A.C. Gonzalez Was Not the Best Choice for City Manager

I like Mike Rawlings. I think our mayor is a good guy. He strikes me as basically honest, with the best of intentions. But his failure to head off the selection of an insider as the next city manager will be the single most important thing to remember about Rawlings' tenure as our mayor.

He had a shot at linking his name with the Dallas of tomorrow. Instead his name will be tied by this vote to a crucial victory for the old regime. Just now, at the very moment when Dallas has a chance to become a new and much better city, Rawlings' failure to head off this vote is an enormous disappointment and missed opportunity.

Multiple sources spoke to me about this vote on condition of anonymity because they have to continue to work with each other. They said the final straw vote on the City Council was 10-5 in favor of giving the job to the inside candidate but actually was much closer than that may appear.

A couple of the council members who straw-voted to give the job to interim City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, the inside guy, let others know their votes were soft. They wanted to vote for the winner but would have switched and voted against Gonzalez if they had seen momentum building in the other direction. That would have left Gonzalez with an 8-7 vote to hire. Those eight were solid. But all that meant was that Rawlings had to turn one solid vote for Gonzalez into a nay vote in order to pick up the other two. Gonzalez would have been out of a job.

Everyone I talked to agrees — and it was my personal impression as well based on conversations with well-placed sources — that Rawlings was committed to getting rid of Gonzalez and giving the job to an outsider as recently as two weeks ago. The vote Tuesday to keep Gonzalez was evidence that Rawlings did not swing the votes or vote he needed to accomplish his goal.

The question is why. Rawlings was able to jawbone and even ride roughshod over the council during the 2011 council redistricting debate. It's not like he can't crack heads when he wants to. So what happened here? I reached out to Rawlings for this story but did not hear back in time for a tight deadline.

The other thing that needs to be said, before I go into full boo-hoo mode, is that none of this is about Gonzalez personally. No one has ever suggested that Gonzalez, a career city employee and longtime assistant city manager, is lacking in intelligence or loyalty. It's more a matter of what he's smart about and to whom he is loyal.

The vote to give this job to Gonzalez rather than choose an outsider is a vote to preserve the old regime at City Hall, and in order to really appreciate what that means, you have to appreciate everything that the old regime is not. Mainly, City Hall is not what it purports to be. On the surface the image the city projects is of a professional business-like management style, protected from and unsullied by mere politics. That's supposed to be why we have a strong city manager instead of a strong mayor.

Mayors have to run for election. They might tilt in favor of the political winds. But a professional city manager, according to the official story at least, will make his or her decisions on the basis of logic, fairness and practical reality, like a CEO in the private sector.

It's a story line that has a number of fatal logic errors imbedded in it. To the extent the city manager system at Dallas City Hall succeeds in shielding the municipal bureaucracy from politics, it protects it from the voters, who are the public sector equivalent of shareholders in the private sector. Try to imagine marching into General Motors and telling the staff, "You don't have to listen to those stupid shareholders any more. All they are is owners, and what do owners know, anyway?"

By insulating City Hall from its ownership, the city manager system creates a kind of power vacuum. If the owners can't tell the staff what to do, who can? Oh, believe me, somebody will. If we go back to my G.M. metaphor, word of a new regime like that would fly across the grapevine faster than the speed of light to every rubber gasket supplier, labor union and ad agency that ever earned a penny off G.M. They would all think the same thing simultaneously: "If they don't have to listen to the shareholders any more, then I better get downtown and make sure they listen to me, because I don't want to lose my deal."

That's exactly what happens with the city manager system. Every gas driller, cab company and laptop salesman who ever made a penny off City Hall rushes into the leadership vacuum, each of them intent on carving off his own leg of lamb before the feast is over. City Hall in fact is a huge banquet laid for special seekers. Nobody sits at the head of the table. The city manager stands at the door in a tux with a towel over his arm to greet people. Some get turned away. Some get special seating.

Then you must take that aimless formulation at the center of things and marry it to the 14-1 single-member City Council system, in which council members rule over their districts like medieval dukes and duchesses. Each council member winds up with de facto total control over zoning and development rights in his own district, because the council has adopted and abides by a rule of member's privilege: If it's in your district, you rule, and everybody else butts out.

The single-member district system has its merits. It was court-ordered, in fact, to replace the old system, which was the no-member district plan under which the entire city was ruled by fiat by a private group with a scary name, the Dallas Citizens Council. Rule No. 1 from the world history of political regimes everywhere: Whenever a group of rulers call themselves citizens, comrades or "the people," you know they're not. The Citizens Council, still around and still quite influential on some issues, is the voice of the biggest and oldest special seekers, the old landholding families and the public works construction and engineering companies. They are "citizens" the way John Dillinger was a depositor.

But the main thing the 14-1 single-member district system does is provide 14 side-doors to City Hall. The heads-up special-seeker knows all he has to do to get his deal is swing the vote of the single council member in whose district the deal will take place. The rest will fall in line.

Add to that a key defect of the system, that at the time of its creation in the late 1980s, the Dallas single-member system included too many districts. The districts are too small to allow any person or group to raise money and create an independent movement with staying power. Especially in poor districts where voter turnout is tiny and the only voters elderly, an election can be tipped one way or the other with $5,000 to $10,000 — peanuts to the wealthy land sharks and contract vultures whose names show up regularly in the campaign finance statements of council members from poor districts.

Where exactly does all of that leave the city manager? He or she does not hold office by divine right. The council just voted to hire Gonzalez. They could vote to fire him. So the ultimate goal of a city manager who wants to survive longer than two weeks is to keep the council members relatively happy. And what could be wrong with that? Is that not the accountability to ownership that I just claimed did not exist? No, it's not. Not really.

A former city manager explained his job to a former mayor who passed the speech on to me. This was in response to the newly elected mayor's expression of shock and anger when she learned that the city manager was defying her on an important issue. She told me he said this to her:

"Laura, I work for the eight-vote majority on the council. Part of my job is counting the votes ahead of time. I have done that. You will not be in the eight vote majority on this issue. I must prepare the way for the council members who will be in the eight votes, because they will carry the day. Not you."

This is wrong with that: The eight votes shift from issue to issue. A city manager intent on surviving himself and on protecting his own staff and his own pet projects must count votes and whirl in their direction every whip-stitch.

So why isn't that a form of accountability? OK, if it is accountability, it is an accountability that is totally solipsistic, totally self-contained, closed to any larger direction from the outside world. The council members all bring their own small-bore issues to the dais on Wednesdays. The special-seekers line the halls waving proposals rolled up in their hands like 17th century courtiers, having greased the way ahead of time with the individual members.

The city manager finesses. But nowhere is there a true executive capable of imposing external direction or forward movement. The whole thing just sits there spinning like a ball bearing, whirring but never moving.

The point of giving the job to a newcomer rather than the inside apparatchik was to cut off the mossy tendrils of the past and start fresh. Appointing a newcomer would have hugely empowered the voices of change in the city, which obviously is why the citizens, comrades and people's people of the old regime didn't want it to happen. They won, we lost.

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