Survival of the Flattest

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

But Miller says that after weeks of negotiations in which she and council member Mitchell Rasansky had been included--and after Donald Hill's petition--five city staffers held a negotiating session with Palladium to which she and Rasansky were not invited.

"After this meeting in the dark in the conference room that no council members were aware of with Hillwood [the Perot company] and Palladium and our five straw men [the low-level staffers who did the negotiating]," she said, "the staff decided, 'Well, OK, I guess if they put $385 million on the ground, they can start getting reimbursed.'

"This is the new part of the deal that they cut."

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?

Miller said she asked a city lawyer who had been in the meeting that day why he had agreed to allow Palladium to back out of a promise that could be viewed as the centerpiece of the whole deal. She asked why the staff would not have held Palladium to its original promise of $600 million before reimbursement, since the original pledge gave the city more leverage to ensure that the full $600 million would get built.

She quoted the lawyer as replying, "'Well, yeah, we could have done that, we could have stayed there, but, you know, they just wouldn't do it. They just wouldn't do it.'"

Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, who had been in charge of the Palladium negotiations, left town in the middle of all this, Miller said, departing on a sudden leave to a part of Kansas where he could not be reached by telephone. (I called Benavides, who confirmed that Evans has been out of town because of "health problems.")

Miller said the effect of all this was to basically neuter City Hall in negotiations. "It's just like it's always been. We get out-lawyered, we get out-dealed, we get out-worked, I mean everything. We just do, because nobody's in charge."

The most interesting aspect of what she had to say, for me, was that she did not really blame City Manager Benavides personally for the lack of direction she sees in City Hall. She has come to understand his position.

"I'll tell you, when I bring Ted in and say, 'How come Ryan hauled off and did a deal in the dark?' Hill's bringing him in over here and screaming at him and saying how come Palladium is telling me you're not doing this or this?"

So who is Benavides' boss? The mayor? Or Donald Hill? Or nobody? And under those circumstances, why should Benavides stick his neck out?

Did Ron Kirk make this system work? Yes. Mayors can always make it work if the game plan is for the staff to lie down and give it up to rich, powerful interests. They have that move down.

But what happens when the new middle-class constituency wants City Hall to drive sharp-pencil deals for the taxpayer? Then Miller's right: Nobody's in charge. The city manager has to hedge his bets between the troublesome new mayor and the five-vote cabal. The staff goes back to its normal crisis mode: white flag, heave tax dollars out window, Kansas.

That's why the end product of charter reform will have to include a strong mayor--a mayor who can hire and fire the city manager. Someone has to give focus and direction, and it needs to be a person, not a shifting majority on a committee, not a career manager trying to guess where the next majority will form. We need a red-light green-light person whom the voters can put in and out of office.

We can still protect the gains of constituencies by also building a stronger city council, giving them an independent research bureau and full-time paid political staff. We also can have a truly strong city manager: If the mayor absorbs the political heat, then the city manager can concentrate on running a professional staff.

Strong mayor, strong council, strong city manager. The only people I can think of who wouldn't like that formula might be Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks, for the same reason I assume John Dillinger probably didn't like strong bank vaults.

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