City Hall

Who Gets Blame for City Manager's Exit? No, No. Who Gets Praise, You Mean.

Oh, man, sometimes I think I’m walking into a serious conversation about Dallas City Hall. Then I hear what people down there are saying. I just want to stop and say, “Oh, excuse me, wrong venue, I guess. I thought I was walking into City Hall. Obviously I took a wrong turn somewhere, because I seem to have wound up at a rush party for Lambda Chi Alpha.”

Just listen to this nonsense. In fact, I hate to tell you, but you’re going to be listening to this nonsense for the next several years. Unfortunately, this is how the old hog-trough establishment is going to defend itself against the new-city insurgents, and wouldn’t you just know their main line would be oh! … so! ... bro!

The bro establishment is painting the impending departure of Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez as a kind of social embarrassment brought about by members of the City Council who have been uncool to the city’s top bureaucrat, who announced Monday he will retire in January.

“It’s a shame that council has created such a work environment laden with hostility towards our staff,” council member Lee Kleinman told The Dallas Morning News. “A.C. worked to better the city of Dallas despite constantly being berated, attacked and belittled around the horseshoe and in social media.”

Jennifer Gates, a council member from the same general North Dallas neck of the woods, told the paper, “People tried to put all the blame on him. I could see where his frustrations were, where he would say, ‘OK, I’m done.’”

Mayor Mike Rawlings told the News, “The rancor amongst our City Council at times made him play defense. That’s challenging.”

And, of course, as always with any issue of crucial importance to the old contract-seeking patronage-dependent in-crowd at City Hall, the city’s only daily newspaper is scrambling all of its dancers onstage for a full-throated, hard-tapping, hand-fanning rendition of the Tammany Hall chorus line. 

In a news story Monday — reported as fact — the News said, “Council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs, who have formed a loud minority faction on the council, have used Gonzalez as a political punching bag.”

The paper’s lead editorial Monday said, “No doubt this job, daunting under the best of circumstances, has been made almost impossible by council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs, whose go-to strategy has been Gonzalez-as-toad.”

Oh, give me a break. In fact, give me a couple breaks. First, the guy makes $400,000 a year. He’s 64. He won’t retire until January when his pension reaches its fat maximum. He has presided over an unbelievable string of slap-my-mouth scandals and revelations since before he even took the damn job. Griggs and Kingston are among four new council members whose criticisms have been aimed straight at those scandals and revelations, never at Gonzalez personally.

You know, this really is about grown-up life in the real world, not some silly-ass bro-fest, and professionals in this world really do have to live with the consequences of their decisions.

But just to check myself on this, I corresponded yesterday with other people who watch City Hall even more closely than I do. Wylie H., the pseudonymous but omniscient wizard of Facebook fame, pointed out instances where Kingston and Griggs, fighting to defend the public treasure, repeatedly have caught Gonzalez and the rest of city staff trying to give away the store:

“By far the biggest one was when he tried to slip the $450 million-plus multi-year no-bid energy contract with TXU onto the consent agenda of the very last meeting of the City Council,” Wylie H. wrote back.

In that case last year, Griggs and Kingston demanded unsuccessfully that Gonzalez explain why he was thwarting normal bidding procedures and trying to slip a vote past the council to deliver a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Griggs and Kingston persuaded three other council members to join them in voting against granting the contract, but a 10-vote majority led by the mayor overwhelmed their objections and delivered the goods to TXU tied up like a Christmas present.

Using a pet name for Griggs and Kingston that even I employ sometimes, Wylie H. said: “Another thing Grigston did was clean up Dallas Police & Fire Pension system ... a HUGE deal. If only Rawlings had put them in earlier. Of course, as a thanks, they ended up with Kleinman screaming at them during a pension system meeting and storming out.”
He reminded me of another one: “The other biggie is when we sold the excess Lake Ray Hubbard park land to Rowlett, only to find out later that it was immediately flipped to a developer (literally same day) who is building a $1 billion development on the site.”

Wylie H.’s helpful notes reminded me of the underlying pattern in all of these issues. That narrative is enormously important, because it explains the whole bro-speak thing about the cool kids and the uncool kids. The blow-ups are always about some cool kid with his hand in the cookie jar and the mayor and the city manager and the Morning News doing everything they can to deliver the cookies.

Apparently the uncoolest thing anyone can say is, “Hey, look, that guy’s got his hand in the cookie jar.”

Think about it. These absolutely crazy deals pop up, seemingly out of the blue but not really, like the totally botched fake kayaking “rapids” that the city spent $4 to $5 million building in the Trinity River. The deal pops up because some cool kid with connections wants it to pop up and pop into his pocket.

So why is it always Griggs and Kinston crying, “Stop, thief!” It’s not. Kingston and Griggs are part of a growing body on the council who represent what I think of as the serious districts in the city — East Dallas, Lake Highlands, Oak Cliff, southern Dallas. These are places that are both on the rise but also still dealing with serious challenges.

People in this inner ring of council districts don’t have a choice; they have to pay attention to City Hall, because they need its help. They especially do not need for City Hall to be handing its assets out the back door in good-old-boy deals all the time.

Tragically, too many of the African-American southern Dallas council members are still deep in the pockets of the old moneyed establishment, on whom they depend for campaign money. They can’t afford to show much independence, although Tiffini Young in District 7 shows promise. But that will change in the near future as those districts continue to diversify with immigration and also to lure back a middle class.

It’s all happening pretty fast, as a matter of fact. Within the next two to four years, enough serious people in serious districts will be paying enough attention to give the old guard a serious run for its money, and it knows that. That’s why I say the bro-speak line is something you’ll be hearing more of, not less, in the years just ahead.

I talk to people who even believe it’s a deliberate calibrated strategy designed and abetted by a certain paid political consultant, one who does a lot of work on establishment campaigns and issues. I’m not sure. Could be.

But I think they would come to this line even if it were not suggested to them by a consultant, because it so perfectly speaks their culture. It’s the culture of what Dallas used to be, after all, a small colonial outpost of the post-bellum South, where money and power flowed from and were the outward manifestations of social acceptance.

People always want to tell me that, “the old way of doing things in Dallas worked.” And I’m sure it did. If you were socially accepted.

But we’re a city now. We have too many different kinds of people in the act now with too many different notions of social acceptability. Meanwhile a half century of unconscionable neglect has left the city with other serious issues to think about.

And cool kids? Oh, wow. Some of the old crowd who consider themselves to be the cool kids, the in-crowd, the A-list, might be shocked to discover how much the basic concept of cool has changed around them, by which I mean the basic concept of what makes a cool city.

As for the departure of Gonzalez, look, there’s nothing wrong with Gonzalez personally. The Barker brothers, Ted and Hal, who have been some of City Hall’s harshest and most effective critics on issues of nature and parks, spoke very positively to me yesterday about Gonzalez’s technical grasp of issues and about his forthrightness.

If anything, the key is in remembering that this is not personal. It’s not about whether A.C. Gonzalez is a nice guy or not. It’s certainly not about whether Kingston and Griggs are naughty bad-boys who don’t know how to behave at a party.

It’s not a party. It’s not personal. The people who want you to think it’s personal simply do not want you to see what’s really going on. This is serious. This is a city.

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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