Talkin' Doo-doo

The DMN's special section was great. And weird. Of course.

"If we choose not to go to a strong mayor, another option might be simply more clearly delineating lines of responsibility, authority and accountability to make it clear who's in the driver's seat."

Mmm. I don't think so. Here's what the editorial said: "This isn't a paean for converting to a strong-mayor system of government. Phoenix, a city larger than Dallas, and San Jose prove that a strong-manager form of government can indeed work if roles and responsibilities are clearly spelled out, and the right people are in place."

Sorry. That's takin' a dive, a header into the canvas, a half-gainer into the tank. And I smell an internal difference of opinion. I think the Booz people and the News staff were all lined up in the same direction, pointing to the need to ditch the city manager system. But this little project, after all, didn't come from them. It didn't belong to them.

Mark Andresen
The DMN's editorial page editor, Keven Ann Willey, agrees that the city charter needs to be re-examined.
Mark Graham
The DMN's editorial page editor, Keven Ann Willey, agrees that the city charter needs to be re-examined.

According to people who would know, the special section was ordered up by someone close to the very top command of the Belo corporate structure. And believe me, the black box at the top of that org chart doesn't say "Citizen Satisfaction." It says "Robert Decherd, chairman, president and CEO of the Belo Corporation."

And now we finally begin to see a timeline that makes a little bit of sense in answer to the question "Why this, why now?"

Decherd is one of a small handful of people who have been pushing for the creation of a "limited government corporation" to run downtown. (See "Grab for Privates," by Jim Schutze, February 12.) They keep saying it would be like the ones used successfully in Houston, but it would not be. In Houston, LGCs are used to carry out specific limited projects. What Decherd and others are pushing for here is a broad hand-off of planning, zoning and bond-selling authority to a semi-private entity, which would then decide what to do with downtown. This scheme is nearing the tipping point when its backers will want to have a coming-out party for it.

Decherd, as we know, has an intense interest in developing a series of parks downtown, especially in the debilitated corner of downtown where most of the Belo landholdings are. I don't know why the head of a $1.46 billion national corporation with 6,700 employees is so obsessed with garden plots around his own castle. I keep thinking of the Sun King and Versailles. A better man than I might simply see a very civic-minded business leader concerned for the fate of his hometown. But there you have it.

I didn't dream this up, by the way. This was suggested to me by people who are a hell of a lot tighter into the game than I am. In this construction of things, the News' special section becomes a loaded gun, pointed at City Hall but unfired. The obvious inference is that City Hall is as messed up as a junk pile. It's driving business away from the city. But there's no real way to fix it. Therefore, the best thing is to turn everything over to Mr. Decherd's private corporation. (I left a detailed voice message for Decherd last Friday requesting comment; I hadn't heard back by press time.)

Some of this you can't argue with. City Hall is as messed up as a junk pile. It is driving business away. But there are ways to fix it. Simple ways. Ditch or fix the stupid city manager system. The problem with this LGC idea is the same problem we're facing in Iraq right now. Everything in public life, from local politics to international diplomacy, comes down to three issues: legitimacy, legitimacy and legitimacy.

A bunch of rich guys in suits operating behind closed doors is not legitimacy. That's so yesterday. It's the Dallas Citizens Council risen from the grave.

The solution is not to insulate City Hall even more from the voters. Insulation is the damn problem! We need to hot-wire City Hall to the voters, not unhook it. The Citizens Council concept--the old Dallas dream of a few wise men downtown--is what brought down the Soviet Union. The men are never wise enough. The people, in their collective, messy, loud, undignified democratic wisdom, know what to do: Fix the basics, make it a better community. Meanwhile the few wise men--and the mayor--think the answer is building a thong bridge over the Trinity River.

Decherd was interviewed in his own special section, which was plenty weird. Talking about the loss of commercial tax base and resulting pressure on homeowners, Decherd said, "There should be a homeowners' revolt in this city. They're getting killed."

That could happen. But you know, revolts are messy and don't always go so well for Sun Kings. Ouch!

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