Do Something

City council candidate Beth Ann Blackwood, a lawyer, has proposed a "no excuses" strong mayor system for Dallas.
Mark Graham

If you read the fake-drug report, you'll get the picture. The fact that nobody's in charge and nobody's accountable at City Hall doesn't stop at City Hall. It trickles down. It's a culture.

Terence Hart and Lena Levario, the lawyers who conducted the investigation for the city and wrote the report, did a great job. It's the kind of depressing reading I really enjoy. On vacation this summer, everybody else was reading The Kite Runner. I was reading The 9/11 Commission Report. I was the one on the edge of my folding chair to see how it came out.

Let me summarize the fake-drug report. It's a thorough examination of how and why the Dallas Police Department in 2001 continued to make phony drug cases on innocent defendants long after it knew that someone was planting fake evidence. Who was responsible?


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The people supposedly in charge of narcotics said they kinda didn't really know, but they sorta did. They sorta told their bosses but not really. They didn't exactly count the money or test the drugs, but they meant to. The former police chief and his ridiculous entourage of six dozen ornately uniformed deputy associate partial police chiefs talked about it at a Christmas party (this really happened). But then they kinda didn't do too much to stop it. But it's not like they did anything. They really just sorta didn't do anything. So, you know: What're you gonna do?

I asked Hart why there was no mention in the report of the city manager, who is supposed to be the police chief's boss and run the city. In particular, why was there no mention of Assistant City Manager Charles Daniels, who was directly responsible for all of this? Hart basically said he and Levario had to draw the line somewhere and focused on police personnel only.

I do understand. Look, it's a great report. If the weather were better, I'd take it to the beach. There's more than enough there to make the point: City government in Dallas is a big fat dolt of an entity, armed with guns and eminent domain and zoning and all kinds of ways to make mischief in our lives. And who's running it?


That's dangerous. It's not an abstract issue. Ask the innocent people who got put in jail.

Let me ask you another question. How is Dallas for you? As a place to live? To do whatever you do? For me, for most people I know, Dallas is good. It's not Boston, where you have to be there 10 generations before you're allowed to speak. It's not Los Angeles, where no one will listen to you unless you're wearing a thong and a space helmet. Dallas is a place where people can make their own way, be all that they can be and so on. A good place.

So why should the city government here be so fantastically screwed up? We're not dolts. We're not peasants. We're not all Mark Cuban.

It's the system. The mechanism. The way it's set up.

Good news: Right now at least three different plans are afoot to do something about it. Maybe more, maybe fewer, depending on which conspiracy theory you believe. I try to be balanced and believe them all.

Last July, David Laney, a prominent Dallas lawyer, announced he was heading up an effort by an unnamed team of downtown bigwigs to get a proposal on the ballot next May to establish a "strong mayor system" at City Hall. Let me explain strong mayor. The current mayor, Laura Miller, is strong because she lifts weights and climbs trees. That's not what we mean.

What we have now at City Hall is what I call the weak-weak-weak system--weak mayor, weak city manager, weak city council. The mayor's a figurehead. She has one vote on the city council. If City Hall were the Titanic and the iceberg were right off the port bow, she would have to persuade an eight-vote majority of the 15-member steering committee to agree to a 20-degree starboard turn.

But she couldn't make the turn herself. The mayor is not allowed to touch the wheel under our system. She would have to inform the ship manager of the steering committee's decision.

So here comes the ship manager, and she has kind of a skeptical scowl on her face. She thinks it may take a two-thirds vote of the steering committee to authorize any change of course more than 15 degrees. She has to confer with the ship's attorney.

My advice? Knock down a couple of old ladies, grab a seat on a lifeboat.

So 90 days ago there was Laney's proposal. Then last week Beth Ann Blackwood announced an effort. Blackwood, a lawyer, has announced her candidacy for the District 14 city council seat (half-circle around the bottom of the Park Cities).  

