Politics

Can Dallas Govern Itself?

Over the past decade, political chaos and bureaucratic mismanagement turned Big D into a Big Mess. It's struggling to recover.
by | July 2007
 

Last year, the citizens of Dallas voted twice on plans to tear up their system of government and install a brand-new one, with a strong mayor instead of a manager and council running the city.

To much of the local leadership, drastic change was the only hope. For years, Dallas had been slumping, sunk in a morass of racial discord, skyrocketing crime, hard economic times and distracted public officials, amid an unbroken exodus of businesses and middle-class residents to the suburbs.

Several members of the city council were under federal investigation. A state legislative committee was looking into charges that city officials had used a nuisance abatement law to carry out politically motivated vendettas against certain businesses. The Dallas Morning News had run a series of articles arguing that Dallas was at a "tipping point" that might soon put it in a league with Detroit. And Mayor Laura Miller, with only her single vote on the council, seemed powerless to turn things around. "The buck doesn't stop anywhere," wrote Jim Schutze, the sharp-eyed and curmudgeonly public affairs columnist for the weekly Dallas Observer. "It's the weak-weak-weak system--weak mayor, weak manager, weak city council."

It was a classic moment for change. But the change never came. Unconvinced by the arguments of some of the city's leading businessmen, and fearful that minority and neighborhood interests would be harmed by a new system, the electorate said "no" to reform both times.

To almost anybody watching from the outside, these were puzzling decisions. But what has happened in their wake may be even more surprising. Dallas has shown signs of progress anyway. With a new city manager, police chief and school superintendent, the beleaguered arms of local government are suddenly generating a sense of purpose. Moves by several local business executives to focus on the city's needs, from pushing economic development in long-neglected neighborhoods to better equipping the police force, have found new traction.

The question is whether these promising developments can last. It is a question that no one in Dallas feels confident answering, in large part because Schutze's point remains true: There still is nobody in charge. Older central cities that preceded Dallas down the path to decline and then regained their footing in the 1990s--places such as New York, Boston and Chicago--have flourished in part because of strong political leaders, mayors adept not only at recalibrating their bureaucracies but at channeling the energies of neighborhoods, arts groups, small businesses, corporate leaders and community organizations into urban vitality.

Revival in Dallas depends on a similarly broad mobilization of civic resources, and on the ability of many people, within city government and outside it, to work in concert--something they have been spectacularly unable to do for several decades. With no institutionalized means of focusing energy, Dallas is about to serve as a test case for whether a diffuse and sometimes ill-defined municipal leadership can nurture and sustain civic renewal.

WAITING FOR ERIK

If you glance left as you walk into Dallas' stolid, I. M. Pei- designed city hall, you get a hint of how the city arrived at this point. Standing there is a 12-foot statue of Erik Jonsson, mayor of Dallas during much of the 1960s. Coat slung over his shoulder, a roll of documents in his left hand, Jonsson stands as a reminder in bronze of how the place used to be run.

The co-founder of Texas Instruments, Jonsson was drafted for mayor by a handful of business leaders in the dispiriting aftermath of John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. In popular memory, he took the city in hand and pointed it forward, rather than letting it dwell on its suddenly unsavory place in the American psyche. He presided over an economic boom, the construction of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and an ambitious, citywide effort to envision what modern Dallas ought to look like. In many ways, it was Jonsson who laid the foundation for Dallas' blow-'n'-go heyday in the 1980s, and he came to epitomize the city's ideal of the strong businessman who can step in to set all aright.

For much of the past century, Dallas was in effect run by its business leaders through the overtly political Citizens Charter Association--which was central in creating the council-manager form of government--and the ostensibly apolitical Citizens Council, which had many of the same members. As retired newsman Darwin Payne puts it in "Big D," his history of Dallas, these groups "exercised far more influence over municipal and civic affairs than the elected city council, but without the publicity."

This was the leadership that built modern Dallas: constructing the city's freeway network (through the middle, in some instances, of thriving but politically powerless minority neighborhoods); annexing the suburbs; building the water system, industrial developments, public schools, orchestra and zoo; and naming its members and allies to the city council and the mayoralty.

The model began to fall apart in the 1970s, however, with the growing political participation of black voters, the sympathy of the white middle-class for candidates who had not been anointed from on high, and the emergence, as Payne puts it, "of many successful entrepreneurs outside the downtown area who, unlike the traditional leaders, had not grown up together, joined clubs together, nor conducted business together."

Consensus all but disappeared in the 1990s when, in Dallas as elsewhere, the business and corporate leadership changed for good as companies were bought up, became conglomerates or turned their attention to competing in world markets, and the old clique of founders and owners was replaced by CEOs from the outside.

