Talkin' Doo-doo

Mark Andresen

The Dallas Morning News special section a week ago, "Dallas at the Tipping Point," was really strong stuff. I know, I know. You're just waiting for me to find fault with it. After all, the News, such a booster these years, finally presented statistical evidence to show that Dallas is totally screwed.

It was negative. I'm negative. Why would I find fault with that?

I'm just curious...that's all. I just have a few questions. Like, why now? Why the Morning News? And, what was it, anyway? It wasn't a news story. It wasn't in response to anything that happened.

On Sunday, April 18, the Morning News published a free-standing 20-page section reporting that Dallas has major-major economic, governance and social ills based on findings by Booz Allen Hamilton. Based on my own conversations with typical readers, many people wondered what newspaper would be dumb enough to hire a reporter whose first name was Booz. And very few people read the whole thing.

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They should have. It was a solid piece of work. Booz, by the way, is an international consulting firm whose mottos, according to its Web page, are "Strategy with technology," "Insight with action," "Delivering results that endure," "Booz Allen is a great place to work in the Netherlands" and "We just can't settle on a motto." Um, I made up that last one. Sorry.

The agenda of the Booz people is obvious. They got paid. But what was Belo's agenda in paying them? Truth and purity? And now my 140-pound Weimaraner can fly? Oh, I'm so ashamed of myself for taking that tone. Let's try to approach this with the dignity and sobriety the subject deserves.

First, the doo-doo thing. In his response to the report, City Manager Teodoro Benavides told Morning News reporters, "I think it's a pile of doo-doo."

Critics have been characterizing Benavides' doo-doo remark as undignified and weird. I think some of that criticism is unfair. The word, do, is a mainstay of the language, occupying almost six pages of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary ("1631: heer's a deal of doo, indeede").

In 1986, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush brought the term doo-doo to the fore by telling a reporter that Chinese officials who criticized the regime in Beijing might find themselves in "deep doo-doo."

In late March of this year, doo-doo burst back into the headlines when Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry objected that his handlers were "scared I'm gonna step in doo-doo."

Bush, Kerry, Yale? Skull&Bones? Doo-doo? We can only ponder. But I'll say this: If those elite preppies can get away with it, I think beating up on our city manager is hypocritical, and I will even go so far as to call it doo-doo poo-poo.

Needless to say, city staff, the mayor and city council members all sounded very defensive when the News asked them about its findings. The more interesting thing about the News' special section, though, was the manner in which the newspaper itself seemed so obviously to pull its punches at the end. The entire presentation pointed inexorably to one conclusion: The system of government that we have in Dallas is broken; it's stupid; it does not work.

And, of course, it was very gratifying to several of us here at the Observer to have The Dallas Morning News staff doff their white robes, snatch up their hymnals and come stand behind us in the Dallas Observer Civic Choir. We have been saying for years exactly what their special section said: Under the system at City Hall, no one is responsible for anything; everybody points at everybody else; nobody gets fired; the buck never stops anywhere.

For years the News acted as if we were a bunch of carping commie carpetbaggers. Now they spend a rumored $400,000 to have a consultant named Booz tell them we were right. But we are not going to gloat, OK? We're too dignified for that.

The pulled punch was this: At the very back of the section, on something that looked like an editorial page, the News said officially and editorially that there is no need for any fundamental structural change at City Hall. The best the News could offer was a suggestion that Dallas City Hall place "citizen satisfaction at the top of its organizational chart."

I don't think that one was a Booz Allen idea. I'm trying to imagine the org chart. Mayor and City Manager both report to Citizen Satisfaction?

I think I may know the true identity of Citizen Satisfaction, by the way, and we will get to that in a moment. Think: Citizen Kane.

It's strange, on the surface of it. They loaded the gun, went down on Main Street at high noon, slapped leather, got the drop...and then said, "Just kidding." And this isn't merely my perception. A respected establishmentarian-type said to me, "It's like they backed the hearse up to the funeral home, but they never unloaded the stiff."  

