Help Wanted: A Dallas City Manager Who Works for Dallas

Take two things. One, five years ago the Dallas City Council told City Manager Mary Suhm not to allow gas/oil drilling in city parks. A few days later she signed a secret deal with a gas/oil drilling company to allow drilling in parks. Two, last year the council gave Suhm $6.4 million and told her to build a bike and hike trail along the Trinity River downtown. This month she said she's not doing it. Not. Doing. It.


OK, I lied. Take three things. Three, earlier this week, at a lavish but largely unreported event, all the big public works construction interests, the private scarily named Dallas Citizens Council (uh ... which citizens?) and the big real estate interests threw a farewell party for Suhm, who is retiring. I guess the mailman forgot to deliver my invitation. People who attended the soiree described the tone to me later as over-the-top hagiographic, lauding Suhm as The Great Leader of all time.

So that's the deal. That's why. How it works. The city manager and her staff can do stuff like directly defy the City Council, because they don't work for the City Council. Meaning they do not work for us. Yeah, I know, we pay them. And it's supposed to be a democracy. A least that's what they told us in high school civics class.

But take those three things. The city manager system in this city is a work-around, a way to make sure that the professional staff at City Hall will do what a small circle of business interests tell it to do and not what the voters want.

Oh, not all the time. The business interests don't give a damn what City Hall does about the little stuff. But when an issue comes along that they do care about, they want a city manager in there who will turn her back on the elected suckers and salute the dudes who count in this town.

Why bring it up now? Because they're about to hire a new city manager down there. That means there will be a major push by the inside guys to get somebody who knows how to salute. The same interests who threw the big party for Suhm will push hard to control the selection process and make sure they get a good soldier they can control.

Mayor Mike Rawlings has already named a search committee. I looked in the city charter this morning. There's no such thing as a search committee in the charter. The charter says, "The council shall appoint a city manager ... (blah blah)." That means the whole council is supposed to be the search committee.

We just elected a new council. We've got some interesting new faces mixed in with the usual suspects. If that council has any sense, if it has a modicum of self-respect, if it has just a tiny little drop of shame somewhere in its veins, it will tell the mayor it doesn't need no stinking search committee. It will search for and screen candidates primarily on the basis of whether the job seekers understand who their bosses will be.

Maybe the council could ask test questions in the interviews. "If we tell you not to do something, are you supposed to do it anyway behind our backs? If we tell you directly to do something and even give you the money to do it, is your next move going to be telling us to screw ourselves?"

I said, if they have shame. Yup. Big if. I wish they would at least try to get somebody who will look them in the eye during the interview.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze