Will Jarrett, former editor of the Dallas Times Herald, never thought the city manager system was any good, even 25 years ago.
Will Jarrett, former editor of the Dallas Times Herald, never thought the city manager system was any good, even 25 years ago.
Mark Graham

Take It or Leave It

Think about it: Some really outlandish stuff has been written about Beth Ann Blackwood and her husband, Tom Thomas, the lawyers who brought us the strong-mayor proposal on the ballot May 7.

They've been called "Park Cities bubblati," whatever that means. One guy compared the arguments for their proposal to "the sentiments that brought Hitler to the Reichstag in 1933." Was that over the top or what?

Somebody even said their political efforts were "sleazy and contrary to state law." Quick, somebody toss a bucket of ice water on that guy!

And here's the really painful part. All those guys were me. I wrote all of that stuff. Hey, what can I tell you? It's not a precise science. I just hope I don't die some day and St. Peter's up there on a cloud with his reading glasses and a big stack of my columns. I'm hoping he'll be busy.

It does occur to me, as we get our heads down for the last furlong before the election, that I might want to revisit the question of where and why the Blackwood amendment came about, especially since one of the people behind the Blackwood proposal is someone I have known for a long time, whose word I trust.

Why wouldn't I ask Will Jarrett?

Jarrett was one of a handful of wealthy backers who kicked in $180,000 to fund the petition drive that produced the upcoming strong-mayor election. If it passes, the Blackwood proposal will spell the end of the city manager system in Dallas in favor of a strong mayor--potentially the biggest alteration of the municipal political landscape in the city's living memory.

Jarrett chipped in 36 grand. I can say with pretty much absolute authority that there is nothing financial in this thing for him, personally. Jarrett and his partner, Ken Johnson, sold a chain of weekly newspapers in the Southwest in 1997 for a rumored $80 million.

I think he does some consulting now, but I asked him once over lunch what his principal occupation is these days. He looked around Sevy's Grill, his hangout on Preston Road near Northwest Highway, and said, "Pretty much this." He thought about it for a minute. "And golf," he added.

Jarrett and Johnson were our captains in the heyday of the Dallas Times Herald, the paper the Los Angeles Times owned here, which is no more. They departed that ship at a point significantly before its sinking in 1991 and started their own successful company. So I guess they knew how to run a business and the L.A. Times didn't.

I asked Jarrett at lunch the other day where Blackwood came from. He said it was entirely the idea of Thomas and Blackwood. "Tom Thomas and Beth Ann Blackwood were the drum majors of this band, and the rest of us just kind of fell in behind them."

Maybe another reason I wanted to have lunch with Jarrett and then revisit this whole question: It did seem obvious, after a while, that none of the people who put up that 180 grand, with the possible exception of Vance Miller, makes any money at City Hall.

Vance Miller is in real estate, especially downtown real estate lately, so that does give him a dog in the City Hall hunt. But the rest of them are just not City Hall connected--an oilman, a mega-bucks international financier, a guy who eats lunch at Sevy's and plays golf, people like that. So what's in it for them?

Jarrett crossed paths with Mayor Laura Miller at the Times Herald--hired her as an intern when she was a kid. He was an early supporter of her first mayoral bid but says he has not spoken with her in more than a year. He says Miller absolutely had no connection with the Blackwood petition drive. He even gets a little miffed when he talks about her initial take on Blackwood, when she said she thought it was too extreme.

"I was very disappointed when Laura came out against Beth Ann's proposition," he said at lunch. "I didn't think it was a very politic move. It basically gave ammunition to the other side.

"She said, 'Well, this is too strong.' I think she knew we needed some strong medicine. I think she was trying to be conciliatory."

Miller, of course, has changed her mind. She is now the most visible supporter of Blackwood. When I interviewed her a few weeks ago, she referred to the Blackwood proposal as "this gift."

She figured out at a certain point that Blackwood was the only thing that was going to be on the ballot. By getting more than enough signed petitions in and qualified, Blackwood blocked any alternatives for the ballot.

Miller has said--and I hear more and more people who think she's right--that the May 7 election is the only shot this city will get at a strong-mayor reform in the foreseeable future, no matter what anybody promises for later. If Blackwood gets shot down at the polls, believe it: A major constituency out there, including the entire city council except for Miller, will heave an enormous sigh of relief. They'll say, "The people have spoken, and they love our city manager." And the strong-mayor idea will be yesterday's vapor trail.

So Miller has come around to support Blackwood. Let's imagine, then, that Will Jarrett's version of how this came about is exactly right. Blackwood and her husband just decided on their own that Dallas City Hall was too painful to watch--a sentiment I can understand--and they came up with a way to fix it. Some of the people they hit up for money gave them the cash because they were friends or business associates or thought they were the valet parkers.

But what was in it for Jarrett? I know him too well. He's the kind of shrewd observer who cannot make himself not watch. Even if he's pretty busy eating lunch and playing golf, I damn well know he's still watching every move. So why did he think this was worth 36 grand of his own money?

To answer, he went straight back to the late 1970s, when he and Ken Johnson were editing the Times Herald. "Everybody was saying how wonderful the council-manager system was then. I didn't think it was very wonderful.

"As you will recall, there was a massive tax scandal that took place then, in which businesses were able to render whatever they wanted to. The city accepted it."

Oh, yeah. I do remember that. I worked on that story, with Jarrett as my boss. What a deal: Businesses in Dallas "rendered" their own taxable value for their inventories; that is, they called up the city tax department and said, "Here's what we're going to pay you this year." The city just accepted whatever they offered.

Jarrett reminded me: Lots of really down and dirty conflict of interest was involved. "In some cases there were employees of the city tax department who were moonlighting as tax consultants for the very businesses they were supposed to have oversight of," he said.

Obviously the businesses went way low-ball when they guesstimated what they owed. All of the money they escaped paying was money that had to be paid instead by homeowners. Eventually our stories forced the city to admit it was illegally under-estimating the taxable value of business inventories by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I personally did not see any adequate responsiveness from the city manager's office when that story blew up," Jarrett said.

And nothing much has changed. Look at the stupid mess City Hall was in when Terrell Bolton was police chief; the crime rate in Dallas had been the worst in the country for years; The Dallas Morning News wouldn't report it; and the city manager wouldn't do anything to get rid of Bolton.

"But I had no power to change that," Jarrett said. "Nothing, nada. Nobody in the city could do anything to get that change made. I as a voter and you as a voter in the city of Dallas could not vote directly for a change."

He's right. There is a thread here. It does go back to the 1970s. It does go back to the Times Herald, which was the first vigorous force for change this city had seen in a half-century. The city manager system is a relic of the day when a tiny cabal of business leaders downtown viewed the manager as their private under-the-table CEO.

Did the city manager system work? Yeah, if you owned a business with a big inventory and you didn't want to pay your taxes. But it sure didn't work for homeowners. North Dallas homeowners in particular formed the core of the tax rebellion that followed our stories at the Herald. Their uprising was, I always suspected, the forerunner of the neighborhood movement that still drives city politics to this day.

"Everybody talks about the council-manager system being great," Jarrett said. "If it's so great, why don't we have a state manager form of government? Or let's get Bush out of there, and let's put in a national manager appointed by Congress."

When you follow it all the way back, the city manager system is the last remaining relic of good ol' boy government in Dallas. Good ol' boy government has endured here, because conservative voters in North Dallas have a tendency to imagine that they are good ol' boys, too.

But every now and then they look up and realize they're not included; the good ol' boys are making off with the inventory; crime's terrible and the streets are going to hell.

Maybe this is how we break that cycle.


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