Feature: Wednesday, June 06, 2002
Got Those Blue-Collar Suburb Blues Part 2

By Jeff Prince

There is reason for commuting to work. In 1995, Arlington offered .37 jobs per resident, which put it 29th among North Texas cities in job availability. The situation is expected to get worse: By 2025, the percentage is expected to rise to .39, which would still knock Arlington down to 43rd on the list, as the population continues to outgrow available jobs.

Odom, 73, is a church deacon, grandfather, and generally beloved community member, who is used to being treated with respect. Even cynical newspaper reporters tend to use kid gloves with him. Now the sharks are circling. Norred dubbed him “an utter failure the likes of which we hope to never see again.” Criticisms sting, and Odom in recent years has expressed annoyance at working under a magnifying glass. “It’s going to become increasingly difficult to get anybody to serve on council because you get nothing but criticism and blame for everything, and the time required is increasing,” said Odom, who spends about 50 hours a week on city business in return for a $250 monthly check. “Yet every time you pick up a paper or get an e-mail, it’s something negative. A large portion of people out there are happy with what we do, but they don’t say it.”

Odom and other current leaders discovered that support is harder to achieve than in the days of Vandergriff, or even in the more recent Greene era.

A good ol’ boy political system with little oversight or opposition helped transform Arlington from a small town to a bustling suburb, but the political unity that marked the early years eventually crumbled as the city grew and diversified. The phenomenon is described in Politics Of Arlington Texas, An Era Of Continuity And Growth by Allan Saxe, longtime resident, political science professor at University of Texas at Arlington, and Arlington Star-Telegram columnist. “Arlington was run by an elite establishment from the early 1950s to the end of the last century,” he said in a recent interview. “This elite establishment was put together by real estate, business, developers, the two big banks, the one newspaper in town (Arlington Citizen-Journal), and a couple of predominant churches.” All stood to profit from growth. Infrastructure and city services sometimes took a back seat to progress.

Good ol’ boy politics contributed to the growth of many cities, including Dallas and Fort Worth. In Arlington, Vandergriff was a key figure in the system. Vandergriff’s father, W.T. “Hooker” Vandergriff, had done well financially, selling General Motors cars in central Arlington. His enterprising young son, affectionately called Tommy, used the family’s business connections and community standing to get elected mayor in 1951, at age 25. The so-called “boy mayor of Arlington” led efforts to woo General Motors Corporation, which was seeking a place to build an automobile manufacturing plant that would bring hundreds of new jobs. The deal was made, GM opened a plant in 1953, residential and commercial development boomed in East Arlington, and Vandergriff’s legacy was assured. He would serve as mayor until 1977 and be considered the father of modern Arlington.

Saxe sees no sinister plots or efforts to circumvent democracy in Arlington’s early political system, just a manner of government in the midst of evolving. Open meetings and open records laws were nonexistent, allowing back-room deals to be made without public inclusion. People with money and influence — mostly white businessmen — wanted the city to grow and knew how to make it happen. Holding developers to high standards of quality — and creating wide thoroughfares that looked pretty and carried traffic more efficiently — were detriments to quick growth, and they were downplayed.

Growth helped the local business elite to expand and to profit personally, but many of them, especially Vandergriff, also donated land and money to the city. Arlington Memorial Hospital was built in 1958 on land donated by the Vandergriff family — it was to have been the site of the family home. Residents revered the benevolent mayor and hesitated to criticize or vote against ideas he favored.

Vandergriff’s close relationship with wealthy developers, such as Angus Wynne, led to the creation of Six Flags and the Great Southwest Industrial District, which were considered pivotal to beefing up the city’s tax base. Refunding contracts, a precursor to today’s controversial tax abatements and public-private deals, were used in the 1950s to spur growth.

Through the years, politically elite systems across the country began to face challenges. By the early 1970s, open records and open meetings laws brought residents further into the decision-making process. At-large election systems, which can make it easier for the political elite to pad councils and commissions with like-minded leaders, began to switch to single-member district elections.

Newspaper competition in Arlington helped break the civic boosterism practiced at the Arlington Citizen-Journal. Editor and Publisher George Hawkes was an ally of Vandergriff and other city leaders, and even allowed Vandergriff to call a meeting at the newsroom and appeal to reporters to be more “civic minded,” Saxe reported in his book. The Arlington Daily News began publishing in the early 1970s and helped dilute media bias. The same phenomenon would occur 20 years later, when the Arlington Morning News challenged the stranglehold enjoyed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had purchased the Citizen-Journal and become the city’s only daily newspaper.

