Ted's Excellent Adventure

City manager fires chief, finds self in hell

The near-total meltdown at City Hall last week was solely the work of City Manager Ted Benavides. It seems to have been a very clumsy piece of work, indeed, setting the stage for a horrific city council meeting the next day. But it was his work alone.

Don't look for a conspiracy. Our system of government is too dumb for conspiracies. The people in the medium-security dayroom at Terrell State Hospital could pull off better conspiracies.

In fact, Terrell State Hospital was very much on my mind as I surveyed the scene at the city council chamber on the afternoon of August 27, barely 24 hours after Benavides had fired Terrell Bolton, the city's first black police chief. The mayor and the council were out of their seats, huddled like ducks at the back of the room. People were racing all over the council chamber screaming.

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.

Former council member Sandra Crenshaw was standing halfway up in the seating area with her chin pointed straight up in the air and arms outstretched, yodeling like a madwoman.

And I thought, "Jim, let's be careful not to speak unfairly of Terrell State Hospital." This was more like the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's famous work, "Hell."

In Bosch's painting, flames in the background consume dark castles. In the foreground naked souls are tortured by snouted creatures in a landscape of gigantic body parts. From the center of this horrific tableau, one man stares with an oddly serene gaze. I figure he must be the city manager.

Take this scene: It's 1 p.m. the same day. All morning a black radio station has been urging people to converge on City Hall at this hour. The place is packed. The crowd is angry.

Finally it's time for the first guy to go to the microphone and let loose. The room is tense. Everybody's on pins and needles. What's he going to say? Remember: The police chief and city Councilman James Fantroy have been on television and in the newspaper all week promising a race riot over Bolton's firing.

The speaker is Kevin D. Felder, a black real estate agent and one-time candidate for council. Everybody is straining to hear this opening salvo.

It's something about hills. A little garbled. Hills and views? No, it's about the Hillview Terrace Homeowners Association. They're fighting the construction of 280 affordable apartment units in their area. Felder is demanding that black council member Leo V. Chaney "acknowledge that the majority of the residents of Hillview Terrace and the Las Casas Homeowners Association are not in favor of the above-mentioned apartment project..."

Hey, wait a minute, I'm sorry, but I'm from Detroit. You cannot have a race riot in which a middle-class black neighborhood is protesting the intrusion of too many affordable housing units. Not that I don't sympathize. But it's just not proper race-riot material.

After Felder, a bunch of people do get up and speak very angrily about Bolton's firing. The biggest hurrah of the day comes when one speaker levels a finger at Mayor Laura Miller and calls her "a slimy journalist!"

The crowd goes crazy. I'm sitting there thinking, "Please! Let's leave the slimy journalists out of this."

Then a black minister gets up and grabs the lectern. When the mayor tells him someone else has the podium, he shouts back, "I've got the podium!" He looks like he's going to defy her and the City Hall security cops.

And I think, "OK. This really is it." If he chains himself to the lectern or hugs it hard or something, Miller will have to order the gendarmes to carry him off. The sight of cops manhandling a respected preacher will go out live all over the city. And this, in fact, is the kind of thing that can jump it off.

But the next thing I know, the preacher is racing up the aisle toward the door, calling all of the other black clergy out of the chamber, shouting as his war cry, "Press conference! Press conference!"

Preeeeess conference? You've got to be kidding me. Why not do a nice little reception with canapes?

Speaking of which: On this same day a rally has been scheduled for 7 p.m. at Bolton's church, Antioch Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Hampton Road in Southern Dallas. Since Bolton himself is the one who has most consistently suggested over time that his dismissal could produce riots, then maybe the church he belongs to will be the point of ignition.

A huge cavalcade of dish trucks and media vans descends on the church at the appointed hour. Antioch Fellowship is a vast new complex of stylish buildings surrounded by newly developed neighborhoods, a stone's throw from the suburban Meccas of Duncanville, DeSoto, Cedar Hill and Lancaster. The sprawling parking lot is jammed with gleaming new automobiles.

A large security staff steers me to the media parking lot. I find my way to an open door beneath a sign marked "Media Entrance." Inside, a huge crowd of fashionably dressed church members and guests is waiting patiently in long lines at tables laden with floral arrangements and finger food constantly resupplied by a uniformed waitstaff from a catering company.

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.

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.

The real proof of how dumb this system is can be found in the fact that nobody really gets how it works. Let me give you an example. There has been a lot of talk in the past week about how the mayor "disrespected" the police chief. I bet very few people in this city really understand how extremely disrespectful Bolton and his command staff have been of the office of mayor.

Some of the pressure beneath recent events grew out of a series of stories in The Dallas Morning News in which the News revealed that the police department had hired an officer whom the department had reason to believe might have been involved in an unsolved murder. Mayor Miller, who is specifically authorized by the charter to make inquiries of city employees, tried to call Deputy Chief Cynthia Villarreal, who had made the decision to hire the cop, in order to ask for the background. Miller wound up jumping in her car and ramming over to police headquarters one day to demand that Villarreal see her.

A week before Bolton was fired, I called Miller and asked her why the mayor of Dallas had to go stand around in the lobby of the cop shop like some schlub citizen trying to get an audience with an assistant chief. (I also called Villarreal. She didn't return my call.)

This is what Miller told me: "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I came in my office, and I said, 'I'm going to talk to Villarreal. I want to know what's going on.' So I started calling her. She wouldn't call me back, and no one over there would call me back. I kept calling and calling, and she wouldn't call me back...

"I'm told she's in a meeting with [Assistant] Chief [Shirley A.] Gray, who was acting chief for that day. She'd been in there for two hours. I said, 'When she comes out, have her call me.' She doesn't call me. Then I'm calling back, 'Well, where is she now?' 'Well, she's left for the day on personal business.' I said, 'Left for the day? It's 5:30.' I said, 'Find her. Call her on her cell phone, page her, tell her I need to talk to her.' 'Well, we'll see what we can do.'

"So all of a sudden about 6 o'clock in the evening, Ted Benavides walks into my office. 'Are you looking for Chief Villarreal?' 'Yeah. What's it to you? Is this a problem?' 'Well, we'll see what we can do.'

"So, of course, I hear nothing. I get up the next morning, I start all over again, from my car. I was busy, I was in my car. I'm calling and calling, they keep transferring me all over the new police station.

"Finally I just got her lieutenant, her chief of staff, and I said, 'You know what, I'm real tired of trying to find her. Would you just give me her city cell phone?' And he said, 'No.'"

Did you know our system was that stupid? Did you know that a bunch of mid- to lower-level city employees could tell the mayor to kiss off? No wonder Bolton thought he could defy the city manager.

In the end, all of the political mess winds up swirling around Benavides like there's a broken sewer under his desk. Ultimately he has to clean it up. And then nobody believes he's the one who cleaned it up, because he's not the mayor.

The answer here is to make the mayor the mayor. Hey, keep the manager if you love him. But have the mayor hire and fire him. When there's a political mess, we fire the mayor. And in the interim, let's hope people know who they are and what they are and what they're supposed to do, and we get a little peace and quiet.

So the big news is we didn't have a riot. We need to forget about riots. This is Dallas. We don't have riots here. We just all wind up looking like idiots instead. This is better, right?

Last scene: end of the day, shadows falling outside City Hall, almost everyone gone. I am on the first floor of City Hall, going to my car, and Sandra Crenshaw pops out from behind a pillar like Banquo's ghost. She throws out her arms--her face aglow with a beaming smile--and trills: "Oh, this was so much fun!"

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