Civil Disservice

Ted and Laura team up, which is a deeply unnatural thing

Something very weird is going on at City Hall. People are speaking in tongues. Maybe the budget crunch has crunched them. We may need to send in a rescue team with Prozac. It's all about a major proposed reorganization of the staff that nobody wants to talk about publicly yet.

I ask them about it, and they all start in with this scary stream-of-consciousness talk that makes no sense. It's tense.

Council member Mitchell Rasansky, the scourge of local government, told me he's worried about builders and developers getting too much influence over the city's planning and building officials. Think of Jerry Jones fretting that the Cowboys may play too rough against the Redskins next time.

Mayor Miller thinks stripping key city staffers of civil service protection will get them to do what she wants. City Manager  Ted Benavides says it will make them do  what he wants.  Can both be right?
Photos: Peter Calvin
Mayor Miller thinks stripping key city staffers of civil service protection will get them to do what she wants. City Manager Ted Benavides says it will make them do what he wants. Can both be right?

Then City Manager Ted Benavides told me he wasn't worried that people will try to improperly influence city staffers, because the staff always has the ability to call the Dallas Observer. I don't even know what to call that. It's like the pope urging Catholic whistle-blowers to take their complaints to Larry Flynt. It's hard to believe you're hearing what you're hearing.

But the biggie was Mayor Laura Miller. She told me she wasn't worried about city council members trying to put the political arm on key city staffers, because, "I don't know of anybody who does that, and if they did, Ted [Benavides] would make a beeline for their door, I promise you, because Ted just wouldn't put up with that."

The hair was standing straight up on my head. Next I was waiting for a deep growly voice to come out of the phone and say, "What an excellent day for an exorcism."

This is Laura Miller talking. Laura Miller. She got elected because she called the big shots liars and the bureaucrats dogs. The minute she took office she started preaching about the evils of the city manager system. She's a major force behind "charter review"--shorthand for "deep-six the manager." And she's telling me not to worry because the system works and everybody is honorable.

Oh, this is weird. Believe me. Something very strange is going on beneath the surface. Next council meeting, watch out for projectile vomiting.

In public they're all talking about the city's $95 million budget shortfall. But behind the scenes, the budget debate is pretext and camouflage for a serious donnybrook over the traditional system at City Hall. Details unclear, smoke and din coming up from bowels of building. I can't even tell good guys and bad guys yet. All I know is that everybody I try to ask about it starts talking like Obi-Wan Kenobi, which usually is how people sound when they are concerned about sudden dismemberment.

Here's the short version, as best I have been able to piece it together: In the name of efficiency and staff reorganization, the city manager is moving aggressively to take several key city departments out of civil service protection, especially planning and building inspection. In this he has the mayor's blessing, which is in and of itself a strong indication that something profoundly unnatural may be afoot.

Both Miller and Benavides told me candidly that stripping these departments of civil service protection will make it easier to cashier bad employees. Miller said: "It would seem like it would be reasonable that Ted could go into a department and take the people that are making $80,000, $90,000, $100,000, who aren't performing anymore and are getting their year-end bonuses of 5 percent and hanging out; he ought to be able to go in and get rid of those people."

I asked Benavides if the proposed new setup would make it easier for him to fire people. He said, "It will give me more flexibility on that."

He did go on to say, "If you look at our record in non-civil service departments now, we're not willy-nilly firing people. In fact, in this RIF [reduction in force] process, we're using the RIF procedures for civil service departments for the non-civil service departments to ensure fairness."

The publicly stated mission in stripping city employees of civil service protection is to make City Hall nimbler and more responsive.

Benavides said: "The primary reason we would reorganize all these offices under the [proposed new] Department of Development Services is to give better service. We are in competition with other cities to be friendly when it comes to development and get their projects in and out and let them do their work so they can open their business or their restaurant.

"We want them to follow the rules, and that's important, but we also need to get them through the system and get them up and running, too. It's that kind of balance we're always searching for."

OK, maybe you have to be me--someone who has spent way too much of his life around City Hall in this, the largest city manager city in the country--to understand how out of character this kind of talk is coming from a disciple of the Holy Order of Professional City Management. I remember sitting in the office of a top staffer years ago--she was some kind of Ph.D. in trafficology--while she whacked on a big black-and-white chart on the wall with a wooden pointer, telling me that my neighborhood was "impeding flow."

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