Fifteen Stooges

The Dallas City Council does a comedy campaign for its critics

Take this apart: A citizens group brings forward petitions calling for a vote to gut the Dallas City Council and concentrate power in a "strong mayor." Naturally, the council resents the suggestion. Who wants to be gutted? So they're going to come up with a strategy to fight it.

But when they start debating a strategy to head off the strong mayor referendum next May, the council members run around like chickens with their heads cut off, propose 85 different hare-brained schemes and then fail to agree on anything.

I swear, if the backers of the strong mayor thing had hired actors and made a TV ad like the council session I attended last week, people would have accused them of exaggerating the problem.

Council member Maxine Thornton-Reese is a one-woman argument for strong mayor reform.
Steve Satterwhite
Council member Maxine Thornton-Reese is a one-woman argument for strong mayor reform.

But you almost can't exaggerate the problem.

District 11 (Spring Valley and Hillcrest area) council member Lois Finkelman said: "I would love to be able to find a way to put the burden of the cost of this process back on the petitioner and those supporters who funded this effort."

Great idea. Impose stiff fines on people for exercising their right of petition. A media wag in the corridor afterward suggested, "And if that doesn't work, how about a poll tax?"

Here's another idea the council came up with. And you kind of have to follow me closely on this one. I can't decide if this is tricky or dumb or both.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Donald Hill (District 5, mid-Southeast) asked if it was true the signatures on the strong mayor petitions--30,332 in all, filed with the city secretary November 23--had to be verified by a deadline of December 23. City secretary Shirley Acy and City Attorney Madeleine Johnson said yes.

Hill and Mayor Pro Tem John Loza (District 2, Central Dallas) grilled Acy on the method she was using to verify the signatures. She conceded that, given the press of time and the large number of signatures, she was verifying a 25 percent statistical sampling--a method expressly allowed by the Texas election code.

OK, now here's the beauty. They asked, what if the council ordered Acy to verify all 30,000-plus signatures, instead of just 25 percent? And what if that additional burden caused her to miss her December 23 deadline? Would that disqualify the petitions?

Think of this in terms of something more familiar in the law, the rule of habeas corpus, an ancient principle that says a jailer or police official must produce a prisoner within a reasonable time so a judge can determine if the person is being properly held.

Under the John Loza/Don Hill doctrine, if a jailer doesn't make the deadline--he was supposed to get the prisoner down to court by 5 p.m.; it's 5:15 already; the bailiff looks up and down the corridor; still no sign of them--does that invalidate habeas corpus and at that point can the prisoner just be taken out back and shot?

Hey, wait a minute: I am not making this stuff up. I have documentation.

Hill asked City Attorney Johnson if the council could set added conditions for the verification process: "But if it doesn't meet it by that time, then that's the end of it?"

Johnson had to answer this question. You know, so many people say they hate lawyers. Me, I feel sorry for lawyers, because they have to answer questions like this from their clients. Plus, Hill is a lawyer himself. If I were a lawyer, I would say, "You know, this is the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble."

Johnson tried to convey that the law might frown on officials who attempt to thwart a legal process by deliberately failing to carry out their sworn duties: "I don't think the result would be that it would invalidate it," she said. "There might end up being a presumption."

Yeah. Like the judge sets the election date himself and then sentences you to write on a blackboard 500 times, "I am not good at tricks."

District 14 (horseshoe around the Park Cities) council member Veletta Lill got back on her hobby horse--the idea that the people who carried the petitions didn't truthfully explain the full meaning and potential impact of the proposition. "We don't believe that these signatures were signed under truthful circumstances," she said. "Nobody has come forward and said they understood what they were signing. This is a mockery of democracy."

Mockery schmockery. If you sign, you sign. I signed. I have already confessed that I did a less than diligent job of parsing the proposition, and I might not have signed had I better understood it. But I signed.

That's my fault. I was a dingbat.

Look, these petitions aren't carried around by law professors. This is like arguing you've been defrauded because the lady in the red suit with a bell and a pot in front of Wal-Mart failed to accurately advise you of the Salvation Army's investment policies.

It's all wriggling. It's backing and filling, crab-walking, slithering. They're trying to sneak away from the fight. It's political mopery. These signatures will be good. There will be an election. The remedy for people who oppose the strong mayor idea is to go fight it at the polls. The people on the city council trying to weasel out of this are insulting the democratic process and providing their critics with a free media advertising campaign against themselves.

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