By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Is the former city manager still at City Hall? Maybe, maybe not, but her spirit still reigns.
Last week I made a new hat-cam movie for our news blog — I know, I know, sorry, couldn't stop myself — based on a theme of searching for former Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, supposedly haunting the unknown nooks and crannies of City Hall. This week I feel, if not actual remorse, a need to explain.
Almost from the moment Suhm announced her retirement in May 2013, there was strange ambiguity. Normally the word, "retire," means go away, vamoose, blow this pop stand. In Suhm's case the meaning was especially germane, because there were two very different schools of thought on her tenure.
Suhm's supporters — and they were many — believed that in eight years as boss of City Hall she had racked up an impressive list of achievements. The lion's share of her support was among the city's old business elite who felt they had a friend in Mary. Of course that was exactly what the detractors didn't like, and they were a numerous and diverse crowd as well.
The debate that followed announcement of her retirement was about continuity, good or bad. Did we need to make sure things would go on at City Hall pretty much as they had under Suhm? Or was a new broom what we needed?
The final City Council vote on hiring a new city manager was a charade. Behind closed doors in executive session the council was bitterly divided. They voted narrowly to give the job to Suhm's hand-picked successor and all-around acolyte, A.C. Gonzalez, a decision that clearly meant the continuity team had won the day.
But that was behind closed doors. Gonzalez's supporters wanted a unanimous public vote for him. To get there, Gonzalez made elaborate promises of changes to come, no more same-old same-old, a whole new day and so on. The public version of what he said was expansive and lacking in detail. The behind-closed-doors version, according to reliable sources speaking off the record, was much more specific — a set number of heads to roll and specific departments to be revamped.
Council members were promised, they say, that Gonzalez's vow of a new "transparency" was meant to have a specific pinch and meaning. The transparency some council members were looking for had to do with the upcoming budget process. Suhm's style of budgeting had always been a Houdini show, with lots of smoke, mirrors and scary music leading up to an amazing happy ending where the pretty lady turned out not to have been sawed in half after all, and, even better, small packages of free (HUD) money were waiting gift-wrapped on the council members' desks.
Gonzalez promised the council no more Houdini. From here on out the numbers would be plain and simple from the get-go, income and outgo, we go where the numbers go. Gonzalez was chosen to succeed Suhm by unanimous public vote of the council on January 21, some seven months after Suhm's retirement. During those seven months, he had been the acting manager.
Awkward thing, though: At least as late as December 2013, a full half year after retiring, Suhm was still occupying her big office at City Hall. When Scott Goldstein of The Dallas Morning News asked when she was thinking of moving out, she said, "I'm working on it."
At some point in the general time-frame of January 2014, Gonzalez did get to move his tchotchkes into the city manager's office, but Suhm was far from gone from City Hall. In fact the mayor told reporters he had asked her to stay on to handle an array of issues — a story that seemed to shift a bit with each telling. Sometimes she was there handling smaller do-good projects like arrangements for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Convention or the 50th Kennedy assassination anniversary ceremony, things that sounded reasonably like the kind of puttering a former CEO might do during the decompression period. But at other times reporters were told she was there handling budget talks and labor negotiations — heavy matters that sounded an awful lot like what the new guy ought to be doing.
In the meantime, none of Gonzalez's promised head-rolling or department-shaking-up seemed to be happening. In fact, now more than a half-year into his tenure, some council members are already grumbling behind his back that he's turning out to be more Mary than Mary, especially on all of that promised clarity about the budget. A minority on the council think this year's process is the same old Houdini all over again. Their problem is that most of their colleagues on the council are just as excited as they ever were about the gift packages — the Housing and Urban Development money — they hope to find on their desks after Santa goes back up the chimney.
And there we come upon a hard link with the past, something much grittier and more binding, more of a ball and chain than any kind of vague understanding about continuity. The HUD money. It's money, real money, the point at the tip of the knife.