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.

Mayor Laura Miller may dance for the cameras, but Robert Decherd at Belo Corp. pulls the strings.
Mark Poutenis
Mayor Laura Miller may dance for the cameras, but Robert Decherd at Belo Corp. pulls the strings.

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.

I'm ready and willing to be wrong here. But, man. The whole McKinsey study is even more cloaked and closed-door than the LGC plan or the strong-mayor reform by the mysterious anonymous strong-mayor reformers.

McKinsey does high-level strategy for companies all over the world. All of the staff bios on their Web page are not just Harvard, Yale and Oxford but magna cum laude with multiple degrees. I called McKinsey in New York and Dallas several times to ask them if they have a business relationship with any of the people or companies associated with the LGC effort in Dallas. They finally called me back and said they never discuss clients. I guess that would be fair, except that this is public business.

For all their vaunted business acumen, I don't really get the impression from talking to people here that McKinsey is especially knowledgeable about local government or politics. Pat Cotton was on the board of Parkland Memorial Hospital, the county's public hospital, when J. McDonald Williams, a member of the board of Belo Corp., brought McKinsey in to help Parkland reorganize.

Cotton told me: "Bill Barnett, the guy who was running it here for McKinsey, is a very nice man, very pleasant, very congenial, probably a good business consultant, but they had no clue about Texas law, about public health, about any of the strictures that would make it difficult for us to do what we were hoping to do."

On the other hand, Cotton said she had the impression the McKinsey people knew where they were supposed to wind up politically: "I'm sure they knew what the end should be," she said.

I was interested in that remark, because I had just finished taking a look at a free study McKinsey did of the Dallas housing department, also at the behest of Williams, the Belo board member. Most of it was way too smart for me--a lot of stuff about utilizing "a workflow tracking tool" and increasing "the predictability/transparency of the development cycle."

But one recommendation stuck out like a sore thumb: "Do not buy out Cadillac Heights; support community development efforts."

Whoa, boy. Huge amounts of political blood have been shed over the question of buying out homeowners in flood- and pollution-ravaged Cadillac Heights. That's not an efficiency issue. That's morality, politics, culture, history--everything but efficiency.

There is no reason why McKinsey even would have addressed that question, unless somebody had a thumb on the scale. That's why my ears pricked up when Cotton implied there could have been a little thumb on the scale in McKinsey's Parkland study, too.

There are two possible thumb issues I see ahead in whatever McKinsey reports in its effort for the mayor. First, what was the rationale for stating ahead of time, before even starting to look at Dallas city government, that they wouldn't touch the strong-mayor issue? What was the motivation for saying that?

Second: If they make any kind of endorsement of the LGC, they got problems. The LGC plan for downtown is already associated in the council's mind with Decherd and Belo. If McKinsey recommends the council adopt the LGC, some members will want to know who brought McKinsey in and what connection, if any, McKinsey has with Belo.

I called Williams, the Belo board member, to ask about it, but he was out of town and not available for comment. I looked hard for direct links between McKinsey and Belo, apart from Williams, and did not find them. But McKinsey tends not to leave footprints.

McKinsey does have a huge media and entertainment practice. They have been major purveyors of a doctrine of media reorganization called "convergence," which is practically a religion at Belo, especially with Decherd. The question here would be whether McKinsey, Decherd and the mayor have "converged" in some way the mayor perhaps forgot to mention to the council when she presented them with the McKinsey study.

The game, if there is a game, would be for Decherd and his group to win the LGC, effectively taking downtown out of public control. In return they would help crown Miller queen of all the rest. I suppose if this is how it unfolds, the argument in favor will be that boys have the means to rebuild downtown. But they won't stick around and do it if poor people and minorities are going to have anything to say about it. So let them have their downtown duchy, and allow Queen Laura to rule the rest.

Me? As much as I think the strong-mayor system would be good for the city? As much as I love downtown? If the only way to get things done is to fence out everybody but the big dogs and treat other people as if they don't belong, then screw it. Let it all go to hell. Democracy is worth 10 times the city.

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