Up With Fascism!
Try this one on for size. What if Dallas is so screwed up that the only way to get it going right is radical surgery?
What if we went back to something like the old business-guy committees that used to run everything before the yankee federal courts stuck their noses into our affairs in the 1970s and forced Dallas against its will to adopt American-style democracy? What if we sort of gave up on democracy and opted instead for some form of limited provisional enlightened fascism?
The people proposing a "limited government corporation" for downtown Dallas will not appreciate my characterizing their idea as fascism. At all. But the proposal is, in fact, a direct throwback to the days when the entire city was run by a private group of business leaders called the Dallas Citizens Council.
The old system enabled a fairly secretive self-appointed committee of downtown suits to decide who was going to serve on the city council, who was going to be mayor, who was going to be city manager and who was going to get all the big fat juicy contracts.
And, of course, if you were some eccentric guy who disagreed with them, you got squashed like a bug. That was democracy, Dallas-style. You could vote to agree. Or you could vote to get yourself squashed like a bug. Freedom of choice.
The worst thing the old system did--its eventual undoing--was the perpetuation of racism. If they had managed to get themselves up to speed on race and diversity, the old suits or their successors might still be in power.
The limited government corporation or LGC under discussion now is a partial return to the Citizens Council days. Using state laws that make such things possible, the city would create a kind of private government for downtown, with very broad powers.
Virtually all of the existing downtown groups and entities--the special-purpose taxing districts, even the booster associations--would be folded into the LGC. The LGC would run everything downtown. It would be strictly a one-size-fits-all deal, as any self-respecting fascist organization ought to be.
The concept was presented to the city council at a public briefing last June. Since then, the promoters of the LGC supposedly have been modifying and retrofitting their proposal to answer objections and questions from the June briefing.
It isn't on the agenda yet for a new briefing, but the word I get is that it's due back within a month or so. Three big issues still stand out as potential bones of contention: 1. vision, 2. structure, 3. oversight.
As currently proposed, this thing would operate under a nine-member board, a majority of whom would be Dallas residents but a minority of whom might not be.
The board would nominate its own members as a slate, and the city council would say yea or nay to the entire slate. The council couldn't cherry-pick and say yes to this guy but no to that one.
When it was briefed to the council, several council members suggested they thought it should have a 15-member board. That way, each of the 15 council members could have his or her own appointee to the board. The fact that the LGC board is still a nine-member slate means the backers are telling the council no.
And listen: Not everybody on the council is offended or even disagrees. John Loza, whose council district includes the southwest end of downtown, told me he doesn't think a 15-member board is a good idea, because "You don't always get the most qualified people that way."
No kidding. Look at some of the city's 15-member appointed boards, and it's like you're looking at the city council after it got hit by a bus. Whatever the unfortunate shortcomings of council members, those disabilities seem to be multiplied by a factor of 10 when the council makes appointments. If it were a reality TV show, you'd call it "The Less Smart Cousins of the Dallas City Council."
In fact, what I am hearing from some of the council members is this: that the people promoting the LGC have been fairly candid in saying they want this thing because they don't trust City Hall. And the council members to whom they have expressed this sentiment have been, like Loza, pretty sympathetic.
Who should know better that you can't trust City Hall than the members of the Dallas City Council?
Led by Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp., owners of The Dallas Morning News and a significant chunk of land at the southwest end of downtown, the LGC backers are people with big investments in downtown and big checkbooks. They seem to be saying, "We're not going to write big checks to revitalize downtown unless you give us a way to control the environment."
That's the LGC.
The downtown suits can always vote, too, with their feet. They can say, "It's too screwed up; it ain't getting better; City Hall can't make up its mind about anything; we're going to eat our losses and get the hell out of Dodge."
We don't want the suits to leave Dodge. They have checkbooks in their holsters. The question is how much of our basic liberty and hegemony do we give up to the suits in order to get them to stay?
The mechanisms for appointing the LGC board and reappointing members when slots come vacant, as presently proposed, are good examples of too much. According to the plan as it is being shown to council members in private sessions, once it's created the thing becomes a House of Lords: It virtually perpetuates itself from within. Even Loza, a supporter, said, "The self-reappointing part will be more problematic."
And then you have the vision thing. At the June briefing, the most pointed objections to the LGC came from council members who felt it should be the basic prerogative and solemn duty of the council to come up with an overarching vision for downtown.
The LGC backers bent over backward and bowed and scraped to assure the council that they themselves harbor no such vision for downtown. They said over and over again that they would merely accept the council's grand glorious vision and then try to help implement it in whatever small modest way they might.
All of this is complete, absolute bullshit.
First of all, the city council has no vision for downtown. At all. The city council can't even get the most dangerous bipolar off-their-meds homeless wackos off the front porch of City Hall. Their only vision is downtown rapidly shrinking in their rear-view mirrors at the end of council meeting days.
And the people pushing for the LGC, claiming they have no vision and they just want to help--that's equally absurd. Of course they have a vision. They have all kinds of money at stake. They have a vision down to the manhole covers. When they claim otherwise, they are... fibbing.
But in the din and smoke of political absurdity, can we glimpse briefly the outline of truth and value? If the LGC backers have a vision plus checkbooks, is that not a good thing? Seeing as how nobody else don't know nothin' from nothin'?
So what about this? Could we not come up with some form of limited provisional fascism? Hmm. Let's say the council fixes the hereditary office glitch by giving itself more of a role in appointments, but short of making it one of those 15-member hit-by-a-bus things.
Then the council also gives itself a simple but effective override on vision. In other words, if the council ever does come up with a vision, and if the LGC seems to be headed in a wrong direction, then the council would have some mechanism by which it could reach in and say, "Don't do that. Do this." And the LGC would have to obey.
Council member Bill Blaydes told me he believes the current version of the idea provides the council with a point-specific veto over any action proposed or taken by the LGC. I don't think that's true. I think the only point of control the council would have under the current formulation would be the ability to veto re-appointments to the board. That would put the council in the bad political corner it's in right now over reappointments to the airport board: The council would have to choose whether or not to insult a venerated and powerful business mogul.
In real life, the appointment veto will never be exercised, and the LGC will be self-regenerating. And because this is a Decherd deal, the council needs to remember that this body, once created, will always have The Dallas Morning News editorial page loaded in its grenade launcher. Every time the city council looks crooked at the LGC, the Morning News will accuse it of being at another "tipping point."
No, what this thing needs is a provision in the bylaws giving it an explicit veto over stuff--contracts, plans, hire/fire decisions--instead of a wobbly, messy veto over people. What do I know? OK, why doesn't the council at least show this thing to a real expert, a lawyer or even better a professor of law with a background in legislative law and history, and get an outside analysis of how it would work?
But let's say they do manage to work it all out. Given the proper checks and balances, would it be a good idea to allow the downtown suits to set up their little fascist club again and in this way keep their checkbooks in town?
Phew. Maybe. Never thought I'd say that. But, you know, some people in Iraq say they'd rather have Saddam back. Seriously: Maybe there's a good idea in this somewhere.
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.