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The Secretive North Texas Tollway Authority Board Readies Another Human Sacrifice

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If you want to know how Dallas winds up with crazy stuff that no normal citizen in his or her right mind would ever approve, take a good long look at the North Texas Tollway Authority, a $420 million-a-year fiefdom run by a bunch of mopes nobody has ever heard of. The board members are appointed by county judges in the region that the NTTA serves. You and I cannot vote for them or against them. They know that.

They're the ones who want to build a super-highway out between the flood-control levees along the Trinity River in the area that floods twice a year -- an idea so dumb most people can't even understand how they thought it up in the first place.

It's a scheme that comes apart no matter how you look at it, but the biggest problem with it is what I call the glug-glug-glug issue. Normally you build stuff outside the area that floods, not inside. Because, you know, if you drive out there on the day it floods, well ... glug-glug-glug.

But these are people who have their own ideas. They're the ones who took down all the toll booths where you paid your toll, put up cameras for people who have TollTags and then set up a system of back-breaking fines for everybody else. What public agency would treat the public that way? A public agency that doesn't give a damn about the public.

Tomorrow the board of the NTTA is going to vote whether to can their new executive director, Allen Clemson, who has been trying to open up the way the NTTA does its contracting. The line being given out behind the scenes by the board members who want to fire him is that Clemson is a good guy who had some good ideas about ending decades-old sweetheart deals with major contractors, but he "got out over his skis."

Got out over his skis. That just does not sound good, does it?

The board of the NTTA cans their executive directors on an average of once a year. They're a banana republic. They do not like executive directors, lawyers or engineers who tell them things they don't want to hear.

In 2008, after the 2007 Trinity River Toll Road referendum, there was a lot of talk and a little bit of reporting to the effect that the staff of the NTTA knew the Trinity toll road was a loser. How could they not know? In addition to the glug-glug-glug issue, the cost of building the thing was a billion dollars more than the budget.

Next thing you knew, executive director Jorge Figueredo walked out of a special called board meeting, cleared his desk and left town with nary a fare-thee-well. The board put out a story that he left because he missed his native Miami. They forgot to mention that they gave him a year's salary to leave quietly.

He was quiet. I tried to reach him for months. He was very quiet.

Two years later Clemson came on as executive director and persuaded the board to hire its own lawyer, instead of paying huge fees to an outside law firm for routine work, and to think about using some firm other than HNTB as their general contractor.

That didn't last long. At another special called board meeting, they reversed themselves, kept the old-boy contractors and said they would wait until this year to think about a change, when the contracts would lapse for most of their legacy contractors.

That's about to happen. So guess what? Time for a damn board meeting. A bunch of board members have another idea. Instead of opening up the contracting process, how about we just fire Clemson? About time anyway. Guy's been lolling around the joint for more than a year.

What is this place? A hockey team?

The NTTA also just beat back an effort in Austin to get a law passed establishing oversight of the NTTA. The law would have allowed an outside agency to review the NTTA's business practices. But the NTTA's reaction to even a sliver of daylight was straight out of a Dracula movie. They threw their capes over their faces and ran off toward the basement uttering curses.

Which is about where we will find them Wednesday morning. According to their agenda they will be slamming the cellar doors behind them and descending the long stone staircase for a secret executive session to consider what to do with Clemson and his bright ideas about daylight.

The fact that we put up with this kind of stuff is just crazy. It's our toll money. It's a tax. Don't let them tell you they're not really public. If they're not really public, then let them go borrow money on the open market and pay the interest rates private companies have to pay.

The NTTA is hostage to its own contractors and is ashamed to let us know. That's why it despises daylight and thumbs its nose at the public. Shame on us for letting them get away with it.

Meanwhile I don't even what to think about what they're going to do to Clemson with those skis Wednesday. It should be a real Mario Puzo moment.

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