In its own peculiar way, yesterday's editorial in the city's only daily newspaper was the perfect expression of the dilemma Dallas faces in choosing a new bureaucrat to run the city: Most of the people who even talk out loud about the topic are afraid to say out loud what the topic is about.
It's not about choosing a new city manager. That was locked up months ago. It's A.C. Gonzalez, the acting city manager, the inside guy. Are you kidding? You think the boys would let this go outside?
In a very sideways cautious way yesterday's Dallas Morning News editorial did put its finger on the only real issue. Should the city's next city manager be an inside hire or someone fresh from outside city staff on the principle that a new broom sweeps clean? For perspective, imagine this as a mafia movie in which a minor boss goes to the don and suggests maybe the family should look for new leadership outside organized crime, like from Yale or something, on the principle that a new broom sweeps clean. Now imagine the next scene in which the minor boss is all bug-eyed with his tongue stuck out while being garroted from behind.
Look, I do try to keep tabs. I spoke with a senior City Council member last week, a pretty good vote counter, who assured me nothing has changed. It's still A.C. For A.C. to become anything less than a lock cinch he'd have to do something so evil you couldn't even picture Woody Harrelson doing it. Don't go there.
It's also not about any of the endless pious blah-blah-blah that various community leaders and professors and clergy and the like have been sluicing out onto the op page of the Morning News about it over the last few months, stuff like he or she needs to be a conciliator or a facilitator or a negotiator or some other kind of tater. No he doesn't. All he has to do is be inside.
Inside outside? Yeah, I know, most of this stuff is opaque to people who don't make their whole living off it, but let's reflect on a few things you can see from the outside. Our elected representatives, the City Council, tell the former city manager, Mary Suhm, do not, repeat NOT allow any gas drilling in our parks. She says sure. Then she goes to work immediately on a secret deal to allow gas drilling in our parks.
She tells the council we need a new law to force more trash haulers to haul more trash to the city-owned landfill because somehow that will make the city more green. A judge finds that her line is one big lie and all she wants is more money from trash hauling companies, which is not the kind of green we were talking about.
We find out last week that she has put us back behind a horrible eight-ball on race, something we thought we had taken care of 25 years ago, because she has been taking hundreds of millions of dollars from the feds, money she was supposed to be spending on desegregation, and spending it instead to promote racial segregation downtown. By the way, her point man on all that was A.C.
As for A.C., what have we seen him do during his brief tenure as the acting? His most visible act so far was an attempt, almost successful, to trick the council into passing a law without knowing that was what they were doing to help Yellow Cab run a competitor out of town. You remember Yellow Cab, of course. They have helped City Hall in the past by doing stuff like turning state's evidence against the City Council member they had been bribing. So of course, if they've got some damn competitor, our acting city manager should do anything to help.
I said the Morning News editorial is the perfect expression. That's because they take a mild little swipe at some of their own op-ed authors who had "asked you to read between their lines" rather than saying out loud that we need a new broom. But then the editorial does the same thing, never saying flat out we need an outsider. Instead it says we need, "a bold, fresh vision from a city manager untethered to the way Dallas always did business."
Why all the timidity? Go back to the scene with the bugged-out eyeballs. The consequences can be severe for coming right out and saying anything new-broom-like. A few of the op-edders did it, like former Mayor Laura Miller who said right out, "Go for change," but Laura Miller doesn't need the boys. She doesn't make her money off City Hall.
For anybody who needs anything out of Dallas City Hall, the game has always been go along to get along, take your licks, swallow some pride, and one day City Hall will open up like a big ATM machine and make you rich. That's how the system works.
The official version is that we have a city manager system with a weak ribbon-cutting mayor in order to insulate City Hall from politics. The truth is that we have such a system in order to insulate City Hall from voters. Once the voters have been cut out, then all the special-seekers who want to drill for gas in parks or run a competitor out of town can line up at the City Hall ATM, punch in their pass-codes, grab their money and run. When City Hall isn't paying out to the inside boys, it pays itself, as in devising a wildly irresponsible trash hauling policy just to get revenue for its own payroll so it can keep itself ensconced.
Hey, this only works one of two ways. City Hall answers to the voters. Or City Hall answers to the boys.
The only way for voters to enforce a broad vision on City Hall is by ditching or seriously modifying the city manager system in favor of a strong mayor system. There has to be somebody down there we can fire if they do exactly the opposite of what we told them to do.
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The single-member City Council system will never get there. Individual council members will always get elected or unelected based on small-bore neighborhood issues. Nothing wrong with that at the level of council districts. It's how it should be, as a matter of fact. But you need a CEO over it who works directly for the voters, not a mayor who cuts ribbons and a CEO who works for the boys.
A.C Gonzalez will get this job because the only thing that counts to the boys is continuity. The existing system works for them. As a developer once said to me, "City Hall works like a gumball machine, if you know how to work it."
By the way, Gonzalez is very good at what he does. Would it make things better for somebody else to get the job? No. The job is still the job. Might as well have somebody in there who knows what all the buttons and dials are for. (Please remember how flattering I was, Mr. Gonzalez.)
What people really cannot say, what no one will say out loud, is that we need to get rid of the job. We need a strong mayor. We need to convert the city manager into the mayor's chief administrator. But don't hold your breath for that. And meanwhile, it's A.C. all the way, so don't waste your breath. That tater done been cooked already.