So Long, Suhm
I knew some people whose only kid went off to college. Tears, blubbering, World War II refugee-style moving day with boxes lashed to the top of the car, the whole nine yards. So now the kid's gone.
They don't just clean up his room. They don't just clean out his room. They sell their house. No, really. They moved into a one-bedroom apartment. I hope they left a forwarding address.
The point was, that chapter of life was now closed. Over. Gone. Sold. Other people living in it. Want to come back home? What home?
If it were up to me, that's what I would do the day Mary Suhm moves out of City Hall. And not because I have any personal animosity for our city manager. At the end of last week when Suhm announced she was retiring, my first thought was that we are not going to get a better one to replace her. The problem was never Suhm. It's the house.
Ideally what the city should do the moment Suhm leaves is get rid of the whole city manager system, close the chapter, pack it all up and put it out by the curb. Who knows? Maybe some small town in East Texas will come along and load it up. They might be able to get some use out of it. It's no good to us anymore.
I would even argue that Suhm is one of the best city managers the city has ever seen, and, yes, I do remember about the secret deal to allow fracking in the parks, and, no, of course not, I haven't forgotten about the white-water feature or the Calatrava bridges or flow control or the I.T. expert who couldn't open his laptop. You know I haven't forgotten the underwater toll road.
But I also understand what the job is, really. Supposedly it's brokering the contending interests and ambitions of the 14 single-member district council members and the mayor. That's what it is on paper, and that's bullshit. If that's part of her job, she does it in the car on the way in Monday. Her real job is brokering the interests of all of the elected officials, together as one entity, against the interests of the old elite in the city as represented by the private curtain-lurking, string-pulling, check-writing group called the Dallas Citizens Council.
Stop. Think about it. Just take the white-water feature. Do you remember what that is? The city spent millions of dollars to have some contractor go dump a bunch of gigantic white concrete turds into the Trinity River in the belief that this would recreate a white-water kayaking park that some rich Park Cities ladies saw in Colorado on their vacation. You know: "Oh, isn't that fantaaaastic, all those magnificent rocks and spray and the little boats and all? Let's do get one and take it home."
We get a lot of stuff that way. It's how we got the Calatrava fake suspension bridge downtown. They see it on their vacations and want one of their own. They think Dallas sucks. They think they can make it better with bling.
Do you think a single City Council member or mayor in the entire history of this city ever asked for a white-water feature? Or a Calatrava bridge? Or an underwater toll road for that matter? Come on. Those poor bastards on the council are fighting for stop signs. No, all of the drama comes either from the Citizens Council or more directly from one of the old business and land-holding oligarchs. And I'm sure if you could get them drunk, they would tell you they are the repository of grand vision in the city.
You do recall, I'm sure, that the white-water feature was such a resounding failure, such a mess, so dangerous to life and limb that they had to close that whole section of the river to navigation, and now, years later, there it sits, spoiling the river for canoeists and kayakers — what the white elephant left behind for us.
The city manager is the pivot point for all of that. She tips this way, The Money gets a white-water feature. She tips that way, a council member gets a stop sign. Not everybody can have everything every time. She's the broker. Suhm has been very good at that job. It's the job that's the problem.
She returned my call the day she resigned. Does that seem surprising, given all the nasty stuff I've written about her, especially this year with the revelation of the secret fracking deal? Not really. Suhm's tough. She gets the gladiatorial element of public discourse. She has knocked me right off my own horsey in a few jousts in the past. I think one of those is still up on YouTube.
I asked her why now. She said, "Not any one thing. It's a good time. There's an experienced mayor and experienced City Council, along with new leadership in the city. I think that's an important thing. I kind of had a checklist for myself. Not all of it's done, but a good bit of it's done."
Of course I asked what she'll do. She said she has no specific plans but will find something to do because she can't be idle. "I can't retire. I'll go do something else. I don't know what it is. You can't look for a job when you're in this job. I can't go fishing or something. No."
Suhm did not bristle, exactly, when I asked if the new makeup of the incoming council was a factor, but she sort of dismissed the idea. She said she has always been able to figure out new councils in the past. Yeah. Exactly. That's why I want to sell.
In 2005 we had two chances to vote out the city manager system and replace it with what's called a "strong mayor" system. Sadly, both of those elections wound up turning on what I would call the "Strong Laura" issue. Laura Miller, a maverick, was mayor, and so the Citizens Council was able to shape the whole question as one of whether we should make Miller even stronger than God did, which, I had to admit, was a daunting prospect, kind of like scary late-night lightning storm experiments up at Castle Frankenstein.
So it failed. We kept the city manager system, which the Citizens Council loves because they have always been able to work it like a gumball machine. What's changed now? Look at it. It's not working like a gumball machine any longer.
Part of the deal was always that the city manager could only really carry water for the Citizens Council if the Citizens Council got the right people elected to the City Council. And for a long time, they did. In a less mature city with far fewer organized mobilized constituencies, the Citizens Council was the sole source of campaign financing and never had any trouble loading up the City Council with its own Manchurian candidates.
Most issues at the council rim were of no importance to the Citizens Council types. City Council members could argue all they wanted and go any direction they pleased on non-discrimination resolutions or pothole repair. But when the rubber met the road and there was an important issue, Citizens Council President Donna Halstead showed up in the City Council chamber, held up the ace of spades, and the entire City Council went into deep zombie mode and voted the way she had instructed them. It was so eerie, sometimes I was just glad she didn't signal them to bite me.
That's over. Just now. Concomitantly with Suhm's departure. Think about it. First, there was only Angela Hunt from East Dallas to be the grown-up at the table, the non-zombie. Then she was joined by Scott Griggs of North Oak Cliff and Sandy Greyson of North Dallas. The difference in going from one to three was enormous. One close observer, who spoke anonymously because he must continue to deal with the council, called the change from one maverick to three "non-linear."
"Before they could always act like Angela was crazy," he said. "Now they see Philip [Kingston] is leading [in a runoff in District 14]. He's the frontrunner. Scott Griggs is coming back. Sandy [Greyson] is there. Adam [Medrano] is coming in."
With one more ally, the independents will be able to muster a bloc big enough to put things on the council agenda against the wishes of the manager and mayor.
"Think of the quantum leap that happened when one independent went to three on the council," he said. "Can you imagine what it would have been like for Mary if three got to five? It's an exponential grief curve."
Those changes have taken place, he said, because the Citizens Council is failing at its half of the bargain. "They're supposed to get the right people elected to office, and they're not doing it."
When Suhm leaves, I'm sure the Citizens Council will push hard for her to be replaced by an ace of spades zombie they can control. It takes a two-thirds vote of the City Council to fire a city manager but a simple majority to hire, according to the charter. That's eight votes to not hire: Eight votes can block any hire, in other words. Eight is only five plus three.
We'll probably go that route for a while — a donnybrook over hiring the replacement. Then I assume Halstead will show up in the audience with her ace, the serious zombies on the council will go heavy-lidded on us and vote to appoint some stiff the rest of us will find far more unappetizing than Suhm ever was.
And there is the moment. Time to pack the little bugger off to college. We need to start talking about that one-bedroom apartment again.
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