By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Try this one on for size. What if Dallas is so screwed up that the only way to get it going right is radical surgery?
What if we went back to something like the old business-guy committees that used to run everything before the yankee federal courts stuck their noses into our affairs in the 1970s and forced Dallas against its will to adopt American-style democracy? What if we sort of gave up on democracy and opted instead for some form of limited provisional enlightened fascism?
The people proposing a "limited government corporation" for downtown Dallas will not appreciate my characterizing their idea as fascism. At all. But the proposal is, in fact, a direct throwback to the days when the entire city was run by a private group of business leaders called the Dallas Citizens Council.
The old system enabled a fairly secretive self-appointed committee of downtown suits to decide who was going to serve on the city council, who was going to be mayor, who was going to be city manager and who was going to get all the big fat juicy contracts.
And, of course, if you were some eccentric guy who disagreed with them, you got squashed like a bug. That was democracy, Dallas-style. You could vote to agree. Or you could vote to get yourself squashed like a bug. Freedom of choice.
The worst thing the old system did--its eventual undoing--was the perpetuation of racism. If they had managed to get themselves up to speed on race and diversity, the old suits or their successors might still be in power.
The limited government corporation or LGC under discussion now is a partial return to the Citizens Council days. Using state laws that make such things possible, the city would create a kind of private government for downtown, with very broad powers.
Virtually all of the existing downtown groups and entities--the special-purpose taxing districts, even the booster associations--would be folded into the LGC. The LGC would run everything downtown. It would be strictly a one-size-fits-all deal, as any self-respecting fascist organization ought to be.
The concept was presented to the city council at a public briefing last June. Since then, the promoters of the LGC supposedly have been modifying and retrofitting their proposal to answer objections and questions from the June briefing.
It isn't on the agenda yet for a new briefing, but the word I get is that it's due back within a month or so. Three big issues still stand out as potential bones of contention: 1. vision, 2. structure, 3. oversight.
As currently proposed, this thing would operate under a nine-member board, a majority of whom would be Dallas residents but a minority of whom might not be.
The board would nominate its own members as a slate, and the city council would say yea or nay to the entire slate. The council couldn't cherry-pick and say yes to this guy but no to that one.
When it was briefed to the council, several council members suggested they thought it should have a 15-member board. That way, each of the 15 council members could have his or her own appointee to the board. The fact that the LGC board is still a nine-member slate means the backers are telling the council no.
And listen: Not everybody on the council is offended or even disagrees. John Loza, whose council district includes the southwest end of downtown, told me he doesn't think a 15-member board is a good idea, because "You don't always get the most qualified people that way."
No kidding. Look at some of the city's 15-member appointed boards, and it's like you're looking at the city council after it got hit by a bus. Whatever the unfortunate shortcomings of council members, those disabilities seem to be multiplied by a factor of 10 when the council makes appointments. If it were a reality TV show, you'd call it "The Less Smart Cousins of the Dallas City Council."
In fact, what I am hearing from some of the council members is this: that the people promoting the LGC have been fairly candid in saying they want this thing because they don't trust City Hall. And the council members to whom they have expressed this sentiment have been, like Loza, pretty sympathetic.
Who should know better that you can't trust City Hall than the members of the Dallas City Council?
Led by Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp., owners of The Dallas Morning News and a significant chunk of land at the southwest end of downtown, the LGC backers are people with big investments in downtown and big checkbooks. They seem to be saying, "We're not going to write big checks to revitalize downtown unless you give us a way to control the environment."
That's the LGC.
The downtown suits can always vote, too, with their feet. They can say, "It's too screwed up; it ain't getting better; City Hall can't make up its mind about anything; we're going to eat our losses and get the hell out of Dodge."
We don't want the suits to leave Dodge. They have checkbooks in their holsters. The question is how much of our basic liberty and hegemony do we give up to the suits in order to get them to stay?