Take It or Leave It

Strong mayor could be Dallas' only chance for reform

So Miller has come around to support Blackwood. Let's imagine, then, that Will Jarrett's version of how this came about is exactly right. Blackwood and her husband just decided on their own that Dallas City Hall was too painful to watch--a sentiment I can understand--and they came up with a way to fix it. Some of the people they hit up for money gave them the cash because they were friends or business associates or thought they were the valet parkers.

But what was in it for Jarrett? I know him too well. He's the kind of shrewd observer who cannot make himself not watch. Even if he's pretty busy eating lunch and playing golf, I damn well know he's still watching every move. So why did he think this was worth 36 grand of his own money?

To answer, he went straight back to the late 1970s, when he and Ken Johnson were editing the Times Herald. "Everybody was saying how wonderful the council-manager system was then. I didn't think it was very wonderful.

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.

"As you will recall, there was a massive tax scandal that took place then, in which businesses were able to render whatever they wanted to. The city accepted it."

Oh, yeah. I do remember that. I worked on that story, with Jarrett as my boss. What a deal: Businesses in Dallas "rendered" their own taxable value for their inventories; that is, they called up the city tax department and said, "Here's what we're going to pay you this year." The city just accepted whatever they offered.

Jarrett reminded me: Lots of really down and dirty conflict of interest was involved. "In some cases there were employees of the city tax department who were moonlighting as tax consultants for the very businesses they were supposed to have oversight of," he said.

Obviously the businesses went way low-ball when they guesstimated what they owed. All of the money they escaped paying was money that had to be paid instead by homeowners. Eventually our stories forced the city to admit it was illegally under-estimating the taxable value of business inventories by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I personally did not see any adequate responsiveness from the city manager's office when that story blew up," Jarrett said.

And nothing much has changed. Look at the stupid mess City Hall was in when Terrell Bolton was police chief; the crime rate in Dallas had been the worst in the country for years; The Dallas Morning News wouldn't report it; and the city manager wouldn't do anything to get rid of Bolton.

"But I had no power to change that," Jarrett said. "Nothing, nada. Nobody in the city could do anything to get that change made. I as a voter and you as a voter in the city of Dallas could not vote directly for a change."

He's right. There is a thread here. It does go back to the 1970s. It does go back to the Times Herald, which was the first vigorous force for change this city had seen in a half-century. The city manager system is a relic of the day when a tiny cabal of business leaders downtown viewed the manager as their private under-the-table CEO.

Did the city manager system work? Yeah, if you owned a business with a big inventory and you didn't want to pay your taxes. But it sure didn't work for homeowners. North Dallas homeowners in particular formed the core of the tax rebellion that followed our stories at the Herald. Their uprising was, I always suspected, the forerunner of the neighborhood movement that still drives city politics to this day.

"Everybody talks about the council-manager system being great," Jarrett said. "If it's so great, why don't we have a state manager form of government? Or let's get Bush out of there, and let's put in a national manager appointed by Congress."

When you follow it all the way back, the city manager system is the last remaining relic of good ol' boy government in Dallas. Good ol' boy government has endured here, because conservative voters in North Dallas have a tendency to imagine that they are good ol' boys, too.

But every now and then they look up and realize they're not included; the good ol' boys are making off with the inventory; crime's terrible and the streets are going to hell.

Maybe this is how we break that cycle.

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