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The Juice

Your friendly city council is eager to assist with any needs you may have at Dallas City Hall.
Thomas Nast

Hate to do this to you. I don't like it when I read stories by other reporters based on unnamed sources. I have an ungenerous tendency to wonder if they made it all up. But in this case, the only people I could talk to were sources who would rather eat chalk than see their names in my column.

In the next 16 weeks Dallas voters must ponder the biggest change in city politics since 1931--a charter election May 7 to abandon the city manager system in favor of much greater powers for the mayor. A standard cliché in this debate, one I probably have helped propagate in my own small way, is the notion that Dallas City Hall is broken, stuck in the mud, can't get anything done to save its life.

Here's my secret dilemma: I know people--great sources, folks I have known for years--who work City Hall like a gumball machine every day of their lives, all day long. I'm talking about people who go to City Hall seeking deals: zoning changes, street closings, conservation districts, historic markers, tax breaks, whatever. And they would tell you City Hall works like a Swiss watch. For them.

Some of them would disagree with what I'm going to say next, and some would agree. I would say next that City Hall works for a limited group of insiders--I think they would prefer the title "informed citizens"--who know how to work it. But not for the person who has a job or kids to take care of or who wants to go fishing and just doesn't have time to become a Ph.D. expert.

Last week I spoke with several people who are Ph.D.s-times-10 at dealing with City Hall. I can't name them; I can't even characterize what they do, because they operate in a tiny universe, and someone would figure out who they are.

What I can do--and I think this might be genuinely helpful in figuring out what really goes on down there--is summarize what they told me about how they get what they want from Dallas City Hall.

Almost all of them agree on this: If you want to get something from City Hall, the first thing you need to do is put the whole city manager thing right out of your mind. Forget it. It will only confuse you.

The mythology of the manager system, after all, was that it removed politics from city business. Or, as one wag put it to me, "It was supposed to remove politics from politics, which may have been its problem."

The deal now at City Hall, most of my sources agree, is that you will not get off square one--no, wait, they said you won't even get on square one--until you do the politics. Politics is first and foremost. City staff, no matter what they tell you, will not lift a pinkie finger in your behalf until you show them the juice. And the juice is a city council member.

"They are afraid of city council members," one man said. "That's all they're afraid of."

If you want the city to do something for you--a zoning change, a street closing, a conservation district--you need to show the staff your city council person. Your little bottle of juice. You must demonstrate to the staff that the council person for the district where you want your deal is on your side.

If you can do that, if you can put the juice on the table, then step out of the way: City Hall is gonna work for you.

"It's the red carpet," a developer said to me. "They're under so much pressure to do deals, once they know you have the council lined up, they can't wait to help."

Now, the second level. What if you want something from City Hall that involves more than one council district or maybe all of them--something beyond the borders of an individual council member's duchy? How do you do that?

Eight little bottles of juice on the wall. You have to show that you have an eight-vote majority of the 15-member city council going for you. Then you get the red carpet. Three votes? The cold shoulder.

The real-world system at City Hall is the direct contrary of the official mythology. Far from barring politics from the door, city staff won't let you in the door unless you've already done your political homework.

The system was always political, because public business in a democracy is inherently political. Back when people thought the city manager system worked so well, that was because the politics all got done behind closed doors by five or six blue-suit cigar butts downtown. Moving effective control to elected council members was a step in the right direction.

 

So maybe the system we have now is a move in a better direction, away from the days of the smoked-filled room. But we ain't there yet.

Take the eight-vote dilemma, for example. How do you get eight votes? How do you make that big train go down the tracks?

What I'm told is that you work through a broker. Someone brokers the eight votes for you. It might be the city manager. Might be an individual council member. Probably not the mayor, because she has not shown much ability to get eight votes together even for her own deals.

If you're worried about getting lost in someone else's political agenda, then you hire a lawyer or a lobbyist--a paid pro--to broker your deal. At least that way you can be reasonably assured your broker has your interests first in mind.

That takes money. It all takes savvy and patience. It may require a certain humility--a willingness to roll up one's sleeves and get one's hands dirty.

People who do this stuff for a living, for example, always contribute to every council member's officeholder account. It's not that two grand to an officeholder account buys a council person's vote, but it does buy a call-back. And you're not in the game if you can't get a call-back.

The rules are wobbly and uncertain. Not everyone is allowed to use a broker, for example. I'm told Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp. (The Dallas Morning News) hasn't done better in his own City Hall initiatives precisely because he has insisted on using brokers rather than pressing the flesh in person.

"Some council members are offended by that," a source told me.

They want to see the Prince of Belo humble himself a bit, make an appointment, sit across a desk in a squeaky chair and ask for it the way regular people do. Democracy's not easy for princes.

If you're an ordinary mortal, on the other hand, people at City Hall are reassured to see you using one of the regular brokers. It shows you know the rules and can be counted on to behave yourself.

The thing we need to understand, in sizing up the debate on a strong-mayor system, is that the system we have now works just fine for individual council members and for lots of people who have business with the city. We see them already coming together in an otherwise almost incomprehensibly diverse coalition. What they have in common is that they know how to work the locks.

So what is it that City Hall can't do?

The system at City Hall cannot effect change that transcends narrow interests. Take the debate on doing something about the homeless. The juice system is great for stopping things you don't like, for people who want to prevent the city from locating a new homeless intake center in their part of town. No eggs get broken.

But it doesn't provide the kind of overarching leadership that can say, "Sorry, gotta get this done, gotta break some eggs. Here's where it goes. If you don't like it, vote me out of office."

Which leads to my second point. There's no one to vote out of office. I get letters and calls and e-mails from people who are furious that the city isn't building the park we were promised in the 1998 Trinity River bond election and is building a freeway instead. They want to know whom they can fire.

Nobody. The Trinity River project has been cobbled down into dozens of mini-deals, each of them brokered by a different interest group. Let's say you get really serious about this, and you drive down to the Trinity River project office, and you tell the people there that you want a full accounting of the decisions that led to the current situation.

Watch the eyes. You know how sometimes you're at a party, and you're talking to somebody, and you notice they're pretending to listen but sort of looking around for somebody else. I can tell you exactly who they're looking for.

The juice.

You want something? You want a report or a study or something on the Trinity River project? Answers: That's what you said you wanted. Sure, we can do that. We can buckle down and go to work like a bunch of busy bees getting those answers for you, but...ah...

Where's your juice, man? Where's your council person? Well, actually, now that we think about it, the Trinity project is a citywide issue, so before we could actually acknowledge your existence here in the office too much, we would need eight little bottles of juice on the wall.

 

There are smart people who will argue passionately to you that this is the best system we can have: It gives everybody access, at least theoretically, and it doesn't allow any one group or person to dominate.

Others will argue that this is a system designed for special seekers. It allows everybody to get but requires nobody to give. It belches steam and toots the whistle but can't move the train down the tracks.

That's up to you.


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