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Whatever Dallas Does, We Can't Have Another City Hall Insider as City Manager

Former Dallas mayor Laura Miller has a great piece today on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News about the absolute insanity of hiring yet another city manager for Dallas from within the inbred, cultic, code-talking clan of apparatchiks usually described politely as "city staff."

She cites the example of the current mayor, Mike Rawlings, who apparently has asked the city manager a question about a recent contretemps over taxicabs and now must hire legal and linguistics experts at a cost of $50,000 to help him determine if the acting city manager's answer to him was a yes or a no. I say he'd have better luck hiring Margaret Mead. Sadly, the famous anthropologist is dead.

We need a new city manager, because the old one's leaving. So what's wrong with replacing from within? And by the way, I'm a convert to Miller's view on this. I sort of thought hiring the one who's leaving, Mary Suhm, was a good idea. I still have great admiration for Suhm's superb personal abilities. But Miller is right. Hiring these people from within is wrong.

The staff live within their own cultural shell at City Hall, and that shell is so thick and so hard a cat couldn't scratch it. They will always protect their own, no matter what, often at great cost, in fact no matter what the cost to the elected officials and the people who put them in office, who would be us.

Part of the secret to understanding that culture is knowing that it doesn't make them bad people. For such a large and sprawling entity, Dallas City Hall probably maintains a higher rigor and standard of performance for staff members than most institutions, public or private. You meet a lot of really smart people at City Hall, most of whom intend to do the right thing.

But it's their right thing. Not ours. That's half the problem. The other half, the one I find myself dealing with more often by the nature of my job, is when they do the wrong thing. That's when you have to spend $50,000 to get an answer out of them -- fifty grand I don't have.

The mayor wants to know who on the city staff slipped a new taxicab law designed to help Yellow Cab into the fine print of the city council's voting agenda in hopes the council would be fools and vote for it without even knowing they had. Pretty dirty trick, eh? Sort of like slipping a check written out to yourself into a stack on the boss's desk in hopes he'll sign it without looking. Kind of a firing offense in a lot of employment situations.

But if you ask them who did it, they're all sucking helium all of a sudden, giggling like munchkins and bouncing off the ceiling, pointing every which way but at each other. Hey, believe me, I know this scene.

Here is my current example. Going on four years ago, City Hall spent more than $4 million to create a manmade "white water" kayak park on the Trinity River. The original design was based on manmade kayak parks on very different kinds of rivers in Colorado . Something - either the nature of our river, the execution and construction or all of the above -- made ours a disastrous bungle. I believe the legal concept is "attractive nuisance" - something that lures people in and then maybe maims or kills them. You can sue for that, if you're not dead.

The Trinity "whitewater feature" was so terribly bungled that it had to be closed off to paddlers almost as soon as it was finished. But the worst thing about the whitewater feature is not the whitewater feature. By its very presence in the river, it has choked down all paddling on that entire stretch of the Trinity -- canoes, rafts, kayaks, whatever. This comes at a time when interest in outdoor recreation in the city is surging. It also happens in a legal context where increased recreational usage is the one important legal element that could push the state to do a better job of policing pollution.

Over the years, I have attempted repeatedly to get city staff to tell me who made the decisions on design modification and construction. You guessed it: lots of squeaky giggling, ceiling bouncing and finger twirling as the strange apparatchik tribe of City Hall goes into its bizarre CYA rain dance. But no answers.

Nevertheless, I consider it my job to be boring and irritating about some things, or, if it's not really my job, OK, maybe it's just my personality. Anyway, this week I posed a series of questions to Willis Winters, who is the new director of the Dallas Park and recreation department chosen from within the tribe to replace his predecessor, Paul Dyer, who was director of Park and Recreation back when people were still painting themselves blue and wearing raccoon skins for suits.

I like Willis Winters. He's a good man. He has done some brilliant work in bring better architecture to public spaces in Dallas. But when I reached out to him for someone I could talk to about the whitewater feature, I was informed he was not available. I was told I could put my questions to Michael Hellman, the assistant director.

In my questions to Mr. Hellman, I kept in mind a principle I have learned the hard way over the years in dealing with the tribe. Keep it simple. Very simple. Every little complication you throw in, every qualifying phrase, even adjectives will serve only as handles they can use to toss your question up to the ceiling where you may never be able to capture it again.

I asked Mr. Hellman these questions about the whitewater feature, in exactly these words: "Does it work? Did you fix it? Can people use it? Is it pretty?"

Mr. Hellman informed me that these questions must be submitted to the city's new city attorney, recently appointed from within, so that a legal review may be made of them by a staff of city-paid lawyers, or, for all I know, expensive outside counsel.

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My guess? Oh, about fifty grand. Do I mean they'll spend fifty grand? I have no idea what they will spend reviewing my questions. They don't talk about that sort of thing. No, I mean fifty grand is about what it would cost me to hire my own lawyers to force some kind of response out of them that anybody could ever understand. I think I mentioned already that I do not have fifty grand. So here we are. Yet again.

It's an easy fix. You don't wade in and fire all of those very able people. But you do hire a new boss for them, somebody who can hire and fire them, who comes from way outside, way out of town, who absolutely does not speak their language and does not have a helium jones.

You hire a boss who says, "Wait, the guy asked if you fixed it and if it's pretty. Why are we paying lawyers to review this questions? Why don't you just answer him? NO I DO NOT WANT ANY HELIUM, THANK YOU!"

When Laura's right, she's right. She's right about this. They're good people at City Hall. Just very very strange good people.

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