The old adage that you can’t fight City Hall took a nosedive this month. In a classic case of home3owners vs. city planners, the residents of Turtle Creek and Oak Lawn went to the mat to keep the proposed North Central Expressway bus transitway where it belongs – on Central Expressway – and not where the planners had placed it, along the MKT track through the heart of the Turtle Creek greenbelt.

Our home is about a block from the MKT track and about two blocks from a proposed bus terminal for the transitway. So my wife and I joined in the fight. My first motivation was self-interest, pure and simple. But as the battle gathered more steam, it turned into something more important. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

Lesson #1. Defining one’s self-interest and stepping forward to fight for it can lead to interesting discoveries such as Lesson #2.

Lesson #2. City planners sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about. The city’s transportation department had selected the MKT route simply because it was an available right-of-way. But it turns out to be unsuitable for a number of reasons. First, it is too narrow. The city’s plans call for buses to use the transitway during rush hour at a rate of one every five to thirty seconds. What if one of the buses stalled or broke down? With only a 26-foot-wjde lane, maneuvering the bus off the transitway would be impossible. Second, the MKT route would require improvements to the roadbed which would make it more expensive than the original city estimates. Third, additional right-of-way would have to be bought for construction of 40-foot-high retaining walls in the Lee Park area.

Lesson #3. City planners don’t always give much thought to the practical consequences of their ideas. Oak Lawn and Turtle Creek are inner city neighborhoods very much worth preserving. But a study commissioned by the city in 1975 reported that a bus transitway would lead to commercial and office development, effectively halting residential revitaliza-tion. The transitway’s 40-foot retaining walls would divide Oak Lawn in two, in the same way the Harry Hines/Tollway construction divided Little Mexico and destroyed it as a neighborhood.

Lesson #4. The only way to get the City Council to admit its staff work has been lousy and its previous disposition wrong is to present a reasonable alter-native in a reasonable manner. I learned this lesson from David McAtee, a neighbor from the Northern Hills area who learned of the transitway plans in early April, five weeks before they were scheduled to be approved by the City Council for the June bond election.

In that short period, neighborhood associations were formed throughout the Turtle Creek area, a transportation consultant from San Francisco was hired to review the city’s staff work, an attorney familiar with municipal bond proceedings was retained, and several minds on the City Council were switched. McAtee achieved this remarkable result by ignoring all the diverse elements of the program (should we have bus or rail? are we sure about mass transit at all?) and concentrating on a single proposition: Why hadn”t the planners placed the route on the Central Expressway corridor where none of the problems already mentioned would be encountered?

It turned out to be a good question. The initial answer was the construction would force the closing of Central. But wasn’t the state highway department planning to widen Central sometime close to 1981 – at the same time the city plans to begin construction on the tran-sitway? After an embarrassed silence of a few days, the answer came back from City Hall: Yes, and the timing seems perfect for a joint construction program. McAtee had won.

Lesson #5. We have a good city government in Dallas, and we can keep it that way if we have more citizens like David McAtee who are willing to devote the time and the effort, at personal cost, to make reasoned and responsible opposition to bad ideas. As much as I might disagree with Steve Bartlett, Dick Smith, Willie Cothrum and other council members on other issues, one thing struck me throughout the long process of battling the MKT route: They are citizens, not paid politicians, and they listen when fellow citizens take the time to study the issues and present reasoned arguments. That is the way government should work – and in Dallas, it does.

The notion that judges should be popularly elected is a relic of Reconstruction, and the time has come to consign it to the trash heap of history. In the I870’s, when Texans finally regained their right to self-governance after years of federal control (and abuse), the framers of the new Texas Constitution thought the best way to protect against judicial incompetence or over-zealous-ness would be to make judges run for reelection every few years.

That was good, sound democratic thinking- especially in a time when the largest city in the state, San Antonio, numbered no more than 20,000 people, and when some parts of the state were so sparsely populated that as many as four counties could be covered by a single justice of the peace. In those days, people knew their judges on sight and had a pretty good idea of the kind of job they were doing.

But those days are long gone. In 1976 voters elected Don Yarbrough to the Texas Supreme Court simply because his name was vaguely familiar. He turned out to be a crook. In the 1978 Democratic primary Dallas County voters ousted Judge Frank Hernandez, one of the most conscientious and hard-working judges in the county, to favor an unknown Mesquite attorney named Paul Wisdom. It would be unfair to characterize Wisdom as a nonentity, but the only reason he put his name on the ballot was that Judge Hernandez was up for a federal appointment and Wisdom thought he might win by default. However, the temptation of electing a judge named Wisdom was apparently more than the voters could withstand, especially since most of them had little else to go on, despite the fact that Judge Hernandez had been endorsed by both daily newspapers and every bar association in the county. As we go to press, a reversal in the voting results shows Judge Jerome Chamberlain has been replaced by attorney Ron Chapman, whose greatest distinction in life seems to be that his name is the same as that of a popular radio disc jockey.

The fact is, voters know they aren’t qualified to weigh the merits of one judicial candidate against another. Lacking any means of comparing one man’s legal qualifications with another’s, they tend to ignore judicial races altogether. When the moment of reckoning finally comes, in the voting booth, they pull whatever lever happens to catch their fancy.

This is democracy by whim, not reason, and it is democracy at its worst. Texas needs judicial reform, and I can think of no better issue for John Hill and Bill Clements to debate in their race for governor than the question of how that reform can be presented most effectively to the next session of the state legislature.


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