The white-folks version of local history is that back in the Time of Genius, the great fathers wanted to protect the citizens from tension, so they agreed to do all the governing themselves. The African-American version is that back in the time of Colonel Sanders, rich white bigots invented the at-large council system in order to make sure black voters never achieved any influence at City Hall.
The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, but this much is certain: The system we have now--single-member council districts, a very weak mayor who is really only a beefed-up council member and an unelected city manager who runs the show--doesn't work. City Hall never gets around to doing what the voters want done, judging by the outcome of recent citywide elections (for mayor, on various propositions, etc.). But everybody's idea for reform depends on which version of local history he believes.
People who think the wheels have come off City Hall, mainly the middle class, tend to like the idea of a strong-mayor government, because they want somebody out front who can be held accountable. People who see single-member council districts as a hard-fought civil rights victory, mainly minority or up-and-coming, tend to look with suspicion on the strong-mayor concept as an end run for Colonel Sanders.
Then we get down in the whole swamp of personalities. Is this just Laura Miller trying to rule the world? Is it Councilman James Fantroy on his campaign of, "Nobody picks up my trash but me?" Didn't former Mayor Ron Kirk make the existing system work?
One thing that can help us get across the swamp of personality is a recognition that the same winds of change blowing through Dallas are blowing through cities across the country. In Milwaukee, the urban debate in recent years has centered on downtown, on residential development, a river walk, public school reform and the nuts and bolts of making city government efficient. Debate in Buffalo, New Orleans and D.C. in the last few years has often turned on how well or how poorly city halls accommodate the middle class.
In fact, Dallas' resurgent urban middle class is the philosopher's stone in all of this. They've been gone. Who knows where? The 'burbs. Maybe still here but raising babies. Point is, they're baaack! And they want the streets fixed.
The recent battles over a second round of tax subsidies for the Perot/Hicks sports arena in downtown Dallas provide a spicy little window on what middle-class voters have encountered upon their return to the urban political marketplace.
While they were gone, the deal guys had to deal with somebody. They cut their principal political agreements with minority leadership in the first Perot/Hicks campaign for tax subsidies for the new downtown arena four years ago, in the campaign for a multibillion-dollar public works project on the Trinity River in Dallas and in this second bite of the apple seeking more subsidies for Perot and Hicks.
But now Laura Miller is the mayor, and her constituency is overwhelmingly middle class--north of the river, or south but well off. Her middle-class voters will not give their blessing to expensive public works projects or subsidies simply because the projects generate jobs and contracts. Miller thinks it is her job and duty as the elected steward of the public interest to sharpen her pencil and push for the best deal on stand-alone merits, before jobs or contracts ever come into play. She's here to put the wheels back on and make the trains run on time.
It may not happen under the existing weak-mayor system.
In a long interview in her City Hall conference room last week, Miller shared a series of insights she has gained since becoming mayor into the way City Hall really works, especially in the Palladium deal. Palladium is the company that will do the Perot/Hicks arena development. Her first remarks were to praise City Manager Ted Benavides for his cooperative attitude after she was elected and before Palladium went nuclear.
But at a certain point in the Palladium debate, four minority council members, led by attorney Donald Hill, banded together with Northeast Dallas member Mary Poss, who has ties to Perot, and signed a petition that had the parliamentary effect of truncating the process and hastening a vote--a move designed to help Palladium in defiance of the mayor. Miller told me that from that point forward, Benavides and his staff went flat, lay down and began caving in to every demand Palladium made in negotiations.
In one of several examples she gave me, Miller told how negotiators for the city had agreed to allow Palladium to vacate a key pledge to which the company had publicly and repeatedly committed itself, in exchange for which the city's negotiators asked for nothing and got nothing.
"One thing Palladium always said to us verbally was, 'We don't get a penny back from the taxpayers [in city tax subsidy] until we have $600 million [in completed buildings and amenities] on the ground. Then we get reimbursed, but everything is up and running. So it's a sweet deal.'"
But Miller says that after weeks of negotiations in which she and council member Mitchell Rasansky had been included--and after Donald Hill's petition--five city staffers held a negotiating session with Palladium to which she and Rasansky were not invited.
"After this meeting in the dark in the conference room that no council members were aware of with Hillwood [the Perot company] and Palladium and our five straw men [the low-level staffers who did the negotiating]," she said, "the staff decided, 'Well, OK, I guess if they put $385 million on the ground, they can start getting reimbursed.'
"This is the new part of the deal that they cut."
Miller said she asked a city lawyer who had been in the meeting that day why he had agreed to allow Palladium to back out of a promise that could be viewed as the centerpiece of the whole deal. She asked why the staff would not have held Palladium to its original promise of $600 million before reimbursement, since the original pledge gave the city more leverage to ensure that the full $600 million would get built.
She quoted the lawyer as replying, "'Well, yeah, we could have done that, we could have stayed there, but, you know, they just wouldn't do it. They just wouldn't do it.'"
Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, who had been in charge of the Palladium negotiations, left town in the middle of all this, Miller said, departing on a sudden leave to a part of Kansas where he could not be reached by telephone. (I called Benavides, who confirmed that Evans has been out of town because of "health problems.")
Miller said the effect of all this was to basically neuter City Hall in negotiations. "It's just like it's always been. We get out-lawyered, we get out-dealed, we get out-worked, I mean everything. We just do, because nobody's in charge."
The most interesting aspect of what she had to say, for me, was that she did not really blame City Manager Benavides personally for the lack of direction she sees in City Hall. She has come to understand his position.
"I'll tell you, when I bring Ted in and say, 'How come Ryan hauled off and did a deal in the dark?' Hill's bringing him in over here and screaming at him and saying how come Palladium is telling me you're not doing this or this?"
So who is Benavides' boss? The mayor? Or Donald Hill? Or nobody? And under those circumstances, why should Benavides stick his neck out?
Did Ron Kirk make this system work? Yes. Mayors can always make it work if the game plan is for the staff to lie down and give it up to rich, powerful interests. They have that move down.
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But what happens when the new middle-class constituency wants City Hall to drive sharp-pencil deals for the taxpayer? Then Miller's right: Nobody's in charge. The city manager has to hedge his bets between the troublesome new mayor and the five-vote cabal. The staff goes back to its normal crisis mode: white flag, heave tax dollars out window, Kansas.
That's why the end product of charter reform will have to include a strong mayor--a mayor who can hire and fire the city manager. Someone has to give focus and direction, and it needs to be a person, not a shifting majority on a committee, not a career manager trying to guess where the next majority will form. We need a red-light green-light person whom the voters can put in and out of office.
We can still protect the gains of constituencies by also building a stronger city council, giving them an independent research bureau and full-time paid political staff. We also can have a truly strong city manager: If the mayor absorbs the political heat, then the city manager can concentrate on running a professional staff.
Strong mayor, strong council, strong city manager. The only people I can think of who wouldn't like that formula might be Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks, for the same reason I assume John Dillinger probably didn't like strong bank vaults.