Thursday, July 19, 2007

An Earned Tribute to Laura Miller

By Faith Chatham - July 18, 2007
This is being posted here because I believe in balance. I've devoted a lot of space recently to the Trinity Park/Toll Road in Dallas. Laura Miller has been a major player in the Trinity Commons Foundation pushing for the toll road through the park. Laura Miller has ended her tenure as Mayor of Dallas. Some like her. Some detest her. Whatever the assessment, she's never been a fence-sitter. She looks things over and makes up her mind. When she has made up her mind, she moved to make things happen. I personally wish she'd been more flexible on the Trinity Park issue. As it evolved from a park with a road on the levee to a park with a toll road through most of the park, she probably could have "inspired" planners to come up with a better plan. Instead Angela Hunt emerged and Mayor Miller ended her term covered in referumdum dust.

Dust or no dust, she dialed her way to heroine status on another issue. She noted an agenda item that smelled and took time to give Joe Blow citizen who doesn't frequent City Hall and isn't into the political scene a call. Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer, who has frequently been on Mayor Miller's case, covered the fiasco in several articles in the the DALLAS OBSERVER. He concluded it with "THE GOOD LAURA or How Bill Blaydes locked up the Bastard of the Year Award" in the May 31st issue of the Dallas Observer.

Schutze wrote about Jack Pierce, who took over his father's business, Hollywood Doors, which has operated from the same location since 1938. Schutze describes it as "a series of metal barns on nine acres down in a hollow near Walnut Hill and White Rock Trail, in a little leftover remnant of countryside swallowed up by the city." His neighbors are a small equestrian center and a DART train track and Jackson Branch creek. Schutze says "You could pass this place a thousand times and never know it's there."

A developer tried to buy Jack Pierce's nine acres and he turned down the offer. "Over the last seven decades, his family has developed a good regional trade based in part on having the business right where it is." ... his "company employs 40 people, and it makes a product, which it actually sells to other people."

I'm pulling most of this directly from Jim Schutze's article. I'll leave some of the quotes unattributed. They come from Jim Schutze.

Then he gets a letter. An official letter. A City Hall letter. It appears that Bill Blaydes, the council person for that area, wants to call a hearing to see whether the city should yank the man's zoning out from under him, which would force him to sell.

Pierce, part owner with his brother and sister of Hollywood Door, told the city council last week:
"The first time I became aware of this item was when I received notice in the mail.

"I called for additional information and was told that Councilman Blaydes had placed this item on the agenda. So I spoke to Mr. Blaydes.

"I was informed that it was time for our company to move out. I was informed that since I had previously rejected discussing the sale of our property, they decided they might get my attention by putting this item on the agenda.

"I was informed that the process which starts today will end up removing us from our property. This was the first time I ever spoke to Mr. Blaydes."

Jim Schutze comments:
Stunning, what? But get this. Blaydes doesn't even deny it. With Pierce standing down there at the microphone, quaking in his boots like Charlie Chaplin in front of Big Brother, Blaydes gives this speech that is Gomer-Pyle-meets-Tony-Soprano:

I mean, are you still with me here? The guy's been on the property since the 1950s. His business is almost invisible from the road, emits no smoke or noise, generates very light traffic. But Commissar Blaydes comes along with his letter and pretty much tells him to get the hell off his own property.

And even worse in my book: While Pierce is standing there at the microphone looking up at the mighty councilpersons with his life and his family's business in his hand, Councilman Ed Oakley, one of two candidates for mayor in the June 16 runoff election, launches into this big, sleazy package of lies aimed at pushing him into giving up.

Talking in his trademark incomprehensible used-car-salesman-on-crank cadence, Oakley says to Pierce: "Let me just ask you hypothetically if you were to go through this process and the process and the staff would allow you to have your area that allowed the use that you have there today which is a manufacturing facility and in addition to that it was created into a p.d. or sub-district that allowed for the other uses such as mixed-use or whatever the neighborhood would determine but you were allowed to be legal and conforming but along with that some of the obnoxious uses that maybe the neighborhood would be fearful of such as a recycling plant or something would be left out of that and would allow you to continue the family business in perpetuity which would be legal which would be a given zoning which would allow you to use that specific use but then the additional uses would allow for residential or mixed-use development or office or retail which aren't allowed there today which actually gives you more land-use rights than what you would have today giving up some of the things that would be obnoxious would you be amenable to sitting down having that conversation?"

Pierce gave the perfect answer. He said, "Sir, I am out of my depth here today."

That would be, ah, no. Just like when the guys offered to buy his land. No. Two little letters.

