Sometimes it’s a good exercise to listen closely to what Dallas City Council member Rickey Callahan says is going on. Take whatever he says. Turn it upside down. Now you’re looking at reality. He’s a coffee table puzzle.
Last week at a meeting of the council’s Patronage and Payola Committee (officially called Economic Development), Callahan was only one of several committee members who gave City Manager T.C. Broadnax a big ration of grief for wanting to come up with a rational citywide economic development policy. And I have to admit: Even I felt uncomfortable watching Broadnax argue for reason and expertise.
He’s new. He’s still trying to figure it out. Had I been one of the many lower-ranked, old-school, leftover staff members from the former regime sitting at a table at the back of the room, I might have torn off a corner from my notebook page, scrawled him a note, spit-balled it and bounced it off the back of his head:
“Sir, Economic Development is just what they call it. That’s not really what this committee does. This is the Patronage and Payola Committee to help individual council members do deals with people who later give them campaign funds.”
Callahan gave a great Callahan speech explaining why he thought it was a mistake for Broadnax to hire an expert outside consultant to help the city formulate an effective economic development strategy. I’ll just give you Callahan’s speech first, and then we’ll go back and turn it upside down.
“I really want to see Dallas step out beyond this ‘let’s go do best practices for other cities,’” Callahan told Broadnax. “This is Dallas. There is a certain cache to that.
“Dallas, by being the first city ever to have a city manager form of government, they stepped up and said, ‘We do things differently here.’ When Erik Jonsson came along, you know, the T.I. crowd, and the engineers got involved, everything was data-driven, computer-driven, Goals for Dallas, all that cool stuff.
“Everybody looked at Dallas as just that kind of a city, a New Age city, so we want to be the leader in this.”
Then Callahan said, “I want to throw out a number of just kind of verbs and so forth.” The words he threw out to show what Dallas is to the rest of the world were pacesetter, innovative, vanguard, out-front, cutting edge, unique, state of the art, sea change, new and improved, New-Age thinking, data-driven, 21st century and councilcentric.
OK, here’s the upside-down of it, starting with the last first. None of the words he threw out were verbs. They were nouns and adjectives.
The only word with any real application to Dallas City Hall, councilcentric, isn’t a word, but we will circle back to it anyway because it has a real meaning, however unfortunate.
Dallas was far from the first city to adopt a city manager system. The first was Staunton, Virginia, more than two decades before Dallas got around to it. Sumter, South Carolina, Dayton, Ohio — lots of places were ahead of us.
Dallas today may be one of the least data-driven major cities in the country. While Houston was spending a major bond issue digitizing every ounce of data in the city’s possession, Dallas was turning over its entire IT operation to a Fort Worth preacher who hired his choir as staff, all of whom eventually had to be given the unsanctified boot.
Dallas City Hall is in no way, shape or form New Age, and, if it were, no one would be more upset about it than Rickey Callahan.
So what is the upside-down reality we can divine from Callahan’s perplexing monologue? Ah, well that brings us back to the concept of councilcentric, and, on that score, the council member had lots of support from the rest of the committee. Councilcentric means that nobody on that committee wants a damn citywide economic development policy that is rational or data-driven. If it’s going to be rational and data-driven, the committee would rather not have any policy at all.
Broadnax is trying to introduce a set of rational, data-driven analytical tools used successfully in many other major American cities to find places in need of an economic boost but also to predict where public investment can be effectual. He also is faced with the terrible mess City Hall has gotten itself into with the feds by taking hundreds of millions of federal dollars targeted by law to reduce racial segregation and spending the money instead in ways that have deliberately increased racial segregation.
Dallas City Hall as it has operated for decades is irrational, corrupt and stupid. Broadnax thinks he knows how to help it become rational, honest and smart. His problem is that if City Hall were any of those things, half the city council members would be out on their ears, and they know it.
Look. The council members want to be able to hand out the goodies in their own council districts as patronage to pastors and real estate developers (often the same thing), according to their own deals with their own friends and supporters, so that they will be able collect juice on them later one way or the other.
Of course, none of them can say any of that with any sort of honesty. Why would they? So, in order to hear what they really mean when they talk, we have to do a Callahan topsy-turvy on all of them.
Mark Clayton, who represents Lakewood, told Broadnax at last week’s committee meeting, “You know, I am worried that staff is going to take council out of the public policy standpoint to benefit a few projects, and I think we are reversing that. I think that’s not good policy.”
Translation: Clayton thinks hiring experts to give the city guidance on what has worked in other cities will “take the council out of the public policy standpoint.” And, yes, there would be a conflict if the City Council is bound and determined to spend tax dollars in ways proven in other cities not to do any good.
Adam McGough, who represents Lake Highlands, said he was leery of spending money on a consultant unless he knew in advance what the consultant would say: “What I am telling you is I can’t make a decision because I don’t know enough about what that would even look like.”
Translation: What if the consultant says something we don’t like, like we’re idiots and we throw all the taxpayers’ money down the storm sewers?
And those are just the white guys. Where Broadnax faces even tougher push-back is from African-American Southern Dallas councilmembers who absolutely refuse to hear what the city manager and the city attorney have been telling them for the last year about housing.
The feds have told the city that the only way Dallas can work its way out of the segregation hole it’s in is by putting all future subsidized housing in the city’s less segregated (whiter) areas. You maybe thought the problem there would be NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) from the white folks.
But an even tougher obstacle for Broadnax to overcome is YIMBYism (Yes in My Back Yard) from black elected officials for whom subsidized housing developers have always been a reliable source of campaign funds and other, more direct payments. Black council members don’t care if sticking more public subsidy housing in their districts reinforces and even exacerbates already existing segregation. Those guys pay good.
After last week’s committee meeting, Broadnax sent the members a four-page memo making several points. He said that, at the time of the meeting, he had been in the middle of negotiating deals with would-be consultants for proposed new economic development and housing policies. It jammed him up, he said, for the council to grill him in a public meeting about specific numbers on how much he was willing to pay the consultants.
Also, in a none-too-subtle riposte to the Callahan speech about Dallas being too far ahead of other cities to need anybody’s else’s advice, Broadnax sent the committee members a copy of Dallas' four-years-out-of-date, 56-page, hodgepodge of a so-called economic development strategy along with a copy of Fort Worth’s brand-new, incredibly detailed and in-depth 492-page strategy.
Also last week, The Dallas Morning News city desk did sort of a sniper job on Broadnax with an undersourced story about how people at City Hall are already getting tired of him, and the editorial page gave him a snotty, finger-wagging, first-year job review telling him to do better next year.
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SHOW ME HOW
This is all about one thing, folks. And, look, I don’t even know the guy. I’ve never met him. But this is not really a personality issue, even if some people might want to make it that. This is about basic reform versus the same old same old.
Broadnax has recruited a senior management team of people who are absolutely at the top of the stack in terms of urban management experience, skills and sophistication. His game is to pull the city up out of the slough of self-delusion and incompetence that have plagued City Hall for decades and to get us up onto some kind of competitive level with other equivalent cities around the country.
The resistance is hardening. An entire ecosystem of people with tentacles far beyond City Hall feel that the slough has done quite well by them all these years, thank you, and they don’t want anybody messing with it.
Everybody in this scene has an argument to make, and nobody’s perfect. But if you step back, shade your eyes and take a long look, Broadnax is arguing for better and smarter. The other side is arguing for just what we’ve got now. How is that even a choice?