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Deepest depths

So you think the swimming pool thing is a done deal? Laura Miller raised the cash? The mayor backed down? The kids get to swim?

Yeah. Maybe.

If you saw what I saw last week, you wouldn't be taking anything to the bank just yet.

You know the background here. At one point in the 1960s and '70s, Dallas maintained a whole system of swimming pools: several big regional pools set up for Olympic-length competition, and nearly 100 little "neighborhood" pools scattered here and there. Over the years, while the Dallas City Council pursued schemes to make Dallas a "world-class city," such as building a lavish new sports arena, fancy new symphony hall, new art museum, new library, new city hall, etc., it allowed the neighborhood pools to fall apart entirely.

This year--while the council had the unmitigated just-beat-me-with-a-baseball-bat-why-don't-you gall to start dunning us mercilessly about bringing the 2012 Olympics to town, they also announced they wanted to shut down the remaining 23 neighborhood pools.

The argument was that keeping the small pools open would conflict with the park board's "master plan" for pools. The impression given was that the park board has done all this very important master planning and that the small pools in poor neighborhoods were a violation of the "master plan."

One very poor, mostly Hispanic neighborhood, Arcadia Park, begged for a dispensation on the grounds that their little pool was the only recreational amenity the city offered their children in the summer and that, without the pool, the kids would spend the summer cooling off in a polluted drainage ditch.

Ralph Isenberg, the park board member for that district, and Laura Miller, the council member who appointed him, were touched--genuinely touched, moved, stricken in the heart--by the plight of the children in Arcadia Park.

So what do you tell the kids now? How about this: "Your parents should have thought about the park board's master plan before they conceived you."

Miller led a campaign to raise more than $75,000 in private donations to save Arcadia Park and maybe a couple of other pools in poor neighborhoods. Ron Kirk, the city's first black mayor, fought Miller tooth and nail and finally gave in grudgingly when the NAACP started attacking him in public.

(Please allow a brief digression: I hate it when people tell me they are disappointed in Ron Kirk "as a black man." One would hope that this nation has by now arrived at a point in its social, cultural, and moral development where a person of color has every bit as much right as a white person to become a wise-acre, money-worshipping fraternity brat.)

So let's go from there to a behind-the-scenes vignette that is positive, heartening, and shows there are still people in there fighting the good fight who do have hearts and who do have their heads screwed on right.

Leo Chaney is the council member who represents old South Dallas, including the South Boulevard Historic District. He comes from a family with business roots that go deep in the black community, he has a responsible job with the school district, and he gets it.

Before the May 17 Dallas City Council briefing on the pools, Chaney saw me in the crowd. I had phoned him the night before, and he hadn't had time to call back. I told him I was hearing stories that park board member Dwaine Caraway and his wife, city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway, were pressuring the park department staff to sandbag the Save Our Pools deal and make sure the pools don't open even if there is plenty of money to save them.

Chaney shook his head, thought about it, and then I could see him getting mad. "We need to have a priority on getting these pools open," he said. He started to walk off but came back. "I'm in the minority on this."

He meant he's in the minority among black council members.

"I'm being castigated, but I think it's the right thing to do." He started toward his place at the table but came back again. "Where in the hell are our priorities? It ain't by color, it's about what's right."

Back toward the table, stop, back toward me again.

"Isn't it ironic? We become a majority [he means blacks and Latinos on the city council], and the first thing we do is close the pools down."

Ironic: an overworked word at Dallas City Hall these days. I'm going to nominate a new word: appalling.

That morning, before the briefing even began, I had called Lee Alcorn, local head of the NAACP, whose eloquence in the Save Our Pools campaign had a great deal to do--according to lots of people, not just me--with pushing the mayor to back off his opposition.

I told him the same story: that I had heard the Caraways were exerting pressure on Paul Dyer, head of the park department, to stonewall the Save Our Pools effort with bureaucratic slow-downs and delays.

Alcorn never goes ballistic. That's not his nature. He's very controlled. But I would say he at least went BB-gun-istic over what I told him.

"We're not going to let them sandbag this," he said. "Caraway and the rest of the park board report to the city council. As for his wife, Barbara Caraway, she can't stop anything. I'm not impressed with her at all."

