Survival of the Flattest

Maybe charter reform could at least get someone up off the floor at Dallas City Hall

The white-folks version of local history is that back in the Time of Genius, the great fathers wanted to protect the citizens from tension, so they agreed to do all the governing themselves. The African-American version is that back in the time of Colonel Sanders, rich white bigots invented the at-large council system in order to make sure black voters never achieved any influence at City Hall.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, but this much is certain: The system we have now--single-member council districts, a very weak mayor who is really only a beefed-up council member and an unelected city manager who runs the show--doesn't work. City Hall never gets around to doing what the voters want done, judging by the outcome of recent citywide elections (for mayor, on various propositions, etc.). But everybody's idea for reform depends on which version of local history he believes.

People who think the wheels have come off City Hall, mainly the middle class, tend to like the idea of a strong-mayor government, because they want somebody out front who can be held accountable. People who see single-member council districts as a hard-fought civil rights victory, mainly minority or up-and-coming, tend to look with suspicion on the strong-mayor concept as an end run for Colonel Sanders.

City Manager Ted Benavides tries to guess who´s on first base. Council member Mary Poss tries to give first base to the Perots. Who´s in charge here?
Peter Calvin
City Manager Ted Benavides tries to guess who´s on first base. Council member Mary Poss tries to give first base to the Perots. Who´s in charge here?

Then we get down in the whole swamp of personalities. Is this just Laura Miller trying to rule the world? Is it Councilman James Fantroy on his campaign of, "Nobody picks up my trash but me?" Didn't former Mayor Ron Kirk make the existing system work?

One thing that can help us get across the swamp of personality is a recognition that the same winds of change blowing through Dallas are blowing through cities across the country. In Milwaukee, the urban debate in recent years has centered on downtown, on residential development, a river walk, public school reform and the nuts and bolts of making city government efficient. Debate in Buffalo, New Orleans and D.C. in the last few years has often turned on how well or how poorly city halls accommodate the middle class.

In fact, Dallas' resurgent urban middle class is the philosopher's stone in all of this. They've been gone. Who knows where? The 'burbs. Maybe still here but raising babies. Point is, they're baaack! And they want the streets fixed.

The recent battles over a second round of tax subsidies for the Perot/Hicks sports arena in downtown Dallas provide a spicy little window on what middle-class voters have encountered upon their return to the urban political marketplace.

While they were gone, the deal guys had to deal with somebody. They cut their principal political agreements with minority leadership in the first Perot/Hicks campaign for tax subsidies for the new downtown arena four years ago, in the campaign for a multibillion-dollar public works project on the Trinity River in Dallas and in this second bite of the apple seeking more subsidies for Perot and Hicks.

But now Laura Miller is the mayor, and her constituency is overwhelmingly middle class--north of the river, or south but well off. Her middle-class voters will not give their blessing to expensive public works projects or subsidies simply because the projects generate jobs and contracts. Miller thinks it is her job and duty as the elected steward of the public interest to sharpen her pencil and push for the best deal on stand-alone merits, before jobs or contracts ever come into play. She's here to put the wheels back on and make the trains run on time.

It may not happen under the existing weak-mayor system.

In a long interview in her City Hall conference room last week, Miller shared a series of insights she has gained since becoming mayor into the way City Hall really works, especially in the Palladium deal. Palladium is the company that will do the Perot/Hicks arena development. Her first remarks were to praise City Manager Ted Benavides for his cooperative attitude after she was elected and before Palladium went nuclear.

But at a certain point in the Palladium debate, four minority council members, led by attorney Donald Hill, banded together with Northeast Dallas member Mary Poss, who has ties to Perot, and signed a petition that had the parliamentary effect of truncating the process and hastening a vote--a move designed to help Palladium in defiance of the mayor. Miller told me that from that point forward, Benavides and his staff went flat, lay down and began caving in to every demand Palladium made in negotiations.

In one of several examples she gave me, Miller told how negotiators for the city had agreed to allow Palladium to vacate a key pledge to which the company had publicly and repeatedly committed itself, in exchange for which the city's negotiators asked for nothing and got nothing.

"One thing Palladium always said to us verbally was, 'We don't get a penny back from the taxpayers [in city tax subsidy] until we have $600 million [in completed buildings and amenities] on the ground. Then we get reimbursed, but everything is up and running. So it's a sweet deal.'"

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