City Hall's Slam-Dunk Gang

Quick--someone take a pulse. The Dallas City Council hasn't peeped in months. And John Ware and Ron Kirk are looking awfully well-fed.

City Manager John Ware sat stone-faced, staring straight at Larry Duncan while they did it to him. Mayor Ron Kirk turned away, trying to gloss over the moment with decorum and weak jokes. But the truth of it--the smell--broke out over the room in the moment right after they had ripped open and gutted the two-year capital budget for Duncan's council district at a February Dallas City Council briefing. For a few seconds afterward, none of the council members, not even the ones who had voted unsuccessfully to rescue Duncan, would look him in the eye.

It had been an ugly, ugly thing. Their eyes were averted in sympathy and shame. John Ware and Ron Kirk had just administered the political equivalent of a slap hard enough to knock the spit out of Larry Duncan's mouth.

Even then, if he had just managed to stay quiet in the pause after the vote, Duncan

might have denied the mayor his drop of blood. But in that moment, speaking over the hubbub, Duncan asked plaintively, "So what are we cutting?"

The quaver in his voice was a rare crack in the wall of gamesmanship that normally encloses these proceedings. Through it, one could glimpse both the emotion of the moment and the agonizing poverty of much of his district, which includes some of the most depressed neighborhoods in southern Dallas.

Duncan had spent two years getting his constituents to agree on what they could and could not claim as their slice of the bond-program pie. His question seemed fair. The city manager had cut the capital budget for his district to half the budgeted amount for all the city's more affluent districts.

Duncan had made a valiant last-ditch effort to protect his people from the cut. But his motion had failed on a 7-7 split vote.

Now who would tell the people of District 4 what was to be taken away? Would it be the bridge across the railroad yards in the ancient Freedmen's Town at Joppa? The flood-control projects? The improvements along Military Parkway? How would they make up the $4 million that had been yanked away from them?

Kirk pounced on the question. With evident pleasure in his voice, he said, "That's up to you, Mr. Duncan." He told him he'd have to go back to his constituents and tell them they need to "re-prioritize."

In other words, you go tell them in Joppa. Look them in the face and tell them you lost their money. Try that on for size.

Sucker.

You may have missed the funeral. But the 14-1 single-member Dallas City Council system is dead. Mayor Ron Kirk and John Ware are the slam-dunk gang of City Hall. They run everything. It's not 14-1 anymore. It's 2-nothing.

That's the unmistakable impression left by a month of interviews with people involved in the political process, with grassroots community organizers and with some members of the Dallas City Council, past and present.

There isn't even a lot of debate about it. The only real difference of opinion is how long it's been dead, who did it, and if it was euthanasia.

Even some of the people who say Kirk and Ware have become City Hall's slam-dunk duo blame the actual death of single-member districts on the people who occupy them, some of whom seem to have difficulty understanding compound sentences, let alone policy issues.

Gerald Britt, pastor of New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in South Dallas and a stalwart in the battle for single-member districts in the late 1980s, put the issue at City Hall succinctly:

"Nature abhors a vacuum," Britt says.
Though Britt doesn't think Kirk and Ware are all that terrible as rulers, he worries about what the current setup may bode for the inevitable day, perhaps not all that far off, when they leave.

"The thing that is dangerous, as long as you've got amateurs and political unsophisticates on the council," he says, "is that you leave the potential for a really bad mayor and a really bad city manager to take over the city."

Lots of people do think Ware and Kirk are terrible rulers. But no matter what you think of them personally, the fact seems to be that Kirk and Ware are the only ones in the house. They are the people who can make things happen at City Hall. Council members who dare cross them are dealt with vindictively. And the programs Kirk and Ware support are the programs of the city's traditional downtown business establishment.

It's not an academic point for the people who are out there trying to change the city. For them, the effects are personal and harsh. The landscape is littered with examples: Members of a neighborhood group who've fought for years to get badly needed street improvements find their projects simply lopped off the manager's budget without a word. A young auto-racing entrepreneur with a dream for reviving a decaying block in South Dallas is told by his council member that she can do nothing to help him. The whole process by which dreams and goals bubble up out of grassroots communities is not only stunted and ignored, but seems to be actively reviled by the regime at City Hall.

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