City Hall

Mayor Mike Rawlings Likes Private Power, Distrusts Elected Officials

Let’s fly up high and take a bird’s eye view of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ philosophy of government. Apparently it’s not just OK but a real good thing for deliberations and even decisions about the public’s business to be taken out of the hands of public officials and given instead to the grip of favored private persons.

That whole long chapter about the mayor’s Trinity toll road “Dream Team,” a squad of private persons paid with private money, meeting in private, to decide how to design a public highway through the center of the city, an effort that had direct intimate implications on an upcoming citywide election? You do remember that chapter, right? And at least for here and now, I’m not here to complain about the Dream Team’s work product. I’m just asking you to remember how private the deliberations were and how public the consequences.

We’re seeing Chapter 2 now. In it, in exchange for a $1 million donation, philanthropists Deedie and Rusty Rose acquire the right to design the long-awaited park in the Trinity River bottoms downtown. And, please, please, I also am not here to say anything bad about the park-designing abilities or tastes of the Roses, not after my wife gave me sort of a verbal hiding about the great track record she says the Roses have in the use of native plants and minimalist landscape design.

They may be the perfect people. I just don’t remember voting for them.

We could sort of go on from here. We could talk about the mayor’s secret task force to find a higher and better use for Fair Park, the 277-acre exposition park just southeast of downtown, known for being the nation’s biggest collection of Art Deco architecture, even though I think of it more as Art Demo Architecture (architecture in need of artful demolition).

But it’s all the same point: Mayor Rawlings is willing, even eager sometimes, to stretch the rules — and without any great lawyering that I’ve seen — to move public matters offshore and into private hands when it suits him.

But good Lord in heaven don’t let him catch the people’s elected representatives taking anything into their own hands, at least not those who disagree with him. Rawlings missed a meeting last spring when council member Scott Griggs, in a dialogue with residents who had appeared to speak to the council, delivered a fiery tirade against the Trinity River toll road.

Somebody in the city manager’s office or on the private Dallas Citizens Council must have tattled on Griggs, because the mayor, claiming he had gone back and watched videotape of the meeting, sent the entire City Council a memo telling them it was illegal for them — a violation of law — to express their own opinions when discussing an issue with citizen speakers at a council meeting.

Illegal. A violation of law. In a signed memo, the mayor of Dallas told the elected members of the City Council that when a citizen at the open microphone section of a council meeting asks them a question, they can only answer with “a statement of specific factual information given in response to the inquiry, or a recital of existing city policy in response to the inquiry.”

He quoted provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act having to do with the requirement for advance posting of topics to be deliberated, and, yeah, I guess if you put your glasses on upside down, stand on your head and close one eye you can make a council member agreeing with a citizen look like some kind of a unannounced deliberation. I always took it as respect for citizens who find the time, often by leaving work, to express themselves to the council.

By the way, when the council person responding to a citizen is one of the mayor’s allies and when that ally is taking the hide off a citizen who has dared to find fault with the ruling paradigm — as in the angry no-holds-barred verbal assaults on citizens by former member Vonciel Jones Hill — then the mayor is silent.

Whatever the legal niceties of this may be, those niceties only come into play when the mayor doesn’t like what is being said.

An even more tortured extension of the mayor’s rules showed up last week when he fired off a memo claiming that a meeting a few days earlier between three council members and the city manager had amounted to a violation of law. Notably, the mayor didn’t accuse the member who agreed with him of anything bad, only the two who expressed a position on an issue that the mayor didn’t like.

Council members Adam Medrano and Scott Griggs say they and member Erik Wilson met with the city manager to talk about the tenure of Police Chief David Brown. Medrano and Griggs relayed some tough criticism of Brown they had been hearing from constituents. Wilson told WFAA/Channel 8 last week he’s a big-time supporter of the chief and had nothing negative to tell Gonzalez about him.

And, listen, while we’re on the subject, I’m sort of a big-time supporter of Chief Brown myself and a big-time skeptic of reports of low morale among the uniformed ranks. I know the uniforms bitch about Brown, just as they bitched about his predecessor, David Kunkle. But a lot of that bitching is inspired by chase and use-of-force policies, the kind of enlightened community-centric, top-down management I thought everybody was supposed to support in the post-Ferguson era. So I’m a Brown fan.

But this isn’t about that. This is about the mayor firing off memos that make thinly veiled threats of legal action, obviously aimed at exerting a chilling effect on the people’s elected representatives in the exercise of their duties and the public trust. Meanwhile he’s dishing the public trust out the backdoor to private entities as fast as he can shovel.

Yes, there are provisions in the city charter that limit the role individual council members, including the mayor, may play in the hiring and firing of city officials and employees whose employment falls under the regime of the city manager. But there also are explicit provisions of the charter endorsing the right — I would say the duty — of council members to discuss the concerns of their constituents with the city manager.

Here’s the thing. Here’s where the real structure defies the mayor’s vision of it. It’s not a direct corporate-style chain of command. Command does not originate with the mayor, pass through the council and extend to the manager. That’s not how the org chart works.

Command goes from the council, of which the mayor is only one vote, to the city manager. There really is no separate line and box for the mayor. In terms of the org chart dictated by the charter, he’s just a council member.

In terms of day-to-day operation, command goes from the eight-vote majority on the 15-member council to the city manager. The real boss is the eight votes. But that majority shifts on every issue. Therefore the manager must stay in constant contact with all of the council members in order to know who his eight-vote boss will be on any given day.

And then there are the single-member issues — a whole spectrum of them from stop signs to major zoning questions — that the council by custom and convention recognizes as the business only of the single council member in whose district the issue arises. The manager may be carrying out an eight-vote policy position with which a given council member disagrees passionately, but the manager still needs to know what that member wants him to do on that member’s single-member district issues.

So they talk. They all talk — council members, manager, mayor. All the time. They have to. They talk about what’s going on, about what they’re hearing, about what their constituents think about this or that.

The real problem the mayor has now does not, I believe, have anything to do with any of this. He knows, everybody at City Hall knows that the council members have always talked to the manager about anything and everything they wanted to talk about, and those conversations always have been the grease that kept the wheel turning.

The real problem is one faced by the mayor, by the Citizens Council and by the small cadre of private interests who are accustomed to running City Hall through the city manager. The real problem is that those interests now face too much opposition on the council, too many members fighting for positions with which the old guard disagrees.

The old guard either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that those new voices are on the City Council because they represent and express a new spirit in the city, a new culture, a new vision of the city’s destiny. The old guard just wants them to shut up and get out of the way.

Hence we have the mayor’s aggressive pushing of power out of City Hall and into private hands. And we have an aggressive campaign to silence and hamstring the mavericks, sometimes by threatening them with legal harm, sometimes by actually harming them legally. None of that will work forever.
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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