Few days ago I told you the City Council and mayor of Dallas were headed for some kind of group therapy at this week’s meeting because of knife-play going on behind the scenes about the annual budget. Yesterday’s meeting was a little bit disappointing for me because no one jammed his or her finger up anybody’s nose — for me that’s like a song without a melody — but one particular moment does bear scrutiny.
Council member Philip Kingston, who represents East Dallas, was speaking to a contingent of public library advocates who had shown up to fight a proposal on the table that would cut $2.4 million from the library budget, eliminate a plan to expand library hours, cancel plans for new staff hires for enhanced services and delay the purchase of needed technology.
As I explained earlier this week, the attack on the libraries was one of several mounted over the weekend by City Manager A.C. Gonzalez after the mayor and council called on him a week prior to put more money into fixing the city’s streets. Kingston and some others on the council felt that Gonzalez loaded the deck against them at yesterday’s meeting by proposing only cuts to the most popular city services as a way of paying for more street repairs — a tactic, they thought, to back them off from messing with his proposed budget.
Yesterday Kingston spoke to alarmed library supporters who had caught wind of the proposed cuts ahead of time and showed up to protest them. He pointed out that the planned improvements to library service were a promise made by the council a year ago:
“There is no majority coalition [on the council] that backs breaking that promise to the library,” Kingston said. “So the question remains. Why is that idea out there?
“It is because of a vile, political and anti-democratic tactic on the part of the manager to scare the crap out of well-meaning volunteer advocates, causing them to come down here on a workday to try to hold political leaders to a promise they made last year which we have no intention of breaking.”
At that point, Mayor Mike Rawlings cut Kingston off, citing a provision in the council’s codified rules of procedure : “Mr. Kingston, 31b (Section 3, Chapter 1, Paragraph b). You will refrain from personal attacks and verbal abuse.”
The rule Rawlings was citing provides: “A city council member desiring to speak shall address the chair and, upon recognition by the presiding officer, shall confine discussion to the question under debate, avoid discussion of personalities and indecorous language, and refrain from personal attacks and verbal abuse.”
But Kingston was not having any part of it. He fired back at the mayor, “Cut me off if I cross the line, Mayor. Otherwise, pipe down.”
The mayor sort of did. He was silent as Kingston went on with his statement: “I am flabbergasted,” Kingston said. “It’s the third year in a row [for an assault on the library budget by the manager]. We keep saying, ‘Please, don’t do it.’ And it keeps happening.”
And on like that.
We talked here recently about a strong local cultural aversion to blunt public speech. On that occasion we were talking about Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk, who had disappeared for another month of secret rest and rehabilitation and how some people felt it would be just awful and gauche and unforgivably impolite to ask where she was.
In the case of yesterday’s meeting, you and I understand the mayor’s desire to maintain a certain modicum of decorum. In fact, Kingston understands it, I think. In an annotated copy of the council rules that he shares with new members, Kingston has written in the margin next to the rule in question: “This is actually advisable. Never engage in personal attacks or rhetorically unfair argument.”
But the mayor’s invoking of this rule was also an example of how too much politeness can stand in the way of much-needed candor. Kingston, after all, was trying to paint a picture that seemed obscure to most people at first glance. Hadn’t the council asked politely for the manager to find more money for streets? Hadn’t the manager done just that? Wasn’t everyone being businesslike and professional about it?
Sure. But what appears businesslike and professional on the surface is too often just what Kingston was trying to get across — a too-clever-by-half, game-playing ploy on the part of an entrenched City Hall bureaucracy that refers to elected officials behind their backs as “the summer help.”
It’s not all that subtle when you take it apart. The city manager has his deal. He lays out a certain amount of chump change goodies for the members — stop signs, spray parks, haircuts for the elderly — and then he hoards the big pile, the major bond money especially, for deals with “the families,” the small powerful coterie of people at City Hall he sees as really running the city.
Every once in awhile, somebody on the summer help side either doesn’t know how things work or gets grabby or crazy or something, gets too big for his britches in other words, and suggests that the manager shift fundamental priorities away from things like the Trinity River toll road toward basic needs instead like citywide street repairs.
The manager, and they have all done this back through a long succession of managers, sits down like the phantom of the opera at his pipe organ at three in the morning and starts sounding the major chords and themes: Yes, the music says, we can find you more money for streets.
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We will find it by allowing the rain to fall through broken roofs onto the old gray heads of widows. We will find it by closing parks, allowing buildings to burn, turning our backs when bandits attack and, ah yes, that favorite of all the old scare tactics, gutting the libraries.
The phantom plays those themes because he knows from long experience those are the themes that will fill the council chamber with angry, well-organized, single-issue partisans of the programs under threat. When those partisans demand to know who is responsible, the phantom can bow his head, shrug meekly and make little sideways, waist-level pointing motions at Kingston and anybody else who tried to mess with his budget.
What I heard Kingston say — and by the way his tone seemed measured and calm to me — was that people need to recognize all of this for what it is: a scam. It may be politely delivered, at least on the surface, with all the proper groveling and mumbling, but the intent is mean-spirited, violent and, as Kingston said, “vile, political and anti-democratic.”
The rule the mayor cited prohibits, “discussion of personalities and indecorous language … personal attacks and verbal abuse.” I don’t hear any of that in what Kingston said. I hear an attempt to paint a clear picture for the public of the game being played in the back corridors. There’s a difference between impoliteness and moral clarity.