Dallas Morning News City hall reporter Rudy Bush had a good piece in last Sunday's opinion section about the qualities we need to look for in a new city manager. The only pause I found in reading it was a question I run into whenever I try to talk to normal people, as opposed to full-time City Hall insiders, about the office of city manager.
They always look at me like I'm taking about a controversy concerning the Queen's Swanmaster. That tiny furrowing of the brow means, "The queen's what? What queen?"
Yeah, there's back-story here. Bush supplied some of it. Part of the push for creating an office of city manager in Dallas in the first place came from the desire of the city's business class in the late 1920s to wrest control of City Hall from the Ku Klux Klan, which had a firm lock on every elective office in Dallas at the time. Probably few people in the city of today would argue against the goal of trying to toss out the KKK, even though I suspect the real goal at the time was to make the Klan's control less garishly obvious.
Whatever. It wasn't all or only about the KKK. Our own office of city manager in Dallas didn't come about until 1930, but it was derived from and fashioned on the ideas of the Progressive Movement of the 19-teens -- a solid upper middle class to blue-blood do-gooder cause that split later onto separate tracks feeding the development of both American liberalism and German National Socialism, which, as a liberal, I still insist are opposites.
Where were we? The Dallas city manager and the Queen's Swanmaster. What in common? No normal person really knows what the hell either one of them is. What do they do? What are they for?
I don't have time to Wickipeed myself on the swanmaster this morning, so I'm just going to bet it's either a person whose job is to master the queen's swans (likely) or maybe it's a magic swan that's the master of the queen (less likely but more interesting). The Dallas city manager I can do.
The city manager's purpose and function has not changed since the boys downtown got together to push the Klan out of City Hall. It's all about making sure that when push comes to shove and the rubber meets the road, the boys downtown will call the shots, not the uncouth voters. Its central purpose, in other words, is to defeat democracy. And even though I'm a big lifelong fan of democracy, I do have to admit there is a legitimate question sometimes: When the people in their proud exercise of the franchise and in keeping with their constitutional rights use their ballots to turn over every single elective office in town to the Ku Klux Klan, what're you gonna do?
The contemporary instance to keep in mind, however, is about gas drilling in city parks, not the KKK. You remember this one, maybe. The City Council told City Manager Mary Suhm no gas drilling in parks. She acknowledged the instruction: No gas drilling in parks, no way. Then she signed a secret deal with a gas drilling company: Gas drilling in parks, OK.
Here is the same paradigm, if we set the situation in the past. City Council tells city manager, "Big Klan Day at State Fair." She says, "Klan Day, OK." Then she tells police chief and director of State Fair, "No Klan Day, no way."
See. It's a good thing when the people are bad. But it's a bad thing when the people are good.
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Here is our real dilemma today. It is not all this personality crap about whether the new city manager should be "inclusive" (uh, gonna guess yes on that one), "collaborative" (sure, why not?) or "collegial" (does that cost extra?). It's about whether the city manager should exist.
At a time when the city seems to be virtually filling up with really smart young people, when American cities generally are trending back to sophisticated urbanism and away from decline, do we really want a set-up at City Hall whose primary function and purpose is to frustrate and diminish the influence of a voting citizenry and keep power instead in the hands of an aging, golf-ball-whacking, country-club chorus of comb-over prostrati?
What do we get from the comb-over ball-whackers? Gas drilling in parks and huge tax giveaways to combers. What do we get from the new young voters? Great neighborhoods, sidewalk cafes and technology start-ups.
How do we switch from one mode to the other? Get rid of the whole city manager system. Give democracy a chance. Wait and see, watch TV. If the entire City Council shows up wearing pointy-headed bed sheets, then fine, call the ball-whackers. But just because there are no guarantees, that doesn't mean we should never take a chance on a better way.