Deal

Decherd and the boys get downtown. Miller gets the crown.

You. You better step over here and get a program. Once the city council gets back from summer vacation and the game starts up again, you're never going to keep track without one.

Major play ahead.

Mayor Laura Miller and the old downtown business boys have come to a deal. She gets a strong-mayor system. They get downtown.

They're set. They're down. They're ready for the blitz. Everybody else is just waving arms and spluttering.

This is not just a trick play. A strong-mayor system is a good idea. The existing arrangement is Dallas' weak, weak, weak system (weak mayor, weak council, weak city manager). The mayor has no real power, just one vote on a 15-member council. We're a football team with no coach and consensus huddles.

We need a strong-mayor system. But not this way--too closed-door, too done-deal, too typical of the way the old Citizens Council used to operate. For all those reasons, this important opportunity for reform is at risk. Strong-arm is not the way to get strong-mayor.

I mean, give me a break. They're not even trying to be inclusive.

Before she went on vacation, Miller angered half the city council by unveiling a plan for a "limited government corporation," or LGC, a semiprivate business group to run downtown, that was devised behind closed doors by a small coterie of downtown business interests. Several members of the council expressed resentment at being shut out of the early development of the scheme.

Then last week while Miller was away, lawyer David Laney, a very downtown guy, former Texas highway commissioner and Miller ally, announced that a group of business leaders is launching an effort to put a strong-mayor reform on the May 2005 ballot.

The new effort includes a significant change from previous attempts. In the past, the mayor has said she had no interest in seeking this reform for herself and would ask that such a reform take effect only after she left office. Not now. In enthusiastic remarks to The Dallas Morning News last week, Miller said she now supports changes to take effect immediately.

In the Morning News, Laney declined to identify the people behind the new effort. He did return my call but only to tell me he couldn't speak to me for a week.

And now I'm sure they're all going to say there is no deal and that the mayor's support for the LGC is in no way tied to the downtown business clique's support for Miller's strong-mayor reform. THERE IS NO CONSPIRACY. CITIZENS WHO KNOW WHAT'S GOOD FOR THEM WILL NOT SAY THERE IS A CONSPIRACY.

I have a suggestion: If you don't want to be accused of conspiracy, don't wear masks. Don't hide everything you're doing from the city council. Don't announce major reform efforts in which you are unwilling to name the would-be reformers.

Meanwhile, I'm going with the conspiracy.

The LGC plan, sprung on the council shortly before they all left for their summer hiatus, would create a small semiprivate body downtown with broad powers of zoning, planning and public works construction including streets and highways. The concept is being pushed hard behind the scenes by Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp. (The Dallas Morning News), whose company and family have major downtown and riverbank land holdings.

I watched the mayor's presentation of the LGC idea to the city council. Members from north and south, white, black and Latino, were openly suspicious and asked over and over why they would hand off to a private group the very responsibilities they were elected to discharge. My favorite was James Fantroy of Southern Dallas. The mayor tried to assure him this was really just a minor administrative arrangement, but Fantroy kept saying, "I'm not that country."

That should be a bumper sticker.

Miller vowed a solid majority will be in favor by the time this idea comes back to the council after the summer hiatus. A week later she announced that McKinsey & Company, the world's premier management consultant, had volunteered to do a vaguely defined efficiency study at City Hall. For free. Miller characterized it as a million dollars' worth of consulting at no charge.

McKinsey does not talk to the press. But a spokesman told the council, "We are going to say what we think, and you may not like what we say."

OK.

Later, McKinsey added that they will not be looking at the concept of a strong-mayor system.

OK. But, uh...why not? How can they know ahead of time that they don't need to look at this very basic structural issue in Dallas city government? And here I have to get deeper into my conspiracy theory. I worry that McKinsey may have been brought into the picture by the downtown interests with a specific mandate to come up with recommendations strongly in support of the LGC.

The strategy would be for McKinsey to pump up the LGC but stay away from the strong-mayor issue. Laney and his group will pump up strong mayor but stay away from the LGC. Decherd gets downtown. Miller gets the crown.

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