By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There are two scary things about the "strong mayor" proposal probably slated for a referendum in Dallas next May: It seems to have roots in affluent venues in the Park Cities and North Dallas. And it would absolutely gut the Dallas City Council.
But does being scary make it bad?
I have a little fess-up to get out of the way. A couple of fess-ups. One, I didn't read the thick document attached to the petitions...wait, three fess-ups. I didn't read the thick document attached to the petitions calling for a vote next May to abandon the city manager form of government in Dallas. Two...ouch, this is really embarrassing...I signed the petition.
Three, for some weeks now I have had a general knowledge of who was behind it, and in particular I knew one of the organizers was Dallas businessman Vance Miller. In fact, Miller and I have discussed the proposal in some detail.
I have reported that the group backing the strong mayor movement was "secret" only because most of them still are, and the person out front on the deal, city council candidate Beth Ann Blackwood, won't name them. I suspect her problem is that almost all of them are from the Park Cities and the riches of North Dallas, and she's hoping to dilute that with some more plebeian support by the time she has to file a campaign finance report for the petition drive. Dallas elections director Brooks Love tells me that date is January 18, when all campaigns and candidates must file semiannual reports.
My discussions with Vance Miller about the petition drive were on background. But he outed himself as an organizer last week on WFAA-Channel 8, so I can talk about him now.
So let's see. I signed the thing without reading it. I said the group was secret, even though I knew who some of them were. Now I've read it, and my jaw is on the ground over how radical it is. If I could do this all over again, I would never have signed the petition. But now that I have read it, and given the circumstances, I think I may vote for it.
Maybe I need a nap.
I had been told the charter amendments amounted merely to crossing out all references to "city manager" and replacing them with "mayor"--a simple "search and replace."
More like "search and destroy."
Let me share. First the legalese. And this is only an example. The existing charter talks about how "all ordinances and resolutions of the city council...shall be final on the passage or adoption by the required majority of the city council."
If we vote yes on this thing next May, that language will say: "All ordinances and resolutions of the city council AND ORDERS OF THE MAYOR shall be final on the passage or adoption by EITHER THE MAYOR or the required majority of the city council."
Yeah, take a deep breath. That's what I did. Right now, the council votes on ordinances--local laws. But under the new version, the mayor could also pass laws, called "orders."
Are you mentally searching for a parallel in your experience as an American that might help you comprehend that? How about "martial law"?
And I still think I may be OK with it.
In the last week I have been reading political science journals (I deserve hazardous mental duty pay) dealing with forms of local government. The bottom line is that types of city government occupy a spectrum. Right now we are way over at one end--weak mayor, weak council, weak city manager. The weak, weak, weak system.
The proposal put forward by the petitions would slam us all the way over to the other extreme: no city manager or other statutory chief administrative officer at all, a crippled city council that reporters won't even bother to cover, and "The Hulk" for mayor.
This mayor would run every department of the city and have hire-and-fire authority over all non-civil service city employees and appointees. She would appoint the civil service commission. As a matter of fact, she would appoint all members of all city boards and commissions.
The mayor would hire and fire the city council's personal staff and decide what to pay them. You know those city council secretaries who campaigned against Mayor Laura Miller and then brought an ethics complaint against her? They would need to dump their stuff in boxes and run.
The mayor would hire and fire the chief of police, the city attorney, all municipal judges and court clerks. The mayor could create or kill entire city departments--any city department. The mayor would be able to create special police and detectives apart from the police department.
My own personal favorite new power of the mayor: The mayor would be able to blow up buildings. Seriously. I'm not making that up.
The thing about blowing up buildings has to do with emergency situations in which structures are already on fire and threatening other buildings. But, you know, they could always reinterpret "emergency." I imagine the mayor sitting around with Crayton Webb, her chief of staff: "Gee, Crayton, Schutze's column is so bad. I mean, it's almost like an emergency how bad it is. Wouldn't you say?"