Nyuk-nyuk

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.

The whole reason for all of this charter election business--an otherwise irritating intrusion on everybody's time and attention--is to put somebody in charge. If the mayor is truly in charge for a change, then at least we will have one person to hold accountable.

The strong mayor proposal on the ballot in May was voted down. The whole city council except for Mayor Laura Miller opposed it, because the council didn't want to lose power.

We're having a second charter election, the "alternative," because the council and certain business leaders promised to come up with a better idea if voters would turn down the May proposal.

But guess what. The system on the ballot in November provides for a weensy-beensy bit more power for the mayor and way, way more power for the city council.

The mayor can hire the city manager, but the council can fire the manager the next day with a simple majority. The mayor and the manager prepare the budget, but the proposal would create a whole new department to supervise the spending of the budget. The new "budget officer" would not work for the mayor.

Whaaat?

On all sorts of key decisions, like hiring and firing the budget officer and the city auditor, the mayor is expressly prohibited from voting under the proposed system.

There is even a special provision in the proposal allowing the city council to exempt itself or its appointees from conflict of interest rules having to do with city contracts and real estate deals.

Hey. I don't make this stuff up. The draft ordinance calls for "allowing the city council to adopt exceptions and conditions to current charter provisions prohibiting city officers and employees from having direct or indirect financial interests in any city contract or in any sale to the city of land, materials, supplies or services."

To be fair, at its briefing last week the council expressed some interest in tweaking this language to make it more palatable to voters. But I'm sitting out there in the peanut gallery thinking, "How about instead you gouge your eyes out in shame?" I wanted to yell from the back of the room, "I have three words for you folks. F. And B. And I."

The most outlandish moment in the briefing was when the mayor learned there had been a last-minute addition to the proposal--a brand-new provision that would severely limit the ability of the mayor to raise campaign contributions but not touch fund-raising abilities of council members. The last-minute provision had been lobbied into the deal over the weekend by the chamber of commerce.

Jan Hart Black, president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, explained to the council--with a straight face--that the chamber asked for the 11th-hour change because of a fear that future mayors might become corrupt. The council members are all sitting there nodding their very solemn, sober assent.

Look. This is actually simple. The existing corrupt city council system where you can buy a council member for a five-grand campaign contribution--with nobody really in charge--is cheap and easy to get to. It's what the old-guard business establishment is accustomed to, a nice fit with traditional plantation politics.

The foreign concept here is rational structure and strict accountability. That's what the chambers of commerce and the Dallas Citizens Council do not want. They want to keep slipping and sliding around on the low-down with their checkbooks and their BMWs and their nice kindly food baskets at Christmastime.

And let's be honest, you and me. How excited are you about this? Yeah, well, that's what I mean. Nobody cares about it. Even the people proposing it don't really believe in it. Some of the business people who led the anti-strong mayor fight last May told me last week they won't support the November thing because of the provision allowing the council to fire the city manager.

Except for Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, the entire black caucus on the council is dead set against it. Nobody's going to put any money into the campaigns on either side.

Hardly anybody will vote. The outcome will be decided by something like the humidity. It could pass. We could wind up with the nyuk-nyuk system.

That is not a joke.

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