In the very wee hours as my eye first opened to the light of this day, I thought I heard a rushing of wings aloft. I caught my breath. Was this ...? And then distinctly as if from the next room, I heard the oinking of pigs.
Only later with coffee in hand and the daily newspaper on my knees did I comprehend: The Dallas Morning News published a long sharply worded lead editorial this morning praising City Council member Angela Hunt and lambasting most of the rest of the council for their bizarre and incomprehensibly irresponsible "debate" Wednesday on a basic issue of governance.
I read it twice to be sure. Yes, The Dallas Morning News, the traditional private organ of the establishment, was defending Hunt and raising questions about our city's hick-town city manager system of governance. I clutched my copy of the morning paper, its gray coffee-speckled leaves shaking and rattling in my white knuckled grasp, and held it to my heart. "Fly onward, you brave little piggies," I whispered hoarsely, choking back tears. "Fly on!"
This is about the council's debate on a question of gas drilling rights on city parkland, which, as some of you pointed out at the time, was not about gas drilling rights on city parkland. It was about who in the hell runs City Hall. Damn!
Hunt took City Manager Mary Suhm to task for lying to the council about a drilling lease five years ago and then carrying out a long, elaborate and successful campaign to keep the wool pulled up snugly over their eyes.
So then did the humiliated, weak and stupid-looking City Council fly to Hunt's side and demand the same kind of answers? Oh my, no. With the exceptions of members Scott Griggs and Sandy Greyson, the rest of the Dallas City Council proceeded to verbally flail Hunt for showing disrespect to the city manager, begging Suhm on virtual bended knee for forgiveness for having allowed the conversation to even happen in the first place.
Council member Vonciel Hill gave a speech which I reproduced here already yesterday, but I just have to quote from it again today, because ... I just do.
After comparing Hunt to Haman, the Jew-killer in the Book of Esther, Hill told Suhm she was Jesus Christ: "Miss Suhm, this is a Good Friday moment," Hill said, speaking in the fake preacher-voice she admits she copies from storied Dallas minister Zan Holmes. She told Suhm, "... but I guarantee you from the faith well into which I reach, your Easter is coming, and you will sail forth."
I gotta be there for that. For the headline opportunities alone. "Suhm in tomb: still calling the shots."
So what did rattle the Morning News' cage? More to the point, what rattled your cages in the comments section on the day of the debate when the Observer's Anna Merlan was live-blogging it from City Hall? I think the commenter who calls her-himself "roos-ster" summed it up pretty well:
"But, wow, are those Dallas council critters clueless and mendacious. I see (or rather don't see) a deliberate policy of opacity in governance. I am going to engage in totally wild speculation and suggest that lots of those council critters are not representing the voters who elected them, but rather the folks who financed their campaigns and side-opportunities for graft. OK, now I'll stop with the crazy-talk."
Yeah. But it's worse than that. It's worse because you could replace every single one of them with the very best possible candidates you could find, and with a very few exceptions within six months they would all morph into the same kind of critters. It's really not the individuals. It's the system.
I talked about it briefly with Hunt afterward. She disagreed with my instant analysis. I think she was right.
I said I thought it was all a function of 14-1: Each council-member acts like a duke or duchess ruling over a council district as if it were a medieval estate, but then they all bow to the city manager as their queen. It is from her they must beg on bended knee for stop signs, sewer pipes and the other bread, mead and circuses with which they keep their own restless peasants at bay.
Hunt said no. It's not 14-1. It's the weak mayor system. We have a system where the buck simply does not stop anywhere.
Hmm. Should we pause and indulge in a moment of pity for the average Dallas City Council member? I guess we could, briefly. They do wake up on Saturdays not to the sound of flying pigs but to the text-message pinging of pissed-off constituents screaming for sewer pipes. The mayor can't get sewer pipes for anybody. The city manager can.
And what about the city manager? What's her deal? If you listened closely Wednesday, there was even a moment of totally unintended candor from Preacher Hill. Before Hill dove into the Book of Esther like a water turkey diving into an East Texas cattle tank, she said, "It is not uncommon for the City Council to say to the staff to be creative and expeditious in finding ways to pay for the things that the council wants to pay for."
What does that even mean? Actually it's Hill saying out loud that the City Council and mayor often use the city manager as political cover to shield their own fecklessness. Lacking the courage to either raise taxes or cut out somebody's favorite stupid City Hall patronage boondoggle, they more or less tell Suhm to just go steal the money.
Here's what Hill really means. Think of them as a family. They're broke. But they want to go to Disneyland and stay in a nice hotel. They have an able-bodied 20-something son. So they hand him a pistol, take him downtown to the bank and say, "Man-oh-man, if somebody could somehow find us the money we need for Disneyland [wink-wink], that person would be a hero in this family forever." Nudge-nudge, out the door.
They don't tell Suhm to disobey them exactly. What they really tell her is this: "We're going to say certain things for public consumption, like, 'No fracking in the parks.' But that's just nudge-nudge wink-wink crap. Your job is to go get the money we need for our patronage programs. Just do it. Keep us out of it."
What you really heard Wednesday was not so much admiration for Suhm as desperation. More than anything, the council would never want Suhm to feel so threatened that she started getting really direct and honest with the public about how things really work down there. Think of it more like, "How dare you suggest our son would rob a bank?"
It is a system that has basic irresponsibility written deep in its genetic code. We all know from whence it came. Back three-quarters of a century ago, somebody thought it would make things cleaner to take the politics out of politics and have a "professional" manager instead. They were wrong.
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Hunt is right. It's not 14-1. There's nothing wrong with council members being directly elected by and responsible to their own constituents in their own neighborhoods. Goodness knows we wouldn't want to make them any less responsible than they are already.
It's the weak mayor/strong city manager system. We are the shareholders. We need a CEO we can fire. Us. You. Me. Voters. We need to be able to hire and fire a mayor to run the overall shop and be responsible for the overall shop.
She must tell us, "I cannot pay for your damn sewer pipes without raising taxes, cutting other programs or signing a deal with a fracking company. That's how it is. So fire me." And if she signs a fracking deal behind our backs anyway and hides it from us for five years and we find out, that's just what we do. Fire her ass.
That's real life, instead of the bizarre shadow-puppet show we saw Wednesday. Until we get to real life, none of this will change.