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In the Search for Dallas' Next City Manager, There's One Question: Do We Want Another Inside Guy?

The acting city manager who would be king, A.C. Gonzalez, has always been the inside favorite. And if there is an issue in his way, it's that.

Just ahead for City Hall is a decision to make somebody the permanent city manager. But just behind it is a series of scandals that should make anybody wonder why in the world the job should go to an inside favorite.

City council member Philip Kingston pointed to it in a recent post on his Facebook page. Gonzalez, a longtime assistant city manager, comes to the competition with a jangly ring of keys on his belt to all of City Hall's most closely guarded closets.

Wait a minute. Why did a federal judge find a year ago that city officials had flat out lied to the public about the need for a new law creating a city-owned monopoly on trash disposal? Hey, wait another minute: just a few months ago we learned that a city employee who had lied on his resume about past criminal convictions was steering city contracts to his son. Rather than fire him, the city manager transferred him to a less visible post where he could wait out the storm. Say what?

The big one, of course, was gas drilling in parks, and I promise not to walk us back through all of that again. Thumbnail version: city council tells city manager Mary Suhm, "No drilling in parks." Suhm says, "Got it, no drilling in parks." Then Suhm enters secret deal with drilling company for drilling in parks. End of story? Not really. Real end of story: city council tells Suhm, "No problem."

Why do things like that happen? I would argue it's because the city manager system is designed to work precisely that way: it fuzzes and obscures lines of authority and responsibility, almost like keeping a double set of books, so that City hall can always maintain a double agenda.

The first agenda is the public one, which we might call the big brave no drilling in parks agenda. The second is the real agenda, which we might call the boys agenda.

The boys are who they always have been, a small coterie of business and family interests who really run the show, acting mainly through the arm of the city manager's office. They also happen to be the only consistent source of campaign money for city council candidates, especially certain chosen minority candidates. So you wind up with this weird deal where a majority of the council say one thing, in order to stay right with the voters, but they know the city manager will do the other thing in order to stay right with the boys. The boys, meanwhile, agree to look the other way whenever a member of the permanent city staff stubs a toe.

It works for everybody but us. The voters.

Jan Hart Black, city manager from 1989 to 1993, now a consultant/lobbyist for foundations, has a piece on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News today that is basically a campaign pitch to make Gonzalez the permanent city manager. She doesn't actually name him, so theoretically she could be talking about anybody, maybe somebody named C.A. Rosalez. Who knows? But certain lines make it pretty plain:

That's why experience in Texas and in Dallas would be a major plus. It's important because city business is constrained by both state law and municipal ordinance. Institutional and people knowledge is fundamental to effective city management. It not only fast-tracks progress, but also prevents costly missteps along the way.

Yeah. Sure. In other words running Dallas City hall is so extremely arcane and specialized a challenge that only a career insider could ever figure it out. There is no kind of outside experience that would prepare anyone.

And listen: In a sense, it could be true. How do you explain to a new city manager who is an outsider, "Well, no, ma'am, you only work for the city council as far as the public agenda is concerned. In terms of what you really do, you work for the boys. No, ma'am, we can't tell you that, because we are not allowed to say the boys' names out loud. You just have to know a boy when you see one. If you see us tugging on our left ear lobes, that's a boy. If we tug on the right ear lobe, it's nobody."

Of course, I would love to see an outsider come to the post, because I would hope against hope it might be someone who refuses to keep two sets of books, who says, "I work for the public, so I work for the public, and why in the world do you all keep yanking on your ear lobes like that?"

But, look: Jan Hart Black almost certainly has in her head a smarter more specific and concrete version of the very opaquely touchy-feely argument in the paper today. So make it. Let's all make it. Everybody make his or her best case for and against an insider as the next city manager.

In fact, the actual choosing of an individual is far less important to the fate of the city than the decision over where that person should come from. Inside? Outside? That's the real question, and you know why? It's the only question that reads the same way no matter which set of books you read it in.

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