City Hall

Mary Suhm's Secret Drilling Deal Proves That the City Manager System Doesn't Work

Don't think about this: your city manager, the CEO of Dallas City Hall, signed a secret deal five years ago promising to help a gas company set up drilling rigs and processing plants in city parks.

Think about this instead: the city manager did not sign a secret agreement with drilling opponents to help ensure there would be no drilling in parks.

While the debate was still raging, she chose sides and then kept her decision a secret. I know you have to think about what that means in terms of gas drilling. But I've got a bigger think-about for you.

What does it tell you in terms of how this city runs? And for once I'm not going to go through my entire litany of gigantic pissers, listing every single time in the last 250 years that Dallas City Hall has played the people dirty. I want to. I yearn to go through my whole list top to bottom even including my own parking tickets. But it's Monday morning, and ... eh, you know.

See also: - Mary Suhm Signed a Secret Side Deal to Push for Drilling on Parkland as She Told Council It Would Be Banned - Rawlings and Suhm's Attempt to Spin Secret Gas Deal into Something Innocent Is Hot Air

Here's what we do instead. Why don't we try looking at City Hall in optimistic terms of what it could be, instead of the gigantic infuriating hairball that it is. Dallas, like most major American cities, is in the process of being blessed and transformed by the arrival of an entire new generational wave of urban dwellers.

It would be inaccurate to give the newcomers all the credit for the anti-drilling pro-parks movement. City council member Sandy Greyson has always spoken for a civic-minded base in staid North Dallas that can be quite skeptical of City Hall.

But let's face it: most of the kick-ass on this issue has come from council members Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt, who do represent the new urban spectrum, a spectrum that is doing more for American cities than producing better coffee shops. A fascinating story on page one of this morning's New York Times, "Young, Liberal and Open to Big Government," paints a picture of new Gen-X voters in cities pushing even Republican bastions like Montana toward a new blue future.

If you read down into the piece, it becomes clear that the changes soon to come in our cities will reflect more than mere generational or partisan shift. Gen-Xers and their related cohort are not merely younger than the people they are supplanting in neighborhoods and on city councils. They're also more diverse in their ethnic and cultural origins, better educated, more traveled, more tolerant and just, well, sorry, but ... smarter.

Also in the Times today is an appalling recitation by Paul Krugman called, "The Ignorance Caucus," citing iteration after iteration of Republicans taking stances against knowledge itself. The one that made me blush was last year's condemnation by the Texas GOP of public school instruction in critical thinking, deemed by the Lone Star GOP to be a liberal campaign to undermine parental authority.

On the one hand they've probably got a case. In a Tea Party house, what's going to make the kid come home thinking her parents are morons more than teaching her how to think? On the other hand, does someone seriously want to teach them how to not think?

That's the think-about we all need to bear in mind when we ponder this gas drilling saga at City Hall. If I did drag you through my entire catechism of City Hall catastrophes over the years, eventually in that storm of dust and trash the over-arching outline of the elephant would appear.

It's not the GOP elephant. Things at City Hall are either more complicated or less complicated than partisan politics, but they're not exactly partisan politics. Instead, the elephant at City Hall is the city-manager system, a machinery designed to consistently deliver outcomes favorable to a fixed and very narrow constituency.

I always called them the oligarchy. Laura Miller, my predecessor here at the Observer, who went on to become a mayor of Dallas, knew them better. She called them "The Boys."

The city-manager system itself assumes that elected officials will have less power than the kings and queens of Mardi Gras. And that's key. You, Dear Reader, may indeed vote. But her job is to shield the agenda of the boys from your will. Your deal is not her deal. Her deal is their deal, especially when the rubber meets the road.

Why else, when the controversy over drilling in parks was still brewing, when the elected bodies of the city had already spoken sternly against drilling in parks, would the city manager sign a secret deal to help a drilling company drill in parks? Simple. She does not work for voters or their elected representatives, not really, never when it really counts.

The city manager has always been and will always be the hired executive of the Dallas Citizens Council, a shadowy private organization with roots deep in the city's pre-Civil Rights movement past. The very existence and sheer persistence of the Dallas Citizens Council as a dominant force in local politics in this day and age never fails to be a source of shock and awe for first-time visitors to our city. Sadly for us, it's old hat.

The city-manager system is seriously out of step with this city's future. It is a ball and chain tying us to a political graveyard where obsolete ideas, from drilling in parks to highways across the waterfront, survive and even win the day against the best interests of the new city.

This city wants to do exciting and wonderful new things. Dallas will have the smarts, the sophistication and the energy to get those things done. But to get there Dallas needs a City Hall that does what Dallas tells it to do. And that's really what we need to be thinking about.

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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