The picture at City Hall is coming into focus. Almost two years ago the old city manager got kicked out. It had become too obvious that he was subverting the public interest in favor of a small cabal of private interests. We got a new guy. His job was to make things run shipshape. Sure.
T.C. Broadnax, the new city manager, got off to a great start, brought in smart top people from around the country, analyzed weak spots and bottlenecks, instituted reforms to make City Hall more logical. Sure.
As soon as Broadnax began unveiling his reforms, the little flares of resistance began lighting up across the board — the grumbling here, the sniping there and even some small active sabotage. Now the resistance is getting its act together and effectively pushing back. It’s too early to say Broadnax is caving, but, man. He’s no longer walking forward.
The big thing is housing. That’s where all the more bald in-your-face corruption and mismanagement took place under the old regime, as witnessed by a multi-year federal corruption probe in which a squadron of G-men and G-women actually occupied full-time office space at City Hall.
In Dallas, government-subsidized housing was always where the divvy was cut between black accommodationist southern Dallas and the old white money north. The white money was always delighted to see subsidized housing stay south, far from whitey-white land. Southern Dallas looked at public housing money as something to grab because it was the only money southern Dallas was ever going to see.
There are two problems with that. The first is more theoretical. Theoretically, you’re not supposed to spend federal desegregation money on resegregation.
But now President Donald Trump’s in office; his secretary of Housing and Urban Development is a black man who doesn’t believe in desegregation; the agency itself seems to be in a state of bureaucratic fibrillation, bless their hearts; and who the hell knows from HUD anyway?
The second problem in Dallas has been that the housing deals that get done in southern Dallas — or don’t get done, more to the point — too often wind up with big patches of bare dirt and people going to prison. I’m talking about deals like Patriot’s Crossing in 2014, a plan to build high-end housing next to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital on Lancaster Road, because, you know, that’s just where high-end people want to live, right next to a VA hospital in a poor neighborhood.
Patriot’s Crossing was push-push-pushed by then council member Vonciel Hill, aided and abetted by political hacks who had been installed as top city executives over career civil service staff in the city’s housing and economic development departments. Patriot’s Crossing wound up as two city blocks of bare dirt, not a stick built, millions in city money squandered, most of it paid to no-show consultants, and nobody was held accountable for a dime.
There’s the old system for you. That’s what Broadnax was supposed to repair. Well, guess what? There are a hell of a lot of people in town who don’t want it repaired, because the old system worked like a gumball machine for them. Now I see them making some headway against the repairs.
I told you yesterday about a deal in which Broadnax is already working to dismantle his own new comprehensive housing policy, barely out of the cradle yet, to help out a couple of politically wired development interests in far West Dallas. In keeping with the old way of doing things, the project Broadnax is seeking to help by granting it an exception to his own brand-new rules is one that will serve to keep poor minority families on the reservation, far, far away from white North Dallas.
But the pixels had barely cooled on that story when the city manager unveiled the next stage in bringing back the bad old days — an assault on civil service protections in city government and an attempt to blame the horrific mismanagement of the past on mid- and lower-level city employees.
At a briefing of the City Council on Tuesday, Broadnax said he wants to strip 40 career employees in the city’s housing department of their civil service protection. Otherwise, he told the council, “We will never be able to change the types of things that come out of that department.”
What? The career employees did it? The career employees didn’t have anything to do with push-push-pushing Patriot’s Crossing. That was Vonciel Hill and her hench-persons over housing and economic development. This kind of thing has gone on forever.
Look. I covered the federal corruption trial in 2010 in which the late Don Hill, a corrupt City Council member, was convicted and sent to the pen for 18 years for fraud and bribery in subsidized housing deals in southern Dallas. To the extent the career civil service employees even showed their faces in that mess, they all looked like terrified inmates of a Romanian orphanage with PTSD, trying to dodge the shrapnel from Hill and his posse of ruthless scammers.
We do know what civil service is, right? It’s a system designed to award government jobs based on merit and to shield public employees from corruption. Its origins go back to 200 B.C. when the Han Dynasty in China decided it needed a better recruitment system than giving all the good jobs to alcoholic aristocrats — still a possible sticking point today with the Dallas elite.
Our own civil service system in Dallas does not protect anybody from getting fired for cause. The Dallas City Charter states: “Any classified or unclassified officer or employee may be removed, laid off, or reduced in grade by the city manager, or the head of the department in which the officer or employee is employed, after the six months’ probationary period has expired.”
Yes, they get a hearing. That’s where they get to say, “My boss fired me because I refused to help him toss bales of cash out the City Hall windows to his real estate developer buddies waiting below with outstretched arms. He said I had to do it because his arms were getting tired.”
But if the civil servant is coming to work drunk or just isn’t smart enough to get the work done, then he or she is gone, bye-bye, don’t-let-the-door and so on.
This comes down to naming a thing for what it is. Blaming decades of staggering corruption and malfeasance in city housing programs on career civil servants is just a libel.
Council member Philip Kingston told Broadnax: “The housing department didn’t get corrupted because they are entitled to due process for being terminated. The housing department got corrupted by corrupt City Council members, corrupt developers and corrupt people at the top ranks who were not civil service protected.”
Council member Scott Griggs spoke to the general backpedaling on policy and weakening of the rules that he sees coming from the city manager’s office. He asked, “Is it going to be like the old days, when everyone who comes in with a sob story, we’re going to turn around and find a way to break the rules for them and say yes?”
In fact, the City Council briefing where they spoke brought special focus, I thought, to the whole question of the old days versus the new ones. I thought it was especially interesting that some council members supportive of Broadnax defended him by describing the old days as a kind of golden era toward which we should move.
Obviously addressing his words to Kingston and Griggs, council member Lee Kleinman said, “Developers didn’t lose track of where funds went. Council members didn’t fail to file reports with HUD.”
No, the developers didn’t lose track of where funds went, because the funds probably went to their offshore accounts in the Channel Islands. And no, the council members didn’t fail to file the legally required paperwork with HUD. Their hench-cronies whom they had put in charge of the departments did that for them, not the civil servants whose jobs were never to make those kinds of decisions.
Council member Jennifer Gates, who has her own idiosyncratic approach to matters like these, said, I think, that no one would be hurt by a general housecleaning in the housing department, because all of the incompetent employees there would be re-employed in other city jobs.
“There’s going to be opportunity for everybody to keep their jobs,” she said. “There’s going to be opportunities for those that can’t function within the housing department to go function within another place in the city.”
Great plan. How about aviation?
Listen, make no mistake about this. The ideas expressed by Kleinman, Gates and the city manager here are absolutely the old way of doing business. We’re talking about employees who would have no protection from corruption and no ability to say no unless they want to walk away from their pensions.
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For about one split second, Broadnax made what looked like an intelligent, sincere, even gutsy move toward a new way of doing things. The push-back started. And now I guess the name of the movie is Ahead to the Past.
Fortunately, pulling off the kind of change Broadnax was seeking would have taken a two-thirds vote of the council, and he didn’t get it. In devising the council agenda, he had bundled the civil service change in with a number of other measures he knew the council wanted. Kingston was able to get them unbundled, and the civil service change failed. For now.
The whole thing proves that changing city managers doesn’t change anything for long. What has to change is the majority of elected leadership on the council.
Broadnax is in the same position those civil servants are, with less protection. Under a new mayor and a decent council, he might go back to being what he was when he first showed up — the best thing since sliced bread. But that’s all up to you and me.