Saddam and City Bonds

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So why is the leadership of the city so sweet on bond proposals if it's so afraid of raising the property tax to come up with operating money? We could argue about that all day, but I believe strongly it has to do with the fact that bond programs produce big construction contracts. Former Mayor Ron Kirk was practically put in office by the public works construction lobby, whose motto is, "Build it, and who gives a damn if anybody comes?" They still get paid.

With Kirk in mind, allow me to mention something I have talked about before: The city of Dallas is at the leading edge of a new permissive philosophy of spending where bond money and campaign promises are concerned. In the controversy over Kirk's big Trinity River bond program, city officials went to court and won a groundbreaking ruling that Dallas was not and will never be bound by any of the promises made during a bond campaign concerning how the money is to be spent. The only legally binding language is the wording on the ballot proposition itself, which is always very general and permissive.

Since I knew I would be pulling on this old saw again, I went back this time and asked the Texas 5th Court of Appeals to fetch from its archives the city of Dallas' original response to the suit brought against it by Taxpayers for Sensible Priorities. In that brief, our city leaders argued a much more aggressive position than I had realized.

I already knew they had claimed they were not bound by any of the promises made during a bond campaign by mayors, city council members or city managers, not bound by their own official pamphlets, not bound by any campaign materials or ads--forget it, fingers crossed, doesn't count. The bad news for us is that the court agreed with them on all of that and said they were only legally bound by the ballot language itself.

What I didn't know, until I hauled the brief from a dusty bin, was that the city of Dallas had tried to get the court to agree that it was not bound even by the ballot language. In its brief the city said Texas law allowed it to change the way it spends bond money, even if the changes "are ultimately inconsistent with the proposition approved by the voters."


They wanted the court to tell them that they not only could go back on personal promises made by individual officials: They thought they had a right to welsh on the promises printed right there on the ballot that we had voted on.

Kind of like, "OK. We know you voted to elect Laura Miller mayor, but due to unforeseen circumstances, we are giving the job instead to Uday Hussein, who is looking for employment due to certain recent efficiencies in Iraq."

That's radical. Lucky for us, the court's opinion on that assertion--and here I paraphrase--was, "You must be kidding."

But they weren't. They were in court fighting for the right to fib. Our town fathers. The same folks who now want us to sign the credit card slip for half a billion bucks' worth of construction contracts. And as I say, I'm not telling you any of this because I'm trying to get you to vote against the bond package. It's strictly food for thought.

But here's another thought.

Mayor Miller has been fast-talking on the bond program: She voted against it in the council, because she said it will raise taxes, but she is saying in debates she will vote for it at the polls. She's telling opponents of the program she's with 'em, and she's telling supporters, well, she's with 'em, too. Pretty slick rope trick. But let's take her point about wanting to see better controls in place at City Hall before borrowing so much money.

I could argue there are faces in the field out there, people running for council in this election who may bring some of that much-needed integrity to the city council chamber, if they get elected. Early in the campaign season, I had a great lunch with Greg Holliday, a former police official, now retired, running for the seat being vacated by Alan Walne in District 10 in northeast Dallas. Holliday is the kind of bright, number-crunching, audit-freak straight-arrow City Hall needs.

So why is it so crucially important that we approve all these bonds right now? Why couldn't we wait one or two years? Maybe by then we'll have some of those fresh new faces we need at the table, and the mayor will have had the advantage of her first full term to get things done. Then we sign the check.

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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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