Crocodile Tears

City Hall is sorry it can't help the White Rock water main victims... or anybody else, for that matter

Day in and day out, the issue at Dallas City Hall is much less about chicanery or duplicity than about the simple element of will. What is the real will of Dallas City Hall to help people in the position of those whose homes were flooded?

If City Hall had an absolute determination to devote its energy and assets to community-building and to the nurturing of neighborhoods, that water main would have been fixed with the money we gave away instead to Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks for a sports arena. We wouldn't have a City Hall that's run like a sharp loan company. We would have a mayor who told the staff, "Don't go lobby in Austin for a special law letting you out of your responsibilities to the citizens of my city. Go fix those damned pipes!"

You have to juxtapose this kind of thing with the massive moving of heaven and earth that Dallas City Hall will do for people such as Hicks and Perot when they want to build some kind of neon casino downtown. Or what they will do for Tom Luce when he wants to bring the Olympics to town and run roughshod over historic Fair Park in the course of getting it done.

It's really a question of will. What do we have to do to instill in our City Hall a real will to serve citizens, to serve neighborhoods, to help build real communities inside the city?

The unpaid volunteer council system is only half of that picture, maybe the less important half. The other piece of the puzzle is the city manager system, a holdover from an earlier era when the city was run by a small group of businessmen who saw themselves as a benevolent oligarchy. The city manager was a tool of top-down control, set up specifically to make sure none of those ward-heeling rowdies out in the neighborhoods ever got any power.

The ward-heeling rowdies are all long gone. They moved to Mesquite 50 years ago. The oligarchs are either dead or living in Forney (same thing).

And the city manager system has been taken over by diamond-toothed river-boat gamblers--rich hoods who want what they want and couldn't care less about broken water mains.

In spite of all that, these could be promising times for the city. The old racial bigotries and fears that drove white people out to the far suburbs or into the monoracial enclaves of Highland Park and University Park are softening. Close-in neighborhoods are swelling with prodigals who have come back in order to be near the action. The coming round of redistricting based on the 2000 census will be shaped by a raft of new Supreme Court rulings since the last redistricting.

What bodes well for city neighborhoods is that the racial quota system on which current districts were based has been materially disassembled by the high court. What we have seen under the existing system is that cutting the city into racial enclaves has tended to defeat the process of community-building.

What we need are districts built on true communities of interest. People in Oak Cliff--white, brown, and black--need to come to City Hall for Oak Cliff reasons, with their Oak-Cliffness in common, having overcome all of their other differences before coming downtown. City Hall can't do anything about whiteness, brownness, or blackness. City Hall can do something about Oak Cliff.

Some of that is going to happen in the next redistricting. For Dallas to pass muster under the new rules, the city must come up with a city council that reflects true communities of interest: a very important first for the city.

We need to seize this moment, and paying the council a real-life salary is only step one. It's an essential step. We can't get around it or do without it. But it's only step one. Step two is either ditching or very seriously reforming the city manager system.

We need a no-excuses system. We need to be able to look those folks in the eye and say, "Find a way to help the people whose homes were flooded. Find a way to fix the pipes so there won't be any more homes flooded. Don't talk to us about any more casinos until you get the streets fixed. And take off those damned sunglasses."

That's what council pay is all about. It's step one in the creation of a political system that cares about the city. If we care, we have to make them care.

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