By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Robert Abtahi, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the District 14 City Council seat in East Dallas last time around, had an interesting essay last week on the opinion pages of The Dallas Morning News. He castigated critics of City Hall, whom he lumped together as a new and burgeoning alliance of conspiracy mongers:
"Some of the new complainers are current and former elected officials," he wrote, "some are media types, and all spend more time whining than doing their part."
But from the mouths of people who have rallied against City Hall over the last year on an array of issues, I really have not heard what I would call a true conspiracy theory. I do hear great frustration with a central bureaucracy that seems too unaccountable, too careless about the way it does business with taxpayer dollars, too clever in playing council members against each other and way too quick to circle the wagons when they get caught. But calling that a conspiracy would almost give it too much credit. Maybe it's more of a culture.
On the other hand, Abtahi makes a sound point in saying the recent selection of a new city manager ought to provide us with a fresh starting point. In fact "change" and "transparency" were the two words most frequently invoked at the City Council vote that made A.C. Gonzalez city manager — repeated like twin mantras by both Gonzalez himself and the council members who voted unanimously to give him the job.
Great words. Great ideas. Now let's see if there is going to be any reality behind them. Here is a list of six opportunities for the new city manager to demonstrate that real change lies ahead. I would hope he might choose just one of them — only one — as an opening to demonstrate this new culture of change and transparency.
The first is the ongoing, seemingly never-ending spectacle of Yellow Cab and its undue influence on the bureaucracy. If anything, all of the city's taxicab regulations could be lumped under the title "Yellow Cab Monopoly Preservation Ordinance."
Why is Yellow so strangely exempt from the very ordinances it has lobbied for that are so onerous for competitors? Everybody else has to buy expensive insurance? Not Yellow. Yellow's direct assertions of its own good behavior seem to melt away at the first ray of daylight. Yellow owner Jack Bewley droned on before a recent City Council meeting about what great insurance Yellow has now, after they got caught without it, and what a good job they're doing serving poor neighborhoods now all of a sudden for a change.
"We also conduct regular inspections and driver background checks," he told the council.
Not 48 hours after Bewley spoke those words to the council, Amy Silverstein had a story on our Unfair Park blog (see page 6) quoting sworn court testimony by a Yellow employee who admitted under questioning that the company doesn't pull driver histories for the people it hires, doesn't drug test them, won't fire them once hired until they have a third at-fault accident in a 12-month period and apparently just doesn't care how many speeding tickets they get.
The Yellow Cab question should be very close to the new city manager's heart, since he, as an assistant city manager, was the person who got caught helping a Yellow Cab lawyer rewrite local cab ordinances yet again, this time to run the smartphone-based ride service Uber out of town.
Uber came up at a press conference Gonzalez did in the flag room outside council chambers right after his inauguration. I attended. Somebody asked Gonzalez about Uber and cab regulations. He said that was all being handled by a council committee. Stop, end of statement.
I said, "But the question with Uber was really your dealing with Yellow Cab before the council was aware of the process. Is that something that's an area of change? In other words, do you see change as to when the city staff deals with outside interests before the council knows what's going on?"
He answered: "As to that particular incident representing a learning experience for me and since it was so public for the organization, yes, I do believe that we are going to be changing with regards to that."
Oh, good. So next time he does something under the table for Yellow, it won't be so public? Ah, but let's not be like that. Let's assume instead that the new city manager is sincerely dedicated to change and transparency. In fact, let's help the man out by providing opportunities for him to demonstrate his resolve.
As my own part, I'm going to just tick down this list I have compiled and think about what the new city manager could do to convince us real change is ahead at City Hall with true transparency on difficult issues.
First, Mr. Manager, Yellow: People aren't really worried about insurance and the background checks so much as the impression that Yellow Cab has you by the balls. Why not prove them wrong? Why don't you convene some kind of hearings process by which all of Yellow Cab's competitors could come to City Hall and tell everything they know about how City Hall screws them over to help Yellow maintain its monopoly? Talk about transparency, you couldn't get more transparent than that.