Maybe Dallas City Council Should Use a Public Defender for Its Lawyer

Yes, I, too, love the Shakespeare T-shirt about first kill all the lawyers, and I bet I've got five good lawyer jokes to your one, but then again, I do dearly love it when good lawyers get elected to the City Council.

In Dallas, as a result of having had a city manager system for the better part of a century, the professional staff is just too good at getting out of answering direct questions by fluttering. It's always a pleasure to see them not get away with it, and usually the only one who can pin their wings to the table is a good lawyer.

But what if the flutterer is a good lawyer, too? Then we've got a real stick-pin flutter-fight on our hands, as we did at last week's council meeting (skip ahead to one hour 20 minutes, approximately, in the recording) when council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs, both lawyers, grilled the new city attorney, Warren Ernst, on his relationship with the council.

How could that possibly be interesting, you ask -- lawyers talking to a lawyer about relationships? Yeah, but think about it. Ernst, newly appointed by the council to be the city's top lawyer, was on the same city legal staff caught red-handed a year ago having OK'd a secret deal with a gas drilling company in defiance of a clear direction from the City Council not to do any such thing.

Ernst also was on the legal staff caught red-handed five months ago having secretly assisted Yellow Cab in what everybody now recognizes was a dirty deal to quash competition from Uber, an on-line ride-provider.

What's the relationship question? Well, it's the same painful question that has erupted from deep in the fog of Sunday morning hangovers through time immemorial: "Hey, who the hell you havin' a relationship with, anyway?"

The problem here is that the basic system of government is a menage a trois. You got the City Council, elected to set policy for the city. You got the city manager, who is hired by the council but thinks of them, often with good reason, as summer help loons incapable of tying their own shoes, so the manager goes off and sets his or her own damn policy like secret drilling agreements and a little bit of leg-breaking to help out a favored company with an unfavored competitor.

And then you got the so-called city attorney, but the question is, whose city attorney? The council's? Or the manager's?

At last week's meeting, Kingston and Griggs tried to pin down Ernst on the question. Ernst did his best to flutter away. I would have to say it was a flutter-fight draw.

Kingston said: "This is a recurring problem. The mayor's investigation specifically pointed to two of your staffers for not alerting council to the Uber issue. I don't know what your offices' involvement was ... in the secret agreement with Trinity East [the drilling company]. I am unclear on what the city attorney's policy is for when it alerts the council to an upcoming issue."

Ernst dove into some typical staff blah-blah designed to lull council members into REM sleep (usually works): "Specifically what I had in mind for this was to develop a report system for litigation matters ..."

And on and on. You are getting sleepy. Very sleepy. You are 5 years old. Your mother is calling you.

But Kingston shook it off. "Are there reasons for council members having different information from other council members?" he asked.

"That's something I continue to grapple with," Ernst answered.

Real answer? Yes. We give all of you different answers to the same question and then swear you all to secrecy about what we have just told you, because it causes you to engage in a particular form of ineffectual flailing that we find amusing.

At the end of the day, I don't really think anybody lost or won this debate. Kingston and Griggs may have scored some points by demonstrating that the relationship between the City Council and the city attorney is not anything that anybody anywhere else would put up with for even a minute. But I think Ernst did a good job, too, of giving them a civil, well-spoken, lawyerly middle finger about it.

And there we have it, Dallas City Hall, the perpetual motion machine where the buck never stops. It just goes in circles forever.