Don't Fire the City Manager. Set City Hall on Fire.
Bernadette Mitchell, director of housing for the city of Dallas, explains to the City Council that her department has always been "sort of an ad hoc situation."
What am I supposed to feel here? Grief? Wrath? A strong desire to go fishing? I wish I could remember my Greek mythology better. What was that guy’s name? Sissy Fuss?
Last week the Dallas City auditor gave a committee of the City Council a deeply depressing analysis of how the city housing department has been operating — really it was a portrait of how all of city government operates — which I would summarize as “St. Paddy’s Day at the Junk Pile.”
Oh. My. God. Hundreds of millions of dollars in local and federal tax money shoveled out the door like mud from a flood, who knows where, who knows who, who knows why, no numbers, no accounting, but no policies were violated because guess why? They have no policies.
That’s not what has me feeling like sysiphishing. To me that stuff in the audit was just Monday morning at Dallas City Hall.
Dallas City Auditor Craig D. Kinton used this slide to try to explain why the city's housing department needs some written policies and internal controls.
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I mean, c’mon, are we really going to act surprised? This is everywhere. Every audit of every department paints this picture. The State Fair said it was contributing tens of millions of dollars to the city based on attendance, so when the auditor asked them what the attendance was, the State Fair said they don’t count attendance. What? What? What do you mean you don’t count attendance? You know, you hear answers like this and you can’t help wondering about drinking problems.
That’s not what has me depressed and feeling like … was it Sophocles? Santacles? You know the one I mean. Anyway, we’re not even halfway there yet.
When City Auditor Craig D. Kinton and Assistant City Auditor Anatoli Douditski finished their totally devastating presentation last week, several members of the council's housing committee spoke up to insist that such a situation (and by the way, I may use that for the title of my autobiography, Such a Situation) must never occur again (imagine “again” as pronounced Britishly, as in a-GAYN).
Council member Casey Thomas from District 3 (far southwest, bordering Duncanville), said: “Well, I guess the first thing I say is, this can never happen again.”
We’re almost there. I’m almost ready for my fit.
Councilman Scott Griggs from District 1 (North Oak Cliff), chairman of the committee, went off on a couple of short rants to the effect that this audit of the housing department, which was awful, sounded like all the audits of all the departments that Kinton brings to the council – all awful.
The auditor showed this slide to the council to make it real simple.
“It seems like every audit we’re doing here at the city of Dallas, almost every department, the same result comes out. We have no policies and no procedures. Again and again, that is the conclusion of the audit.” He asked Kinton, “I wonder if you share this concern as the auditor?”
Kinton said, “I agree with you.” Then he added a little addendum in auditor-speak: “There is something called the ‘capability maturity model,’” he said. “Level One is basically ad hoc. It’s hard-working people working hard, doing the best job they know how.”
Kinton went on to describe the other levels, which would be levels where people have some slight idea what in the hell they are doing, like maybe having a written list of procedures to follow every day, as in, “Count the attendance, or, if you really can’t remember to do that, hurl yourselves off a cliff, you morons.”
But please hold in mind the one special term that Kinton used here, “ad hoc.” Ad hoc is a Latin phrase defined in English usage by the Oxford Dictionary as “for the particular purpose,” by Webster’s New World as “for a special case only, without general application” and by me as, “St. Paddy’s Day at the Junk Pile.”
Now, the fit. Griggs, for whom I have consummate respect, summed up the day’s proceedings as follows: “We get the same audit again and again from every department. We have got nothing in writing, no evidence that it’s ever followed. We can’t seem to engage the city manager in turning this issue out.”
So it’s the city manager’s fault.
And I do understand that the mayor and members of the council have no choice but to operate within the given system, the way it is, what it is, and I don’t blame Griggs for wanting to find somebody .. anybody … halloo in there! … is anybody home who can do something about this? Anything at all?
But the answer — and here is where I start to want to grab a bait box and go to Arkansas — is no. No, you can’t blame it on the city manager. I would love to blame it on the city manager. But, please, take a serious look at what these audits are telling us.
