None of your business?

Last February, Rick Finlan--taxpayer, voter, idealist--tried to go to a meeting about the proposed new sports arena.

The early morning get-together was between select city officials and Dallas Mavericks owner Don Carter. It was being held in a conference room in Reunion Arena, and when Finlan walked in about 8:30 a.m., he noticed immediately that there was a great spread of food on the table--plump pastries drizzled with icing, slices of fresh fruit, glasses of freshly squeezed juices. There was a big urn of piping-hot coffee, pitchers of ice water, and plenty of comfortable chairs for people to sit in.

Certain people, that is. But not Finlan or his partner in civic rebellion, Don Venable, who, with a few other stragglers, had trooped down to that same conference room that morning in hopes of participating in the public process.

The two eyed the luscious-looking table with envy. But mere citizens weren't about to get their grubby hands on this food, their hosts made clear. "John Ware even made a little joke to us that if we wanted a doughnut, we could have one, but it would cost $75 apiece," Finlan and Venable recall the city manager telling them. "We opted for the ice water."

(They should have gone for the doughnuts. Though they didn't know this, the lovely finger food had been "donated" by Host Marriott, the food services division of the hotel company, which has a $2.4 million contract for concessions at Reunion Arena.

As Finlan and Venable sipped their ice water, their hosts-- John Ware, First Assistant City Manager Cliff Keheley, First Assistant City Attorney Charles Bierfeld, and council members Barbara Mallory, Glenn Box, Bob Stimson, Chris Luna, and Don Hicks--stared at them as though they were a couple of smelly homeless people. I mean, what were these people doing in here? Who had let them into this public building? Did they think they owned the place, sitting in chairs reserved for the Great Ones, liberally quaffing their ice water?

This was, after all, the esteemed Downtown Sports Development Committee, which Mayor Steve Bartlett had formed to speed things up on the troubled arena project. Bartlett wanted the committee to cut a deal with Don Carter and landowner Ray Hunt and bring it back to the full council for approval--something these five council members were all salivating to do.

There was only one thing threatening to stand in their way, and that was this motley crew of city hall gadflies, who had come here to question the legality of this series of closed-door meetings. But our elected officials didn't consider these lowly folks much of a threat.

"The arrogance of these people that day was just incredible," recalls Venable. "They didn't want us there, and they were going to make sure we didn't stay there--and they did that by using every intimidation tactic they could think of."

None of which worked--that is, until five rather grim-faced arena security guards arrived. "John Ware had a discussion with us, asking us if we were going to leave peacefully or not," Finlan said. "Finally, we went ahead and left because if push had come to shove, they were clearly ready to throw us out. Those security guards followed us all over the building that morning."

But that's okay. Because after Venable and Finlan left--no doubt amid chuckles from the pastry-stuffing council members, who "acted like they'd never eaten before, with icing dribbling down their chins," Finlan recalls--they did what they do best when they come across a perceived public slight: they hauled off and sued the bastards. And, miracle of miracles, last week they won.

Chalk one up for the lowly citizens.
'Tis absolutely true: The only way to get the City of Dallas to obey the Texas Open Meetings Act is to sue City Hall.

And I'm not just talking here about a handful of meetings of the short-lived Downtown Sports Development Committee.

Thanks to Venable and Finlan, those committee meetings were halted last month by U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall, who on May 10 issued a temporary restraining order barring the committee from meeting with the Carter and Hunt people. Then, last week, in Richard E. Finlan and Don Venable vs. City of Dallas, et al, the judge granted a preliminary injunction and explained his ruling--in words he did not mince.

"...The purpose of the Texas Open Meetings Act is to protect the public's interest in knowing the workings of its governmental bodies...As the Texas Supreme Court has observed, citizens 'are entitled not only to know what government decides but to observe how and why every decision is reached. The explicit command of the statute is for openness at every stage of the deliberations,' " Kendall wrote in his June 6 ruling. "...The Court concludes that the Downtown Sports Development Committee has acted in violation of the TOMA [Texas Open Meetings Act]."

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Laura Miller