In the next 16 weeks Dallas voters must ponder the biggest change in city politics since 1931--a charter election May 7 to abandon the city manager system in favor of much greater powers for the mayor. A standard cliché in this debate, one I probably have helped propagate in my own small way, is the notion that Dallas City Hall is broken, stuck in the mud, can't get anything done to save its life.
Here's my secret dilemma: I know people--great sources, folks I have known for years--who work City Hall like a gumball machine every day of their lives, all day long. I'm talking about people who go to City Hall seeking deals: zoning changes, street closings, conservation districts, historic markers, tax breaks, whatever. And they would tell you City Hall works like a Swiss watch. For them.
Some of them would disagree with what I'm going to say next, and some would agree. I would say next that City Hall works for a limited group of insiders--I think they would prefer the title "informed citizens"--who know how to work it. But not for the person who has a job or kids to take care of or who wants to go fishing and just doesn't have time to become a Ph.D. expert.
Last week I spoke with several people who are Ph.D.s-times-10 at dealing with City Hall. I can't name them; I can't even characterize what they do, because they operate in a tiny universe, and someone would figure out who they are.
What I can do--and I think this might be genuinely helpful in figuring out what really goes on down there--is summarize what they told me about how they get what they want from Dallas City Hall.
Almost all of them agree on this: If you want to get something from City Hall, the first thing you need to do is put the whole city manager thing right out of your mind. Forget it. It will only confuse you.
The mythology of the manager system, after all, was that it removed politics from city business. Or, as one wag put it to me, "It was supposed to remove politics from politics, which may have been its problem."
The deal now at City Hall, most of my sources agree, is that you will not get off square one--no, wait, they said you won't even get on square one--until you do the politics. Politics is first and foremost. City staff, no matter what they tell you, will not lift a pinkie finger in your behalf until you show them the juice. And the juice is a city council member.
"They are afraid of city council members," one man said. "That's all they're afraid of."
If you want the city to do something for you--a zoning change, a street closing, a conservation district--you need to show the staff your city council person. Your little bottle of juice. You must demonstrate to the staff that the council person for the district where you want your deal is on your side.
If you can do that, if you can put the juice on the table, then step out of the way: City Hall is gonna work for you.
"It's the red carpet," a developer said to me. "They're under so much pressure to do deals, once they know you have the council lined up, they can't wait to help."
Now, the second level. What if you want something from City Hall that involves more than one council district or maybe all of them--something beyond the borders of an individual council member's duchy? How do you do that?
Eight little bottles of juice on the wall. You have to show that you have an eight-vote majority of the 15-member city council going for you. Then you get the red carpet. Three votes? The cold shoulder.
The real-world system at City Hall is the direct contrary of the official mythology. Far from barring politics from the door, city staff won't let you in the door unless you've already done your political homework.
The system was always political, because public business in a democracy is inherently political. Back when people thought the city manager system worked so well, that was because the politics all got done behind closed doors by five or six blue-suit cigar butts downtown. Moving effective control to elected council members was a step in the right direction.