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No Bird, No Bush

Lots of people do fine work in their small areas of responsibility at City Hall, but when they take the wheel as a committee, the ship sails in tight circles.
Steve Satterwhite

Whoa there, pod'nuh. Let's pull this buggy over and catch our breath for a second. Some major developments occurred last week, and I didn't see news of it oozing out from the usual media. There were stories about the details, for sure, but I didn't see anybody pointing out the really big news. Before we rush on down the road, could we review?

The big ongoing story in Dallas, I don't have to tell you, is the election next May to ditch the city manager system and establish a "strong mayor" structure for City Hall. The big news last week was that virtually all of the dyed-in-the-wool, fight-to-the-death opponents of establishing a strong-mayor system in Dallas came out with their own versions of a strong-mayor system in Dallas.

Let's not be fancy with the analysis. The headline I did not see but should have seen was: "Strong-Mayor Opponents Come Out in Favor of Strong Mayor."

Is that a hello or what? But I didn't see it. Three weeks ago, every single member of the city council except the mayor was adamantly opposed to any kind of strong-mayor system and said it would lead to the city being taken over by communist mafia Yankee bastards. Now as of last week, the city council says it's working on its own strong-mayor proposal.

The Dallas Citizens Council apparently is going to float its own version of a strong-mayor system. You may not know who they are. It's a private group that meets in secret and used to run the city. I don't know a lot about them beyond that. I think they may have secret handshakes and hats with animal horns on them, stuff like that. But we're supposed to care.

Oh, here's the best part: The "Coalition for Open Government," which is the main anti-strong mayor organization, is also working on a strong-mayor proposal.

How could this be? Please allow me to suggest a theory, a historical parallel. I don't mean to diminish the role of the French Resistance in fighting the Nazis--they truly were courageous and effective--but it seems to be fact that many French people joined the Resistance more or less as De Gaulle was marching into Paris. It's called getting on the right side of history.

For the last month the opponents of a strong-mayor reform have been carrying out various levels of public opinion measurement. I can't get anybody to admit they have done any high-definition polling, but the Coalition, for example, has been running phone banks in which part of what they do is solicit the opinions of the people they call. And I suspect that somebody by now has done some even better measuring, because people with big checkbooks often want to test the wind before writing big checks.

What can we see? What is the best indicator of the way public opinion must be running? It's the fact that all of the opponents of a strong-mayor reform have basically jumped off their own ships and are now swimming madly for strong mayor island.

Sure, they have an agenda, and I understand it. I may even lean toward it. Or I should say I might have leaned toward it before it started looking so stupid. They want to tell you to vote against the "Blackwood Proposal"--the strong-mayor reform on the ballot May 7--in order to give them time to come up with their own more better strong-mayor proposals more later.

So, let's say you're you. And you think City Hall is a junk pile. You're in favor of the strong-mayor thing mainly because you want to be able to focus on at least one person down there whom you can hold accountable. And now here come all these people waving paper at you and shouting, "Oh, no, hold on, you need to vote against this thing next May so you can vote more later for our more better ideas."

OK. What are their ideas? This brings us to the second major hello of last week. My headline for that story would have been: "Backers of Alternate Strong-Mayor Proposals Unable to Agree on Proposals."

Look, let's take this down to the basics. What is the bottom-line accusation here, the source of the city's malaise, the real reason people are so mad at the Dallas City Council? It's that people think the city council can't agree on anything.

So what happens when the council denounces these accusations, says they are unfair, says it can, too, agree on things, says we don't need a strong-mayor reform at all, says it has its own much better strong-mayor idea that we do need and then says it can't decide on what its idea is?

This is called reinforcing negative stereotypes. It's usually done by others to you. When you do it to yourself, it's called destiny.

 

Now let's bend over even more backward to be fair to the opponents and ask what kinds of ideas they are considering, even if the election is not all that far away and they still can't decide which one they favor. Got your pencils out? All sharpened up? Got your highlighters and your cup of coffee? We'll do a comparative analysis.

The council seems to be leaning toward a strong-mayor system that retains a city manager but allows the mayor to hire the manager at will while requiring council approval to fire the manager. The Citizens Council (handshake, animal horns) seems to favor a system in which the mayor must seek council approval to hire the city manager but can fire the manager at will. Got that?

Um, I don't know if I remembered to mention that all of the black members of the city council are opposed to any change in the existing system and would basically like to bring back former Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton. If you're doing a little matrix there on your desk, you need to draw in a picture of Chief Bolton sneaking back in from the lower right-hand corner.

All right, let's get serious. It doesn't matter which particular little formulation the city council comes up with or the Citizens Council or the Coalition for Open Government or my brother-in-law or whoever. All of these distinctions are so arcane, so minute, so incredibly political science wonkish that the whole thing is like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Do we think people are going to be lined up around the block waiting to vote and everybody in line is arguing: "Nay, nay, I say the mayor must be able to hire the manager, but the manager can only be fired with a super-majority of the council and not before his years of service plus his age divided by his IQ equal the combined body weight of the council!"?

Give me a break. The lines will be short. The argument will be: "I hate the council more than the mayor." "I hate the mayor more than the council."

And here is the part I find genuinely saddening. I'm not kidding. I have such admiration for the people who serve on the council. But one of the ideas being floated by the council is the creation of regional satellite city council offices to make it easier for citizens to get to know their council members.

Oh, my goodness, how to say it? The thing enlivening political discourse in the city now is not a public hunger for more opportunities to meet council persons. It's kind of, well...the opposite, really.

The council does good work. They do excellent work sometimes. But as one observer said to me last week, they do good small work. But that's also why, when they are the ones captaining the ship of state, the only course they can steer is tight circles off the pier.

And talk about reinforcing your own worst stereotypes. One of the big strokes the council pulled off last week was publishing all of their own e-mail addresses on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News with a request that citizens write in and tell them what to do.

Is this supposed to be reassuring? How about this instead? How about we erect a huge guillotine on the plaza in front of City Hall with a sign on it: "CITY COUNCIL: FIGURE IT OUT OR THIS IS YOU." It's like trying to breathe a sense of urgency into the Crystal Charity Ball.

I've said this before. I guess I'm going to say it again. A certain set of people in Dallas love City Hall exactly the way it is, because it works for them. Every political pirate and pickpocket in town looks at that scene down there, and it's like some kind of ongoing champagne-fueled pillow fight at the bank--a grifter's dream come true.

I don't believe in giving the mayor credit where credit is due, just because I figure she has enough credit. But she did compare all of these promises of alternative proposals at later dates to the old "your check is in the mail" line. And she did raise the question why anyone would trust them.

Good question, I'm afraid. So far, it's a bird in the bush versus no bird, no bush, but we're looking.

I don't know how I'm going to vote, but I'm going to do all my voting on May 7. Vote it up, vote it down: That's the day I make up my mind.

 

I really do love the council. But every time I see another of these news conferences to announce that they can't decide what to announce, I wonder if we need to get them to sign a political living will.


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