The absence of written policy, the lack of fiscal controls, the ad hoc nature of daily operations that Kinton finds in audit after audit is a general condition, a wall-to-wall fact of life that goes back decades, a half century at the very least at City Hall, and it pervades each and every thing that City Hall does. So what are the chances that this general condition is the product of someone’s personality or personal business style?
If we really are dissatisfied with the way our City Hall operates and if we really and truly mean to do something about it, why would we not direct our attention to the structure of the place, rather than personalities?
The issues of structure in Dallas city government have been studied by serious people who have been coming to serious conclusions about it for decades. Governing Magazine, which is kind of the scholarly journal of day-to-day practical applied policy and practice, looked at the Dallas structure of government in 2007, just after voters here had turned down a couple of proposed strong-mayor charter reforms in back-to-back elections.
The auditor gave the council a little list of what's missing.
The article took a middle road on whether the existing system in Dallas is viable or not, but it drew a direct linkage between the way Dallas City Hall operates and the absence of an elected CEO-mayor. The Dallas system — weak mayor, weak council, weak city manager, or, as I like to call it, the “weak-weak-weak” scheme of governance — is a buck-stops-nowhere system.
In order to be counted, the buck has to stop. There must be one person at City Hall whom the voters can hold ultimately responsible for the way things run, a person who can and will be hired and fired by the voters, based on the voters’ impression of how things are going.
Remember that the absence of an ultimately accountable person doesn’t stop the buck. More than two billion bucks churn and burn through City Hall every year, and some highly motivated person out there has his or her greedy eye on every single one of them. When there is no single great eye at the peak of the pyramid to watch those bucks, then the bucks leak and seep and flow off in all directions, and it is in no one’s interest to get in the way of that flow or to make a career-risking fuss about it.
The absence of controls and accountability are predictable, maybe even necessary responses to and expressions of the city manager system itself. Changing city managers changes nothing.
Is there not a certain culture at City Hall, you might ask, that has found a way to survive and thrive in the ad hoc chaos that Kinton’s audits portray time and again (a-GAYN)? Oh, yes, absolutely, and I’m so glad you remembered that term, ad hoc.
Example. At the end of the briefing last week, council member Adam McGough of District 10 (northeast, around Royal and LBJ Freeway) asked Dallas Housing and Community Services director Bernadette Mitchell if the problems exposed in Kinton’s audit had anything to do with the fact that McGough had never been able to get numbers from Mitchell for the total amount of money Dallas spends on housing.
It seems McGough has asked her, apparently repeatedly over some period of time, how much is the money? Please read Mitchell’s response, reproduced here word for word, as a perfect expression of the culture we are talking about, and remember that Latin term. Just for grins, pretend this is not a City Council member asking a department head about money. Pretend it’s you asking your brother-in-law what happened to the $5,000 you loaned him for his supposed motorcycle repair business he was supposed to start.
She answers: “I think that the reason is because we have different reporting areas. For example, bond is reported separately from Section 108, those spread sheets that I gave you, versus the federal dollars that go under CDBG and the consolidated plan are reported out to HUD separately.
“It’s always been a toss-up whether those are split by council districts. It really is, overall, the department had been sort of an ad hoc situation. I don’t think it’s necessarily directly tied to internal controls, but it’s one of those things that data is important, and it is important for transparency to get that information up on websites and just to get that information out to the public.”
If it’s your brother-in-law, you can say, “I want to go out to the garage just the two of us, and I will ask you one more time where my five grand is.”
At City Hall you can’t take anybody out to the garage. Even raising your voice is a felony called “coercion of a public servant,” and, believe me, they’re all over that one for obvious reasons.
And anyway, think about what Mitchell’s answer really means: “Not gonna tell you, blah-blah-blah, don’t have to tell you, blah-blah, no idea anyway, blah-blah, who cares, blah, who wants to know?”
When that is the universal language that they all speak — and it is — firing the city manager isn’t going to fix anything. What needs to be fired is the city manager system itself.