The Envelope, Please

I want to tell you, this town is a gypsy fortuneteller's paradise. Give me a turban and a blue bathrobe, and I could make a million bucks here as "The Great Schutzkin." It's sooo easy.

Two weeks ago I put the envelope to my forehead, concentrated real, real hard, and a vision came to me of Mayor Laura Miller and Dallas Morning News owner Robert Decherd cutting a personal deal to share control of the city ("Surrender Now," November 11, 2004).

Wait a minute. I had a lot more detail than that. And I don't appreciate the snickering, by the way.

I said in particular that this little campaign would be kicked off with the unveiling of a baloney consultant's report designed to promote Decherd's concept of a private government for downtown. Right? That was Detail No. 1.

Detail No. 2: I said that simultaneously with this, a certain person close to Decherd would launch a campaign to give Dallas the "strong mayor" system that Miller craves.

Detail No. 3: With the envelope pressed tight to my forehead, I had a vision of this person possibly being not merely close to Decherd but actually being his first cousin.

So what more do you want from me? I didn't predict the color of shirt he'd be wearing. I could have done that, but the Great Schutzkin deplores cheap parlor tricks.

Last week a much-ballyhooed report was made to the city council by management consultants McKinsey & Company--supposedly the result of six months of study of our city government. When she announced it last June, Mayor Miller said it "would have cost $1 million" had McKinsey not agreed to do it for free.

Let me tell you something. We paid exactly the right price for this dog. The report suggested, for example, that the city's code enforcement staff is getting way too much pressure and interference from city council members and that the council needs to know that citizens are supposed to call the city's 311 operators, not council members, to complain about code issues.

"Council and mayor must publicly reeducate constituents to use 311," the McKinsey report said.

When this pearl was presented to the council at its November 17 briefing, the response was polite but hilariously withering. District 10 Councilman Bill Blaydes (far Northeast) graciously thanked McKinsey for its "pro bono" efforts and then said, "It is an ideal world when 311 works as it is supposed to and everything gets handled when the call goes in. That has yet to occur.

"And when it gets to be the third and fourth and fifth call, and the complainant has not received any kind of a comment one way or the other, then I'm gonna pick up the damn phone and call. You can bet I will."

I had also predicted the report would include platitudes about "being nice." It did. It said the council should "agree to avoid public criticism of staff and businesses." (Really, you don't have to interrupt with applause for me over something like that.)

A second portion of the report dealt with economic development downtown. I had predicted McKinsey would present three options, two of which would be no good and the third would be exactly the "limited government corporation" or LGC that Decherd has been seeking.

Indeed, the McKinsey report offered three options for downtown: 1) Do nothing. 2) Add a new layer of bureaucracy to City Hall. 3) Turn downtown over to the Decherd LGC. (A small drum roll, please, and I shall bow.)

Decherd is chairman and CEO of Belo Corp., which owns the Morning News. He is also chairman of a downtown business group called the "Inside the Loop Committee." In that role he has been pushing for creation of an LGC, an entity allowed under Texas law that would operate like a private company but take over key governmental functions for downtown, especially planning and zoning.

Decherd has even been quoted in his own newspaper recently as sounding exasperated by how long it's taking to get the council to give up downtown and turn it over to his LGC. "The private sector has been awaiting a decision," he said in the paper last week, "and there's certainly a considerable amount of pent-up energy that needs to be applied to downtown's development."

I have suggested in the past in very broad terms that McKinsey's offer to sweep in and do an extreme makeover for Dallas City Hall may have been less out of the blue and pro bono than it first appeared. But in an in-depth analysis of the Morning News' business situation in last week's Dallas Observer, "At the Ripping Point," staff writer Eric Celeste neatly tapped the nails into this particular coffin.

The gist of Celeste's story was that the Morning News is not merely associated with McKinsey & Co.: The Morning News, according to Celeste, is under McKinsey's spell. McKinsey has been hired by the News to analyze all of the newspaper's business operations. McKinsey is also the purveyor of a particular doctrine of editorial management called "convergence," in which the work of reporters and editors is treated like a raw material--a generic paste squeezed into forms to make newspaper stories or squeezed into other forms for stories on television or radio.

