Inside the monster battle over strong mayor

Simple enough: should have spent the money in two years and gone back for more. But taxes would have gone up. Instead, we papered the money out over 10 years, kept taxes down, let things go to hell.

"That resulted in the infrastructure deteriorating," Lill says.

So in 2002 the city elects Laura Miller, Mayor Pothole, the one who's going to turn all of that around and launch a Marshall Plan for Dallas, a major offensive to fix the basics. But she's filling a short unexpired term: In 2004 she will have to run for re-election, and meanwhile the city council is struggling with what should be included in the 2003 bond program.

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 mayor's perspective on the 2003 bond proposal," Lill says, "was that we will do the smallest package, one that would require no tax increase in any of the years of implementation."

The history of these events is a somewhat more complicated picture than what Lill offers. Miller did support the portion of the 2003 bond program that included money for street repairs. The part she did not support--the portion that put the total above the amount requiring a tax increase--was geared more toward arts and amenities. Miller also was looking ahead to a re-election bid against a candidate who was painting the whole bond program as a boondoggle and a budget-buster.

But Lill's criticism--that Miller committed a breach of faith--still seems credible, given the outcome. (See sidebar, "And About Those Potholes...") At the very least, it's safe to say that Miller as mayor never came up with anything that could be called a major mobilization on potholes; in fact, the city has cut back on pothole repairs since she took office.

In the last year dozens of business groups have been treated to a fancy videotape presentation on the city's Trinity River project. The movie focuses on plans to build lavishly expensive make-believe suspension bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava over the river. The narrative is punctuated by emphatic vows from Laura Miller that the Calatrava bridges are her No. 1 priority.

So, to review: 1) Pothole crisis is caused by council's refusal to raise taxes. 2) People elect Miller to fix potholes, stop the pyramid-building. 3) Miller gets elected once, adopts policy of no new taxes. 4) She gets re-elected and endorses biggest pyramid program ever. 5) Pothole repairs decline under Miller.

OK. Maybe we're just a big old potholes-and-pyramids town, kind of like a rusted-out deep East Texas trailer house with a brand-new Ford F-350 crew-cab four-wheel dually out front. Except for one thing:

"In every district," Lill says, "all of the propositions in the 2003 bond program passed."

All 17 of them, even the ones that put the overall program over the top in terms of requiring a tax increase. "All of the propositions passed in all of the council districts without the support of the mayor," she says.

The point here is opportunism. The mayor runs for office and gets elected promising to fix things. But she ducks out of the way and lets the council take the flak when it's time to go get stuff paid for.

Finally, toward the end of a long conversation, Lill goes to the well for an explanation--a reason why the mayor may have developed a certain manipulative attitude toward issues. "There is a distinction between a true journalist and a columnist," she says. "There is a difference, a distinction. If one is a journalist, one's responsibility is to present both sides," as opposed to shooting down anything that contradicts your own position.

Some council members attribute Miller's bumpy relationship with them to a personal style she would have developed, thank goodness, long before becoming a Dallas Observer columnist. They think she was just born arrogant.

Council member James Fantroy, who represents District 8 in far Southern Dallas bordering Duncanville, says, "As I sit and watch the mayor, it's kind of like, 'I'm rich. I've been spoiled all my life. I want my way, so give it to me.'"

Fantroy doesn't think her political experience has caused her to grow beyond her privileged social roots in Connecticut. "She hasn't crossed over that yet. Her daddy was president of Neiman Marcus. There's a difference in being the president of Neiman Marcus, where you can just dictate, but here at the council you have to work with 14 others that got elected.

"You just can't come here and tell them, 'I want you to do this. I want you to do that.' It just doesn't work that way. You've got to form a coalition of at least eight. And I haven't seen the mayor form that type of coalition as Ron Kirk did."

Fantroy offers former Mayor Ron Kirk as the gold standard, as do many of those council members who served under both mayors. Kirk, an experienced lobbyist, was famous for barging into council offices, often in a jovial mood, occasionally threatening, but always there and making eye contact.

"When Ron Kirk wanted eight votes," Fantroy says, "Ron Kirk got him eight votes. Ron would come in a couple times a week, like LBJ. If LBJ wanted something, civil rights or whatever, he'd sit down with you and show you all the points and whatever he wanted to get done. That's my understanding of how LBJ was. That was Ron Kirk. That's what he would do."

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