Grab for Privates

Should we turn local government over to a corporation?

I had a long talk last week with Bob Eury, the executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District and also president of Central Houston Inc., the equivalent of our Central Dallas Association. Eury had only good things to say about LGCs, MMDs and downtown Dallas, which he seems to know a thing or two about. But I gleaned from our conversation at least a couple of key differences between the way these things are being done in Houston and what seems to be going on here.

For one thing, Houston doesn't have a single Über-LGC or MMD for the powers that be, as seems to be the notion here. There are dozens of LGCs and MMDs in Houston. And Houston has carried out some creative marrying of these various types of entities to make sure each one is squarely footed in a geographic area and is tightly accountable to the interests in that area.

In fact, the Houston way of making this work depends on complete transparency, diversity, inclusion and accountability: everybody at the table; everybody's hands up on the table. "I love having boards of directors as diverse as we can get them," Eury said, "because it makes it so much easier to come to consensus on what we should be doing. If that board wasn't like that, it would make it very difficult. It gets real divided at that point."

By contrast, look how the downtown Dallas thing is being brought along. There was one brief story in The Dallas Morning News a week ago by reporter David Flick, providing sparse details of the deal. Flick scored by getting the story in the paper at all: Biegler declined to provide details, and his quotes all sounded like bad oral surgery. He and others had been presenting a PowerPoint on this idea to chosen insiders but obviously had hoped to take it much farther down the line before sharing the details with the public or the city council.

What does that tell you about how they will run things if they ever get their hands on the wheel? (I tried to reach Biegler last week but was told he was out of town.)

We have to remember that representative democracy is still a fairly recent development in Dallas. It wasn't all that long ago that a small coterie of businessmen ran the city on a tight leash through the mechanism of the Dallas Citizens Council, a private, secretive society that used to have the ability to name the city council and mayor.

We still suffer a certain amount of hangover from that era. It's why we have this weird system of city government in which no one is really in charge. City government here was set up that way, because the Citizens Council used to be in charge from behind the scenes. The Citizens Council lost its power in the 1980s when its members lost their money, but that left nobody at the wheel at City Hall.

Since then we've been struggling along, slowly figuring out how to run a democratically controlled city. But we have gone awry whenever the city's old penchant for oligarchy has re-emerged. In the 1980s the business leadership bollixed up the Central Expressway project by trying to take it back behind closed doors.

In the 1990s the Trinity River project was steaming along pretty smoothly until former Mayor Ron Kirk, recruited to be mayor by the old leadership, deliberately derailed the consensus process that had created the project in the first place.

The danger in this Biegler/Central Dallas Association proposal for a royal charter company downtown is that it, too, will poison the well of downtown revitalization. It's exactly the wrong direction, away from consensus, away from solutions, back into the hands of the old gang that wanted to double-deck Central Expressway and now wants to deck the entire Trinity River.

In Houston, these mechanisms have been used to bring logic and focus to a well-developed culture of community politics. In Dallas, where we don't yet have a culture of constituency politics, these same tools may be used to throttle its development in the cradle.

This is not to say there couldn't be some creative use of mechanisms like LGCs and MMDs in Dallas. But not if it means surrendering the destiny of downtown to one small clique of moguls.

You know, every three years or so, we just have to bring out the wooden stakes, the crosses and the torches, swarm back into the streets and drive the monster to its crypt. And I hate to tell you, but lately I've been hearing some really eerie howling downtown at night.

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