Other factors played into the changing political landscape. For years, Arlington’s at-large election system, with no term limits, aided a tight-knit political coalition. After much time and hot debate, Arlington switched in 1993 to a city council structure that combined single-member and at-large districts. The 1990s also saw the strengthening of community activists, who became effective at forming coalitions and voter blocs. A faltering economy and advancing age helped to sideline some major players. As the city’s available land diminished, some growth advocates became less interested. Meanwhile, growth and turnover of residents created an electorate that was more diverse, both culturally and politically, and more willing to oppose the elite establishment.

The remarkable productivity of Vandergriff’s reign probably will never be matched because of the evolution of city politics. “When I first became mayor, there were only about 7,500 people in the city limits,” Vandergriff said. “We were blessed with a tremendous spirit among our people to make the most of our potential. We had location, location, location on our side. The bigger you become, in many respects, you’re better off, but also it naturally follows that you’re going to have more diverse opinions, different viewpoints. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 50 years since I first tried to help, but everybody in town knew everybody else. That’s not the case now. I don’t view that as a stumbling block but a challenge, and one that requires maximum effort in terms of communication on the part of us who have responsibilities in decision-making for the city or the region as a whole.”

Despite the political changes and a struggling economy, Richard Greene took office in 1987 and was almost as effective as Vandergriff in getting pet projects passed. “He was mayor when things were already breaking up, and that shows how he was such a strong leader,” Saxe said. “The last of the great leaders was Richard Greene. If he wanted an issue, he went out and worked for it. He was eloquent, a great speaker; he could work behind the scenes tirelessly, making the phone calls. It worked.” Opposition against funding the Ballpark was strong, but Greene overcame resistance by reaching out to people on both sides of the issue.

Saxe defends Odom’s failure to similarly inspire the troops. “You have to get the army lined up and attack,” he said. “Now, half the army is going one way, and the other half is going the other way. It’s very difficult to be mayor these days.” Yet, personality and leadership skills do count, and Saxe admits that Greene might have found a way to sway voters toward Johnson Creek development and mass transit in recent years. Arlington residents were typically proud of their city in the “old days,” even after facing the inevitable problems brought by quick and vast growth. That pride has dwindled, Saxe said.

“Some of the old establishment needs to recapture the vision they once had for Arlington,” he said. “They built Arlington; they can’t just step aside. If I wanted the Dallas Cowboys in town and I was mayor, I would go to Greene, Vandergriff, (former Mayor S.J.) Stovall, go to them all, and ask them if they would make speeches and be on cable tv. Let’s go on the stump.”

A city is like a household: Most homeowners would rather spend money on a hot tub or a king-sized bed than on repairing unseen water pipes. Sometimes, though, the pipes have to come first. The failure of city leaders to get voter approval for glamour projects in recent years indicates to many that voters are urging City Hall to focus on basic city services.

The Giromini family in East Arlington has complained for 20 years about shifting soil and shallow-rooted trees that have created vast infrastructure problems. Sidewalks are crumbling, curbs are cracking, and streets are sinking throughout their neighborhood, but little has been done other than haphazard patchwork that seldom lasts. “You try and take care of your life, and you report things, and they look at you like an idiot,” said Cynthia Giromini. “I’ve been a good citizen. It hasn’t meant a hill of beans.” Fed up, she joined the grassroots Concerned Taxpayers in Arlington several years ago and is an active and vocal City Hall watchdog. “I admire (Dallas Mayor) Laura Miller, who talked about the basic services all along,” she said. “People in Arlington are saying, ‘Tend to the basics, and, then, when you do that, we might talk about the big ticket items.’ ” She lists infrastructure, code enforcement, and crime as the city’s top concerns.

Still, there is a danger of losing sight of the dream, said Grady Hicks, a longtime Arlington businessman who pitched the Olympic 2012 idea to city officials after raising $150,000 in private donations for the application fee. The effort eventually failed. “I’ve sat back and observed what’s going on,” he said. “My knee-jerk reaction is there looks like a shift in what people want. A back-to-basics philosophy has really set in, not just in Arlington but also throughout the country. A lot of the go-go attitude of the 1980s and the free spirit of the 1990s has settled into a conservative approach to things. If the citizenry isn’t careful, that can take a city back. If we don’t keep that forward thinking alive, we’re going to slowly retreat into a suburb that gets passed by, and we don’t want that.”

Others say Arlington has always been a suburb and should concentrate on trying to become a better suburb. Even the strongest critics still like the town — and say they create ruckuses only to urge city leaders to maintain its good points.

