Ted's Excellent Adventure

City manager fires chief, finds self in hell

Killing time before the main event, I chat with the Reverend Eddie Tolin, pastor of outreach and visitation and one of seven clergy at the church. I tell him I hate to engage in stereotypes and generalizations, but I nevertheless have the impression that the congregation here is fairly affluent. He allows that I am correct, for the most part. I ask how many of the kids in the church are in public schools.

"Oh, I think it's probably about 50 percent," he says. Most of the public school students are in suburban districts, he said.

Yeah. This is a lovely place. These are charming, upwardly mobile middle-class Americans. There will not be a race riot here. I don't care what anybody says. You cannot have a riot in a place that has a media entrance.

Dorit Rabinovitch
Terrell Bolton probably was set up. But the person who set him up most was Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who made Bolton think he was bulletproof.
Peter Calvin
Terrell Bolton probably was set up. But the person who set him up most was Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who made Bolton think he was bulletproof.

All right, we have to cut back to earlier in the day, when the council chamber was at its wildest point. There were sincere and serious representatives of the black leadership there, some of whom spoke at the open mike. But for the most part, the real hell-raising was done by all the same old faces, the people who have been giving the council hell since back before black people could win seats independently on the council.

People I know and love. But not the kind of people you're ever going to see waiting in line for hors d'oeuvres at Antioch Fellowship. The people raising the real hell at City Hall are the ones for whom the open mike has become a way of life.

I look up at one point to see the mayor and the council gathered at the back of the room, debating what to do next. I catch a glimpse of Miller looking out at the scene, and I recognize the look. She's not scared. She's pissed.

If, instead of Miller, the mayor last week had been one of those old white guys who were in office in Dallas 25 years ago, a golfer, he'd be sitting up there now all purple in the face about to have an aneurism, with eyes like saucers, thinking, "Oh, my Lord, the colored people are out of control! They're going to cook us all up and eat us!"

That's what the open-mike scene has always counted on: racist whites, driven more by their primitive fears than by any other emotion or thought. Those are the ones you get the good bounce out of.

I think Miller was thinking, "Ah, the usual suspects." I mean, she's known all these people for decades. We all have. They're dear souls, in their way, who have made valuable contributions, but they are just not the action anymore. The action is in those realms of Southern Dallas and the suburbs where a purposeful black middle class is busy becoming one of the most successful segments of our society.

I think it's ironic that Bolton came here to church but was willing to use the threat of a riot to hang on to his job. He knew if there were ever a disturbance, it certainly would not involve his own church people.

In the days after that horrible council session, a clearer picture emerged: The idea that the mayor had conspired with the city manager to cost Bolton his job withered and died on the vine. First of all, the mayor has indicated publicly for years that she wanted Bolton gone. That's not a conspiracy. It's a campaign.

In the second place, if Miller had been in on the firing, she certainly would have had enough IQ not to make it happen by shock and awe the day before a council meeting.

Benavides did this. And maybe he did it woodenly and clumsily. But that assumes there is an easy way to fire a police chief. Clearly, whatever went wrong between the two men happened deep in the personal chemistry between them. Benavides has made a strong case that Bolton was insubordinate over a long period of time.

We all know how that one goes. It builds up. There is some macho testing back and forth. Maybe Bolton says something like, "You wouldn't dare."

Here is what's wrong: Under our stupid city-manager form of government, nobody knows who or what he really is. The concept is that the city manager runs the city staff like a private-sector CEO. But Benavides didn't get to hire this police chief the way a CEO would. Bolton was forced on Benavides by the political system, by County Commissioner John Wiley Price, as a political settlement in a civil rights dispute.

So Bolton thought he was a politician. He thought he could tell the mayor to kiss off. He thought he could tell the city manager to kiss off. He thought he was covered. I saw Price at the city council mike last week, mumbling something about, "From a lonely perch we watched Chief Bolton be micromanaged...blah-blah-blah."

Bolton had a job. He wasn't an elected official. He didn't even have a contract. That's not much cover, Commissioner.

The thing that's most wrong with the city-manager system is that it flies in the face of political logic in a democratic society. No matter what anybody says the rules are, the real rule is that the mayor, who runs citywide and is placed in office by the voters, is much, much, much more important and powerful and politically legitimate than anybody who gets hired to do a staff job. Including the chief of police. Including the city manager.

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