The Juice

If you got it, you can get what you want from City Hall

If you're worried about getting lost in someone else's political agenda, then you hire a lawyer or a lobbyist--a paid pro--to broker your deal. At least that way you can be reasonably assured your broker has your interests first in mind.

That takes money. It all takes savvy and patience. It may require a certain humility--a willingness to roll up one's sleeves and get one's hands dirty.

People who do this stuff for a living, for example, always contribute to every council member's officeholder account. It's not that two grand to an officeholder account buys a council person's vote, but it does buy a call-back. And you're not in the game if you can't get a call-back.

Your friendly city council is eager to assist with any needs you may have at Dallas City Hall.
Thomas Nast
Your friendly city council is eager to assist with any needs you may have at Dallas City Hall.

The rules are wobbly and uncertain. Not everyone is allowed to use a broker, for example. I'm told Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp. (The Dallas Morning News) hasn't done better in his own City Hall initiatives precisely because he has insisted on using brokers rather than pressing the flesh in person.

"Some council members are offended by that," a source told me.

They want to see the Prince of Belo humble himself a bit, make an appointment, sit across a desk in a squeaky chair and ask for it the way regular people do. Democracy's not easy for princes.

If you're an ordinary mortal, on the other hand, people at City Hall are reassured to see you using one of the regular brokers. It shows you know the rules and can be counted on to behave yourself.

The thing we need to understand, in sizing up the debate on a strong-mayor system, is that the system we have now works just fine for individual council members and for lots of people who have business with the city. We see them already coming together in an otherwise almost incomprehensibly diverse coalition. What they have in common is that they know how to work the locks.

So what is it that City Hall can't do?

The system at City Hall cannot effect change that transcends narrow interests. Take the debate on doing something about the homeless. The juice system is great for stopping things you don't like, for people who want to prevent the city from locating a new homeless intake center in their part of town. No eggs get broken.

But it doesn't provide the kind of overarching leadership that can say, "Sorry, gotta get this done, gotta break some eggs. Here's where it goes. If you don't like it, vote me out of office."

Which leads to my second point. There's no one to vote out of office. I get letters and calls and e-mails from people who are furious that the city isn't building the park we were promised in the 1998 Trinity River bond election and is building a freeway instead. They want to know whom they can fire.

Nobody. The Trinity River project has been cobbled down into dozens of mini-deals, each of them brokered by a different interest group. Let's say you get really serious about this, and you drive down to the Trinity River project office, and you tell the people there that you want a full accounting of the decisions that led to the current situation.

Watch the eyes. You know how sometimes you're at a party, and you're talking to somebody, and you notice they're pretending to listen but sort of looking around for somebody else. I can tell you exactly who they're looking for.

The juice.

You want something? You want a report or a study or something on the Trinity River project? Answers: That's what you said you wanted. Sure, we can do that. We can buckle down and go to work like a bunch of busy bees getting those answers for you, but...ah...

Where's your juice, man? Where's your council person? Well, actually, now that we think about it, the Trinity project is a citywide issue, so before we could actually acknowledge your existence here in the office too much, we would need eight little bottles of juice on the wall.

There are smart people who will argue passionately to you that this is the best system we can have: It gives everybody access, at least theoretically, and it doesn't allow any one group or person to dominate.

Others will argue that this is a system designed for special seekers. It allows everybody to get but requires nobody to give. It belches steam and toots the whistle but can't move the train down the tracks.

That's up to you.

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