Budget Blues

This year's round of Town Hall budget meetings shows we get the government we deserve

Hill fled center stage to make way for a dry intonation of the budget by Assistant City Manager Charlie Daniels, who regaled the crowd with tales of the city's new hot-mix asphalt silos and other such life-changing innovations. Elderly citizens dozed in plastic chairs as Daniels read the budget details verbatim from an overhead projector, seldom pausing to explain the rationale behind any changes.

After that, it was time for Q&A. Someone asked why money was being allocated to the Pegasus art project, which will culminate in decorated winged horses sprouting from Dallas street corners, when there were so many other pressing concerns in District 5. "That's the mayor's project," Daniels said, spreading his hands wide, palms up.

A woman complained about the damaged curb in front of her house, another about the scarcity of animal control officers. Names and numbers of city employees were exchanged.

Stan Aten may be the only man in Dallas who analyzed this year's budget line by line. He found a few slices of pork, such as $500,000 for new landscaping at Redbird Airport.
Mark Graham
Stan Aten may be the only man in Dallas who analyzed this year's budget line by line. He found a few slices of pork, such as $500,000 for new landscaping at Redbird Airport.

Here's how Hill and his colleagues face the rabble: first a gripe, then Hill makes friendly, vapid comments and passes on the query to a city employee who explains "the process." This is always followed by pledges of future contact and action.

It was politics 101: Delay, mollify, and crack jokes. Always smile. Let the city wonks do the real talking, using enough muni-babble and regulatory-speak to discourage any resident from trying to change anything. (Though even the wonks that want to help often can't follow a resident's grotesquely convoluted soliloquy on the height of his neighbor's fence.)

Not every city council member was as gung-ho for the budget as Hill, who brought up no concerns, no explanations, no details on how any of this would impact his district. He was a salesman for the budget.

Town Hall meetings aside, the truth is, no matter how aggressive or aggrandizing the council members, the city government is too big to turn at their whims. Every district has its own slow-moving pet project: rec centers, road reconstructions, hiking and biking trails, branch libraries. Behind each project is a community group or gaggle of senior citizens waiting for their representative to bring it on home.

Council members, beholden to the glacial pace of bond-financed projects, are at a loss to explain why the pork takes so long to reach the table. "Why don't you get on the stick and help out? Every time we come here, you say the same thing--it's a bond issue," said venerable City Hall crank Mary Fields to Councilman John Loza.

Loza did a Clark Kent adjustment of his glasses and began his spiel. "I know there's frustration..."

It was hard not to feel bad for the guy, one city council member trying to pry city money for his bitching constituents and reduced to making apologies about why it takes years to make any progress. And all for $50 a meeting, a Dallas City Council member's princely pay.

The cynicism is deserved. "Town Hall meetings are a time for everyone to blow off some steam, for council members to act like they care, and for the public to ask questions to city staff who furrow their brow and act concerned," says Tim Dickey, a vice president for the Bachman-NW Highway Community Association. "This city is in the sad state it's in because we deserve it. It's us."

Here's an ugly truth: Big money and old people have hijacked city politics from top and bottom, respectively. The same mix of beady-eyed homeowners and codgers with high-pulled pants represents the "average citizen" at Town Hall meetings. Appeasing the few that show up to gripe about the length of their neighbor's grass becomes a top priority and an easy task. The politicians here get off cheap.

After all, less than 7 percent of registered voters bothered to go to the polls in 1999's city council elections. It's no wonder that pandering to the elderly is so popular among council members--they're the only ones hobbling to the voting booths.

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