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.

Plus, they're giving me heartburn. I feel their pain. I know a little more than I did a week or so ago about the support for this proposal. Next month when Blackwood is forced to lift her stubborn veil of secrecy, you're going to see a lot of early support from hugely wealthy arch-conservatives whose other great accomplishments in life have included the Swift Boat Veterans crusade and a campaign two years ago accusing moderate Republicans of "promoting the homosexual agenda."

Not too close to my own point of view. But my point of view doesn't necessarily count on the question of petition and referendum in Texas. We will find out in the end that Blackwood and her supporters were pretty scrupulous about making sure their campaign fell within the letter of the law.

Maxine Thornton-Reese. Oh, my goodness. I've bitten my tongue long enough about her. Council member Thornton-Reese was upset to learn that very few of the signatures were accompanied by voter registration numbers.

Johnson explained several times that the Supreme Court has ruled there is no requirement for voter registration numbers. If the city secretary can check the voting status of the signer from other information on the petition, that's enough.

Thornton-Reese asked if the council could require the numbers anyway, thereby invalidating almost all of the signatures and...heh-heh...killing the election.

Johnson answered, "If we were, Dr. Reese, not to follow what the Supreme Court has said that we have to do, we will get challenged, and we won't be able to prevail."

Run it down: It's against the law. If we do it, we'll get caught. We will be sued. We will lose. I don't know how much more emphatic it could be. But it wasn't enough for Thornton-Reese. She wanted to know if somehow the statistical sampling could be used as an excuse for requiring the voter registration numbers in spite of the Supreme Court.

Yeah, I know. Pardon me while I turn my head around 360 degrees. But I think that's what she was saying. She wanted to insist that all of the lines on the petitions be filled out, including the space for voter registration number. The exact tape-recorded quote:

"But either they can sample and let them all be there," she said, "but not sampling and still not let them all be there. The petition, when they check all of those, and they did not have all of those, so they're not checking each and every one of those, and that's what makes the difference.

"When you're sampling, other times when you sample the referendum, did they have all the lines filled in? That's what I'm saying. They either have to have the lines filled in, if they're going to do sampling, or if they're going to check every one of them, maybe it would do that."

I'm sitting out there just squeezing my brain trying to follow this, but it's like somebody is twirling the dial back and forth on an AM radio. I worry that when I begin to find meaning, then I truly will be lost.

But she was not the corker. The corker, for me, was District 14 (Royal and Marsh area) council member Mitchell Rasansky, who gave the lawyers a nasty tongue-lashing for not having anticipated all of these questions before the meeting so that they could have been better prepared to answer them.

"I am just a little upset," Rasansky said. "These are questions you should have had your staff look into and be prepared for us."

How can you anticipate questions this dumb? Hey, speaking of which, here's my own strategy: The proposition is all about changing the form of government in the city of Dallas, right? So: We wait until the week before the election. Then we change the name of the city to El Perro Amarillo! The referendum is invalidated! Huh? What about it? Hey, city attorney: Anticipate this!

There were council people who did not jump into this mess and should not be blamed. But as for the ones who did: The more the public sees of this, the more support will coalesce around the strong mayor proposal, especially if it involves reducing the power of the city council.

The Thornton-Reese quote keeps working on me relentlessly, like something out of Edgar Allan Poe: The petition, when they check all of those, and they did not have all of those, so they're not checking each and every one of those, and that's what makes the difference.

Please, please, make it go away.

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