Inside the monster battle over strong mayor

At least we have a choice: Is the mess at Dallas City Hall the fault of a stupid goofy do-nothing city council? Or does the blame belong to a power-mad political dominatrix mayor in Cole Haan heels?

Ready to vote yet?

On May 7 Dallas voters go to the polls to decide on huge changes to the city charter that would ditch the three-quarter-century-old office of city manager for a strong-mayor system. The details could fill a blackboard. But the bottom line is personal.

Mark Andresen
Council members say Mayor Miller may be great at sound 
bites, but she’s not so hot one-on-one.
Mark Graham
Council members say Mayor Miller may be great at sound bites, but she’s not so hot one-on-one.

The city council is strongly opposed. Mayor Laura Miller is strongly in favor. The council says we shouldn't make this change because it allows Miller to get from the voters what she couldn't get politically from the council.

Miller says yep.

But in early January, when debate heated up on the "Blackwood Proposal" (named for the person who started the strong-mayor petition drive), both sides huffed and puffed about how it wasn't going to devolve into personalities. Oh, no: just political science all the way with pipe-puffing and mortar boards, Vivaldi playing in the background, very refined, don't you know.

Then, of course, as fast as they could, everybody on both sides personalized and demonized and caricaturized the heck out of it until it looked like a mudball fight on the pig lot. From this, many possible explanations have emerged for the logjam at Dallas City Hall.

··· It's the mayor's fault. Laura Miller is pushy and arrogant. She couldn't get along with dead people.

··· It's the council's fault. They are dead people.

··· The mayor's a lousy deal-maker. What do you expect from a former journalist?

··· The council thinks every deal is one-for-you, one-for-me. If somebody threatened to put the whole city on the bus to hell, they'd argue Greyhound versus Trailways. What's the last great deal they did?

··· Miller is all hat, no ranch--great on camera, quick with the sound bites, hires clever consultants, does great direct mail, then turns her back on everything she promised.

··· The council is no hat, no ranch--lousy on camera, lousy with the sound bites, hires only cousins as consultants, can't find the post office, turns its back on everything it has promised, feels bad, re-promises, turns its back again until nobody even feels like watching.

By now, all of the above is basic urban legend. All of it contains elements of truth. None of it is the truth.

In fact, if you sit back and button up and let them talk, what emerges from the city council and from the mayor is a very different picture, at least in quality. These are smart people. They tend to be goal-directed and mission-focused, called to what they are doing by a profound sense of public service. They take this stuff seriously.

If you let them talk, you find that their criticisms of each other do not melt away: If anything, they become sharper, but the criticisms also make sense.

Of all the players, the most surprising one is the mayor, because she does not do what most of us probably would expect her to do: She does not pick up the gauntlet and go after the council tooth and claw.

They do go after her. But Miller is after something else entirely.

Let's Not Make a Deal

Councilman Gary Griffith, who represents District 9 in the Lakewood/Lake Highlands/Northeast area, points to the Dallas Cowboys relocation issue: He says the effort to persuade Jerry Jones to move his team to Fair Park in the inner city blew up before it got going. He blames the blowup on Miller's lack of experience as a negotiator.

"This was our team and our city," Griffith says. "We wanted to try to keep them together. Not at any price, no.

"But what we never did as a city was determine what that price was. That's the key. We never as a city determined what a reasonable price was to create a partnership that would help save Fair Park and be a catalyst for change in South Dallas."

Griffith thinks negotiations between the city and Jones needed to be handled by somebody who had taken Used Car Salesman 101. In particular, he doesn't think City Hall should have asked Jones for a price--the amount he wanted the city to pay toward his new stadium--before getting him to want the deal himself first. After he wants it, then you talk money.

So exactly how do you get a mean old snake-smart Arkansas boy to yearn for a chance to move his profitable, prestigious sports franchise to a poor black neighborhood near downtown Dallas? Griffith thinks the best selling point was family legacy. Given the right pitch, he says, the Jones family might have been persuaded that this was its shot at a respectable place in history.

"You want to say, 'Yes, economics is a part of this equation.' But you also want to say, 'There's a responsibility that successful people and families have to their communities.'

"We're always admiring what the Bass family has done to help be a catalytic force for change in downtown Fort Worth, so why wouldn't it make sense for the Jones family to be the catalyst for change in Fair Park and South Dallas?"

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