Eric (The Unfriender) Johnson, Maybe Not So Bad After All as Mayor

New Mayor Eric Johnson is bringing some savvy to the task from his years in the Legislature.
New Mayor Eric Johnson is bringing some savvy to the task from his years in the Legislature.
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This is a bit of a personal crisis for me, but I guess it’s gravy for you. Based on their budget hearing Tuesday, the new Dallas City Council seems to be a pretty sharp group. I’m thinking of going into the landscaping business.

Even the new mayor looked good. Knock me over with a feather. You know who warned me this could happen? Recently ousted Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, whom I now think of privately as Kingston the Ousted, told me that our recently elected mayor, Eric Johnson, was going to turn out to be a smart guy and do a good job.

I’m still way south of there on that. To me, our new mayor is still Johnson the Unfriender, a man so petulant that he spent time during his campaign unfriending people on Facebook. This, obviously, is a man who doesn’t understand that people on Facebook aren’t your friends in the first place. But, yes, I have to admit, he runs a good meeting.

Here’s something from a moment that most people would not notice but I did notice because cruel and uncaring newspaper editors have consigned me to attend way too many meetings over the years. They were debating a motion to set a cap for what next year’s property tax rate could be.

Council member Jennifer Gates, whose district is in North Dallas, offered an amendment to the motion. She wanted to set the cap lower. Council member Lee Kleinman offered an amendment to Gates’ amendment to set the cap even lower. And generally speaking, that’s how debates on tax rates go.

The farther north you go and the more money people have, the less they are willing to pay in taxes. Eventually, as you get up toward the northern city limits, people up there actually want the city to pay them for the honor of their presence.

The problem, meeting-wise, was not that. The problem was the process. For people who are not accustomed to elective office or the legislative process, by the time they get to an amendment to an amendment to a motion, you might as well just send them home. Typically, that’s when the uninitiated members start narrating long-winded anecdotes from their childhoods or ask things out of the blue like why don’t birds get electrocuted when they sit on power lines. And that’s when I go straight to Facebook.

Johnson, who is an attorney and a veteran of the Texas Legislature, seemed to anticipate some of these challenges and handled them affably but effectively. Council member Omar Narvaez, who represents West Dallas where people just assume they have to pay their taxes, wanted to comment at one point, and the mayor offered a bit of direction. Smiling, he said, “I just want to make sure we keep clear what we are discussing, Mr. Narvaez. So we are still on the amendment to the amendment which is to amend the original motion to the effective tax rate.”

Narvaez, also smiling, nodded that he understood. So what, you ask? You think that’s nothing? You think it’s boring. Yes, it is boring. But it’s boring in a good way. It means Johnson is moving it along, keeping the meeting on track and tending to business.

You can tell this isn't Council member Lee Kleinman's first rodeo.
You can tell this isn't Council member Lee Kleinman's first rodeo.

Believe me, all the most dramatic TV news moments at City Council meetings, the really great shouting, eye-gouging, hair-pulling stuff, comes from people not knowing which amendment to the motion to amend the amendment they’re on so they’re all screaming at each other about the birds getting burned up on the power lines, and they’re insulting each other’s sainted mothers and so on.

Knowing how to run a legislative meeting is really important. Much as it pains me to admit, Kingston the Ousted was right. Johnson the Unfriender knows how. And I’m thinking about a late life career change to landscaping. Well, it might be more landscaping supervision.

To make things even worse for me, I also have to admit that the entire council did a pretty good job representing the interests and opinions of the members’ many and varied constituencies. This whole thing was about setting parameters, not the tax rate itself.

The council won’t vote to actually set the tax rate until Sept. 18. This week they were just setting a cap above which the rate cannot go no matter what.

The city manager is telling the council that the property rate, which funds just over half of the city’s $1.4 billion budget, needs to go up a fraction, from 77.67 cents per hundred dollars of property value to 78 cents. That increase would add $4.5 million to city revenues and cost the average homeowner $8 a year. Just who the average homeowner is, I will address at a later time.

At this week’s hearing, Gates was saying the tax rate should not go up but should be capped at what it is now on paper, 77.67 cents. Kleinman, who represents the honorable far north, wanted to set the cap even lower, at what the rate is in real life.

It’s complicated. But it’s not. Kleinman’s point is that the rate is not the rate. It’s part of the rate. A property owner pays a rate or percentage of what her property is worth. But the government decides what her property is worth. So the rate can go up just a little bit while the government says her property value has gone up a lot. That means she pays a lot more, not a little bit more, even though the rate itself went up just a little bit.

In Dallas, values have gone up a lot in a year. Gates was saying we should cap the rate at what it is now. Kleinman was saying that’s not a cap. If we want to cap things, he said, we should lower the cap to 74.72 cents, the so-called effective rate at which everybody’s tax bill stays the same, even if values went up. They both made their points coherently and politely, with some strong backup from new council members David Blewett and Cara Mendelsohn.

Narvaez made a different point. The city manager’s recommendation is based on crying needs. And no kidding. We’ve got firehouses in this city going without air conditioning for weeks at a time in the midst of triple-digit temperatures. People hear a dangerous disturbance in an Oak Lawn hotel room, and a full hour later by the time we can even get cops to the door, a woman is dead. So, yes, we’ve got needs.

Narvaez said he wasn’t ready to decide we need to raise the tax rate, but he didn’t want to close the door on raising the rate until council members have had time to attend town hall meetings and hear what their constituents think.

“As much as I would love for us to be able to get to 74.72 (Kleinman’s rate), it would be clearly irresponsible for this body to even try to attempt that before we have been to our town halls, before we have had an opportunity to hear from our constituents on the proposed budget.

“I hear Mr. Kleinman’s points, and I do agree with some of them, but, unfortunately I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice, and we wouldn’t be doing our duty as elected officials in his city.”

Carolyn King Arnold, who represents a poor district in central southern Dallas, made a brief but impassioned speech for her own district and other parts of the city that have been historically “underserved,” which is the currently correct term for segregated and screwed. It’s a hard point for rich white people to ingest sometimes, but I thought she got it across gracefully without being obsequious.

Then the end of the show was back to The Unfriender. Johnson, who eventually voted with the majority to set the cap at the higher rate asked for by the city manager, summed up the issue with some legislative savvy:

Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez struck the dominant tone.
Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez struck the dominant tone.

“I have been listening to this discussion, and I have been hearing a lot of people, inadvertently I think, talking about what we are doing as though we are setting the rate.”

He pointed out that not only was the council not setting the rate at its hearing, it would not be allowed to do so by state law at that point in the process or the calendar. But setting the ceiling for the rate at the lower numbers proposed by Gates and Kleinman would effectively shut the door in advance on the city manager’s proposed budget before the public got a chance to look at it.

“If we were to adopt the amendment that is on the table now,” he said, “it is a mathematical fact that the city manager’s budget as proposed would not be an option.

“The question for me is really simple. If I don’t have to make a decision for the voters of Dallas, to tell them that this budget is off the table, then why would I do that?”

Johnson led a majority of the council to set the cap at the rate that would allow consideration of the city manager’s full budget recommendation. Yes. The Unfriender did a good job.

I’m not sure — haven’t made up my mind yet — if I will offer actual landscaping services or perhaps just landscaping critiques.

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