Inside the monster battle over strong mayor

Council member Lill says Miller shows up in the council offices every once in a while. "She will do that on occasion." But Miller comes across the hall, Lill says, on a different kind of mission than what brought Kirk over.

"Typically it's more to shore up her base than to attempt to change minds. Mayor Kirk would be working with those who were on the other side to determine what their concerns were. In the case of Mayor Miller, she is working more with those who are in agreement with her position, to make certain they intend to stay in that position."

These characterizations of Miller are not universal among the council members. Some council members say Kirk, as the city's first black mayor, had five guaranteed allies in the other African-Americans on the council, plus his own vote, plus Finkelman and Lill on many issues--eight votes without getting out of bed. So how much of an LBJ did he have to be?

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.

Some on the council also dispute the notion that Miller doesn't spend enough time talking to the council. Sandy Greyson, who represents District 12 at the very tip-top of North Dallas, beyond Trinity Mills Road, says Miller made a good faith effort at first and found out she had too much else to do.

"When she first became mayor, she stayed over here trying to visit all 14 members all the time," Greyson says. "But that's very difficult to do when you have a lot of issues on your plate. When an issue is really important, she has made her feelings known."

Greyson also disputes that Miller has been especially hamstrung or ineffectual as mayor. She and other council members point out that Miller has a long string of scalps on her belt, from ethics reform to the smoking ban to smoking ban II (in which Miller defeated an attempt to weaken the ban).

"My impression," Greyson says, "is that she has won many more battles than she has lost."

Here is the surprise from Miller: In a long, freewheeling conversation in her office one evening, the mayor won't go toe-to-toe against any of these criticisms. It isn't that she finds them especially hard to rebut: She says she does spend time schmoozing the council; she does do deals; and she agrees with Greyson that there isn't a whole lot she has been unable to do under the existing system.

"Look, the only way to get anything accomplished around here is to have a majority vote," she says, "and there's nothing, except Palladium [a real estate deal she opposed at the new basketball arena], that I look back on in three years that I couldn't get done. And water just now." (She lost a vote to knock the proposed Marvin Nichols reservoir off a long-range planning list.)

Mainly she seems bored by the criticisms ("Yeah, yeah, yeah"), having heard them by now many times in a series of public debates on the strong-mayor system. And she has other stuff she wants to talk about.

She jumps up, hauls a big map out of a closet and launches into a complex story about huge land swaps the city manager is negotiating with major landholders downtown, plans for gambling casinos and entertainment centers. This speech, hard to follow at first, is a window on an entire matrix of major public policy issues being negotiated out of public view and without any involvement by the council.

It's hard to follow because none of it has been in the daily paper or on TV. Nobody knows anything about it. The only reason she knows about it, she says, is because she has been crashing some of the meetings uninvited.

This does seem to be where pyramids come from--a tradition stretching back to Reunion Arena, built in 1980 entirely with public funds, a deal negotiated down to the rivets by oilman Ray Hunt and then-City Manager George Schrader, then dumped in front of the city council as a fait accompli. Ironically, it's Hunt who is negotiating with the city manager now for a major land swap, again related to Reunion Arena.

"When I was a columnist for the Observer, I saw this kind of thing happening, and I could do nothing about it," she says. "Now I am the mayor of this city, and it's happening again, and I can do nothing about it."

A few days after this conversation, Assistant City Manager Ryan S. Evans confirms that land swap talks are taking place. He says all of this will be presented to the council for its approval. In the meantime, Evans says, Hunt's Woodbine Development Corp. is doing what city rules require by bringing its proposal to the city manager and not to the mayor or council.

"In the present form of government," he says, "the city manager's office is the entryway for private developers to come forth and negotiate development deals. But at the end of the day, the city council receives information about these real estate deals and has the opportunity to vote them up or down."

That's what Miller wants to talk about. Not the council. The present form of government is exactly what she says does not work. "That's the difference," she says. "It's not the council."

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