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Dallas' 14-1 Council System Is a Little Broken, but not Enough To Fix

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Yesterday my item about the no-sewer zone in southern Dallas drew sharp comments complaining about the "14-1" single-member City Council system in Dallas. In that particular case, the council member for the district won't allow sewers to be built in an entire region of his own district because he's afraid a new sewer system built to serve current needs might conflict with his own big dreams of future development in the area.

It's not as if council member Tennell Atkins has no argument. He does have a certain case to make. The people on the other side, who want a sewer main somewhere near them so they can pay to connect their own property to it, have a case to make, too.

The shocker for many people is that one council member has the power, thumbs up or thumbs down, to stop a major public works project already approved and funded by the full council for his or her own district. Somehow that much power in a single council person's hand just seems disproportionate to some onlookers.

And I get that. But the point is this. The power is the power. We're just talking about who's got it. If the power is not in the hand of the council person, then it's going to be in somebody else's hand.

Everybody thinks black people brought single-member districts to Dallas through federal litigation. Actually the first litigant was a red-neck hardware merchant from Pleasant Grove named Max Goldblatt. Minority litigants who came to court behind Goldblatt strengthened the case against Dallas and won the present system of 14 council members elected by district and a mayor elected at large, which went into effect in 1991.

The current iteration of 14-1, where individual council members grant each other royal discretion to decide zoning cases and other important matters within their own districts, has less to do with minority rights than with the need of gentrifying "urban pioneers" to defend themselves against old-guard real estate developers. In the recent history of the city, East Dallas was the first part of town to see significant collisions of interest over real estate development, which is the real stuff of local politics, the quick, as opposed to theoretical issues of rights and standing.

Past mayors and the majority of past councils were always strongly predisposed toward developers. In fact, they favored a certain type of developer with a certain mid-century view of the city: 1) Old neighborhoods were "used" neighborhoods, hand-me-downs for poor people or land to be scraped for apartments and car lots; 2) The main thing middle class and affluent people needed the city to give them was better roads for getting out of the city; 3) The city needed to keep taxes low, devote 90 percent of its resources to new development and 10 percent to maintenance; 4) Whenever a really rich person wanted a hundred million dollars, the city needed to just hand it over and not ask a lot of impertinent questions.

That was like a bunch of Abrams tanks aimed straight at the village walls of East Dallas. Had the power to green-light development deals been in the hands of those mayors, all of East Dallas today would look the industrial stretches of Harry Hines Boulevard on a really bad day.

So naturally East Dallas became the first and most passionate bastion in favor of single-member districts and single-member power. East Dallas council members had to teach the basic math to the rest of the council: "See, if you allow me absolute discretion over development and zoning deals in my own district, then the rest of us will afford you the same in your own district. Otherwise, you must sleep with one eye open and a dagger under your pillow for the rest of your life."

There has been some serious downside to the single-member system in poor districts where poor council members have peddled their power over development deals and wound up in the federal pokey over it. But if you look at the full history of single-member districts in Dallas, there have been a hell of a lot more council members who have served without blemish, at least of the criminal variety. A few feet of clay seem hardly enough to warrant mass amputation of the system.

No, if we were to cash it in and get rid of it, it would need to be over some more fundamental flaw than the occasional mischief. We might begin with the fact that the original justification in the law -- preservation of minority rights -- doesn't work very well for the city's most significant minority, Latinos, who refuse to settle down and stay in one part of town where we could draw district lines around them. They are scattered all over the joint, so single-member districts do little or at least not enough to empower them according to their numbers.

The other thing is that in the minority parts of town supposedly empowered by the system, nobody votes. In District 8, where Landslide Atkins was last re-elected last May 2013, he won with a total of 1,146 votes. The population of the district is roughly 90,000. Of course, the apathy problem is only worse by degree in Atkins' district than in supposedly high-voting District 11, where Lee Kleinman won with an un-whopping 2,953 votes. Mainly in Dallas we just don't vote.

Put it all together and you have a system easily dominated by insiders that is sometimes run for the benefit of the few, sometimes for no discernible benefit to anyone, but then there is this: Back away from it, fuzz your eyes a little, rake the skyline with your gaze, and what do you see? I see a whole bunch of cranes. I see stuff happening, some of it stupid but much of it pretty great.

As long as the arrangement keeps clogging along and doesn't step too hard on the wrong toes, I don't think the vast majority of people will want to take on the sheer bother of changing it. If you're in southern Dallas and your council person has decided you can't have a sewer, then, yeah, you're very screwed. There just is not a way around him.

For most of us, there are only two tricks to pull. The first trick is to love and be loved by your council person. The second is to hide from him and just do what you have to do, the hiding part being especially important if you don't have a sewer.

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