Big D upside down

When it comes to Dallas, some things never change. This fall, once again parts of the city seethed with discontent as council members struggled to mobilize their disenfranchized constituencies to win bigger pieces of the power pie.

But this time there's a profound difference: the skin colors are reversed, and the geography is turned upside down as South Dallas' perennial complaint of powerlessness is coming from North Dallas.

As hard as it might be to swallow, city council members Donna Blumer and Paul Fielding, who represent northern Dallas districts, stood before a well-heeled Prestonwood Country Club audience in September to launch a crusade to get better representation for their constituencies in Mayor Ron Kirk's City Hall. It's worth noting that Fielding and Blumer's constituencies are largely white and Kirk is black.

"We felt they should know they were getting shortchanged," recalls Blumer, who carried to the gathering of the North Dallas Establishment charts, maps, and a mathematical analysis to prove her point that--hold on to your hat--North Dallas voters were being frozen out of decisions in city government.

"[Kirk] has an obligation," complains Fielding, "to not under-represent the northern part of the city."

Isn't this Big D, where a few short years ago it was black and Hispanic voters who were marshaling charts, maps, and statistics to persuade a federal judge that they were being systematically deprived of equal representation on Marilla Street?

The federal court, of course, agreed, and the 14-1 council and redistricting came as a result. And, like night follows day, the complaints from North Dallas have begun.

"I don't know if I can find much sympathy for them," says councilman Don Hicks, an African-American who represents voters in the city's southernmost sector, of his despondent North Dallas peers.

"It's funny they are arguing for more representation," Hicks adds. "They never argued that before. They probably are feeling estranged. I know exactly how they feel."

Blumer, who has become a standardbearer on the issue of North Dallas under-representation, believes that Mayor Kirk has stacked the council's nine committees--where most of the initial activity for any City Hall action takes place--in favor of South Dallas. She says this shift of power may not have been intentional but a result of Kirk's personal clashes with herself and other elected city officials who represent the northern part of the city.

Specifically, Blumer contends that all of the nine committees have a majority of council members who represent southern or central Dallas districts. None of the committees, she notes, has a majority of council members representing the northern sectors.

"He has made a point of excluding us," Blumer says of Mayor Kirk, who does have the sole prerogative of selecting which council members will serve on specific committees. And clearly, the aggrieved council members take Kirk's appointments personally--another irony for the mayor who promised to end the squabbling on the council.

"He is so nice to my face," Blumer says. "He sat by me at lunch the other day. But all the time, you know he is undercutting you. I can understand personal differences, but to let them come into city council business is what I don't get."

But Mayor Kirk says that when he parceled out the appointments at the beginning of his term, he didn't think in terms of north and south. Rather, Kirk says, he tried to give council members at least one of the committees they had set as a priority, and he tried to keep the number of panel members to a maximum of six. He also tried to balance the committees in terms of gender and ethnicity, rather than along geographical lines, he says.

But Blumer says that the mayor, in his first weeks in office, denied her request to sit as a voting member on the transportation, finance, and public safety committees. Instead, she got stuck with the duty of serving on the arts, education, and library committee, a task she did not want or seek, Blumer says.

Fielding says he, too, was denied a spot on the transportation committee. His absence from that panel is particularly problematic for his constituents, who want to help steer the expansion plans for LBJ Freeway. In fact, Betty Moore and Elizabeth Clark, who work with a coalition of homeowners and businesses concerned about LBJ and reside in Fielding's district, sent a letter to the mayor last month about the issue.

"We think it is imperative that our council person, Paul Fielding, should be on this Transportation Committee. Then this area in which we live--Central Expressway west, past the Dallas North Toll Road--will be represented by at least one council person whose district is most directly affected by this project," the letter said.

"Mayor [Steve] Bartlett," Blumer recalls, "appointed us to anything we wanted." Blumer argues that many of the significant decisions before the council are directed primarily by what happens in committee meetings. "Most of the preliminary work is done in committee. If something comes out of committee positive, the council defers to the committee. Individual members don't have time to evaluate every issue."

Council member and mayor pro tem Max Wells, who represents the northernmost district in the city--but who has also managed to develop a smooth working relationship with Kirk--agrees with Blumer's math. But Wells disputes its significance. "I don't think any part of the city has been shut out," Wells says.

It's true, Wells concedes, that none of the committees has a majority of council members representing northern districts. But most of the committee work is done by consensus, not simply by vote, which he figures eliminates the significance of a majority.

The full council always has the opportunity, he notes, to vote up or down on any proposal put forth by a committee. Moreover, Wells says, "Every council member is invited to be at any committee meeting."

When the Mayor suggested that Blumer sit in on other committee meetings, the invitation galled her. "The mayor feels he's being very generous when he tells a council member they can visit any committee. Well, any [citizen] can visit any committee," Blumer says. "But they are not able to vote when it comes to that."

The North Dallas council members' complaints have failed to budge Mayor Kirk. "Subject to someone resigning from the council," he says, "I am not changing any assignments."

He's even less impressed with the two council members' charges of under-representation. "I find their behavior to be divisive. I think it is disingenuous," he says, adding, "These two council members from North Dallas are no longer in control."

In political terms, Kirk believes he'll see little fallout from Fielding and Blumer's gripes. "I have an intuitive belief that most voters in Dallas don't care about who's on what committee," Kirk says.