Two upcoming City Council votes, both technical and arcane on the surface, will go to the heart of the city. The moment draws nigh. With two simple votes Aug. 9, the Dallas City Council may leap across an immense chasm in time and usher in a new era. Or not.
The first vote on the council docket will be to end the 20-year battle over a plan to build a new expressway through the center of the city on the banks of the Trinity River. A council vote to finally exterminate the proposed Trinity toll road would deliver a painful wound to the tight little oligarchy of families and interests who have controlled Dallas like a sleepy little cotton town since World War II.
The second vote is about creating a park where the toll road would have been. The park proposal, to be voted on in tandem with the toll road vote, is either a life-line or a face-saving device for the old guard. If they are to be defeated on their highway by a bumptious new carpet-bagging element, then they damned well are going to own, design and build that park.
Strangely and unexpectedly, the park issue is now more the lightning rod, because the death of the toll road seems foregone. After a City Council election in May in which the mayor lost some lockstep allies, the votes seem to be in hand to officially withdraw council support from a highway project that for two decades has divided city politics as no other question.
Mayor Mike Rawlings is telling council members that any vote to kill the toll road must be accompanied by a vote to create the entity that will control a vast new urban park to be built in the road’s place. He has already named the people he wants to sit on the board of the new entity. All indications are that the choices of architect and basic design for the park already have been made, dictated by a wealthy widow who has promised some $50 million for the park, but only if it is created according to her wishes.
And that is how the old oligarchy saves face. If new younger and more diverse voters have forced the old guard to surrender on the road question, those same new people will not be allowed to design the park. The park will be a creature of the same rich widows hair-do club that brought us two fake suspension bridges over the Trinity River.
Last week saw some serious anxiety over the way the park entity was being put together, in particular because the entity, called a local government corporation, is to be chartered under a part of state law designed to help get toll roads built. Some parts of the chartering documents said specifically that the new entity could not build a toll road and other parts said it could. The fear was that the local government corporation was merely a hand-off to allow a private group to build the toll road after the City Council had backed away from it.
Sound crazy? Yes, but remember that the whole toll road idea was born in crazy. In 1998, Dallas voters were hoodwinked into voting for manmade lakes in the river bed. Almost as soon as the votes were counted, City Hall began saying, “Manmade lakes and a toll road,” which morphed into, “A toll road for sure first and then manmade lakes maybe later if possible.”
Former City Council member Angela Hunt spent a lot of last week lobbying various interests to clean up the language of the proposed park contracts. By Monday she was reasonably pleased with changes made at the end of the week in response to her efforts.
In particular, City Attorney Larry Casto took out any and all language that could be interpreted as a yes on toll road building authority. He put in new language to clearly say no. And he added language Hunt had sought saying that the City Council can kill its deal with the private group at any time for any reason without a breach of contract. That language is called “termination for convenience” in contract law.
“I think it’s great that we are seeing some clarification,” Hunt said Monday, “so that there is no toll road authority and particularly that the termination for convenience has been put in there.”
Mayor Mike Rawlings has already named people he wants to serve on board of new Triniity River park entity.
She said her objections to the original documents were substantive: “These things are not trivial. I think for folks who just want to hurry up and get this done, they haven’t been on the council when there have been situations where the city is in court because of contracts.
“They have not seen the city spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees because of disagreement over contract language. I understand the desire to hurry up and get it done, but isn’t that all the more reason to respect the import of this decision and to do it right?”
The person either blamed or credited for wanting to get the park question settled the same day as the toll road is the mayor. His spokesperson, Scott Goldstein, said Monday, "The mayor has not decided how he will vote re [the toll road]. He’s still researching the issue. The mayor has scheduled the [park] vote for August 9."
City Council member Philip Kingston was unequivocal about the park proposal and mayor’s role in it: “I am 100 percent opposed to [the park proposal],” he said. “Procedurally, it is slapdash. The mayor is literally running around. He is literally yelling at people. I have that on extremely good authority. He is running around and bullying them to get it on the August 9 agenda because he is so pissed off about the [toll road] thing.
“This is a tit for tat. This is childish playground antics of the type that we have come to expect from this overgrown jackleg. This guy is an ass-clown, and I am dead sick of the media in this town pulling punches on the dude.”
City Council member Scott Griggs said Monday he thinks the proper way forward is to kill the toll road first and then allow an extended period of time for public input on the park idea: “These are complicated documents that need to be studied,” he said. “We need to get public input on them.”
Griggs said killing the toll road should not be linked to creating the park entity. “I think they are completely separate issues. Certainly we know where the public stands on [the toll road]. The public is overwhelmingly opposed to this boondoggle.
“It’s time to end it. Once that’s done, that’s the time to start having discussions about the park. Public confidence has been eroded over the years by the powers that be always putting the toll road before the park. Now we need to take the road off the table completely before discussing the park. That’s the only way to restore confidence.”
Hunt strongly agrees that the vote on the park should be delayed and does not believe delaying it would risk losing a chance to kill the toll road: “I still believe that we are in a strong position, and I am very hopeful that the entire council will vote to eliminate [the toll road].”
She said, however, that the park question needs more time to bake: “In the very limited few days that we have had public conversation,” she said, “there have been substantial changes to the contract that are positive changes, so imagine what we could get done if we could actually vet this thing.”
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All of that makes sense — the importance of getting the contract right, the need for public input and so on. My own two bits worth is that it makes too much sense. Nothing that the old guard wants to do or has ever wanted to do about any of this was ever based much on good sense, more on pride and power.
When the toll road is killed, the men of the old guard will feel that they have been emasculated, and I, for once, will not argue with them. At that point and based on their culture, they will insist that some sort of expensive jewelry be delivered to their women in consolation. And that will be the park.
But here’s the thing. If at last they no longer have the power to save their road, who believes they have the power to take possession of the park?