At the same time Dallas itself was changing, becoming a more economically and culturally diverse city. "J.R. Ewing doesn't live here anymore," says Karl Zavitkovsky, a retired banker who runs the city's economic development department. "We're not a Southwest boomtown anymore. We're a maturing central city, with a lot of our growth from small businesses. If you don't like urban and don't like diversity, you might as well not be in Dallas. That's our present and our future."

But if the city itself has evolved, its structure of government has often seemed stuck in the middle decades of the 20th century. "The civic culture of Dallas is essentially anti-government," says Royce Hanson, a political scientist who has studied Dallas for years. "It retains a very deep affection for amateurism on the part of its public officials. It is distrustful of any kind of institutionalized power, and at the same time almost worshipful of private power." When things go bad, Hanson says, the city "does what I call 'Waiting for Erik,' with the paper running editorials saying it's time for some leading businessman to step forward in the mold of Erik Jonsson and by God make the schools work! But it's like waiting for Godot. He never shows up now."

A LITTLE TOO LOOSE

In truth, distrust has run through Dallas' public life ever since the "good old days." White Dallas may have been entirely comfortable with power concentrated in the hands of white business executives, but black and Hispanic Dallas had good reason not to be. Although black leaders in the city quietly obliged the white power structure, African-Americans were frequently blocked from winning political office, black and Hispanic neighborhoods were obliterated for highway expansion, and entire swaths of the city's southern and western reaches were shortchanged on even the most basic infrastructure.

The legacy of those years has been a fervent preference within the city's black neighborhoods for keeping the powers of city government diffuse and therefore less likely to do any more harm. And in the past couple of decades, as the black community became more assertive and the business elite less forceful, diffusion of power is exactly what the city got.

As a result of a 1991 court ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by black plaintiffs, political leadership is divided among 14 city council members, elected by district, and the mayor, who is elected at large but has no formal powers beyond a council vote and the ability to appoint members of council committees. A study by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton concluded in 2004 that Dallas had "a City Hall where the mayor appoints committees outside city government structure in an attempt to drive policy, the City Council delegates policy recommendation to boards, council committees are watchdogs of city departments and city council appointees drive the agenda. Where there are gaps or a lack of clarity, more than one party will often try to fill the void."

This municipal looseness might have been tolerable when the city's political leaders were all of a similar mindset, but that has not been true for many years. "Erik Jonsson and his colleagues were picked by the business community to run and serve," notes Mayor Miller, who before she became a politician was a columnist and investigative reporter and perhaps the council's most acidic detractor. "When Jonsson wanted to get something done, they all wanted to do it, because they were all business colleagues. Now, you couldn't have 15 more different people on the city council than the 15 of us--racially and socioeconomically."

Last year, a Texas Monthly article tagged the local government "dithering Dallas." One case in point might be the city's paroxysms in 2004 over the firing of police chief Terrell Bolton, who presided over a demoralized and sometimes out-of-control department during a time of rapid escalation in the crime rate. Although Miller made getting rid of him one of her first priorities as mayor, the city manager and council resisted; as the city's first African-American chief, Bolton had vocal support in southern Dallas--support that tended to show up en masse in the council chambers.

Bolton eventually was let go, but not before a wrenching council meeting, broadcast to a riveted city, in which he pleaded, in tears, for his job. "What wounded Bolton so badly," Schutze later wrote, "was not the firing but the dragging out, the horrible indecisiveness, the maybe-he-should-go, maybe-he-should-not. Nobody can survive that junk."

There have been a few moments over the past decade and a half when things seemed to be getting better. Under Mayor Ron Kirk, who preceded Miller and was the city's first African-American mayor, the council and the business community came together to begin the Trinity River project and support a new downtown arena, with new retail, commercial and residential projects in the surrounding area.

But even at that time, the city's long-term moorings seemed to be slipping away. As the Booz Allen study noted and the Dallas Morning News reported, people and businesses were continuing to flee to suburban territory. Dallas ranked dead last among 15 comparison cities in annual growth of gross product per capita. Development of an educated workforce was far slower than in peer communities, placing Dallas in a league with troubled older cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. School performance, measured by 2002 SAT scores, was far below Sun Belt competitors such as Austin and Phoenix.

When those conclusions were published, then-city manager Teodoro Benavides responded with a succinct, "I think it's a pile of doo-doo." But by early last year, there was a palpable feeling all across the city that no one was minding the store. Local government was further embarrassed by the fact that it had taken an outside consulting firm to come up with actual numbers about Dallas' civic health. As Andrew Clyde, a Booz Allen vice president who played a major role in collecting and analyzing the data, says, "other cities had more data about Dallas than Dallas did." Nor did it help that the FBI was investigating several members of the city council on corruption allegations. It was in this heated atmosphere that two different strong-mayor initiatives qualified for the ballot.

