By RUDOLPH BUSH / Staff Writer
Published 07 February 2011 11:10 PM
When Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway handed Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick a key to the city of Dallas on Saturday, he was really opening the lock to another controversy at City Hall.
What the key meant to Vick — who admitted brutalizing and killing dogs for entertainment and served 19 months in prison — is hard to say.
He could not be reached for comment, although he looked appreciative in a shaky cellphone video captured by a man who adopted one of the dogs Vick had abused.
But for Caraway, the key meant a day of explanations and defenses over how and why he decided Vick, who was in town for Super Bowl weekend, deserved an honor on the city’s behalf.
The gesture, and the outcry that ensued, led to a quick call from Mayor Tom Leppert that the city review how council members hand out ceremonial gifts, with the clear suggestion that guidelines become more restrictive.
“We don’t condone it and clearly didn’t approve it,” Leppert said of the Vick award. “It’s unfortunate, and I would rather have not seen the situation.”
The key that Caraway gave Vick — a gold-hued, six-inch key bearing the seal of Dallas — is less than official, according to explanations from city officials.
The official “keys” to Dallas are made from gold or crystal and are given out mainly to foreign dignitaries under strict protocol.
But all council members are permitted to hand out token keys, at a cost of $25 apiece, to whomever they please. So it was that Kiss’ Gene Simmons got an unofficial key from council member Steve Salazar last week.
The way council members pass out unofficial keys sometimes raises hackles at City Hall, in large part because they so often seem to end up in the hands of celebrities.
It’s hard to say, however, exactly who has gotten the keys. No list is kept. And because every council member can hand them out at will, it’s unclear how many keys to the city of Dallas are floating around.
It is clear that the practice has been in place for years. The keys are listed as a ceremonial gift available to council members in a policy that dates to 1997.
But until Caraway gave a key to Vick, the question of who got what keys to the city didn’t have much resonance outside City Hall.
That changed Monday, as word spread about Caraway’s act.
“It’s shameful. I’m embarrassed that my city has given a key to a convicted felon accused of a violent, horrendous crime,” said Jonnie England, spokeswoman for the Metroplex Animal Coalition.
England, a former member of the Dallas Animal Shelter Commission and a respected figure among animal advocates, called on Caraway to publicly apologize.
By late Monday afternoon, he did exactly that.
“I care deeply about animals. … I have two dogs of my own, and I am deeply sorry to offend anyone who loves animals,” Caraway said in a prepared statement.
Caraway insisted, however, that Vick deserved the honor he received because he has, in Caraway’s eyes, turned his life around and dedicated himself to keeping kids from making the same mistakes he did.
“In the eyes of many people, he’s a hero,” Caraway said.
He said that “a great majority” of Dallas residents would agree that giving Vick the key was the right thing to do.
But even among the City Council — a cautious body loath to cast judgment on a fellow member — there wasn’t much support.
Council members Jerry Allen and Ann Margolin called Caraway’s gesture inappropriate.
Council member Delia Jasso, a strong advocate for decent treatment of animals, said she didn’t know enough to say whether Caraway’s action was appropriate. But she did say that she believes Vick has made strides in convincing some animal advocates that he is serious about reform.
Council member Carolyn Davis was alone among council members who could be reached in defending Vick and Caraway.
“He’s served his time,” she said of Vick. “I’m a dog and cat lover, but he did what the court told him to … Each council member has a right to do awards or do a key to the city.”
Richard Hunter couldn’t disagree more.
It was Hunter who took the cellphone video Saturday of Caraway reaching into pocket and proudly handing a golden key to Vick.
Hunter went to the event at Club Cirque on Pacific Avenue downtown because he heard Vick would be speaking to kids about his experience.
Hunter has a special interest in Vick’s reform. After the quarterback was arrested and his animals seized, Hunter and his wife adopted one of Vick’s dogs, a little black pit bull named Mel.
Mel was used as a bait dog at the Bad Newz Kennel where Vick raised dogs to fight and die, Hunter believes.
Fifteen months later, the dog still shakes with fear at times, he said.
Hunter attempted to ask Vick whether he was getting therapy to deal with how he had treated dogs. He didn’t get any answers and was roughly pushed aside by Vick’s entourage, as shown in his video.
That, he expected. But the presentation by Caraway came as a complete surprise.
“I did not know that was happening. I was stunned. They’re viewing Michael Vick himself as some sort of victim,” he said.