Tinfoil Hat Time: Something Ain’t Right With the Mayor’s Trinity Resolution

Sarah Standifer, assistant director of Dallas Water Utilities, tells a City Council committee last Monday that all of the $246 million approved by voters for the Trinity River Project is now gone. No road. No park. No money.
Sarah Standifer, assistant director of Dallas Water Utilities, tells a City Council committee last Monday that all of the $246 million approved by voters for the Trinity River Project is now gone. No road. No park. No money.
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Today I proudly and courageously don my tinfoil hat. I do so for you, Dear Reader, so that you will not have to wear one.

First, in the Department of Problems It Seems Like Maybe We Should have Been Able to Foresee, we learned recently that the mayor’s plan for an elaborate new park to be built in the middle of the Trinity River floodway downtown has hit a big snag with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because it’s in the middle of the Trinity River floodway downtown. We talked about this here a few weeks ago.

After a meeting with some Corps officials, volunteers on a city panel reported back that the Corps has big problems with plans for a $150 million fake New York Central Park to be built out where the mud flows like lava twice a year in the Trinity River. Apparently the Corps was unhappy that the park plan does not comply with an agreement struck with the federal government 10 years ago called the Balanced Vision Plan.

The Balanced Vision Plan was the subject of a multimillion-dollar, years-long federal study and approval process. One of the volunteers reported that Corps officials had said the proposed new fancy park would require chucking that whole agreement into the dumpster and starting over from scratch. In tinfoil hat terms, we call that Clue One: mayor’s plan for fancy park hits big wall.

Clue Two: at an obscure City Council committee briefing earlier this week, a city official announced that all of the money — allow me to repeat, ALL of the money — from the 1998 Trinity bond campaign is now gone. That means $246 million in city bond funds authorized by voters in 1998 to pay for a vast new park and roads along the river have been spent. No longer in the drawer. As I once told a book editor who started threatening that he might want me to repay a book advance, “Sadly, those funds are no longer with us.”

Problem? Yeah. No money, no park, no roads. Seems like a problem to Dr. Tinfoil. Maybe not to you.

City Council member Sandy Greyson, chair of the council’s infrastructure committee, was a little taken aback Monday — not a lot, just a little. She was nowhere near as taken aback as I would be if somebody told me my $246 million was gone.

Sarah Standifer, assistant director of Dallas Water Utilities, told the committee that within a few weeks all of the ’98 money will be vamoosed, no longer with us, when the city makes its final payment to the Corps for its share of flood control improvements along the river. She wasn’t taken aback at all. I thought she seemed cheerful.

Greyson asked her, “How much money is still left in the ’98 bond program?”

Standifer smiled and said, “This will deplete all of it.”

They’re so cool about this stuff. To me, that would have been like asking the doctor how much time I had left and he answers, “This will deplete all of it.”

In 1998, which I admit was a very long time ago, the whole deal, the reason we were supposed to vote in favor of the $246 million, was that they were going to use it to create a series of sailboat lakes and a vast park for all of us plebeians along the river. Then-Mayor Ron Kirk vowed that Dallas taxpayers would never have to pay another nickel. The project would transform the city forever.

Ten years later in 2008, we still had no park, and it turned out what they really wanted to use the money for was a freeway. Former council member Angela Hunt called for a citywide referendum to stop the whole deal until we could count the money. The referendum was narrowly defeated after backers spent millions on a ruthless advertising campaign to convince everybody Hunt was crazy or a communist. Eventually everybody realized Hunt had been right, and the freeway thing was killed. But no lakes, no park.

So here we are now, fully 21 years after we agreed for the city to borrow $246 million that we will have to pay back, and we still don’t have the stupid sailboat lakes. The vast public park we were promised is not there. That park, by the way, is not to be confused with the much smaller but much fancier privately funded $150 million make-believe Central Park mentioned above. That’s a new idea, and, as far as anybody can tell, those funds are not yet with us. It’s yet another harebrained scheme from the harebrained community. Like all their previous projects, it will either never get built, or, if it does, they won’t be able to open it to the public, because they will find out it kills people.

