Longform

Sour Town

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Now a member of the scientific staff at Nortel Networks, Dunning says that as a student in the Chicago school system, he was trained to be "a good little socialist." One year in high school, his teacher instructed the class to create a government from scratch. The teacher meanwhile played God, spawning natural disasters and provoking global unrest. Three weeks into the assignment, the class created its own government, but it wasn't exactly a Jacksonian democracy.

"When it was done, we created a Marxist despotism," he says. "I was horrified at what I had just participated in, and it really magnified in my mind what the founders did when they created our government."

Dunning is now part of a real-life government, and while it's hardly a Marxist despotism, it's becoming something so bizarre that no high school class could have ever conceived it. It's hardly uncommon for city councils to squabble over neighborhood and budget issues, but how many of them quarrel over basic election matters? But in Garland, city council members were faced with a legal and political conundrum that could stump Solomon.

On May 15, 2004, Garland voters went to the polls to select council representatives, bond issues and charter amendments. On the latter, they chose to shorten city council terms from three years to two. That same day, they elected Terri Dunn, John Garner, Weldon Bradley and Michael Holden. When that group filed their candidacies, they were running for three-year terms. Voters ostensibly elected them to serve three-year terms since that's how the charter read when they walked into the booth. But the amendment that reduced the terms was supposed to go into effect immediately. So, does the new amendment cover the triumphant council members or not?

In October 2005, those four council members, plus Hickey, voted against having an election in May, basically opting in favor of three-year terms. The Garland City Council has nine members, including the mayor. The other four members voted in favor of holding an election. It just so happens that the five who voted against holding the election almost always vote together on other issues, particularly in favor of regulatory ordinances.

"I see their agenda as an attempt to micromanage the citizenry," says Dunning, who is the most outspoken of the other four. His group doesn't always band together, but they put up a unified front on the election issue.

The vote against holding the election didn't settle the matter but rather jump-started the animosity. A group called "Let Us Vote" raised money for a lawsuit and then challenged the city in court.

"This is old-style Garland politics, and now you have people challenging it, and they don't want to see the old way continue," says Douglas Athas, who ran for council and won against Holden's chosen successor and was one of the leaders of the Let Us Vote insurgency. "Not having an election and blowing it off because you can is not acceptable for most people in the community."

A local Web site run by former City Council member Jean McNeal tagged the bloc who voted against the elections "The Gang of Five" and began mocking them relentlessly. McNeal particularly targeted Holden, a smart, affable polygraph examiner by day, who by night reigned as the dark leader of a rogue bloc. At least that's how she sees it.

"Holden has his five, and he can kind of flip the bird at everyone," McNeal says. "He wants to be mayor someday, and after that, he wants to be God."

As if the political atmosphere wasn't charged enough, fliers critical of the Gang of Five were posted inside voting booths in Garland during the Republican primary run-off. With the help of an election judge, Dunning's wife, Karen, distributed the campaign material that ridiculed the five council members who voted against the elections for "turning a deaf ear to the citizens."

Dunning claimed that his wife and the election judge thought they could distribute the fliers because they were not related to the election at hand.

"I think it was a thoughtless mistake," he says. "Let's contrast that with the bloc that wanted to unlawfully suppress an election."

But not everybody felt that the so-called "Gang of Five" was stifling democracy in Garland. Stephen Miller, who serves on the city's utility advisory board, sympathizes with the incumbents.

"People say this is a dumb analogy, but I use it to explain. You're going down a road at 50 mph, and the speed limit is 40, and the officer gives you a ticket for going 50 in a 40. That same night the council leaders change the speed limit to 30, effective that day. Is your ticket now going to be for driving 50 in a 30? I don't think so."

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle