Whose city is it, anyway?

Sitting at his modest desk at City Hall last Wednesday, Tracy Pounders couldn't help but smile as he spoke.

It wasn't the pictures of his six-year-old daughter and two-month-old son that were making him feel warm all over. It wasn't the compact disc of Vivaldi's Four Seasons that was filling the room with romantic violin music.

It wasn't even the framed words mounted on his wall--"Tracy Pounders, 'World's Greatest Lawyer'"--words uttered by Mayor Steve Bartlett at a city ceremony on August 17, 1994, according to the wall.

"Did someone make that for you?" I asked Pounders.
"No, I did," Pounders said. "I did it just to be obnoxious."
And so he would be today.

Pounders was smiling because he was feeling a sense of power--a commodity in short supply in this building. Especially for a 33-year-old assistant city attorney with a cherub's face, Buster Brown shoes, and a windowless office the size of a small U-Haul trailer.

"You have to remember, more often than not, release of public information isn't so much a legal decision as it is a management decision," Pounders said, picking at a large paper clip as he spoke.

Pounders pointed to four spiral-bound volumes--consultants' reports consisting of hundreds of pages--sitting on a nearby chair. Those volumes, which cost Dallas taxpayers $471,450, supposedly contained the justification for demolishing Reunion Arena and building a $170 million, 20,000-seat sports arena in its place, on land belonging to billionaire Ray Hunt, next door to Hunt's Hyatt Regency hotel.

Pounders smiled again.
"Like in this situation, where we have the consultant reports, I can tell you right now that, in my opinion, the city of Dallas has the right to withhold the information under the Texas Open Records Act. Whether or not the city exercises that right is a management decision."

Actually, management decisions are precisely what Texas lawmakers were trying to avoid when they passed the Texas Open Records Act.

"It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the State of Texas that all persons are, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees," the Texas Open Records Act states.

"The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

Tracy Pounders apparently constitutes an exception. Pounders seems to feel he knows what's best for the citizens of Dallas--where, incidentally, he does not live.

"You have to keep everything private," said Pounders, a proud resident of Cedar Hill and a member of its park board, which is an ominous thing for the people who reside there. "Because otherwise you're always going to get stomped on in negotiations. And citizens just have to trust their city councilmembers to make the right decisions."

There were several fatal flaws in Pounders' thinking.
For one thing, the city of Dallas gets stomped on, whaled on, and generally beaten bloody in all its negotiations with private business--especially when the details are kept secret from the public (good examples being Reunion Arena, Starplex, and the Pioneer Plaza cow park.)

For another thing, the current crop of council members absolutely cannot be trusted to make the right decision on a new sports arena--in part because, believe it or not, they're not getting the information they need, either.

And, worse, they're not doing a darn thing about it.
The weakest city council in memory is about to erect the most expensive single public building in the city's history. Largely in the dark.

This is not good for taxpayers.
But the council doesn't seem to mind--at least not enough to make a ruckus in public.

"There's no way anybody can fight this," one council member privately complains. "No way. We don't have the information. We're being buffaloed. And we're allowing it to happen because the staff has convinced us that if we don't do a new arena right now we'll lose the Mavericks and the Stars."

Let's start back in February, when this whole insane process started. A group of downtown businessmen--with an economic interest in building a new sports arena in downtown Dallas--decided to volunteer their expertise in real estate and finance to study the issue. (In other words, get a new arena on the city's agenda.)

The strategy was--and this comes from the leader of the group, realtor and former Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce chairman John Crawford--to make City Manager John Ware a part of the team so that he would embrace the idea and devote a lot of attention and staff time to it.

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Laura Miller