Runzheimer, the attorney, has taken numerous jabs at City Hall since settling in Arlington in 1980. But there is a reason he has stayed put for 20 years. “It’s a city of people with goodwill,” he said. “Most live in integrated neighborhoods. The character of Arlington residents is they take seriously the biblical imperative of ‘love your neighbor.’ ”

Runzheimer lived in Boston from 1974 to 1979 and was appalled, citing a poor street system, underfunded crime prevention, corrupt police, shoddy park maintenance, and intense racial division. Arlington, he said, offered a large step up in quality of life and remains a great place to live, despite rapid growth and the inevitable problems that followed. Longtime residents who pepper city leaders with complaints are providing crucial voices toward shaping a city, he said. Leaders might be more apt to listen to dissenting voices now than at any time in the city’s modern history. “There are far more people who are participating in public life,” Runzheimer said. “We are getting people into city council positions that are not necessarily tied to a small group of power brokers.”

Arlington’s population is expected to reach 430,000 in the next 20 years, as remaining land is developed. Afterward, the population is expected to grow more slowly.

A 2001 city survey showed that almost 90 percent of residents who participated praised the city’s quality of life as good or excellent, although the same survey also showed residents wanted better street maintenance and mobility. Arlington has an estimated $75 million backlog of street repairs.

For 30 years, Barbara Salser has lived in a brick house near Cooper Street in central Arlington. Her back yard faces Johnson Creek, and erosion has cost her half a dozen trees. When it rains, she lines up sandbags across her garage doors to prevent flooding caused by a poor drainage system and runoff from Cooper Street. The public swimming pool at nearby Howard Moore Park, where her two children romped in their youth, was closed a couple of years ago because the city couldn’t afford to repair or replace it. Sewer lines in her neighborhood have collapsed and caused frequent problems, she said. “I’ve watched the infrastructure crumble around me,” she said. “I’ve talked to the city council people over the years, and the answer was always, ‘We don’t have the money.’ They focus on the wrong things. The perception among most of the people I know is the first Johnson Creek election was not about flood control; it was about providing property for redevelopment around the ballpark and downtown Arlington. When that failed, it seemed like it made them mad. They called us all naysayers and said we couldn’t see the grand vision. I don’t think they believe Arlington voters are smart enough to vote.”

City leaders may be getting the point. On May 21, a majority of the city council for the first time said they would consider letting voters decide whether to implement a quarter-cent sales tax to raise about $10 million a year for four years for street maintenance. Some residents say that’s not enough. At least $15 million a year is needed, and probably a half-cent sales tax increase would be more effective, said Ross Martinez, a U.S. Department of Transportation retired director of engineering who has lived in Arlington since 1984 and has studied the city’s streets. “The streets here in Arlington lack maintenance work,” he said. “They haven’t been maintained for years because they don’t have enough money.” Shoddy construction and inspections are other problems, he said.

Arlington has a full one cent available to it under the state’s sales tax ceiling. In 2000, rather than tapping part of that sales-tax potential, the city implemented a fee on residents’ water bills to raise money for street maintenance. That fee has been challenged in a lawsuit as taxation without representation and just another ploy for city leaders to provide minimal funding for street repairs while keeping the cent available to lure Jerry Jones or the next developer with a dream.

Odom said the idea of voting down mass transit to force the city to focus more on street maintenance was a mistake because the city is fixing streets as fast as it can. That kind of “I know what you want better than you do” attitude is one of the things that residents have criticized in recent years.

Despite criticisms and recent failures, Odom remains unbowed. He can click off achievements, starting with the early bond payoff at The Ballpark in Arlington. Odom also touts employment growth and ever-expanding park space; he takes pride in the city’s diversity, such as the growing Asian community. Then again, the bond was retired with much help from a good economy and a larger-than-expected increase in sales tax revenue, and Odom had little to do with attracting Asians or any other cultural group to the city. Employment growth isn’t looking rosy. Residents complain that some areas of town are short on park space.

Odom and other city leaders sometimes overlook what is becoming more obvious with each passing year. “We’re at a very important place where Arlington has to decide what it wants to be,” Saxe said. “It’s getting a little more tarnished, a little less shiny.”

Voters are urging leaders to focus on streets, schools, safety, and code enforcement. Being a friendly suburb with good basic services and quality of life is enough for most people, except for city leaders trying to be the next Vandergriff, said Gary Giromini. “They are all legacy-building individuals trying to make their name so they’ll have a nice obituary,” he said. “How many times do they have to be told what it is that we want?”

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