Laura and the Little People

The city manager system prepares a million tiny snares to defend against the monster mayor

In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left Leg, which advancing gently forward over my Breast, came almost up to my Chin; when bending my Eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human Creature not six Inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his hands, and a Quiver at his Back. In the meantime, I felt at least Forty more of the same Kind (as I conjectured) following the first.

--From Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

Laura Miller meets the staff.

In the weeks ahead, once the Dallas city manager's little people start swarming over the new mayor in earnest, she will know exactly what Gulliver felt when he woke up with a bad case of Lilliputians. The City Hall staff will try to nail her to the ground with webs of informational thread and buzzing clouds of tiny factual arrows, a million tiny pricks delivered in foot-thick ring binders, reams and reams of single-spaced briefing papers, footnotes and factoids, faxes and FAQs.

The object will be to choke her on information, fire-hose her with the facts, knock her dizzy with the details, thwack her and thwock her, pinch her and poke her and get her going this way and that until she plumps down in a big flumpfff and allows them to run the city their way.

It has always been sooooo easy for them.

With master-of-ceremony mayors out front and the money and power of the downtown boys behind them in the backroom, the people of the city manager system have always been able to play the members of the Dallas City Council like pawn-shop guitars; wang dang doodle, let's hear a real nice hand for the country folk. No wonder the city staff feels contempt for them.

But now what? Miller and the civic revolution that got her in office have put the city manager system up against its most serious challenge since it was created in 1931. Far from being their ceremonial spokeswoman, Miller is the monster thrown up by the sea. To be sure, there is no logical reason why the city manager system could not learn to live with Miller's pothole-fixing back-to-basics coup d'état. The council tells the manager to fix a pothole; he goes and fixes the pothole, right? What's the complexity here?

But there is dark complexity, and it lurks beneath the surface of the system, deep in the illogical down-and-dirty of Dallas City Hall. The way things really work at City Hall--forget about the so-called system--is that the city manager is the handyman of the boys downtown and the mayor is their handmaiden.

Miller, a handmaiden?

Yup, now the problem is plain to see.

How does a city manager system deeply imbued with a culture of subservience to its developer/promoter masters deal with a mayor who is not on the same page, not in that chapter, not even in the same book?

The line on Miller before she won the election was that she would not be able to get along at all with the rest of the council, and therefore, sad to say, the boys downtown would have to rule through a rump caucus on the council. The boys would suspend Miller's mayorhood and dub somebody else on the council as the real handmaiden.

But there is already a big hole in that picture. After just one briefing session last week, she is already getting along with them pretty darned well. Councilman John Loza had told people before the special election that he might resign if Miller won. But he was already on the podium with her on election night! Of course, he knew by then that Miller was going to support him for the new Latino deputy mayor pro tem post, which helped.

Councilwoman Veletta Lill went around during the campaign witnessing for Miller's opponent, Tom Dunning, showing crowds her mad face so they could see just how angry she was going to be if Miller won. But Miller and Lill have already met, laid down their sabers, locked arms and vowed solidarity for...solidarity for...well, they have vowed solidarity for, like, weeks and weeks, which is amazing, given how far apart everybody, including me, thought they were.

That first long briefing right after Miller was sworn in last Wednesday looked like Thanksgiving with the Partridge Family. Council members Lois Finkelman and Sandy Greyson, two testy ladies from North Dallas, were demure all day, which is some kind of record; Oak Cliff Quinceañera Princess Elba Garcia was equally serene; and Don Hill, in his new role as the African-American mayor pro tem, was so statesmanlike I started getting him confused with Donald Rumsfeld.

Alan Walne, the imp of the Highlands, was behaving well, even if he did look as if he wanted to sneak up behind Miller and pull her hair once in a while. Southern Dallas members Leo Chaney and Maxine Thornton-Reese were both very down, very cool at their end of the briefing table; Mark Housewright, the new North Oak Cliff white person, was in his first day in office and too new to talk, and it was good that he knew. Lots of people love Mitchell Rasansky, the new North Dallas curmudgeon, who must be an acquired taste.

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