When I first met her a year ago, Blackwood was already talking about the need for a strong mayor system. I met with her again last week: She told me her backers, also unnamed, have already raised the money needed to conduct a petition drive.

Then there's the mayor. Mayor Miller told me last week that she will have her own strong mayor proposal ready to present some time next month. She said she hopes there will not be competing proposals on a ballot next May, because it will be hard enough to explain even one proposal to the voters.

My conspiracy theory du jour, which I ran by both Blackwood and Miller, was that these various plans were all different feints and dodges in the same concerted effort. Given a choice between explaining a thing as a simple accident or coincidence, on the one hand, or as some outlandishly complex conspiracy, I'm always going to go with the outlandish conspiracy. Mainly because simple coincidence lacks literary merit.

But in this case I'm not so sure. Definitely there is some artful dodging going on. Some kind of deal exists between the mayor and the Laney group. That has to do with their desire to establish a semi-private government for downtown. I could explain all that, but I'm already getting a headache. How about you? I just think there's some hanky-panky there. It's not terrible hanky-panky, and who cares as long as they get City Hall fixed?

I thought maybe Blackwood and Miller had a deal. Blackwood's proposal is tougher than what Miller apparently is going to suggest. Blackwood thinks we need to ditch the office of city manager altogether. She wants a system where we can tell the mayor: "You are the captain. If this boat hits the ice, it's your fault. Whatever you do, don't point at anybody else. You got the hat. You take the rap."

Miller wants to keep the city manager but allow the mayor to hire and fire that person. I thought maybe this was a good-cop/bad-cop ploy. Blackwood comes out and says the mayor should have the right to kill the city manager. Miller might say no, no, that's too extreme. I just want the right to torture the city manager.

But after talking to Blackwood and Miller, as well as to a number of other people involved (all of whom swear they are not involved), I think there's an honest difference of opinion. Blackwood told me she thinks leaving a strong city manager in place just gives the mayor a dodge. (Mayor tells court of inquiry: "Gosh, I said to the manager, 'Iceberg, iceberg!' but she said I needed 10 votes." You and I and the old ladies are somewhere at the bottom of Davey Jones' locker.)

The mayor obviously thinks we voters won't go for a major overhaul. Last time this came up, when the mayor was first elected and pushed for a revision of the city charter, the strong mayor idea wound up on the shoals. One big issue was voting rights and the suspicion of minority council members that this was all a way to dilute their hard-fought gains.

That's a really tough issue. Blackwood thinks the way to counter it is to persuade minority voters they could elect their own strong mayor. "Minorities outnumber the majority at this point," she said. "We know we can elect an African-American mayor.

"I think they have a good pool to draw from. I believe they can put a good candidate up there who can win."

There are other issues. A friend who is a veteran of ancient political wars in Texas reminded me that the rules of the Texas House of Representatives were changed in 1983 to make the speaker of the House more powerful. The driving force behind the change was the lobby. The lobbyists had decided it would be cheaper to buy one speaker than the whole House.

There are legitimate perils with a strong mayor, as with any strong leader. But then I think you have to look at the current mayor. I criticize her all the time and accuse her of conspiracies, because I'm right. But the people of the city obviously elected her because they saw her as tough, strong, smart and honest. That's about as clear an expression of the city's will as you could ask.

Equally unmistakable is the lesson of the fake-drug scandal. We need somebody to go in there, fire people, put the fear of God in them, get 'em lined up and marching right.  

It doesn't do any good to elect a strong person as mayor if the mayor is not allowed to touch the wheel. From the average citizen's point of view, you want a system where a strong mayor can steer a clear course. From my point of view, I want to be able to get the mayor fired after she hits the ice.

Well, you know, that would be after I dry out. Warm up a tad.

And please don't forget those ladies down there. I didn't sorta push them, but I didn't really kinda catch them or anything. Learned my stuff at City Hall.

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