Voting Wrongs

Plus: Good News

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.

Author and political expert Ruth Morgan says we may one day regret the strong-mayor vote.
Author and political expert Ruth Morgan says we may one day regret the strong-mayor vote.

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 too powerful, 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.

"If this passes," Morgan says, "I think that's going to be one of those events in the history of Dallas that we'll look back at a number of years from now and say, 'Oh, goodness, why? Look at the decade we lost.'"

Morgan is not alone in this opinion: Analeslie Muncy, former Dallas city attorney under Mayor Steve Bartlett, studied the charter amendment at the request of the Greater Dallas Chamber and found it in violation of several state laws, among them those governing the adoption of orders, resolutions and ordinances. And there are several sections of the proposal that, she believes, are in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits elections that discriminate on the basis of race and color.

Muncy says that "there is a good chance that [the Department of] Justice" will object to the language and intent of the proposal, which would essentially undermine the 1990 federal court that called for the city manager to act as a buffer between the mayor and the council members elected from single districts. After all, the proposal emasculates the council members elected from predominantly black and Hispanic districts.

"The proposal was obviously not done by someone with much knowledge about municipal law," Muncy says. "It's just without enough background and understanding of the relationship between state law and charters and city government. The state law matters can be overcome. You ignore what's in the charter and follow state law, but why would you adopt something you knew going in wasn't going to be a document that's usable from beginning to end? It would be defaulted to state law, and it doesn't make sense. But that's not insurmountable. What is insurmountable is the Voting Rights problem. It will never take effect if the Justice Department intercedes and objects to it, and there's a good chance they would."

And the folks at Justice wouldn't be the only ones. --Robert Wilonsky

Good News

In Dallas, television news apparently isn't an empty shell. A study released last week by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California found that WFAA-Channel 8 and KXAS-Channel 5 led the nation in local political coverage in the month before the November 2 elections.

KXAS dedicated 17 percent of its newscasts to political issues, tops among the 11 television markets the Annenberg School studied. WFAA gave 15 percent of newscasts to politics--second best in the study--but delved much deeper in its stories, reporting on issues behind each political race rather than, simply, who's leading it. Indeed, political stories on WFAA averaged 102 seconds per airing; no other local newscast reported as many stories as thoroughly as WFAA.

"Dallas, as a market, did well," says Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School and one of the study's lead authors. Surprisingly well, in fact, considering how the rest of the nation fared.

Ninety-two percent of the 4,333 newscasts studied contained no stories about local races. Across the nation, 12 times more coverage went to sports and weather. More than five hours of ads ran for House of Representative candidates for every one hour of news stories about those candidates.

A majority of Americans get their news from local television, Kaplan says. For this reason, "[the study] was alarming this year."

Why, then, did two Dallas stations lead the pack?

"Perhaps because of redistricting," Kaplan says.

No, not really, says Susan Tully, the news director at KXAS. "We just had a lot of issues to cover." There was the Pete Sessions-Martin Frost congressional race and the vitriol it produced; the Dallas Cowboys moving to Arlington; a sheriff under investigation and the candidate who replaced him, a gay Hispanic woman. "We told our reporters, 'Find the stories. Make them interesting,'" Tully says.

Cliff Williams is the managing editor of WFAA. "We've always put a premium on political coverage," he says. "Our viewers want to know what's going on politically."

Yes, but isn't there pressure to cover the car crashes, the house fires, instead of more politically relevant issues? Doesn't that stuff garner better ratings?

Ah, Mr. Williams?

"I'm sorry," he says. "Speaking of spot news, we've got some sort of school riot going on. I'm going to have to call you back." --Paul Kix

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