By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Dallas voters rejected a proposal to increase the powers of the mayor three years ago, but critics say that hasn't stopped Mayor Tom Leppert from becoming his own sort of "strong mayor," most recently by trying to put a gag in the mouths of residents who show up at city council meetings to speak, vent and, occasionally, say nasty things about their elected representatives.
"He really believes that the strong mayor passed," says political consultant Pat Cotton. "He is not a strong mayor. He serves as one of 15 equal parts, and I think it's very brash, destructive and offensive to the public when he acts this way."
Acting on his own without consulting his fellow council members, Leppert late last month decided to stop the radio and television broadcast of the afternoon open-microphone sessions at council meetings. During this session, speakers who sign up are given three minutes at the end of the meeting to say whatever is on their minds.
Sometimes what the public thinks can be pretty unpleasant for council members to hear, as in one recent session when Leppert ally Dwaine Caraway was called a "house nigger."
Despite the occasional bouts of name-calling, council member Angela Hunt, Leppert's most vocal critic on the council, says the mayor had no business trying to change the speaker rules on his own.
"I think this is a very troubling trend, one that I hope will come to an end as quickly as possible because every council member and the mayor have to remember who we work for," she says. "We work for the taxpayers of our city."
Leppert first tried to change the council's rules of procedure in June by introducing 18 amendments, one of which would have eliminated the morning open-microphone session. Hunt sent a letter to city officials calling Leppert's decision "antithetical to our purpose as a governing body," and the change was never made.
Hunt says she learned about the mayor's latest effort not to broadcast the afternoon speakers in a November 20 story in The Dallas Morning News. Leppert did not accept responsibility for the decision then and didn't admit he was behind the change until he was pressed by Hunt during a December 3 council meeting.
Through his chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, Leppert offered no response to questions from the Observer regarding why he didn't initially take responsibility for the directive.
"To unilaterally make these decisions is not appropriate, and staff shouldn't have obeyed those orders when there wasn't clear direction from our city council to cut the speakers from being heard by the public," Hunt says. "I don't like the way the process occurred, and I don't like the fact that this is the second time the mayor has tried to reduce or somehow place restrictions on our citizens who come down to speak to us."
Hunt says she knows of no council member other than Caraway who has expressed any worries about the afternoon speakers. While five council members spoke in opposition of Leppert's decision during the December 3 meeting, only Caraway supported it, saying he's been embarrassed at times by some of the comments.
"I don't inject race, but I'm going to today," Caraway said then. "As an African-American, I need to be respected here, and my colleagues who are non-African-American as well. We are the Dallas City Council...I'm not going to sit here and be called 'a house nigger.'"
Caraway was referring to a slur directed at him during a February 27 meeting by council regular William Hopkins, who also is black, which led to Hopkins' removal from chambers. Since Caraway became a council member in June 2007, he has been the target of several verbal attacks during the afternoon public speaking session. But his most notable altercation occurred during the morning of October 27, 2007, when Caraway and political activist Roy Williams engaged in a heated discussion that led to Leppert calling for a recess to calm Caraway down.
Cotton says Caraway was "clearly performing" when he repeated Hopkins' slur, and maintains Leppert has the ability to remove speakers for rude language or behavior.
"I don't think he likes to act as the bad guy, especially against minorities," Cotton says.
Cora Canaday, a member of the Dallas chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, spoke at the December 3 meeting regarding the changes. She says Leppert was "kind of ugly" to her when she asked who made the decision.
Canaday claims it was "horrible" for Caraway to repeat the slur Hopkins used. "He doesn't need to take it personal. When people call me names, if that's not who I am, it won't bother me," she says. "If you get sick and tired of it, then maybe you need another position."
Residents who come to City Hall to speak have serious issues that need to be dealt with, Canaday says. "These people come down to tell them what has happened to them within the city system, and nobody is listening. And that's what the problem is. They are not listening."