There are two scary things about the "strong mayor" proposal probably slated for a referendum in Dallas next May: It seems to have roots in affluent venues in the Park Cities and North Dallas. And it would absolutely gut the Dallas City Council.
But does being scary make it bad?
I have a little fess-up to get out of the way. A couple of fess-ups. One, I didn't read the thick document attached to the petitions...wait, three fess-ups. I didn't read the thick document attached to the petitions calling for a vote next May to abandon the city manager form of government in Dallas. Two...ouch, this is really embarrassing...I signed the petition.
Three, for some weeks now I have had a general knowledge of who was behind it, and in particular I knew one of the organizers was Dallas businessman Vance Miller. In fact, Miller and I have discussed the proposal in some detail.
I have reported that the group backing the strong mayor movement was "secret" only because most of them still are, and the person out front on the deal, city council candidate Beth Ann Blackwood, won't name them. I suspect her problem is that almost all of them are from the Park Cities and the riches of North Dallas, and she's hoping to dilute that with some more plebeian support by the time she has to file a campaign finance report for the petition drive. Dallas elections director Brooks Love tells me that date is January 18, when all campaigns and candidates must file semiannual reports.
My discussions with Vance Miller about the petition drive were on background. But he outed himself as an organizer last week on WFAA-Channel 8, so I can talk about him now.
So let's see. I signed the thing without reading it. I said the group was secret, even though I knew who some of them were. Now I've read it, and my jaw is on the ground over how radical it is. If I could do this all over again, I would never have signed the petition. But now that I have read it, and given the circumstances, I think I may vote for it.
Maybe I need a nap.
I had been told the charter amendments amounted merely to crossing out all references to "city manager" and replacing them with "mayor"--a simple "search and replace."
More like "search and destroy."
Let me share. First the legalese. And this is only an example. The existing charter talks about how "all ordinances and resolutions of the city council...shall be final on the passage or adoption by the required majority of the city council."
If we vote yes on this thing next May, that language will say: "All ordinances and resolutions of the city council AND ORDERS OF THE MAYOR shall be final on the passage or adoption by EITHER THE MAYOR or the required majority of the city council."
Yeah, take a deep breath. That's what I did. Right now, the council votes on ordinances--local laws. But under the new version, the mayor could also pass laws, called "orders."
Are you mentally searching for a parallel in your experience as an American that might help you comprehend that? How about "martial law"?
And I still think I may be OK with it.
In the last week I have been reading political science journals (I deserve hazardous mental duty pay) dealing with forms of local government. The bottom line is that types of city government occupy a spectrum. Right now we are way over at one end--weak mayor, weak council, weak city manager. The weak, weak, weak system.
The proposal put forward by the petitions would slam us all the way over to the other extreme: no city manager or other statutory chief administrative officer at all, a crippled city council that reporters won't even bother to cover, and "The Hulk" for mayor.
This mayor would run every department of the city and have hire-and-fire authority over all non-civil service city employees and appointees. She would appoint the civil service commission. As a matter of fact, she would appoint all members of all city boards and commissions.
The mayor would hire and fire the city council's personal staff and decide what to pay them. You know those city council secretaries who campaigned against Mayor Laura Miller and then brought an ethics complaint against her? They would need to dump their stuff in boxes and run.
The mayor would hire and fire the chief of police, the city attorney, all municipal judges and court clerks. The mayor could create or kill entire city departments--any city department. The mayor would be able to create special police and detectives apart from the police department.
My own personal favorite new power of the mayor: The mayor would be able to blow up buildings. Seriously. I'm not making that up.
The thing about blowing up buildings has to do with emergency situations in which structures are already on fire and threatening other buildings. But, you know, they could always reinterpret "emergency." I imagine the mayor sitting around with Crayton Webb, her chief of staff: "Gee, Crayton, Schutze's column is so bad. I mean, it's almost like an emergency how bad it is. Wouldn't you say?"
A week ago I got into sort of a snip-snap with Blackwood and her husband over something I had written about her campaign finance report in her run for the District 14 (Veletta Lill) council seat. It was a one-day story on a bookkeeping error.
The real bottom line on her and her husband, Park Cities lawyer Tom Thomas, both brand-new to city politics, is that they're smart. They have stepped right around the mayor and city council on the entire issue of charter reform.
Thomas was the lawyer on the Park Cities suit against state aid for poor school districts, and a little more than 10 years ago he filed a "civil rights" suit against Kaufman County for daring to arrest 100 or so Park Cities brats at an out-of-control Park Cities adolescent booze fest.
So he's a successful, respected lawyer from deep in the Bubble, and he and his wife have invaded Dallas to impose regime change. They probably found the weapons of mass destruction their first day. But what is the bottom line on their idea, charter reform?
There is a general perception in the city--a kind of reluctant recognition--that Dallas City Hall is like a human heart in fibrillation. It shakes. It jiggles. It tries so hard. But it just can't pump blood.
People have been jumping on Mayor Miller for being all over the place on this--against the Blackwood petitions, now apparently for them. But Miller is consistent on one point: She keeps telling the cameras that what we have now does not work.
She's right. So how could we possibly justify keeping it?
I hate parts of this proposal. When I spoke with Vance Miller some weeks ago, I asked him about my favorite concept--strong mayor, strong council, strong manager. Make the mayor the boss. But give the council a better salary and the ability to hire its own staff. Create an independent analytical agency equivalent to the state legislative council in Austin. Keep the manager but have him or her report to the mayor, so that the manager doesn't have to hunt for the likely eight-vote majority on any given issue in order to know which way to jump.
Vance Miller thought I was talking trash. He clearly sees the council as the problem. I think his opinion is widely shared among the city's economic elites: The trouble started when all those little neighborhoods--"wards," he calls them--got too big for their britches.
When people talk about the "good old days" in Dallas, they don't mean the days before blacks and browns came to the table. They mean the days before there was a table.
So how could I vote for this? Not happily. I sure wish we had another choice. But this summer is when the voting public will get a chance to vote for change. The only way to put this off is by campaigning against change in May. I believe that would be the worse poison.
Do the Park Cities bubblati and their North Dallas cohort think they'll be able to capture the mayor's seat after the charter has been changed? Of course they do. There's talk now among the business moguls of being tired of Laura Miller, thinking she's a photo-op former journalist who can't run a company.
But the people I talk to who see the polls regularly tell me Laura Miller is still extremely hot with the heavy-voting middle-class base. I think the next mayor under the new system will be Laura Miller.
Then we'll see. Boy will we see.
I said to a friend recently: "People have a sense that the ship is drifting in circles. Above all else, the city has a right and a duty to survive. I think people want to elect a captain and tell the captain to set a course--almost any course, but a course with a tight rudder and wind in the sails."
He listened. Was silent for a moment. Then said: "I don't disagree with any of that, Jim. I just want to point out that these are the sentiments that brought Hitler to the Reichstag in 1933."
Hmm. That's not good. Phew. I think I feel an attack of intellectual fibrillation coming on.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.