Schutze said he wasn't at the meeting but listened to a tape the next day in the City Secretary's office which left him speechless. That in itself would probably be enough reason to bring this issue to the forefront. Schutze is rarely speechless. He was referring to Ed Oakley's speech. Schutze described it:
Not one word Oakley said to that man was even distantly related to the truth. Pierce would have been a pathetic fool to give up the zoning designation he already holds and jump into the political carjacking that Oakley was proposing.

I think even the Harvard Business School would have advised Pierce, given Oakley's proposal, to wave his shotgun over his head and scream, "GIT OFFA MAH LAND!"

According to Schutze, Pierce had not intended to attend the meeting. He's been advised by an "well-known high-dollar zoning lawyer" that it was futile to fight it; "they would not be able to prevaile against Blaydes."

Then Laura Miller enters the scene:

"Out of the blue, on my cell phone I get, 'Hi, this is Laura Miller.'

"And I said, 'WHO?' Because I tell you, I'm not political.

"And she gave me 30, 45 minutes. I explained my legal advice. She said, 'Well, Mr. Pierce, you must throw that attorney away.' She said, 'You come down.' She encouraged me to come down. She helped me with advice. 'Wear your working clothes. Just tell us what you just told me.'

"And it was really her encouragement that made me come down. She said, 'Don't worry, you come down.' And I had faith, so I did what she said."

Schutze wrote:
I could tell even on tape that the effect of his appearance was riveting on both the council and the audience, who were there for other issues and knew nothing about his case.

Council member Angela Hunt said, "I, for one, am extremely troubled that we are moving to authorize a hearing to rezone property out from under the property owner.

"This is remarkable to me. One piece of property. That to me seems extremely overreaching."

In his typically very decorous way, council member Mitchell Rasansky took out his razor-edged saber and whacked both Blaydes and Oakley into sushi.

"Let's don't play in fairy-land talk here," he said. "We know how this works." He told Pierce that if he gave up his zoning and threw himself into "the process" at City Hall, as Oakley suggested, he would be dead meat.

Schutze continued:
But the real hero of the day? Hey, no question. It was Miller. She was everything the city voted for her to be as mayor.

He said: "I ran into the mayor in the city secretary's office. Our relations have been strained of late. But you know, two veterans of the newspaper business can still talk about a good story."

It's worth posting this here because it is about a journalist turned politician following the hunch and making a positive difference.

Since I'm only recanting what Jim Schutze wrote in his column, I'll conclude with his summary of Laura Miller:

She saw that little item way down on the agenda, that odd blurry snippet of bureaucratic lingo. Her years as a reporter came back; her nose twitched; she smelled smoke. She picked up the phone and called that guy, way the hell out on Walnut Hill at White Rock Trail, way down in that hollow by Jackson Branch where nobody even noticed him. That guy who wasn't political. That guy who couldn't even get the slick City Hall lawyers to take his money. That guy who had been told not to even show up at City Hall.

She said, "Come on down." He had faith.

And he won. Ten to three.

Hollywood Door won. They should have won. They shouldn't have even been pursued by the overreaching arm of agressive city council people and their developer friends. But they were. It's important that they won because this story is a little bit about all of us. It's another verse of the same eminent domaine for public development/private gain saga with a familar twist. Greedy "visionary" covents neighbors property and entices elected officials to utilize the law against the rightful owner. Others in the community get wind of the shady dealings and urge the citizen to stand up and fight. Other officials react as they should .. and vote down the agressors.

Members Blaydes, Steve Salazar and Ron Natinsky voted to screw him. Oakley switched over when he saw how the wind was blowing and voted against Blaydes. Then Oakley left the dais, went down into the audience and spoke with Pierce. Pierce told me Oakley told him he really probably shouldn't give up his zoning after all.

On the tape when the votes were counted and Pierce won, the chamber erupted in applause. Sitting in his office amid jumbled files and door parts a day later, I asked him who had cheered.
He looked up from his desk and shook his head in amazement. "All those people," he said. "Everybody. All those people who came down there for other things. They knew nothing about my case. They all cheered."

In conclusion I'll end this with a cheer for Laura Miller. This one is to you for this and other times you smelled a rat and made a phone call. May you continue using your nose and staying on the right side of issues in the future. You've just ended your tenure as mayor. You haven't gone away. You'll continue finding things that are "off kilter" and finding ways to change them. You did before you were Mayor of Dallas so you'll probably find ways to nudge things the way you think they should go as "citizen, Laura Miller."

Laura Miller, this one is "to you!"

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