SIGNS OF LIFE

Talk to people in Dallas now about the initiatives, and blame for their failure quickly falls on Laura Miller. Although she can be charming and disarmingly frank in person, Miller's public persona tends to be distant, analytical and blunt. She once accused a leading local businessman of essentially lying to the city about a development deal--a slight that many business leaders still remember--and her relations with the black community are troubled. This stems in part from her time as a journalist, when she wrote several devastating portraits of black political leaders; in part from her years as a council member, when she regularly battled with Kirk; and in part from her crusade against police chief Bolton, whom she not only opposed but referred to publicly as an "idiot." As Schutze puts it, "the things she does at her worst, they're all the things that made her a great columnist." Inevitably, when people had to vote on whether to boost the power of the mayor, they had Miller in mind.

Yet it is by no means certain that either measure would have passed even with someone else as mayor. The city was split on the issue. The 14 members of the city council, not surprisingly, opposed any change. Miller, no less surprisingly, favored it. The business community was divided, with some prominent leaders in favor but others--especially bank CEOs and developers--opposed. Northern Dallas tended to like the idea; southern Dallas emphatically did not. "You have people with fresh memories of being disenfranchised," says Michael Sorrell, a public affairs consultant who lives on the southern side. "Handing power to one person takes them back to a very bad place." In the end, it was the outsized anti-reform vote in southern Dallas that swamped the proposals.

The result was that Dallas, at a moment of massive discontent about its political structure, cast two emphatic votes against changing it. "I think it will take a long time for anyone to go touch that topic again," says Miller.

But in the immediate aftermath of those two climactic votes, unexpected things started to happen. Without altering its much- maligned government, Dallas has begun to act like a city that knows what it wants.

One symbol of that is the way a cadre of business leaders, who had already begun to re-engage in civic affairs, are finding a sympathetic response within city government. The most prominent example is Don Williams, who used to run the real estate giant Trammell Crow. Williams became so frustrated with the disinvestment and lack of progress in the low-income neighborhoods of Dallas' southern sector that he formed the Foundation for Community Empowerment to take on the effort. FCE has developed into a civic force by becoming a repository of hard data and creative ideas for the city as a whole.

At one point, distressed by how inept Dallas had become at creating affordable housing, Williams told Mayor Miller that the city's housing department needed an overhaul and got himself appointed co-chair of a task force charged with implementing one. In relatively short order, the department and its practices were retooled. After that, Williams took aim at the city's dismally performing public school system, putting together another task force to figure out how to transform it. A few months ago, its recommendations were adopted by the notoriously fractious school board. The schools--and the school board--still have a long way to go, but for the first time in many years, there's a sense in Dallas that they might be salvageable.

Then there are two businessmen, Jack Hammack and Charles Terrell, who spent the better part of two years delving into why Dallas' crime rate was going through the roof, and then raised millions of dollars to help the police department buy new and better equipment.

But most important, city hall itself has begun acting more like a government that works. Much of the credit for this goes to Mary Suhm, the city manager, who began her career as a librarian with the city almost three decades ago. Suhm has taken it upon herself not only to re-tool the bureaucracy but also to get the council to focus on priorities and then stick with them. Her chief vehicle for accomplishing this is a "budgeting for outcomes" process designed to get every city agency thinking about how it can advance the goals set by the council and help the council sort through ways to get the most for its money.

Many civic players see this as a promising sign. "It's huge," says Cecilia Edwards, CEO of the Foundation for Community Empowerment. "It says, 'We'll align our assets with our priorities.' We have a history of letting the bureaucracy and the council move by themselves--you come up with decisions but they're so watered down by the time they get through, with all the pet projects and interests weighing in, that dollars haven't gone to priority areas. Now, people are going to be told 'No!'"

Suhm has made it a point to visit the city's CEOs, ministers, nonprofits and foundations to introduce herself, talk about the changes she's making to city government and find out what the government can do to make their lives easier. "We're a 12,000-person bureaucracy," she says, "and we're in trouble if we turn away and focus completely on what we're trying to get done and don't reach out and say, 'Here's the way into us, we need your feedback, we need your suggestions, we need your involvement.' It's something we haven't done before."

But even amid all the positive developments, there is ample reason to be skeptical. The city's political leadership still has not demonstrated that it can engage these energies and focus them over the long haul. And this makes the city vulnerable to back-sliding should anything go wrong--a fresh scandal in one of its departments, indictments stemming from the FBI investigation or infighting on the council when the new budgeting process forces uncomfortable decisions upon important constituencies.

"What we have," says Wick Allison, publisher of D Magazine, which focuses on the city, "is a governance system constituted such that when everything runs well, it runs well. But when everything goes into the ditch, it can't get out of the ditch." The challenge for Dallas, now that it appears to be regaining its footing, is whether it can prove him wrong.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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