Mayorzilla

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.
Council members Lois Finkelman, James L. Fantroy and 
Gary Griffith
Steve Satterwhite
Council members Lois Finkelman, James L. Fantroy and Gary Griffith
Mark Andresen

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?"

And how do you convince Mr. Snake-Smart that this isn't some hokey sales pitch people are going to forget the minute they get Jerry Jones to give them what they want for Christmas? Griffith thinks a united front by the city council would have demonstrated that the whole city was sincere, committed and taking this one seriously.

"You have to enter this as a partnership," he says. Instead, Miller kept the city's end of the Cowboys talks close to her vest, cutting the council out of the picture almost entirely.

Griffith doesn't fault Miller for seeking a good deal. He says the city always needed to be ready to break off talks if the ultimate price demanded by Jones was too high. He's even willing to say that his family legacy idea might not have been the perfect tactic. The problem, he suggests, is that Miller went at this without any coherent tactical plan. Her first shot out of the box, he says, was to challenge Jones to make his move.

Which he did. To the suburbs.

Griffith says there is no getting around the fact that losing the Cowboys was bad for Dallas. "It would have been a billion-dollar company leaving the suburbs to come to the inner city. That's a very unusual occurrence."

It's especially hard to swallow, he believes, because he thinks we don't know if there might have been a way to get a better deal.

"What I wanted was a strategy," he says, "and the city never adopted a strategy toward getting the Cowboys. It is unclear to me today why we never had a strategy."

Asked directly if Miller's background as a journalist failed to prepare her for negotiations with someone like Jerry Jones, Griffith says, "That's my point."

The point is sensitive sometimes when a columnist for the Dallas Observer is interviewing city council members about the personal shortcomings of a mayor who is a former columnist for the Dallas Observer. But several council members seemed to overcome those qualms without breaking a sweat and pointed directly to Miller's history as a columnist for the Observer as the source of all dysfunction.

Lois Finkelman, who represents District 11 in North Dallas around the Hillcrest and Spring Valley area, says, "Many of the columns in papers like the Observer turn out to be more editorials than columns. The ultimate position is defined on the front end of the article, and you build your case to prove that point."

It's a kind of thinking, she says, that never doubts itself, doesn't let the facts get in the way and never changes course. "It was the mayor when she was writing as Laura Miller who was absolutely opposed to funding for Fair Park, called it a total waste, and why would we do that?

"That may be part of what happened with the inability to land the Cowboys. Many of us thought that Fair Park was an ideal location for the Cowboys and would have brought tremendous value to the South Dallas community and to Fair Park as well."

Council member Veletta Forsyth Lill, who represents District 14, a horseshoe around the southern border of the Park Cities, points to experiences that are missing from the backgrounds of many journalists, especially Dallas Observer columnists.

"The challenges that the mayor has not had in her life experience include managing people or consensus-building," Lill says. "Most people either have the experience of managing staff or serving on boards in which there must be consensus as part of the governing process. That may be as simple as your church board or nonprofit board or a for-profit."

What Lill does not see in Miller's background is "any experience that demands more than unilateral thinking."

A personal history in the hands-on, small-time, low-glory crafting of political outcomes does more than merely develop powers of personal persuasion, Lill believes. It also teaches people the real-world significance of ideas, even of slogans. She suggests, ever so gingerly, that Miller is manipulative in her use of ideas and slogans in front of the cameras when she's barking out those wonderful sound bites.

Take potholes--in many ways the emblematic issue that first got Miller elected mayor in 2002. Public dissatisfaction over the miserable condition of city streets was symptomatic of a deeper malaise, a worry that someone wasn't minding the store, that various pirates and shills were building pyramids for themselves with city money while the basic plant went to hell. With the help of a skilled political consultant and ad agency, Miller was able to tap into that vein of pain with her motto, "a big vision of the little things that make a big difference in people's lives."

This is an important issue to Lill, and she chooses her words carefully, with long pauses and hands together at the fingertips before her face. She says the pothole issue was real; the voters were right; and it happened for a reason.

"We had not kept pace with infrastructure repair needs in more than a decade, beginning with probably the 1985 budget," Lill says. "The street repair budget was depleted, and the 1985 bond program turned out to require 10 years for implementation so that no tax increase would be incurred."

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.

"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."

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?

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."

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.

"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.

Do we even ask anymore why people out here in the peanut gallery are pulling out their hair? It almost would have been better if the mayor and the city council had voted that day to burn City Hall to the ground, because at least that would have involved a clear-cut decision. We could have moved on from there. Where does the peanut gallery go from a shmush?

To the polls, let's hope.

And About Those Potholes...

Laura Miller made potholes the symbol of her campaign when she first ran for mayor of Dallas in 2002, promising to wrench City Hall away from its obsession with "big ticket" projects and focus instead on "the little things that make a big difference in people's lives."

Fast-forward to 2005: The mayor now touts artistic Trinity River suspension bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava as her "No. 1 Priority." So what happened with the potholes?

Not a pretty picture. According to the city's department of Street Services, city of Dallas crews were repairing an average of 19,400 potholes a year in the years immediately prior to Miller's first election as mayor. In the period following her election, that number dipped to 13,200--a decline of almost a third.

One good explanation would be money. The pothole budget was almost halved in Miller's first term, from $459,000 a year to $258,000.

Of the three Calatrava bridges Miller wants, the one over Interstate 30 alone comes in at a cost of $125 million, to replace a bridge state officials admit isn't worn out. According to city figures, the money for that bridge would be enough to repair 6,250,000 potholes, compared with the 13,244 that got fixed in fiscal year 2003-2004.

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