Voting Wrongs

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Voting Wrongs
Why one expert thinks choosing a strong mayor will lead to "a lost decade"

Laura Miller and Beth Ann Blackwood--one the supporter of the strong-mayor initiative that will be put before voters in May, the latter its creator--have not sought the counsel of Southern Methodist University professor emeritus Ruth Morgan about their beloved city charter amendment, nor have those against the strong-mayor proposal. Morgan, instead, speaks only (and often) to those organizations whose members are unsure of where they stand on the sweeping proposal that would toughen the mayor and weaken the city council--the League of Women Voters, say, or the Dallas Summit, of which Morgan is a member, or even students at community colleges. She has even spoken to an assembly of her own neighbors, who have taken advantage of having an expert on local politics just around the corner. Maybe it doesn't sound like the most fun block party in the 'hood; then again, better to consume good information than lousy casserole.

These folks, the concerned and confused, seek out Morgan because she knows as much as anyone about the rights and wrongs of the proposal: As author of Governance by Decree: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas, which contains a detailed history of the 1990 federal court order creating the current 14-1 system of Dallas government, Morgan offers invaluable insight untainted by political motivations or the generous donations of concerned millionaires living in the Park Cities. "My purpose is to give these groups background and information and let them weigh that and make their own judgment," Morgan says. "I don't try to proselytize for one side or the other." And she laughs.

But when pressed, which means when simply asked, Morgan is not shy about sharing her opinion about Blackwood's proposal. She thinks it's a lousy idea--and, quite possibly, one that could land the city in federal court and on the desk of the Department of Justice for years.

The proposal "would actually make this mayor the strongest one in the entire country," Morgan says, dismissing Blackwood's claims to the contrary. "It strips the council of an awful lot of power, so what you're doing is not creating a balanced structure for the good of the city. You're making the legislative branch and the executive branch in one person, and that's not a good system...I think what will happen will be we're going to be tied up in court for years, and it's just going to have a detrimental effect on the city. Look at what's happened already. We can't do a city manager search. We can't do the city attorney search. Things will come to a standstill when you're involved in litigation, and that's certainly not healthy."

Morgan repeatedly dismisses Blackwood's assertions that the mayor wouldn't be toopowerful, only strong enough to bust up the perceived logjam at City Hall. After all, the mayor, not the council, would elect the mayor pro tem; the council would be stripped of its authority over its various committees and to govern council meetings; the mayor, not the council, decides when ordinances and regulations would go into effect; and the mayor, not the council, would appoint the city attorney and city secretary and city judges without the council's approval.

That's just the tip of the iceberg Morgan fears will sink the city, and on top of all that, Morgan insists there's no real accountability: The council, according to the proposal, can impeach the mayor with a majority vote, but that won't happen unless there are serious criminal allegations brought against the mayor, and even then the process of bringing charges and then convicting the mayor would be so protracted and time-consuming it would likely ground the council to a dead stop for months. "It's kind of ludicrous," Morgan says of the proposal's notion of accountability.

The proposal wound up on the ballot, Morgan says, "because Blackwood was able to move in and frame the issue. A strong mayor is like apple pie and motherhood. You say to people, 'Are you in favor of a strong mayor?' They say, 'Sure.' You ask, 'Are you in favor of a strong council?' And they'll say, 'Sure.' You ask them, 'Are you in favor of a strong government?' And they'll say, 'Sure.' Consequently, framing it that way, people who are dissatisfied with the potholes and this and that and the other, well, what's the answer? A strong mayor. Well, she drafts a proposal, but how did she draft it? She didn't vet it with people, because there is no point in putting a proposal out there for people to vote for when parts of it are illegal and parts of it are simply contrary to any principles of government. And when you go through and simply cross through words in the charter and every time you see the words 'city manager' you write in 'mayor,' you're not thinking through the relationship between the branches, and you're not thinking through checks and balances."

Morgan would like to let the city's 14-1 system of government mature; after all, it's only 15 years old. But if she were to reinvent City Hall, she'd have the voters elect the city attorney and city auditor, positions that would be appointed by the mayor under Blackwood's proposal. This way, she says, at least there would be independent checks and balances at City Hall. And she would also allow for a few at-large council seats, because there would be a handful of council members who'd have to build coalitions with their colleagues rather than fight solely for their own constituents. As it stands now, Morgan says, 14-1 allows for "corruption and cronyism," rather than the compromise necessary to govern a city.

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