Take It or Leave It

Strong mayor could be Dallas' only chance for reform

Think about it: Some really outlandish stuff has been written about Beth Ann Blackwood and her husband, Tom Thomas, the lawyers who brought us the strong-mayor proposal on the ballot May 7.

They've been called "Park Cities bubblati," whatever that means. One guy compared the arguments for their proposal to "the sentiments that brought Hitler to the Reichstag in 1933." Was that over the top or what?

Somebody even said their political efforts were "sleazy and contrary to state law." Quick, somebody toss a bucket of ice water on that guy!

Will Jarrett, former editor of the Dallas Times Herald, never thought the city manager system was any good, even 25 years ago.
Mark Graham
Will Jarrett, former editor of the Dallas Times Herald, never thought the city manager system was any good, even 25 years ago.

And here's the really painful part. All those guys were me. I wrote all of that stuff. Hey, what can I tell you? It's not a precise science. I just hope I don't die some day and St. Peter's up there on a cloud with his reading glasses and a big stack of my columns. I'm hoping he'll be busy.

It does occur to me, as we get our heads down for the last furlong before the election, that I might want to revisit the question of where and why the Blackwood amendment came about, especially since one of the people behind the Blackwood proposal is someone I have known for a long time, whose word I trust.

Why wouldn't I ask Will Jarrett?

Jarrett was one of a handful of wealthy backers who kicked in $180,000 to fund the petition drive that produced the upcoming strong-mayor election. If it passes, the Blackwood proposal will spell the end of the city manager system in Dallas in favor of a strong mayor--potentially the biggest alteration of the municipal political landscape in the city's living memory.

Jarrett chipped in 36 grand. I can say with pretty much absolute authority that there is nothing financial in this thing for him, personally. Jarrett and his partner, Ken Johnson, sold a chain of weekly newspapers in the Southwest in 1997 for a rumored $80 million.

I think he does some consulting now, but I asked him once over lunch what his principal occupation is these days. He looked around Sevy's Grill, his hangout on Preston Road near Northwest Highway, and said, "Pretty much this." He thought about it for a minute. "And golf," he added.

Jarrett and Johnson were our captains in the heyday of the Dallas Times Herald, the paper the Los Angeles Times owned here, which is no more. They departed that ship at a point significantly before its sinking in 1991 and started their own successful company. So I guess they knew how to run a business and the L.A. Times didn't.

I asked Jarrett at lunch the other day where Blackwood came from. He said it was entirely the idea of Thomas and Blackwood. "Tom Thomas and Beth Ann Blackwood were the drum majors of this band, and the rest of us just kind of fell in behind them."

Maybe another reason I wanted to have lunch with Jarrett and then revisit this whole question: It did seem obvious, after a while, that none of the people who put up that 180 grand, with the possible exception of Vance Miller, makes any money at City Hall.

Vance Miller is in real estate, especially downtown real estate lately, so that does give him a dog in the City Hall hunt. But the rest of them are just not City Hall connected--an oilman, a mega-bucks international financier, a guy who eats lunch at Sevy's and plays golf, people like that. So what's in it for them?

Jarrett crossed paths with Mayor Laura Miller at the Times Herald--hired her as an intern when she was a kid. He was an early supporter of her first mayoral bid but says he has not spoken with her in more than a year. He says Miller absolutely had no connection with the Blackwood petition drive. He even gets a little miffed when he talks about her initial take on Blackwood, when she said she thought it was too extreme.

"I was very disappointed when Laura came out against Beth Ann's proposition," he said at lunch. "I didn't think it was a very politic move. It basically gave ammunition to the other side.

"She said, 'Well, this is too strong.' I think she knew we needed some strong medicine. I think she was trying to be conciliatory."

Miller, of course, has changed her mind. She is now the most visible supporter of Blackwood. When I interviewed her a few weeks ago, she referred to the Blackwood proposal as "this gift."

She figured out at a certain point that Blackwood was the only thing that was going to be on the ballot. By getting more than enough signed petitions in and qualified, Blackwood blocked any alternatives for the ballot.

Miller has said--and I hear more and more people who think she's right--that the May 7 election is the only shot this city will get at a strong-mayor reform in the foreseeable future, no matter what anybody promises for later. If Blackwood gets shot down at the polls, believe it: A major constituency out there, including the entire city council except for Miller, will heave an enormous sigh of relief. They'll say, "The people have spoken, and they love our city manager." And the strong-mayor idea will be yesterday's vapor trail.

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