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Mayor and Some on City Council Remain at Loggerheads Over Vaccine, Communication

Despite council members' complaints about Mayor Eric Johnson’s communication style, City Council rejected a move seeking more updates from Johnson.EXPAND
Despite council members' complaints about Mayor Eric Johnson’s communication style, City Council rejected a move seeking more updates from Johnson.
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The City Council came together for a special meeting Monday night to talk about how to distribute Dallas' 5,000 doses of COVID vaccine, what the chain of command should be during a disaster and how the council can communicate better. The hourslong discussion was littered with passive-aggressive jabs at Mayor Eric Johnson. He jabbed back, making it clear that he thought the meeting was unnecessary.

At one point, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Adam McGough asked Johnson what the point of the meeting was. Johnson said he had no idea.

The meeting was called through a memo from council members Chad West, Paula Blackmon and Adam Bazaldua and comes after a week of back-and-forth bickering between the members and the mayor.

An item authorizing City Manager T.C. Broadnax to provide assistance with COVID-19 vaccination registration passed with a 10-5 vote. The help includes setting up registration hubs and providing equipment for them, such as laptops and personal protective equipment.

It was the only one of the three items on the agenda to pass, and West said it was on the agenda because the mayor last week told Broadnax to disregard a request from five council members for city staff help in setting up hubs.

Johnson later approved the hubs but said their placement would be based on data, not on which council member wanted them more.

A proposal that called for Johnson to designate the city manager Dallas' emergency coordinator failed, as did a motion calling for regular disaster updates from the mayor.

State law designates the mayor as the emergency management director and gives him the authority to choose a person to serve as emergency management coordinator. (Johnson, an elected official, is director, aka "boss" while coordinator is a staff position.) The law doesn’t offer guidance about who the coordinator should be. Ricky Vaz, director of the city’s emergency management office, has served in the coordinator role in local and state disasters over the last few years.

“I didn’t come up with the idea of Rocky Vaz being the coordinator,” Johnson said. “It’s always been that way. It’s only come up now in this political environment to change it to something it’s never been.”

That's why Johnson sent a memo to City Attorney Chris Caso ahead of the meeting trying to get it canceled, arguing the issues raised were moot and there was improper notice.

Dallas City Code, however, says the mayor is the state-designated emergency management director, and the city manager is the designated emergency management coordinator.

State law, meanwhile, particularly in a disaster declaration, supersedes the city code. But, as many council members pointed out Monday night, the disaster declaration was never expected to last over a year, and for some, not having Broadnax as the coordinator is making things more confusing. The city manager himself said that not being the coordinator has slowed some work down.

Lacking the votes needed to pass, the item urging the mayor to designate Broadnax the emergency management coordinator was withdrawn.

This doesn’t have to do with Vaz’s performance. Broadnax and most of the council had good things to say about how he was handling the role and has handled it in past disasters.

“I love Mr. Rocky Vaz, and I hate that we’re putting him down this rocky road tonight,” council member Carolyn King Arnold said.

All city staff in normal times reports to Broadnax, but the pandemic has made for special circumstances, and in the vaccine effort Vaz is, in theory anyway, above Broadnax. In a phone interview with the Observer last week, Blackmon said it only makes sense for the city manager to be the emergency management coordinator.

Broadnax is also a person some council members feel they have better communication with.

“Mr. Mayor, what I’m going to tell you is that it is much easier for me to speak to the city manager day-to-day than it is for me to talk with you,” Arnold said. “I haven’t talked to you in almost 13 months.”

Other council members have also said they’ve gone months without talking to the mayor one-on-one. They say they often hear from Johnson through memos, press releases, social media and blog posts.

That's why some were requesting more updates from the mayor during the disaster declaration.

“I don’t know of any other department where the director would choose to disseminate information to the legislative body of this city through a press release or social media,” Bazaldua said.

For example, Johnson said he notified the press and the rest of the council members about the direct allocation of 5,000 vaccines at the same time. He said this is “standard procedure around here.”

“No, not around here. Maybe around your office, but that’s not how we do business in the city of Dallas,” Bazaldua said.

“Actually, it happens quite frequently,” Johnson replied. “... If the intent is to get information, I’m happy to provide it. If it’s to provide a show, I can’t help you with that.”

Information regarding the virus and the vaccine rollout is readily available at the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on COVID-19 Recovery and Assistance meetings. The mayor said the council members not on that committee should tune into their meetings sometime.

Despite the complaints about the mayor’s communication style, the item seeking more updates from Johnson failed to pass.

Johnson told the council to remember that everyone is having trouble with the rollout of the vaccine and that it's not exclusive to Dallas. But, the biggest problem facing everyone is that demand for the vaccine far exceeds the supply.

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