Wherever Mary Suhm's Body Is, Her Spirit Still Haunts City Hall
UPDATED SEPTEMBER 8 2014: The Search for Mary Suhm Heats Up with Rumors of a Trinity Road Goon Squad ORIGINAL POST
Is the former city manager still at City Hall? Maybe, maybe not, but her spirit still reigns.
Last week I made a new hat-cam movie for our news blog — I know, I know, sorry, couldn't stop myself — based on a theme of searching for former Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, supposedly haunting the unknown nooks and crannies of City Hall. This week I feel, if not actual remorse, a need to explain.
Almost from the moment Suhm announced her retirement in May 2013, there was strange ambiguity. Normally the word, "retire," means go away, vamoose, blow this pop stand. In Suhm's case the meaning was especially germane, because there were two very different schools of thought on her tenure.
Suhm's supporters — and they were many — believed that in eight years as boss of City Hall she had racked up an impressive list of achievements. The lion's share of her support was among the city's old business elite who felt they had a friend in Mary. Of course that was exactly what the detractors didn't like, and they were a numerous and diverse crowd as well.
The debate that followed announcement of her retirement was about continuity, good or bad. Did we need to make sure things would go on at City Hall pretty much as they had under Suhm? Or was a new broom what we needed?
The final City Council vote on hiring a new city manager was a charade. Behind closed doors in executive session the council was bitterly divided. They voted narrowly to give the job to Suhm's hand-picked successor and all-around acolyte, A.C. Gonzalez, a decision that clearly meant the continuity team had won the day.
But that was behind closed doors. Gonzalez's supporters wanted a unanimous public vote for him. To get there, Gonzalez made elaborate promises of changes to come, no more same-old same-old, a whole new day and so on. The public version of what he said was expansive and lacking in detail. The behind-closed-doors version, according to reliable sources speaking off the record, was much more specific — a set number of heads to roll and specific departments to be revamped.
Council members were promised, they say, that Gonzalez's vow of a new "transparency" was meant to have a specific pinch and meaning. The transparency some council members were looking for had to do with the upcoming budget process. Suhm's style of budgeting had always been a Houdini show, with lots of smoke, mirrors and scary music leading up to an amazing happy ending where the pretty lady turned out not to have been sawed in half after all, and, even better, small packages of free (HUD) money were waiting gift-wrapped on the council members' desks.
Gonzalez promised the council no more Houdini. From here on out the numbers would be plain and simple from the get-go, income and outgo, we go where the numbers go. Gonzalez was chosen to succeed Suhm by unanimous public vote of the council on January 21, some seven months after Suhm's retirement. During those seven months, he had been the acting manager.
Awkward thing, though: At least as late as December 2013, a full half year after retiring, Suhm was still occupying her big office at City Hall. When Scott Goldstein of The Dallas Morning News asked when she was thinking of moving out, she said, "I'm working on it."
At some point in the general time-frame of January 2014, Gonzalez did get to move his tchotchkes into the city manager's office, but Suhm was far from gone from City Hall. In fact the mayor told reporters he had asked her to stay on to handle an array of issues — a story that seemed to shift a bit with each telling. Sometimes she was there handling smaller do-good projects like arrangements for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Convention or the 50th Kennedy assassination anniversary ceremony, things that sounded reasonably like the kind of puttering a former CEO might do during the decompression period. But at other times reporters were told she was there handling budget talks and labor negotiations — heavy matters that sounded an awful lot like what the new guy ought to be doing.
In the meantime, none of Gonzalez's promised head-rolling or department-shaking-up seemed to be happening. In fact, now more than a half-year into his tenure, some council members are already grumbling behind his back that he's turning out to be more Mary than Mary, especially on all of that promised clarity about the budget. A minority on the council think this year's process is the same old Houdini all over again. Their problem is that most of their colleagues on the council are just as excited as they ever were about the gift packages — the Housing and Urban Development money — they hope to find on their desks after Santa goes back up the chimney.
And there we come upon a hard link with the past, something much grittier and more binding, more of a ball and chain than any kind of vague understanding about continuity. The HUD money. It's money, real money, the point at the tip of the knife.
As I have been promising consistently and apparently wrongly for a couple of weeks, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is on the verge, I still believe, of delivering to Dallas its official response to a letter last January from the Dallas City Attorney Warren Ernst. Ernst's letter to HUD was an openly defiant response to an investigative report HUD had published a month earlier saying Dallas officials had misappropriated many millions of dollars in HUD desegregation money. The report said Dallas had used the money instead to increase racial segregation in the city. It said Dallas officials had falsely sworn to HUD every year for a decade that they were doing the right thing with the HUD money.
The money they're talking about comes in a number of forms, from direct grants to low-interest bonds and loan guarantees. Taken together, it's the mother's milk of local politics — free money, in effect, that the city manager can hand out to keep council members happy without having to raise any taxes or take a ding in the budget.
By law it's to be used only to "affirmatively further fair housing," which means, the courts have agreed, it must be used for racial desegregation. The HUD complaint against Dallas came about because a downtown development partnership headed by Curtis Lockey complained to HUD. The Lockey group told HUD the city canceled their deal after they proposed including the legally required ratio of affordable, reduced-rent apartments in their downtown HUD-subsidized tower redevelopment project.
City officials in the past have estimated Lockey's damages at $30 million. That represents, of course, his own personal losses but also losses incurred by investors in his partnership. The original HUD letter conveying the findings of a four-year investigation told Dallas the city was going to have to make the Lockey group whole on their provable losses.
According to council members speaking off the record to me and according to my own on-the-record conversations with the city manager's staff, the city manager's line on the new HUD letter, the one that is about to appear, is going to be all smiles and compliance, with a lot of emphasis on moving on and some observations to the effect that there's no need now to waste a lot of time talking about "who shot John."
Here's the problem: You can say that about HUD money, even the hundreds of millions that may have been misappropriated, because HUD never wants old money back. All HUD talks about is new money — the money Dallas will get from HUD in the future. The worst Dallas will get out of all that issue is a bunch more HUD money, maybe also some kind of temporary oversight and a story line about a bright new tomorrow.
But not the Lockey money. That's money those guys say they lost. In fact they say they came here and invested millions of dollars in downtown Dallas with the highest hopes and best of intentions, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by a bunch of segregationists at City Hall who thought their project would draw black and brown people into downtown.
That's old money. That's money that will have to be paid back. To distinguish it from federal money, it's what I call money-money. City Hall knows no amount of talk about moving on, no patter about who-shot-John, nothing erases money-money. When it's money-money, you have to write a check. When you write a check on the public treasury, you have to tell the public why you wrote it.
The city manager and his staff, all direct descendants of Suhm, were all right in the middle of the Lockey matter. Their names are on all the key emails. If the check must be written and then explained, their names will be front and center. That's not the kind of continuity they want.
Continuity, in other words, is very much a double-edged sword at this particular moment in City Hall history, putting a much sharper edge to the question of whether Suhm is still lurking about the building. And why. Depending on how it's handled, the outcome of the HUD matter and the Lockey claims could easily tilt the balance at City Hall away from continuity and toward the new broom after all.
Do I think Mary Suhm really has a secret office in the basement of City Hall? No. Do I think she may be keeping a close eye on the HUD question? You bet. Do I think the possibility of her continued presence at City Hall is a little bit scary? Yeah, kinda.
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