Un-chartered Territory

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Un-chartered Territory
Who's behind the strong-mayor petitions? That's a secret.

What does it tell us that the mayor and city council can't even discuss a "strong mayor" charter reform without coming close to a food fight, but a total outsider with no experience in city government may succeed in a dramatic end run around all of them? Probably everything we need to know.

Last week political novice Beth Ann Blackwood delivered 30,000 petition signatures to City Hall--10,000 more than the number required to force a May referendum on charter reform. Blackwood's petitions call for the complete abandonment of the city manager system in Dallas in favor of a strong mayor system.

Attorney Beth Ann Blackwood
Mark Graham
Attorney Beth Ann Blackwood

Blackwood, a lawyer and first-time city council candidate, believes her version of a strong mayor system would give City Hall a badly needed infusion of accountability by transforming the office of mayor from figurehead to true chief executive.

"Whoever is the mayor, the bottom line will be that the mayor is responsible, that the buck stops with him or her," she says.

Two weeks ago when Mayor Laura Miller attempted to talk the council into her own version of a strong mayor election, the debate broke into acrimony so bitter that the meeting had to be adjourned.

The mayor seemed flummoxed by the Blackwood petition drive. She says Blackwood's idea is too radical: Dallas voters will never go for a change, she says, that includes ditching the statutory office of city manager.

At the briefing two weeks ago Miller was still hopeful of getting her own version of reform on the ballot, in which the city manager would still exist but would be hired and fired by the mayor. She asked city staff to tell her what options she and the city council would have if the Blackwood signatures are certified.

"What could we then put on the ballot, if anything?" Miller asked city attorney Madeleine Johnson.

Johnson told the mayor she could only answer her question in a secret "executive session" because of "anticipated litigation." Later in open session the mayor and other council members peppered Johnson with a fairly bizarre range of questions.

For example, Miller wanted to know if it would be legal to put conflicting propositions on the ballot so that voters might theoretically enact two different and conflicting forms of city government at the same time.

Johnson diplomatically replied that it might be technically legal to do so but also might not be a smart idea. She and other staff, all of them speaking very gingerly, informed the mayor that Blackwood's petition drive may make it difficult--probably impossible--for any other strong mayor proposition to go on the ballot next May.

In the hallways and cubicles of City Hall there is huge paranoia over the whole issue of strong mayor charter reform and who is really pushing for what. The morning after her own attempts went down in flames, Miller put more fat on the fire by cheerfully endorsing Blackwood's idea. The Blackwood plan, she said in The Dallas Morning News, was "better than no plan."

It may have been an off-the-cuff remark, but it was taken by several minority council members as proof that Miller and Blackwood had been playing a bad-cop-good-cop game from the beginning. Minority council members, along with a few white members, fear that strong mayor reforms are all about undermining their own hard-fought gains, allowing the old oligarchy to regain control.

Blackwood hasn't helped by not providing information about her own support base. Her most recent campaign finance report improperly omits the source of more than $28,000 she has spent on her District 14 council campaign so far. She also has refused to name the committee behind her petition drive, other than to describe them tantalizingly as "wealthy businessmen."

In a city where the term "wealthy businessmen" still evokes the era of white citizens councils, Blackwood's description of her own support is either brazen or very naïve.

Blackwood seems to regard curiosity about her support as nosiness. "I think most people are just trying to look for a way to shoot at the petition campaign," she says. "They'd like to see some list that they hope gives them some ammunition to use, which frankly isn't there."

That attitude doesn't comprehend, of course, that in politics the better ammo is in the fact the list is secret, not who's on it. But she's getting there.

"I think the real question that people are asking is 'Who is behind this?'" she says.

Bingo.

"Who is behind this really, when you get right down to it," she says, "is myself and my husband [lawyer Tom Thomas]. Now, that's about to change, because now that the signatures have been filed, we have had a lot of other people call."

She promises the names of those people will be forthcoming. The Dallas Observer is aware from other sources that those names will include some former major financial backers of the mayor. Of these, some have become quietly disaffected from the mayor because of what they see as her abandonment of core principles, especially with regard to the Trinity River project.

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