Saturday, September 29, 2007

E-mails show top Dallas city staff members' cozy relationships with leading advocates for the Trinity River toll road.

Trinity toll road opponents blast city's e-mails

Staffers accused of not being neutral; Suhm cautions aides

September 29, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Top Dallas city staff members appear to have a cozy relationship with leading advocates for the Trinity River toll road, a series of e-mails among them shows. The disclosure has infuriated toll road opponents and caused City Manager Mary Suhm to caution her top deputies about politicking on the job.

For instance, in a July 6 e-mail, Rebecca Dugger, director of the city office overseeing the Trinity project, encouraged toll road supporters to call a radio talk show to give a positive view of the project.

"I am not going to call. Hope you can," Ms. Dugger wrote in response to a request that she call the show.

Twenty days later, toll road backer and former City Council member Craig Holcomb asked Ms. Dugger if she could assist him in making a presentation before the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.

"I would LOVE to partner with you. ... Do you want me to attend as a backup/visual eye candy?" Ms. Dugger responded.

And in an Aug. 15 e-mail to Ms. Suhm, Ms. Dugger and other staff members, Mr. Holcomb felt free to take a swipe at council member Angela Hunt, the toll road's chief opponent.

The e-mail was intended to arrange a meeting between city staff and the nonprofit Trinity Trust organization and asked if the group could meet at the Original House of Pancakes. Mr. Holcomb liked the location "[f]or nostalgia's sake, to remember the days before AH," he wrote in reference to Ms. Hunt.

Mr. Holcomb said Friday that he had never asked the city staff to do anything inappropriate and that the staff never had.

He acknowledged being friends with Ms. Dugger and many others at City Hall, and he made no apologies for that.

"If you work with somebody for five years on a project, you get to be friends," he said. "It's deeply troubling to me that because you share a joke with someone in an e-mail, that anyone would question your integrity."

Regarding his joke about Ms. Hunt, he said, "One council member out of 15 wants to derail the Trinity project, and I don't see anything wrong with being nostalgic for a time when that was not the case and we could all work together."

City staffers are prohibited from advocating for one side during an election, and Ms. Suhm said her staff has been careful to avoid taking a position on the Nov. 6 referendum on the toll road project.

But long-standing friendly relationships between some staff members and toll road proponents have at least led to the appearance that the city has gone out of its way to assist those who would see the referendum fail so the road can be built.

Former Dallas City Council member Donna Blumer, who opposes the toll road project, said she was shocked by the e-mails.

"They're pretty damning ... city staff is collaborating with the Vote No! campaign," she said.

Ms. Hunt said that the e-mail exchanges "undermine any argument the city has that they're being neutral on this issue." But she does not plan to pursue the matter through legal or ethical channels.

"I'm focused on November 6th, getting our referendum passed and making sure we get the park we want and not a giant toll road in a floodway. Going forward with it doesn't win this election," Ms. Hunt said.

Mayor Tom Leppert, who said he had not seen the e-mails in question, said the city staff should remain neutral and has tried to do so.

Voters will decide Nov. 6 whether a high-speed highway can be built inside the Trinity River levees. A yes vote prohibits such a highway. A no vote would allow the city's plans to go forward.

The Dallas Morning News obtained hundreds of e-mails originating at City Hall regarding the toll road project, using the state's open records law. The vast majority were between city staff and toll road proponents. Only a handful were from those who oppose the toll road and did not involve requests for information.

Defending the staff

Ms. Suhm broadly defended her staff's handling of what she said has become a delicate, even precarious, balancing act on the Trinity project.

City staffers are required to help the city realize a "Balanced Vision Plan," ordered by the City Council, that calls for the construction of a toll road between the Trinity levees downtown, Ms. Suhm said.

But they aren't permitted to advocate for or against a referendum that, if successful, would undermine that plan.

Further complicating matters is the fact that leading referendum opponents are City Hall insiders, from former council members and mayors to a former city manager.

"It's a hard line. We talk about it all the time," Ms. Suhm said.

As recently as Tuesday, Ms. Suhm cautioned her top deputies about how to handle requests for information about the Trinity project, she said.

"I have been completely wound up about this since the start. I have been a major league nag," she said.

As for Ms. Dugger's e-mails with Mr. Holcomb, Ms. Suhm acknowledged the two are personally close and said that led to an overly friendly tone in the e-mails between them.

"I talked to her. I said, 'I know y'all are friends, but you need to keep the friendship part out of the business part,' " Ms. Suhm said.

She added that while she might have handled the matter of the radio talk show differently, she believes Ms. Dugger acted appropriately when she declined to go on the show.

"I would be concerned if she had called [in]," Ms. Suhm said.

Ms. Dugger also defended her correspondence.

"My basic concern is for the facts to be told. If I feel like the facts are not being told, and if others have the facts, then they should get those facts out there," she said.

Other e-mails

Ms. Suhm also was the recipient of friendly e-mails from toll road backers seeking help or information.

On July 5, she received a request from former City Manager Jan Hart Black, now the president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

"We will need a presentation from city staff on the issues and consequences of a successful election," Ms. Hart Black wrote.

Ms. Suhm said Friday that the city regularly fulfills requests for presentations on the Trinity project. Ms. Hart Black also defended the request.

"The city has a responsibility to respond and to provide us information and answer our questions. We request information from City Hall on many issues," Ms. Hart Black said in a prepared statement. "I am sorry that Angela Hunt is attacking city staff for simply doing their job."

In a July 18 e-mail, toll road backer and former City Council member Donna Halstead asked Ms. Suhm to personally review a poll intended to gauge support for the Trinity River toll road plan.

Ms. Halstead said the request was one of many she has made of Ms. Suhm regarding a variety of topics.

"Mary and I have known each other for many years. I ask her and others at City Hall questions all the time," said Ms. Halstead, who heads the Dallas Citizens Council. "I'm very lucky that they feel comfortable giving me answers."

Ms. Suhm acknowledged receiving Ms. Halstead's e-mail regarding the poll. She said she reviewed the poll for factual errors.

"If the other side came and asked us questions or asked us to speak about [the project], we would," she said.

City staff members are permitted to answer factual questions from the public regarding city projects, but Ms. Hunt questioned Ms. Suhm's decision to review the poll.

"I find it unusual that the city manager of the ninth-largest city in America is doing fact-checking on a partisan poll. ... What's she doing? Spell-checking?" Ms. Hunt said.

Texas Ethics Commission attorney Tim Sorrells said e-mail traffic of this nature doesn't appear to fall under his office's purview.

City Attorney Tom Perkins, meanwhile, declined to comment on his office's involvement, if any, in such a matter. Mr. Perkins did note that "we have certainly discussed with staff the permissible parameters of what they should or shouldn't do in a campaign."

Mr. Leppert, meanwhile, said he wants to make sure there isn't any appearance of bias on the part of the city's staff.

"My view is everybody is doing their best to play this thing as neutral and down the middle as they can," he said.

Mr. Leppert, who has become the major voice of the toll road supporters, said that it doesn't help his cause to have the staff seen as tilting toward one side or the other.

"I don't want it to be an issue," he said.;;

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE