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.

Two on the council will keep their daggers unsheathed. Mary Poss, the Duchess of Northeast, clearly plans to run against Miller for mayor 14 months from now when this special shortened mayoral term ends. James Fantroy is the Southern Dallas conundrum who got mad at Miller on her first day in office for going out on a trash truck and cleaning up an illegal dump in his district without his permission. I keep meaning to check and see if there had been any missing persons in that area before the cleanup.

The point is: Miller and the council are going to get along, not perfectly on every issue but well enough. If you stop to think about it, the reasons why most of the city council would try hard to work with Miller or any other new mayor are obvious, in spite of all that nonsense during the campaign. Take Lill and Miller, for example. They can find way more common ground personally and politically than ground for animosity.

They're both about the same age, both mothers, both married to guys with high-pressure jobs. They both represent older, diverse neighborhoods in the inner city, and both have ties and sympathies that range broadly over the city.

Lill is my council member. I see her all the time riding around my neighborhood in her white SUV checking up on the garbage trucks, with her kid in the back like one of those suction-cup toys on the back window: "HELP ME! MY MOM IS IN POLITICS!"

She looks just like Miller when I see her: Miller's got her kid in a shopping cart, with his hands on his ears muttering, "Oh no, she's talking!"

Given that these are very driven people--and by the time most people take a big enough chunk out of their lives to get elected to the city council, they are all driven and very committed to a set of serious issues outside themselves--why wouldn't all of these people look for enough common ground with the new mayor to get stuff done that they want done?

It's already happening.

The problem for the city manager is that it wasn't supposed to happen. Now what happens if Miller, already a problem in herself, is able to coax the other munchkins on the council out from beneath their flowers? And what if they start demanding information, too?

Ooooooh, big problem.

I have to do some due diligence and tell you that City Manager Ted Benavides' version of the situation is the exact opposite of everything I am saying here. Benavides told me at the end of Miller's first week that it is his intention to work with her.

"I will do everything I can to help her be successful," he said. "I will work with her and learn her style."

Then I have to tell you that I just don't believe it. I'm not saying Benavides is being deceitful. I am saying what he says, even if sincere, simply flies in the face of the way things are.

Take that first full day of briefings after Miller took office, for example: Two groups made major presentations about why they should get tens of millions of dollars in city taxpayer subsidy for their private, for-profit development ventures in downtown Dallas. One of the groups put on a very persuasive, elegantly crafted presentation asking the city council for an almost $50 million subsidy for its proposed development around the new downtown arena.

Embedded in that presentation was a request that the city council enable this group to set up its own quasi-governmental body with the ability to sell bonds and levy property taxes. This is a very exotic, extremely complex concept that has never been used in Dallas and with which the city council is totally unfamiliar.

Think exotic complexity: Think Enron.

But the only people telling the council about this concept, the only ones giving them the details, were the development group seeking the subsidy and a very sympathetic member of the city manager's staff. It's remarkable that the city council would even allow itself to ponder something this new, this big, this complicated and this significant based only on the word of the people trying to sell it.

John Loza is one of several past and current council members I have spoken with in the last week about the problem of briefings and information.

"You would have to do your own research in order to prove anything to the staff," Loza said. For that, he said, council members would have to have their own staffs far beyond the single assistant per council member now hired for them by the city manager.

Many people who have served or are now serving say it would take a small personal staff merely to read the briefing papers that the city manager typically dumps on them five days before they have to vote on Wednesdays. A developer who spoke to me on a not-for-attribution basis said he thought council members would have to have access to their own certified public accountants and lawyers in order to get any decently independent view of things like the private bonding and taxing authority the arena developers are now seeking.

On no issue does this stuff get more serious than it is with the Trinity River project, a multibillion-dollar public works fiesta that has been the beneficiary of more intensive lobbying at City Hall, in Austin and in Washington than any other local issue in my memory.

One little detail the city manager has failed to communicate to the council or to the new mayor--a thing that has not been reported in The Dallas Morning News, by the way--is that the president of the United States, formerly of Dallas, recently killed this project from his 2003 budget. In fact, the Dallas Floodway Extension Project (its official name) is now a high-priority target in a White House war on pork. The city manager hasn't thought to mention this to the mayor or to the council for whom he supposedly works.

Why? Because the boys, the people the manager really works for, want this project done, president or no president. It's money for them.

And by the way, why are the presenters at all these big briefings only the people who want money from City Hall? Why wouldn't the city council want to hear from the League of Women Voters, for example, which has amassed a great deal of wisdom and scholarship on the case against the Trinity River project?

In fact, there are early hints that Miller may seek to open up the information stream in exactly this way. Her reporter's instincts are going to tell her that one side of a story, no matter how brilliantly told, is always only one side.

Meanwhile the game will be this: Can the Lilliputians seduce her with enough minutiae, trick her into enough hat-pin fencing matches over side issues to keep her away from opening up the big picture?

Benavides says he won't try. He says he will work to make her successful.

I still don't believe it.

I think his strategy will be to find a way to keep her from exposing the rest of the council to too much daylight. And in a war of a million tiny pricks, he is definitely the one with the army.

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