Tinfoil hat clue the third: Out of the blue, like from Mars, a proposed City Council resolution appears on the agenda at that same committee meeting Monday. Long thing. Hard to read. But if passed later by the council, the resolution will direct the city manager to undertake a major universal review of all Trinity River projects, especially those related to flood control.

Why? Why now? What for? Who says? None of that is in the resolution. As it turns out, the person behind the resolution is Mayor Mike Rawlings. He tells Robert Wilonsky at The Dallas Morning News he wants it passed mainly because he’s so worried about the 6,000 acres of riparian woodland in southern Dallas called the Great Trinity Forest. He just wants to make sure the forest is going to be OK.

Clue Four: Wilonsky does a good story saying he went out and conveyed the mayor’s concerns and the content of the resolution to some of the advocates and the naturalists and the other people who care deeply about the forest. Their reaction, as he reported it, was something like going into a crouch and screaming, “INCOMING!”

The mayor and his friends, the ones who want to build the fancy new Central Park park, have not in the past been friends of the forest. Fat sums from that $246 million went to pay for things like horrible concrete trails now collapsing into the river and other emblems of basic hostility to or fear of nature. The mayor’s own personal contribution to the effort in the past has been his sponsorship of a vast new golf course, closed to the public, smack where a bunch of forest used to be.

Now, out of the blue, like from Mars, this resolution appears directing the city manager to carry out a big audit and review of everything the city is doing along the river. People are scared. It’s like, “Mommy is coming to tuck us in, and she’s got the ax.”

I pause. I examine the hat. Smooth out the crinkles. Give it a quick finger polish. Straighten up the antenna a little. Put it back on. Snug it down. Wait. Wait. I think I’m getting a signal. Yes, but it’s faint at first. Now stronger. Aha! I am ready to announce:

Something ain’t right.

Now let’s review our clues. 1) Fancy park hits wall with Corps of Engineers, apparently over previous agreements, especially about flood control. 2) Sarah Standifer turns pockets inside out, smiles, says when city pays Corps for incomplete flood control work, all of the ’98 bond money will be gone and still no lakes. 3) Mayor’s Martian Resolution appears out of the blue directing city manager to undertake a big universal review of flood control work on the Trinity, and he says it’s because he’s so worried about the Great Trinity Forest, which seems a tad out of character, putting things mildly.

Now, more than most people, I recognize the shortcomings of the hat. After all, I am the one who must wear it. Sometimes it itches. I digress. I understand that just saying something ain’t right doesn’t necessarily help a lot, so at this point I often look for help from other trusted quarters among my non-hat-wearing sources. In this case, I thought the obvious person to call would be former council member Hunt, since she has such a deep background on the Trinity.

Opponents of Angela Hunt's Trinity River referendum painted her as a loose cannon. History later rendered the opposite verdict.EXPAND
Opponents of Angela Hunt's Trinity River referendum painted her as a loose cannon. History later rendered the opposite verdict.
mailed by Save the Triinity, Ronald Steinhart

To my delight, Hunt agreed with me that something ain’t right. The resolution, she agreed, is way too out of the blue and somewhat Martian. She said the resolution must be placed in a deep historical context of past troublesome statements about the river. Many public representations about the river have turned out to fall on a spectrum somewhere between somewhat misleading statements and great big fat pants-on-fire public lies.

Hunt asked about the mayor’s resolution, “Why is it coming up now? Is there a federal agency asking for something or a benefactor? What is the purpose? Every time a Trinity-related issue comes up, those of us who have been involved with the Trinity are rightly skeptical.”

Hunt did not say she believes there is something improper going on behind the resolution. Instead, she said, the long, bad history here requires better context and fuller transparency before the city manager embarks on a big study or review: “In Trinity matters, the city has got to make an effort to explain its purpose and to be as transparent as possible.”

A good start, she said, would be that $246 million. Instead of a shrug and a smile from Standifer, Hunt would like to see a penny-for-penny report on where all the moolah went: “I would like to see a full accounting of all of the 1998 bond funds to date.”

I now remove the hat. You may thank me for my service.

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