MORE

Crosshairs

The only way to take aim on City Hall and get it working again is to vote "yes" on Blackwood.

I'm gonna vote for it. You do what you think is right. It took me forever to make up my mind, so I understand.

But look: These last couple of weeks, a stark reality has been staring me in the face. If the Blackwood proposal to get rid of the city manager system in favor of a strong mayor fails, then Dallas goes downhill. Faster. A Blackwood defeat will be much worse than a victory for the status quo. We'll be on a toboggan ride aimed straight at that big old tree at the bottom of the hill. The Failure Oak.

The system we have now feeds failure. It robs the people who take part in it of their dignity. If Blackwood goes down, the defeat will endorse that system. I can't imagine a worse outcome.

Let me share a thought that popped into mind last week when the agonizing story of former Dallas police *surfaced again briefly in the news. City lawyers were in court trying to get a judge to toss out Bolton's unfair firing suit. Seeing him on TV again ripped a slow-healing psychic wound. The saga of the city's first black chief--especially the denouement with the chief sobbing in pain on television--was just horrible. Awful. I would like to live out the rest of my life and never see that again.

But here is what occurred to me when I saw his face on TV last week: You know what? If a strong-mayor system had already been in place when Bolton was first in office, Mayor Laura Miller would have sacked him right between the eyes, right away. Blammo! You are so fired!

And by now Bolton would be the police chief in another major metropolitan area. He would have put his stuff in a box and moved on with honor. Instead, he's a man so mortally wounded I honestly question whether he can continue to work in his chosen field.

Why did that happen? Hey, see if we can forget for one minute the who-shot-John stuff and who's right and who's wrong on the specifics. Sometimes people get canned. It's America. This is a free country. We have a right to work where we want. Under most circumstances, the people we work for have a right to can us. Nobody ever knows for sure whether it's totally absolutely 100 percent fair. The fair comes to town once a year, and maybe we should reserve the word for that season. Firings just happen. Life goes on; people go on.

What wounded Bolton so badly was not the firing but the dragging out, the horrible indecisiveness, the maybe-he-should-go, maybe-he-should-not. Nobody can survive that junk. This wretched excuse for a system takes good people and bad people and in-the-middle people, and it twists them all up into the same big ball of indecision and uncertainty. It makes everybody look horrible.

Some really bright people work for the city, by the way. The current city manager, Mary Suhm, who started more than 25 years ago as a city librarian, could run a major company with one hand tied behind her back--exactly what she'll wind up doing, I bet, if she gets bounced out by Blackwood.

But at least if she does get bounced by Blackwood, she'll get a clean bounce. There's such a thing as an involuntary departure with honor. The way it is now, even the good people on the city staff just flail and swim and gulp for air until the quicksand gets them. It's horrible to watch.

This is not only about giving the mayor more power. Beth Ann Blackwood, the lawyer whose name is on the charter proposal, has explained it more as assigning greater accountability to the mayor, so that the buck will stop somewhere.

You and I need to be able to say two things to City Hall: 1) We don't have time to follow what you do down there in detail; 2) but if it comes out ugly, we're going to blame the mayor.

Under the existing system, all of them--all of the elected officials, including the mayor--can crab-walk away from any issue in which they don't see a personal political payoff. They do it all the time.

Example: In recent months, I've been tracking the issue of a second regional rail line through downtown. Haven't heard about that one yet? Yeah, and that's amazing, because guess what? This single issue is as big in impact for Dallas as rebuilding Central Expressway in the '80s or the creation of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in the late 1960s.

Pop quiz: Did you know we have to build a subway? Right. We do. The city council has been briefed on it. There's no other way to weave together all the new rail lines about to come through downtown. But did you know we can wind up with a really bad subway or a good one, based on decisions the council is going to make in the next few weeks?

 

If we allow DART, the regional transit agency, to build the cheap subway--the short one--then we will have more trains than ever crisscrossing downtown at street level and competing with cars and trucks to get through. The only way to clear that many trains will be by imposing a system called "signal pre-emption." Traffic lights will switch automatically to green for trains and red for cars whenever a train appears.

As it is now, the trains have to stop for lights just like cars. If you give trains signal pre-emption, you create permanent gridlock for rubber-tired traffic. Downtown becomes even more of a pain than it is already.

Why would we even consider letting DART do that? I can give you one big reason. Since the early '80s when DART was being designed, the suburbs have been extremely subwayphobic. It's mainly about money. They don't want DART to spend too much money downtown, because then less cash will be left to bring the trains out to them. Some of the anti-subway feeling, especially the conservative fiscal sentiment, has deep roots in North Dallas, too, where our mayor draws a lot of her support.

So here's the bottom line. Let's say we don't quite trust Jim Schutze to design a subway system for us. And I will say this: I would be willing to design one, but if I did, I would not be willing to ride in it. Let's just agree that all of this--how long the subway system will be and where it will run--is interesting. More than interesting, it's significant. It's important.

Then how come we ain't heard much about it? For, against, short, long, cheap, expensive: What do I know? But for the sake of the city, somebody needs to take some kind of a citywide big-picture ownership position on this question.

The problem is it's a prickly pear. There are more ways to get stuck by it than to get to the juice. Too many downsides. So guess what? They all start doing that backward crab-walk. I know people who have been trying to run at City Hall with this thing for months. They won't let me name them, because they're afraid of getting the mayor and the council mad at them.

But one of them said to me last week, "This is the perfect example. This is exactly why I'm voting for Blackwood."

He said he wasn't voting for Blackwood to make Laura Miller a dictator. Far from it: He was voting for it in order to put this mayor and all future mayors in a box.

This is a citywide issue. The mayor is the citywide dude. People don't have time to follow all the minutiae. But if this thing turns out ugly, with terrible traffic downtown, then the mayor will pay with his or her job.

Put 'em in that box: You better believe they'll at least pay attention.

Under the existing system, it wouldn't be fair to blame the mayor for much, because the mayor can't do much about much. That's why I'm going to vote for Blackwood--so the mayor can do much, so I can hold the mayor accountable for getting nothing much done.

Now I have to share something tragic and personal with you. As I speak, a tear comes to my eye. The truth is that I do not have a real good history of voting for things that win. I was on an editorial board once where colleagues came around before meetings to ask me which way I was going to vote on endorsements. I thought they were looking for guidance, but eventually I figured out they wanted to know in advance which side was going to lose. Tricky bastards.

So let's say Blackwood loses. What happens next? First of all, the defeat will be touted as a mandate for the city manager system and a vote against any kind of strong-mayor reform. Especially given the racial aspect of the opposition, nobody will pick up this cause again soon. Talk about a prickly pear.

So does that mean things will just carry on the way they have been? No, because City Hall is not operating on an even plane: It's on a slope. The kind of neighborhood autonomy that guys like me applauded and encouraged 10 years ago has already tilted downhill toward gridlock.

Ask the council now what their goal is on issues, and they'll tell you consensus. Ask them what consensus is, and they'll tell you it's when everybody agrees.

 

That kind of consensus is the road to Neverland.

That's going to get worse. Things will go downhill faster. So for once I hope I'm not voting the wrong way.

And you go ahead and vote whatever way you want. Either way, I'm not going to run out of stuff to write about.


Sponsor Content