LAST HURRAH: Scandal at City Hall

A special investigation reveals that everyone has a key to the city but me.

I became a journalist because I wanted to fight for freedom and uncover the truth. This story does that. As you might expect, it begins with Spike Lee.

Lee was given a key to the city at a June reception celebrating Black Music Month. City Councilman Leo Chaney handed it over, saying that Lee was “not afraid to think out of the box.” Some experts thought Girl 6 sucked. But whatever. I’ll defer to the councilman.

What really interested me was the key itself and who else had one. Every journalistic bone in my body told me I was going to get to file an open-records request—and file it hard.

First, I called a confidential source deep inside the mayor’s office, where surely, I figured, there was kept an exhaustive list of everyone who’d ever gotten a key. What I learned shocked me. It will shock anyone who lives in this city and cares about who has a key to it. The shocking news: no such list exists. There is only a partial list.

The Dallas Protocol office keeps this list. Most recently Mayor Laura Miller gave a key to Queen Sigonelo Mbikiza of Swaziland. The other names on the list—15 in all—belong to equally distinguished people, such as the mayor of Riga, Latvia. Extensive analysis of this document revealed, however, that Spike Lee’s name was not on it.

I called the executive director of Dallas Protocol, Beth Huddleston. She explained that a key to the city is gold-plated, about 3 inches long, and costs about $20.

“Does it have a hole in it for your key chain?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “It’s for display purposes. It’s not like a key. It’s for display.”

“Could someone have it copied at Home Depot and then bury the copy under a rock just outside the city limits, someplace inconspicuous, say in Balch Springs?”

“It’s not like a key key,” she said. “It’s symbolic. You do understand that? It’s for display purposes only.” For some reason, in the course of a four-minute conversation, Huddleston felt it necessary to tell me six times that the key was symbolic and for display purposes only.

Then I sprang the question on her: why didn’t Spike Lee’s name appear on the list? Huddleston explained that Lee’s key hadn’t come through her office.

As it turns out, there are two stashes of keys to the city. One is maintained by Dallas Protocol. Most of these keys, via the mayor, find their way into the hands of people with unpronounceable names. But the other stash of keys is maintained by the city manager’s office. These keys are available to any council member who asks for one. That’s how Spike Lee got his. It’s also how the blue men, of the Blue Man Group, got theirs in 2003. And Star Jones, of The View, got hers in 1999. I think we can all agree that if Star Jones has a key, we need to change the locks.

It was at this point in my investigation that I abandoned journalistic objectivity. Screw the truth. I wanted a key.

I called my city councilman, Gary Griffith. He had no idea, until I informed him, that he had the unilateral power to give me a key to the city. I said, “It sounds to me like there’s a desk up there at City Hall with a drawer full of keys. I want your word as my city councilman that you will look into getting me one.”

“You have my word,” he said, “that I will look into it. I will look into the drawer.”

But there would be one more surprise turn of events in this complicated key matter. I discovered that the keys aren’t in a drawer. They’re actually in a closet. That closet is guarded by Kimberly Tolbert, an assistant to the city manager. I interviewed Tolbert. My first call to her went unreturned. But then I called her again.

Tolbert told me that the “gift supply closet” remains locked at all times and that it contains not only keys to the city but also cuff links—though quantities of each are dwindling, due to budget cuts. Tolbert doesn’t have the key to the gift supply closet. Her assistant does. So Councilman Griffith will need to ask Tolbert for a key to the city, and she’ll have to ask her assistant for the key to the closet.

This would all be easier if the city switched to combination locks. For display purposes only, of course.

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