Sometimes I am accused of thinking everything at City Hall is a big conspiracy. But that's not true. I am willing to concede that some things are just big idiocies.
Take, for example, whatever in God's name is going on in the Cadillac Heights/Cedar Crest area of Oak Cliff right now. Very Very Rich Person Mark Cuban of Dallas has announced plans for some kind of mixed-use urban development in a blighted area near a bad-smelling sewer plant, three and a half miles due south of downtown, to be called "Wonderview." But not Wondersmell.
That's one thing I don't quite get.
The Dallas Morning News editorial board has launched a campaign to have most of the industrial and manufacturing companies kicked out of a part of the area that is zoned for industrial and manufacturing activities—this from a newspaper editorial page always crying for more industry and manufacturing in the southern sector.
Two things I don't totally get.
And now Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway has gone totally off the hook in a one-man campaign of political terror against scrap metal yards in the area.
But do they add up to a conspiracy? No, not necessarily. These events could just as easily be explained as the coincidental and unintended convergence of several forms of overlapping well-intended but ill-considered not very smartness.
Take Councilman Caraway and the scrap metal yards. Caraway has a long, legitimate and worthwhile history of fighting to clean up trash, bad buildings and bad behavior in his own city council district. The problem here is that the scrap metal yard in question, Oak Cliff Metals, is not in Mr. Caraway's council district. And on the several occasions in recent weeks when I have driven by the place, the street out front has been impeccably clean.
I don't think I am exactly Mr. Bleeding Heart for scrap metal yards. But a member of the Dallas City Council does not have the authority on his or her own hook to drive around town shutting down businesses. I know that for sure.
On the afternoon of April 21, Caraway, the councilman from District Four in the middle of southern Dallas, showed up in front of Oak Cliff Metals with a van full of city code inspectors including Joey Zapata, who is the city's director of code compliance, and demanded that the company's management come out and deal with him. The day before, Caraway stood in front of the same gate and told me, "They've got to go. They need to be out of here."
I need to give you some background.
City council member Pauline Medrano represents District Two, a semi-circle through west, south and east Dallas—the district Oak Cliff Metals is in. Medrano was disconcerted about a year ago to learn that someone had caused 17 different city officials—up to the level of assistant city manager—to visit Oak Cliff Metals in a two-month period.
At the end of that period, the city had to send the company a letter of apology, because none of those visits had produced a single violation, a single thing they were doing wrong. I wrote about this in the April 8 edition of the paper ("Foul Odor").
Medrano conveyed to city staff that she didn't think the "enforcement" effort at Oak Cliff Metals passed the smell test. She told me she suspected somebody wanted the land. Presumably after the city's apology letter went out, City Hall's ward-heeling goon-squad behavior should have come to a halt. Cuban's deal was announced a week after Medrano voiced her suspicions to me.
And now here is Caraway at the gate a week ago with a van full of city staff behind him, haranguing the poor lady who sits on a folding chair out front as a sort of plainclothes security guard.
The woman, who gave me her name only as "P.B.," told me Caraway told her that the management "'needed to have a sit-down and talk with him. They need to clean this place up.' I told him this was my bread and butter, my rent money. He said, 'You don't worry about that. I'll make sure you have something. They need to have a sit-down with me.'
"He said, 'They need to clean it up, and they are not even trying.'"
Oak Cliff Metals' management is not willing to talk to me about this either. I'm not sure they find me any less disturbing than they find Caraway. I do happen to know from sources close to the company what was going on inside. They were deciding not to come out.
This company is right in the middle of a difficult, enormously consequential struggle over something called a "special use permit," which, if granted, would allow it to continue doing business at its current location. Last month the city plan commission voted to deny a renewal of their permit.
An appeal of the plan commission's ruling is slated to go to the city council next June. The Morning News, meanwhile, has been hammering the council not to grant the renewal when the appeal comes up.
Let's go back to scrap yards. Love 'em. Hate 'em. Do I want one next door to me? No. But I don't live on land zoned industrial and manufacturing.
Oak Cliff Metals is a legal business. Go figure: 17 city employees including an assistant city manager scour the place for months for anything they can write up. They come up with an apology letter.
These people obey the law. They pay taxes. They meet a payroll.
I have walked the line of pickup trucks waiting to sell scrap to Oak Cliff Metals a couple of times, and I see really hardworking men and women who are picking up junk off the streets and at companies.
So now put yourself in the position of Oak Cliff Metals. You're in the middle of this life and death struggle over the permit that allows you to continue operating. Things are not going your way. You have hired expensive lawyers and consultants to help you find a path through the thicket at City Hall.
Your lawyers and consultants are telling you that City Hall has a process, and you need to go through that process and play by the rules and so on. But your own city council person, Medrano, is suspicious that somebody wants your land and City Hall already isn't playing by the rules. You just found out Mark Cuban has announced some kind of Wacko Wunderbar thing up the hill from you. All of a sudden, you've got the Morning News editorial page talking about you like you've got a tail and horns.
I need to throw in one more detail. The city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have plans to build an entire new flood-control levee that will neatly encircle and cradle all of the land in question here as part of the Trinity River Project, potentially increasing the value of some of the land.
So here's what I think you do. I think you look out through the front gate, see this Councilman Somebody out there in a pin-striped suit haranguing your security guard, and you say to yourself, "What process? Looks to me like a big ship just sailed up out front and she's flying the skull and crossbones."
Know what I mean? I know what I would figure. I would figure it might be time to forget the "process" and do a Johnny Depp. Put a patch over my eye, grab a sword and a bag full of doubloons, go out there and negotiate this thing the Caribbean way. If not, what the hell is Captain Carried-Away doing out there in front of my gate with a ship full of city inspectors?
I spoke with Mr. Zapata, the head of code enforcement, and he assured me neither he nor any other city staff member set foot outside the van that day. P.B., the security lady, confirmed that story. Zapata told me he and his staff had been invited by Caraway to accompany them on a tour of his district.
I did discuss this with Caraway, which brings me back to my original suggestion—not everything is a conspiracy.
The day before his visit with the van load of inspectors, I happened to catch Mr. Caraway out in front of Oak Cliff Metals. He told me on that day that Oak Cliff Metals and all of the businesses up and down Pontiac Street had to go and he intended to see them go.
I was not there for the van visit the next day. But when I heard about it, I called Caraway and asked him if he was concerned his behavior might do some violence to the legal process.
He said, "Jim, I know you are going to cut me up, so go ahead on. Have a field day with me. Kick my butt for trying to do the right thing. Just go ahead on. Kick my butt, man. Kick my butt for trying to do the right thing. Quote that. Kick my butt for trying to do the right thing. Now quote that. Kick my butt for trying to do the right thing. Put that in quotes. That's what you're doing. I am through with the comments man. Y'all kick my butt the way you want to."
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Phew. I'm still supposed to kick Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price's butt. I'm just worried about finding the time.
My bottom line is this. I don't know if there is a vast secret agenda afoot here having to do with the land and the levee and the Morning News and the wunderbar and so on. Sometimes it's more idiocy than conspiracy. But if you happened to be Oak Cliff Metals, that distinction might be small comfort.
I have written favorably in the past about the good work Caraway and his wife, State Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, have done for the Cedar Crest Area. That's part of the equation. But the other part is about members of the city council demanding that businesses deal with them separately and apart from the legal process. That's exactly what brought us the recent Dallas City Hall Federal corruption trial.
Where angels fear to tread.