Something very weird is going on at City Hall. People are speaking in tongues. Maybe the budget crunch has crunched them. We may need to send in a rescue team with Prozac. It's all about a major proposed reorganization of the staff that nobody wants to talk about publicly yet.
I ask them about it, and they all start in with this scary stream-of-consciousness talk that makes no sense. It's tense.
Council member Mitchell Rasansky, the scourge of local government, told me he's worried about builders and developers getting too much influence over the city's planning and building officials. Think of Jerry Jones fretting that the Cowboys may play too rough against the Redskins next time.
Then City Manager Ted Benavides told me he wasn't worried that people will try to improperly influence city staffers, because the staff always has the ability to call the Dallas Observer. I don't even know what to call that. It's like the pope urging Catholic whistle-blowers to take their complaints to Larry Flynt. It's hard to believe you're hearing what you're hearing.
But the biggie was Mayor Laura Miller. She told me she wasn't worried about city council members trying to put the political arm on key city staffers, because, "I don't know of anybody who does that, and if they did, Ted [Benavides] would make a beeline for their door, I promise you, because Ted just wouldn't put up with that."
The hair was standing straight up on my head. Next I was waiting for a deep growly voice to come out of the phone and say, "What an excellent day for an exorcism."
This is Laura Miller talking. Laura Miller. She got elected because she called the big shots liars and the bureaucrats dogs. The minute she took office she started preaching about the evils of the city manager system. She's a major force behind "charter review"--shorthand for "deep-six the manager." And she's telling me not to worry because the system works and everybody is honorable.
Oh, this is weird. Believe me. Something very strange is going on beneath the surface. Next council meeting, watch out for projectile vomiting.
In public they're all talking about the city's $95 million budget shortfall. But behind the scenes, the budget debate is pretext and camouflage for a serious donnybrook over the traditional system at City Hall. Details unclear, smoke and din coming up from bowels of building. I can't even tell good guys and bad guys yet. All I know is that everybody I try to ask about it starts talking like Obi-Wan Kenobi, which usually is how people sound when they are concerned about sudden dismemberment.
Here's the short version, as best I have been able to piece it together: In the name of efficiency and staff reorganization, the city manager is moving aggressively to take several key city departments out of civil service protection, especially planning and building inspection. In this he has the mayor's blessing, which is in and of itself a strong indication that something profoundly unnatural may be afoot.
Both Miller and Benavides told me candidly that stripping these departments of civil service protection will make it easier to cashier bad employees. Miller said: "It would seem like it would be reasonable that Ted could go into a department and take the people that are making $80,000, $90,000, $100,000, who aren't performing anymore and are getting their year-end bonuses of 5 percent and hanging out; he ought to be able to go in and get rid of those people."
I asked Benavides if the proposed new setup would make it easier for him to fire people. He said, "It will give me more flexibility on that."
He did go on to say, "If you look at our record in non-civil service departments now, we're not willy-nilly firing people. In fact, in this RIF [reduction in force] process, we're using the RIF procedures for civil service departments for the non-civil service departments to ensure fairness."
The publicly stated mission in stripping city employees of civil service protection is to make City Hall nimbler and more responsive.
Benavides said: "The primary reason we would reorganize all these offices under the [proposed new] Department of Development Services is to give better service. We are in competition with other cities to be friendly when it comes to development and get their projects in and out and let them do their work so they can open their business or their restaurant.
"We want them to follow the rules, and that's important, but we also need to get them through the system and get them up and running, too. It's that kind of balance we're always searching for."
OK, maybe you have to be me--someone who has spent way too much of his life around City Hall in this, the largest city manager city in the country--to understand how out of character this kind of talk is coming from a disciple of the Holy Order of Professional City Management. I remember sitting in the office of a top staffer years ago--she was some kind of Ph.D. in trafficology--while she whacked on a big black-and-white chart on the wall with a wooden pointer, telling me that my neighborhood was "impeding flow."
It made me sad. I remember wondering: Is that all there is? All those children playing on lawns, dogs romping, people barbecuing in back yards: We're all just "impeding flow?" Wasn't that pretty much what Attila told Constantinople?
So maybe you can see why I would hear--or want to hear--a good thing in what Benavides is saying. A little less logic, a bit more listen-up. I think I like it.
And definitely I can understand what Miller is thinking. She knows better than anybody how you call City Hall, if you're a neighborhood or a citizen and you want a stop sign, and you don't get a stop sign. Ever. You get this chart-whacking lecture. Whack-whack! And no stop sign. So I can see someone like Miller thinking, "How about less trafficology, more 'Yessir, we'll be out with the sign in the morning'" once in a blue moon.
She said she isn't worried about the staff lying down for developers, because, "City Hall has always erred on the side of people who want something from City Hall, so I don't think that's going to change."
I took her to mean that they already give it up for the boys, the downtown wired guys, but maybe now they'll have to give some to the little people, too.
But notice how each of them sees this new nimble responsiveness a tad differently: he as, "Now they'll do what I want," and she as, "Now they'll do what I want." You get the subtle conflict, right?
It is a huge irony that, of all the people I talked to, the one who weighed in with the best defense of the staff was North Dallas conservative and business-friendly council member Mitchell Rasansky, himself a banker and a player in development deals. I have always thought Rasansky was smart, and I've never been too staff-friendly myself, but Rasansky's withering scorn for city staff members during public meetings makes me cringe. I just don't believe people can be treated that way in public.
Shows what I know. Rasansky is the one many of the planning staff have gone to in recent weeks on the Q.T. to protest the proposed changes. In talking to me, Rasansky skipped right over the zoning process and went straight to the hypothetical scene where a builder is trying to get the city engineer to stamp his plans--a scene I think Rasansky knows well from several perspectives.
"If the city engineer is telling the builder he needs to put more steel in his building, and the builder doesn't like it," Rasansky said, "then I may be very uncomfortable with a situation where the engineer has to fear for his job if he doesn't give in."
Here's the fear: not the builder. The employee can stand up to the builder. It's the builder's friend on the city council. When a council member calls, the employee has to wonder if his kid should start applying to cheaper colleges.
Both Benavides and Miller said that won't happen. Benavides said it won't happen because the city employee being pressured to OK a bad plan would blow the whistle, either to Benavides or to the Observer.
Hmmm, maybe. If the employee trusts either one. But wouldn't it be easier, college-wise, just to give in?
Miller said city council pressure won't happen, because, "I don't know of anybody who does that."
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I have been hearing anonymously all week from city employees citing chapter and verse on just exactly how it happens, all the time. I have to disguise this quote a little to keep from blowing this person's cover, but basically she said: "We get calls lots of times from council people. 'Hey, I've got a constituent mad about this plan.' Now we can just go, 'What they told you is wrong,' and that's it. But if you take away civil service protection, and you get a council person who's a real pushy one, then you might just let it go through. There is no protection. Your decisions are going to be based on what's best for you, not what's best for the city."
In all the recent talk about the difference between cops vs. non-sworn "civilian" employees, we may lose sight of the fact that many of the non-sworn people are cops, too. Instead of writing traffic tickets, they have to enforce the law on big-headed, short-tempered wheeler-dealers. Or on you and me. You, when you want to build your building, and me, when I want my stop sign. And neither one of us ever likes hearing no.
These changes that they're talking about at City Hall are serious business, maybe more serious than the budget. You know it's serious when they all start doing their code-talker routine.