Inside the monster battle over strong mayor

She says the council, for all its criticism of her, is doing what it's supposed to do--representing the 14 districts. "But you know, when you're looking at the city as a whole, it's a whole different ballgame than looking at it from your district. When you're in your district, all you care about is for the little old lady who tripped on the sidewalk to get the sidewalk fixed. And it might take you six months around here to get that done, but you did it, and that's important. I went through that."

Miller says it takes a different mentality to slice the pie for the whole city, especially given scarce resources. She has a pejorative view of city managers as low-risk survivors who hope to keep everybody at bay long enough to allow themselves to get vested in the pension fund.

Big backroom deals like the land swaps under discussion downtown can't be trusted, she says, to "a bureaucrat who is desperate to vest, so to keep everyone happy he does no triage. He does nothing but sprinkle the goodies out in 14 equal pieces.

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.

"You can't do that. You have to look at need. You've got to triage your resources, and that's not being done. Ever. Everything is backwards.

"The beauty of the strong-mayor proposal on the ballot in May is that it is the operational side of the building that comes under the mayor. Somebody can finally be held accountable and walk into a conference room and say, 'We're not doing a swap.'"

Going Nuts

Another urban legend inspired by the strong-mayor debate is that the city council could have endorsed a more moderate charter reform proposal than the one on the ballot several months ago but voted it down.

The city council now is promising to come up with its own more moderate strong-mayor proposal--let's call it "Wiry Mayor"--if voters will please just turn down the one on the ballot in May. The urban legend is supposed to mean the council can't be trusted: They'll never come up with anything but a paraplegic mayor if the Blackwood proposal gets defeated.

The real story is more complicated. Last November 17, Miller presented the city council with two alternative strong-mayor proposals, asking them to choose one or the other to present to voters in the May election.

Dr. Elba Garcia, who represents District 1 in North and Central Oak Cliff, says Miller was responsible for the debacle at the council the day she presented her strong-mayor plan, because she hadn't done her political homework.

"When she presented her proposals, she came to me at 5:30 p.m. the day before the briefing was going to take place to give me her recommendations.

"I said, 'Some of them look good here. But, gosh, I'm seeing one proposal that is going to make three of my colleagues go ballistic. Have you talked to them?' She said, 'Well, we'll talk about it tomorrow [at the formal council briefing].'"

Garcia says she was shocked. The whole idea, she says, is to do the ugly political sausage-making in advance, before the meetings and away from the TV cameras.

"We're talking about a change of government. And you do it at 5 o'clock in the afternoon the day before the meeting? That's why some of my colleagues went nuts out there that day."

But to be fair...they did go nuts.

African-Americans in particular accused Miller of every kind of perfidy for proposing that the mayor be given the power to hire and fire the city manager. Under the existing system and based on pragmatic experience, black council members have come to regard a powerful bureaucracy as their bulwark against the city's dominant white voting bloc.

On the day Miller brought her ideas forward, the council also was informed by the city attorney that all of these ideas on charter reform--the mayor's and their own--were hereby officially deemed totally irrelevant because the proposal on the ballot in May was going to be the one put forward by a citizens group in a recent petition drive (the Blackwood proposal). And Miller had presented her ideas during a "briefing session" of the council when the council couldn't legally vote on anything anyway.

In spite of that, council member Donald Hill, who represents District 4, a crescent of Southern Dallas just beyond old South Dallas, asked Miller to withdraw her proposals rather than divide the council. Miller refused to back down and called for a "straw vote"--a non-binding vote to show the sentiment of the council.

At that point Mayor Pro Tem John Loza, who represents District 2 in West Dallas, downtown and East Dallas, said he thought the council couldn't handle even a straw vote. Just too traumatic. He asked that the whole matter of charter reform just be put off somehow. Not formally with a vote or anything but just sort of shmushed off the table, forgotten, as if it had never been mentioned.

So it was. Shmushed. Simply not mentioned again. So what we wound up with was a shmushed delayed non-binding straw vote on an irrelevant question.

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