DMN editorial page editor Keven Ann Willey told me my view was a misinterpretation of their intent: "Here's what we meant," she said. "Yes, the [city] charter does need serious re-examination. I mean, we said that a couple of times in the editorial. And by that we meant that one kind of revision might mean moving to a strong-mayor system. That might be a good idea, if not a panacea.

"If we choose not to go to a strong mayor, another option might be simply more clearly delineating lines of responsibility, authority and accountability to make it clear who's in the driver's seat."

Mmm. I don't think so. Here's what the editorial said: "This isn't a paean for converting to a strong-mayor system of government. Phoenix, a city larger than Dallas, and San Jose prove that a strong-manager form of government can indeed work if roles and responsibilities are clearly spelled out, and the right people are in place."

Sorry. That's takin' a dive, a header into the canvas, a half-gainer into the tank. And I smell an internal difference of opinion. I think the Booz people and the News staff were all lined up in the same direction, pointing to the need to ditch the city manager system. But this little project, after all, didn't come from them. It didn't belong to them.

According to people who would know, the special section was ordered up by someone close to the very top command of the Belo corporate structure. And believe me, the black box at the top of that org chart doesn't say "Citizen Satisfaction." It says "Robert Decherd, chairman, president and CEO of the Belo Corporation."

And now we finally begin to see a timeline that makes a little bit of sense in answer to the question "Why this, why now?"

Decherd is one of a small handful of people who have been pushing for the creation of a "limited government corporation" to run downtown. (See "Grab for Privates," by Jim Schutze, February 12.) They keep saying it would be like the ones used successfully in Houston, but it would not be. In Houston, LGCs are used to carry out specific limited projects. What Decherd and others are pushing for here is a broad hand-off of planning, zoning and bond-selling authority to a semi-private entity, which would then decide what to do with downtown. This scheme is nearing the tipping point when its backers will want to have a coming-out party for it.

Decherd, as we know, has an intense interest in developing a series of parks downtown, especially in the debilitated corner of downtown where most of the Belo landholdings are. I don't know why the head of a $1.46 billion national corporation with 6,700 employees is so obsessed with garden plots around his own castle. I keep thinking of the Sun King and Versailles. A better man than I might simply see a very civic-minded business leader concerned for the fate of his hometown. But there you have it.

I didn't dream this up, by the way. This was suggested to me by people who are a hell of a lot tighter into the game than I am. In this construction of things, the News' special section becomes a loaded gun, pointed at City Hall but unfired. The obvious inference is that City Hall is as messed up as a junk pile. It's driving business away from the city. But there's no real way to fix it. Therefore, the best thing is to turn everything over to Mr. Decherd's private corporation. (I left a detailed voice message for Decherd last Friday requesting comment; I hadn't heard back by press time.)

Some of this you can't argue with. City Hall is as messed up as a junk pile. It is driving business away. But there are ways to fix it. Simple ways. Ditch or fix the stupid city manager system. The problem with this LGC idea is the same problem we're facing in Iraq right now. Everything in public life, from local politics to international diplomacy, comes down to three issues: legitimacy, legitimacy and legitimacy.

A bunch of rich guys in suits operating behind closed doors is not legitimacy. That's so yesterday. It's the Dallas Citizens Council risen from the grave.

The solution is not to insulate City Hall even more from the voters. Insulation is the damn problem! We need to hot-wire City Hall to the voters, not unhook it. The Citizens Council concept--the old Dallas dream of a few wise men downtown--is what brought down the Soviet Union. The men are never wise enough. The people, in their collective, messy, loud, undignified democratic wisdom, know what to do: Fix the basics, make it a better community. Meanwhile the few wise men--and the mayor--think the answer is building a thong bridge over the Trinity River.  

Decherd was interviewed in his own special section, which was plenty weird. Talking about the loss of commercial tax base and resulting pressure on homeowners, Decherd said, "There should be a homeowners' revolt in this city. They're getting killed."

That could happen. But you know, revolts are messy and don't always go so well for Sun Kings. Ouch!

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