor in office who means more of the same, we will never see an honest day at City Hall. The problem is that they get into these deals like the Trinity River, where two powerful forces are operating on them at the same time: 1) They don't get it, and 2) the fix is in.

If on top of that you have a mayor who belongs to the same country club with the fixers, then the game's over. Almost any way we can mix it up, we're better off.

Shake 'n bake!

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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