Our new city manager is saying and doing all the right things. I’m watching to see how long it takes them to get rid of him.
By new city manager I mean, of course, T.C. Broadnax, who came from Tacoma, Washington, in February to take the reins as the first city CEO in living memory recruited from outside the all-cousin confines of Dallas City Hall.
By them I mean them. You know. Them. The people who run things.
If I’m right and he’s doing everything right, then why would they want to get rid of him? Because they have never wanted the city manager system to work the way it’s supposed to work on paper. They want it to work the way they want it to work — for them.
Matt Goodman at D Magazine posted a really interesting piece earlier this week about a seminar that former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt put on at the law firm where she works, Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, before an audience of 50. Broadnax answered questions put to him by Hunt, and, of course, Hunt knew what to ask.
According to Goodman’s account, the new City Hall CEO gave answers consistently compatible with the new urban city-first values espoused by Hunt and her young political posse. On transportation, for example, Broadnax told the crowd that the city is going to take control of urban transportation policy back from regional entities the city ceded it to in recent decades.
On zoning, he said most developers who want permission from the city to build more than what the law allows will need to negotiate for that permission. What the city will seek in those negotiations, he suggested, is more affordable housing.
Broadnax also gave some hints of his personal style, telling the crowd he wants his top management people to be subject-matter authorities in the fields they run at City Hall. And he wants the top team members to run a little scared — I think his word was uncomfortable — because he is.
He was quoted by Goodman as saying: “You always want to think someone is chasing you.”
What Broadnax said was great. It’s exactly how the city manager system is designed to work. The City Council hands the manager broad policies as a road map. He marshals the troops and gets the bridges built to get there.
It’s exactly the opposite of how the system has always worked here in the past and how the city’s biggest power wielders intend for it to keep working forever. In the real world, after all the platitudes and before the action, the powers that be have always regarded and treated the city manager as their City Hall handmaiden. His job is to get them what they want and keep the stupid City Council off their backs. By that standard, past city managers have done a real good job.
Example: Two years ago, a bright young lawyer newly appointed to the plan commission returned from a national seminar somewhere far away with what he assumed was a great idea for affordable housing. Instead of trying to cram it down developers’ throats, forcing them to do something they don’t want to do, why not make affordable housing a win-win?
Drawing on successful practices in New York, San Francisco and many other American cities, Dallas would adopt a policy often called inclusive zoning. If a developer paid for a patch of dirt with zoning on it for 100 units but he wanted the city to let him build 150, the city would say, “Let’s talk.”
In those talks, Dallas would offer to expand the zoning by X amount, giving the developer a bigger profit with the stroke of a City Council vote, in exchange for Y number of affordable units. The developer makes more money. The city gets more affordable housing.
I wrote about it at the time and thought it was a great idea. Who can be against a win-win? I found out.
You may not be believe this, but I have been doing this job so long, I have sources who were young when I was young. We were friends in another time. Some of them are people who probably shouldn’t talk to me now, but they still do.
One of those people called me about my win-win thing. The person started by telling me how dumb I was and how little I understood anything. For me, that’s like, “Hey, man, how’ve you been doing?”
I asked why I was dumb. The person said, “Why would you think it’s a win-win for us to give back anything on affordable? We get everything we want. We always have. We don’t have to build affordable jack, and we get all the zoning we can raise money to build to.”
Negotiation over zoning rights with an aim of increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing was one of the ideas Broadnax touted at Hunt's seminar. It’s a great idea. But it’s important to realize that the old establishment, the people who have always run the city and run the city manager, will view that idea as falling somewhere between piracy and communism. They will hate it. They will fight it.
The other big one Broadnax addressed was recapturing transportation planning from regional bodies like the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The first thing you should ask me, if you’re still here, is, “The North Texas Council of what?”
Yeah. Exactly. Nobody normal has ever heard of it. Nobody has any idea what the hell it is. And it's huge. The NCTCOG, called “the COG” by the cognoscenti, has way more power over federal transportation money spent inside the city than the city does. It’s a quasi-federal/state/local planning and administrative agency with offices the size of a junior college by Globe Life Park in Arlington.
Why would this regional-shmegional whatever have more power over road, highway, rail and trail questions inside the city than the city does? Did something really bad happen in Congress a long time ago? Did Hillary do this when Bill was president?
No, not at all. These metropolitan planning organizations, as they are called, have been established all over the nation in response to federal incentives, but very few of them have the local power and authority the NCTCOG has. In fact, 10 years ago, the Texas Legislature was on the verge of launching an investigation of our COG because it was intervening ham-fistedly on behalf of a Dallas land-owning family in what should have been a private-sector business competition.
Our COG is powerful because the people who have always run the city in the past have made it powerful. They have used it, in fact, like an off-shore account, a way to be certain that very lucrative long-range decisions about the way federal transportation subsidies are spent won’t ever get within spitting range of the City Council.
The COG is powerful precisely so that the council will not be, and that has always worked. The kind of people who have occupied our single-member City Council seats in the past were happy to get a few stop signs for their districts while the COG was building high-speed multilane toll roads.
Those multibillion-dollar federal payments were our money. Most of it belonged to the city. But the city didn’t get to spend it. The COG did. And the COG was a lot easier for the boys to dominate, because ... well, you already answered that one when you wondered what the hell it was. It’s like everything else the boys have always run, like the State Fair of Texas. It’s all a frat house somewhere. You weren’t invited.
The system that is in place now, the system that has always run the city, represents stacks and stacks and stacks of money. The kinds of things Broadnax is talking about fly in the face of that money.
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Here’s how everything he said at the Angela Hunt deal will look to the old guard: Department heads at City Hall who are subject-matter experts in the areas they run will just be people who talk back too much. They don’t need to know how to say anything but “yes,” unless it’s “sir.”
The idea of negotiating with developers for more affordable housing assumes that the city has a right to negotiate, which assumes that the city has the ability to say no. The old boys are laughing up their sleeves.
And the notion that the city can take back dominion over its transportation funding from the regional off-shore entities? That’s war.
So, like I say, Broadnax is saying everything right, and I’m counting the days. Let’s hope he doesn’t blow town any time soon. Or worse: Let’s hope he doesn’t show up at a resort in Scotland in plus fours and a pink polo shirt with his arm around a Perot, singing the praises of regionalism and golf.