So right when it's time for the briefing to start, guess who comes in and sits down next to me: Dwaine Caraway. He and I had never met. He's a very impressive-looking man--big, handsome, extremely well-dressed.

So I introduce myself. Whisper-whisper. He's very nice. Whispers back. I mention there is something I need to chat with him about--whisper-whisper--which is what Laura Miller told me Paul Dyer told her about you telling him to sandbag the Save Our Pools thing.

No more whispers.

Now he's stabbing me in the chest with his rolled-up briefing agenda, telling me the story is not only a lie but a "slanderous lie," and that he and I are going to confront Dyer about it right after the briefing.

The briefing is--how do I put this?--appalling. Paul Dyer introduces some guy from Wisconsin who sells Disney World-style amusement-park pool designs. This guy starts right off telling the council what a mistake it is to fix small old pools.

Then Dyer speaks for a while. He presents numbers to show it will cost almost $90,000 each to save the small old pools. But when the council starts asking questions, two major revelations emerge:

1. There is no "master plan." These jerks have been raunching us around for weeks, rending our hearts, telling us that allowing the poor kids to keep their pools open will violate their "master plan." And they don't even have one. They're working on it. Dyer said he hoped to have one in 90 days. You are kidding me!

2. Oh, another small mistake. It's not $90,000 to save each pool, which is way outside the Save Our Pools budget. In response to pointed questions from Miller, Dyer concedes that the actual cost is something in the neighborhood of $40,000, which is way inside the Save Our Pools budget. Way big difference.

During the questioning, Barbara Mallory Caraway says she thinks all of the small old pools stink, and she would never put a child in one. James Fantroy, the new council member who succeeded Al Lipscomb and represents a black and Hispanic area, says proudly that "My child, who is 14 years old, has never swum in one of these wading pools."

Then he makes a sneering speech about people trying to help poor kids. "It's easy to sit back here and say, 'Well, we're trying to help the little poor kids.'"

Sure, Mr. Fantroy. I sort of agree. It takes a certain kind of guts to publicly screw the poor kids instead.

The lady sitting on the other side of me, Karen Moult, is a leader in the Save Our Pools campaign. She had already told me, whisper-whisper, that she had called Fantroy to see whether he wanted any pools in his area kept open and that he had said no, not by you.

So when Fantroy is speaking, he mentions it too. "When I see somebody ride in my district and then turn around and tell me what pool should be open, I don't like it!"

Right, Mr. Fantroy, this is all about your personal power. And somehow it's also about white people trying to oppress black people by contributing money to keep their pools open. Figure that one out.

Fantroy finishes by saying, "I don't care if they turn me out [of office]. I got a nice ranch in Fairfield, and I can go to it."

Well, you sure brought a tear to my eye with that one, Mr. F.

Bottom line? None of the children in either Caraway's or Fantroy's districts will have neighborhood pools to swim in this summer. What a victory for the Caraway-Fantroy team. Maybe next year they can get their elementary schools closed.

After the briefing, Dwaine Caraway and I had the meeting with Dyer. But you know what? I'm not really going to share too much of that. Sorry. Caraway had no right to parade me into this man's office and demand an instant interview. I looked, and Dyer had about 50 phone-message stickies all over his desk and coffee table.

Dyer normally doesn't call back reporters very quickly. And much as I hate to say it, that's his right. He has a big institution to run. It's crazy for him to have to put up with some board member marching in without an appointment, dragging along a reporter to cause a big stink.

Oh, I'll share this one tidbit. Just can't help myself. Caraway ordered Dyer to tell me that the Laura Miller sand-bagging story was a lie. Mr. Dyer talked quite a bit in what I would describe as a somewhat scrambled rapid-fire manner, and in a timbre of voice that was somewhat unnaturally elevated. But listen as I might, I never could hear that word, lie, come out of his mouth.

I think Miller's story was essentially true. I think Dyer is in a hell of a position. If those pools ever do get fixed and opened, it will be that much more of a miracle. And mainly what we should all learn from the Save Our Pools fiasco is that the $50-a-meeting city council system is the source of all our civic woes.

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