Firing City Manager Mary Suhm Won't Fix What's Broken at Dallas City Hall

In my column in this week's paper, I talk about that "flow control" deal, which has to do with how much trash gets trucked into southern Dallas. As usual, some of the responses I'm getting are from people mad about the way it came out who think the answer is to fire City Manager Mary Suhm.

Eh. Look, I'm all for drama, but every time this idea of firing the city manager to fix things comes up, I get depressed, because it just shows how impossible it is for people to even vaguely understand how City Hall works.

Firing Suhm would change nothing, except that she's awfully good at what she does, so we could wind up with a replacement who's not as good.

It's City Hall itself that sucks. The structure. The deal. The way it's set up. Every important deal, from the trash thing to city council redistricting, all of it winds up in the back room because the back room is the only place anybody can get anything done under this system.

We have a weak mayor system. We also have a weak city council. And we have a weak city manager. My political-science term for this is the "weak-weak-weak" system of urban governance.

The mayor is one vote of 15 on the council. All issues are decided by eight votes. The city manager works for the council. The city manager works for the eight votes. The eight votes shift on every issue.

Let's say a big international real-estate developer comes to town and wants to build a theme park downtown. We'll say the developer is a she, just so we can be progressive about it. So she talks to the mayor first. Doesn't like what she hears. Talks to the city manager. Still doesn't like the message. What does she do next?

She lobbies the council in the back room. She goes to the back room, because the back room is where it's at. Let's say she does well in the back room and racks up the eight votes she needs for her theme park. She goes back to the city manager and says, "I got eight votes. Deal with it. Let's negotiate my details."

The city manager goes to the mayor and says, "She's got eight votes. I have to negotiate the small stuff. You're out of it."

And remember: The eight votes are from different people on different issues. In fact, the city manager governs by keeping a finger in the wind at all times to see where the eight votes are on any given issue. It's these guys on this one, those guys on that one.

I always hear from people who say that's bullshit and if that's how the city manager governs she should be fired. She should just do what's right.

OK. What's right? Who decides that? The eight votes decide. If the manager ignores the eight votes, she will indeed be fired. Right away. If her replacement ignores the eight votes, he will be fired. Right away. And it will just go on, fired and fired and fired.

The fact is this: The finger in the wind is the best we can do with this system.

Here's the other downside: At Dallas City Hall, the buck stops nowhere. The issue that always illustrates this dilemma best this is the occasional really bad police chief.

Let's say we get a bad chief -- too flamboyant, crazy, Neo-Nazi or all of the above, very unpopular with some constituencies, very popular with others. Needs to be canned, but whoever cans him will take a big political hit from his fans.

I've seen it happen twice. The circumstances were very different, but it played out exactly the same way. The city manager says, "I know that technically I hire and fire the chief, but this is such an important issue for the community, I feel I must bow to the will of the council." (She bows.) "I shall humbly and respectfully await their guidance."

Ha! Now the knife's in the councils' back. To do what she is asking, the council will have to vote. Then they will be individually responsible for what happens.

Oh, no! Please don't make us responsible! Throw us in that briar patch, stomp on us, take away our travel allowances, do anything, but please don't make us responsible!

The council members all say, "This is an issue for the entire city, and the only elected official who represents the entire city is the mayor. So we await his guidance."

The mayor, no fool, says, "I am but one humble vote among the 15, and I feel it would be arrogant of me to usurp the prerogatives ... blah-blah-blah ... so I await THEIR damn guidance."

And it drags on for a year.

In the meantime, real people out there in the city have no time at all to figure out this crap, so they just can't imagine what's taking so long.

Here's what we need: Give the mayor sole power to hire and fire the city manager. That simple. That makes him or her the thumbs-up, thumbs-down, red-light, green-light responsible party at City Hall. The one who can be sacked. Or revered.

A mayoral election comes up. The people of the city look out upon their community. They say to themselves, "I really haven't had time to follow any stuff at City Hall except for the time the acting mayor called the cops because his wife messed with his apron collection. But the city looks OK to me. I'm going to vote to keep the mayor."

Conversely: "All I ever wanted was the pothole fixed in front of my house. I called those bastards 13 times, and they blew me off. I say we throw the mayor out on his ass."

You have to hope the mayor sees it all coming long before election day. If he knows people's potholes aren't getting fixed and Mary Suhm won't do it, he fires her and gets somebody who will.

In the past when we have dealt with proposals aimed at fixing this problem, they have been called "strong mayor" propositions. That scares people in Dallas and nobody wants to do it, because everybody thinks the mayor is going to be some guy like Mickey Rourke who's real strong and goes around punching people out.

"Strong mayor" is the wrong term. What we need is a responsible mayor. I don't mean a guy who behaves responsibly. I mean a guy who's responsible. Thumbs-up thumbs-down responsible. It's his deal. As in, "Hey, buddy, you're responsible for this mess." Or, "You get the credit for this wonderful new park."


Suhm, the council, the mayor: They're all trying to get down the road in this broke-down, screwed-up school bus where everybody's got his hand on the wheel and nobody's got a foot on the brake. If we want to fix something around here, we need to fix that.

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