Here we go again, engaged in another search for a new Dallas city manager, or, as I call it, the trip to Heartbreak Hill.
The current city manager, A.C. Gonzalez, retires at the end of January. He will hike out of City Hall with some kind of six-figure pension and a legacy including a police and fire pension system that could bankrupt the city, police pay litigation that could bankrupt the city, delayed maintenance of key infrastructure that could bankrupt the city and an unsettled war with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that could bankrupt the city.
And by the way, I am not telling you this because I think Gonzalez is a bad city manager. I think he’s like the last several predecessors I can think of — pretty smart, pretty capable, but doing a ridiculous job.
It pays well. That’s why they take it. Gonzalez started two years ago at $400,000 a year plus benefits including a fat pension.
But the basic job is insane. Dallas has no elected senior official. The mayor is an at-large City Council member with one vote on the council just like the other 14 members. The city manager takes direction from the council, which means he or she takes direction from the eight-vote majority on the council.
The eight-vote majority can and does shift on any given issue, but the city manager can’t just sit back and wait for the council to vote to see who’s in the majority wing and what they want. That’s too late. The city manager needs to develop action plans and alternatives in anticipation of every big vote, so he will be prepared, hopefully on the winning side.
And then there’s the one issue that counts — whether or not to fire the city manager. The city charter is loosely worded on the hiring of a city manager but by default leaves that decision to a simple majority — the eight votes. But the charter is specific about the firing of a city manager, who “shall be removable,” the charter states, “at the will and pleasure of the City Council upon a two-thirds vote of the members of the council unless otherwise provided by contract.”
Barring a special contract provision, then, the city manager can be fired only by a 10-vote, two-thirds super-majority. If you’re the city manager, you stand in front of your desk, put your glasses on upside down and say to yourself: “I can’t be fired as long as I’ve got six loyal votes on my side,” enough to deprive opponents of a super-majority.
Remember that council members will never and can never even remotely resemble private sector corporate board members. Private board members don’t have constituents lying in wait for them outside their homes on Sunday mornings, raving about pets killed at bad intersections or plants washed away in rainstorms the night before. Voters demanding action won’t give council members a break, so council members will not give the manager a break.
Then there is this: Council members come and go. As do mayors. There’s always somebody new. It’s always something.
What that means is that the city manager, in order to survive and carve out breathing space for anything beyond mere survival must be a finger-in-the-wind, cheek-kissing, nose-counting fiend, keeping up with every gust or whisper of political wind that might blow across the council, delivering lots of little gift-wrapped goodies like stop signs and drainage projects to council members who need to be wooed, kept on the farm or merely chilled out.
The very last thing, meanwhile, that will ever come out of the office of city manager is vision. The city manager has no time for vision. Vision is a luxury he cannot afford. He earns that four hundred grand a dollar at a time, not just day by day but hour to hour, by herding cats and dodging bullets. If you were to ask him for his long-range vision, and if he were to answer you honestly on most days, he would tell you, “I really need to go to the bathroom.”
So here’s how we get to Heartbreak Hill. Each and every time we search again for a new city manager, we revert to a mythology now more than a century old, dating to the establishment of the first city manager system of city government in America in Staunton, Virginia, in 1908. According to that mythology, turning city government over to a professional administrator or an engineer, a person not involved in city politics, will insulate that government from city politics.
What the people who designed the city manager system never answered, probably because it was never asked, was what happens to city politics? Where does it go? If you put a guy in charge of City Hall who’s not involved in city politics — insulated from it by charter, in fact — what happens to the politics?
Mothers still want stop signs on the way to school. Developers still want to develop. Some mothers who want stop signs want to get a jump on other mothers who want stop signs. Some developers would still like to get the inside skinny on where that new bridge will go a little bit ahead of other developers and might be willing to help the mayor get elected in exchange for the skinny.
So does that all just end? The city manager puts up his hand and says, “Sorry, folks, no more politics,” and politics is over?
Not hardly. No red-blooded American tax-payer who wants a stop sign right now is ever going to let her city council member tell her she can’t have it for two years because there’s no more politics. The tax-payer is going to tell the council-member, “How about instead of having no more politics we just have no more you?”
The council-member is going to call the manager and say, “I know we don’t have any more politics, but I need this stop sign by Tuesday night.” The manager is going to count to eight, then to count to six, then say, “One stop sign, comin’ up.” And the tax-payer is going to spend the next year bragging to everybody in the PTA that she beat a stop-sign out of City Hall and telling everybody else how they can do it, too.
So in this context, how should we approach recruiting and hiring a new city manager? In an editorial Monday, The Dallas Morning News, the city’s only daily newspaper, offered the words of 10th District (Lake Highlands) council member Adam McGough as the guide the paper believes the city should adopt:
“Our next city manager,” McGough is quoted as saying, “must be able to cast a vision and devise a plan, but more importantly, be able to bring in the appropriate talent to implement that plan.
“The old systems are becoming less relevant. Our new city manager must understand community involvement and have the ability to get in the weeds and fix inefficiencies within City Hall, especially when it calls for changes with status quo.”
I’m not saying those would not be nice skills to have. Certainly any city manager would be better off “understanding community involvement,” especially if he was looking for a hobby or something to do on slow days. He could join a bridge club or volunteer for meals on wheels.
But none of the attributes cited by McGough has much to do with the city manager’s survival, which, over time, will be his greatest success. What’s needed there is an encyclopedic memory for illnesses, bar mitzvahs, arrests and birthdays, the patience of a stone and the ability to feign interest in long boring stories while mentally traveling to other planets.
The vision thing, the true agenda-setting for the city, must come from a politician. Far from ignoring politics or trying to fence it out, a truly effective leader for the city must embrace politics and must be natively and naturally really good at it. The person who can sit across tables all over town, hear what people tell him, feel what is in their hearts, show them the same respect he wants them to give him is never going to be a professional administrator or an engineer. It’s always only going to be a politician — a really good one.
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What we want in a city manager is a really good Woman or Man Friday, in fact a Man Friday through Thursday. Then we need a mayor who can put together strong stable majorities on the council — so stable that the city manager doesn’t have to worry about them— so the mayor can tell the manager, “You just worry about me.”
And where do we find that? Is this a search for a certain person to be mayor? Sort of. Yes. But, no. Not entirely. In order to elect a mayor like that, no matter who the person is, there must be a big enough, well enough organized movement within the city to find, elect and support a mayor like that. To back him up.
Heartbreak Hill is where we wind up when we indulge this mythology about hiring a super administrator to somehow banish politics from City Hall. What we need at City Hall is more politics, better politics more out in the open, a civic-minded politics with a buck-stops-here ethic of responsibility and optimism.
It’s not that hiring a new city manager is unimportant. It’s just that new city managers won’t change anything unless they have a better, cleaner, stronger political framework to take marching orders from. And that’s you and me.