Celeste pointed out that convergence, which has been tried elsewhere, is starting to look like a loser in some markets. It certainly hasn't been a silver bullet for Belo. And I can't help noticing that just when the sex appeal of convergence may be starting to curdle, McKinsey shows up here volunteering to do a big free study, the inference of which will be that Dallas needs to adopt Decherd's idea for downtown.

To be fair, McKinsey did not say explicitly that Dallas should adopt the LGC approach. It did present it in what I thought was clearly the most favorable light, and obviously Mayor Miller agreed. The day the report came out she told the Morning News the LGC was the best of the three alternatives.

Councilman Gary Griffith disagreed with me. Griffith said he thought the second alternative--beefing up city staff to deal with downtown--was offered sincerely, not as a poison pill. He read the report as saying, "Yes, you could go successfully in either direction."

"And I thought that was important," Griffith said, "because I felt there were some who believed that the city couldn't do it successfully. To me that was important to hear, so that I really did believe there was a choice."

At the very least the McKinsey report provides a glossy selling piece for the LGC promoters. Now they can say that this internationally revered management consulting firm just happened to float down out of the blue and lend its expertise and authority to the idea of a private government for downtown Dallas, a scheme that otherwise might have been dismissed by many as an outtake from the late H.L. Hunt's bizarre utopian novel Alpaca.

I would argue, of course, that McKinsey didn't float down out of no blue: They bungeed down from the roof of the Belo Building.

The very same day the McKinsey report was presented to the council, Dallas lawyer David Laney also appeared before the council to present the "findings" of the mayor's Charter Review Commission. Laney, who heads a secret group in favor of a strong mayor system, used his appearance to make a heavy-handed pitch for strong mayor reform. Laney is Decherd's first cousin. (With another very short burst on the snare drum, I will take a tiny bow, and thank you.)

Laney's pitch didn't work. In fact, between the two of them, Laney and Miller turned the council briefing into a donnybrook that had to be adjourned before people started throwing shoes at each other.

Toward the end of an otherwise unremarkable speech, Laney told the city council that some people have objected to strong mayor reforms on racial grounds. These objections, he said, have been "inflated for effect." That sent African-American council members right through the roof.

Maybe you have to have been here for a while, but everything people say about race in Dallas is heavily coded. Laney's crack, which I was amazed to learn was in his printed remarks, meant, "They're just hollering to get on TV."

There are two schools of thought on why Laney would have tossed off a sharp stick in the eye like that during a council presentation. And by the way, I would like to point out that my own theory is the less conspiratorial, for a change.

I figure he didn't have any idea how bad his remark was, because he's a bubblati from the Park Cities. You know: This is the kind of remark old rich white guys make sitting around the 19th hole at the Dallas Country Club sippin' bourbon and tellin' each other how it is.

The other theory comes from a pretty sharp white member of the city council, speaking off the record. This person thinks Miller and her supporters deliberately stir up black council members, especially the ever-volatile Dr. Maxine Thornton-Reese (District 4, mid-Southeast).

Their goal would be to get on the evening news with fight scenes that will mobilize the mayor's conservative white North Dallas base. A strong mayor system might emerge in this scenario as the way to keep the blacks under control.

I am going to make a prediction here. I have my turban on, and the envelope is to my head, so you might want to listen up. I predict that the whole debate over the LGC and strong mayor reform will continue to be a big, uncoordinated, sprawling, rambling mess.

I have a vision of people shouting...wait, wait, it's getting clearer. Yes! The people shouting are members of the Dallas City Council. They have removed something from their feet, and they seem to be whacking each other about the head with these objects.

Remember. A big mess! You heard it here first. The Great Schutzkin has spoken! Now Schutzkin, being almost human, is in dire need of rest and refreshment.

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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