Basic Instinct

All of you staunch Laura Miller supporters who think that changing Dallas to a "strong mayor" form of government is a good idea now that she's in the hot seat, please repeat after Buzz: "Ron Kirk, strong mayor."

Doesn't sound quite so appealing now, does it?

Well, it could be worse, judging by some of the comments made at Monday's public hearing on whether the Dallas City Council should assign a commission to look at changing the City Charter. The commission, which Mayor Miller wants to appoint right away, will not be some sneaky vehicle for doing away with the council-manager form of government, which invests much power in the hands of the city manager, Miller says. Its goal will be to look at the whole charter to see if there are ways to make City Hall more efficient.

That, of course, is doublespeak. You, Buzz and everyone at the packed hearing pretty much know that the goal is to see if Dallas is willing to take some power from the city manager and place it in the hands of the mayor, which leads Buzz to pose a couple of questions. First, didn't many of us--including Miller--complain that former Mayor Kirk wielded too much power, leading a "slam dunk" gang that ran roughshod over the rest of the council? And, we wonder, exactly how many potholes will the commission fill?

OK, so that last one was a bit of demagoguery. Still, when the voters said they wanted the city to get back to basics, we don't think they meant quite as basic as the charter. Appointing a charter committee while the city struggles to pay the bills for basic services is like calling a fiddler to come put out a fire. Or as council member James Fantroy put it: "We don't even know what to tell the commission to look at...If we don't know the goals, we don't know what to support."

Monday's meeting looked as if it were called by Captain Renault from Casablanca--the usual suspects were there, the wonks and the City Hall hangers-on. One of the more bizarre ideas that floated up was to give council members their own budgets, staffs and control over how the money is spent in their districts. Imagine 14 little fiefdoms. What that idea lacks in efficiency--and it lacks a lot--it makes up for in sensitivity. Each neighborhood, ethnic and racial group would presumably have a greater say in how its money is spent.

Good plan. Maybe the commission could recommend some new names for the city, too. We hear "Yugoslavia" is available.

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams

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