To understand the new charter proposal, think Larry, Moe, Curly

Please try to follow this. You might need a notebook. I'm trying to get across a very complex technical point about urban governance. You're familiar with The Three Stooges, right?

You know how sometimes Moe whacks both Curly and Larry in the back of the head, then Curly whacks Larry, then Larry whacks Curly?

Jot that down. 1) Moe whacks Curly and Larry. 2) Then...uh, well sometimes I think Curly whacks Moe back. Doesn't he? 3) And then Larry whacks Curly. I think. It varies. 4) I know I've seen times when they all just whack each other.

We're aiming for the whack-whack-whack form of city government.
We're aiming for the whack-whack-whack form of city government.

Anyway, that's the chain of command they're going to propose in the November charter election for a new system of city government. 1) Whack-whack. 2) Whack. 3) Whack. 4) Whack-whack-whack.

You remembered we were going to have another charter election in November, right? Oh, come on. You gotta stay on this stuff. And you remember what the city charter is, right? The charter is our city constitution, and they want to change it to make the city run better.

We had the "strong mayor charter election" last May 7. It failed. Now on November 7 we're going to have another one for an alternative, less strong but somewhat stronger mayor and much stronger city council. Charter. Change. OK, I need to see your eyes front and center.

The May election was easy to understand because of the name. "Strong mayor election." Nobody has come up with a good name for the November proposal. Just for now, let's call it the nyuk-nyuk election.

Under a nyuk-nyuk system of urban governance, the mayor has the power to hire the city manager. Whack. The mayor also has the power to fire the city manager. Whack. But a simple majority of the city council also has the power to fire the city manager. Whack-whack-whack.

This isn't working. It's my fault. Perhaps a better way would be to use a concrete example drawn from the real world. Let's say some big apartment developer wants the city council to help get him a multimillion-dollar tax subsidy from the state for an apartment development in Southern Dallas. But the mayor is strongly opposed.

Maybe the mayor calls the city manager in and says, "We have study after study showing way too much multifamily housing already in the southern sector. When the state asks if you approve of this subsidy, your answer better be no. And I mean it. If you diddle me on this, it's a firing offense."

OK. Now imagine a bunch of the Southern Dallas council members who used to be against these kinds of subsidies: They've been out road-rallying in their new BMWs and Land Rovers and other fancy cars that they recently acquired but are not at liberty to say exactly how. And they've changed their minds. Now they're for the subsidy.

They get together with some "conservative" (ha-ha-ha) Far North Dallas and Lake Highlands council members who need zoning votes for their own personal apartment complex development deals or for the land-buying deals they do as real estate agents for, I don't know, maybe the school district. Together they all come up with an eight-vote majority. The eight of them go tap-dancin' down to the city manager's office arm-in-arm and nyuk-nyuk-nyukin'.

They say, "Look, city manager, when the state asks about that man's tax subsidy and whether you support it, the answer is yes. And we mean it. You best not mess with us on this one, because this is a firing offense."

Pretend you're the city manager. What do you say? I had a friend in the newspaper business who used to find himself in this position all the time. He was basically fireable by everyone he talked to. In management terms, that's called Random Universal Fire-ability--the same status the new system proposes for the city manager. My friend said different things, depending on who was trying to get him to do something that somebody else had warned him not to do.

"Consider it done. Hey, you know the publisher's son from Harvard Law School who's doing that internship in advertising? I can tell he thinks you're hot."

"Consider it done. Hey, you know that cute sort of wacko photographer who had to do the mental health leave? Why is she telling everybody she's leaving her husband for you?"

"Consider it done. You know, I really don't see how just one of those really great 'Bone-Dry Martinis' over at the Point would harm your recovery all that much."

Here's what I'm not getting across. This is not a joke. This is all real. I spent the week talking to people about the November proposition and attended a three-hour city council briefing on it. The real proposal is worse than any joke I could possibly tell, and that's saying something.

Remember the starting point for all this stuff. In all of the appalling mess at Dallas City Hall in the last several years, the one sore thumb in every case has been that nobody is ever really in charge. The buck doesn't stop anywhere. It's the weak-weak-weak system--weak mayor, weak manager, weak city council. And now we have the more recent and alarming issue of FBI agents trundling merrily in and out of the city council offices like the seven dwarves with two-wheeler loads of file boxes, with warrants referencing bribery and official corruption.

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