The City That Doesn’t Work, Part II.
What kind of mayor do we need? The kind that can learn from the tale of the fox and the hedgehog.
LAST MONTH, I WROTE ABOUT THE CITY’S entrenched civil service and its paralytic effect on city services. To liberate the city staff and change the culture at City Hall, we need to abolish civil service, as Chicago and many other cities have done. It would be the first step in changing Dallas from a "can’t do" city back into a "can do" city.
But it will take more than that to change the mindset of Dallas’ city government. It will also take good, old-fashioned, decisive mayoral leadership.
In a 1953 essay on Tolstoy, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two classic types of leaders, whom he characterized as the fox and the hedgehog. The essay began with the statement: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Foxes, wrote Berlin, "pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory." The hedgehog, on the other hand, "sees the world in terms of a single universal organizing principle."
Laura Miller is the fox. She knows a little about a lot. She moves quickly and with apparent ease from one subject to another. She can hold contradictory opinions in her head at one time (which Emerson noted is the mark of true intelligence). Her only problem is that she sometimes expresses her contradictory opinions.
Mary Poss, on the other hand, is the hedgehog. She knows one big thing. Unfortunately, the one big thing she knows is wrong.
Mary Poss is a chanter of the modern Republican mantra of "no new taxes." She voted against the very small increase to handle the city’s budget deficit. She voted against the $555 million bond package because it requires a tax increase (of about $36 a year on the average household). At the same time, she defended city manager Ted Benavides, whose ineptitude led to the deficit she wouldn’t vote to fix.
I wonder if Mary Poss has ever met a status quo she doesn’t like.
Let’s look at that status quo. Outside observers are warning that Dallas needs an overhaul of basic infrastructure that could cost up to $6 billion. The rating agencies have warned that we may become the first city in history to lose our AAA rating because we don’t spend enoughour assets are deteriorating, and we’re doing little to fix or replace them.
As small examples, look at what’s happening in the poorer areas of town. A fine little recreation center near the Tollway and Cedar Springs had to close down because of personnel cuts in the Dallas housing authority. A part-time worker dropped by to find that the center was flooded, and, because the water had sat for days, the wooden gym floor was ruined. Cost to replace: $40,000. In Pleasant Grove, a large recreation center designed to be open 80 hours a week to serve neighborhood kids is open only 40 hours, and the manager is frankly despairing of how long the city will be able to pay for that.
These are hard assets previous generations invested to build for the benefit of future citizens. We’re so parsimonious we won’t even spend the money to staff them. Like a house that nobody lives in, the assets begin to deteriorate.
The hedgehog may know one big thing, but in Mary Poss’ case the one big thing looks to lead to permanent and unstoppable decline.
Meanwhile, foxy Laura Miller may have out-foxed herself. She got elected by a North Dallas that is very suspicious of City Hall. To satisfy her voting base, she claims she couldn’t support a major bond issue because she didn’t trust city government to manage it. Yet she also claims to understand that Dallas needs to invest in itself. By saying one thing, she panders to her constituency. By saying the other, she tries to show she recognizes reality. It’s a fine dance, and she does it well, as long as she doesn’t end up dancing on a grave. Having told North Dallas that she’ll hammer government, she now has to teach them that a thriving and prosperous city costs money. That means she has to lead a nervous City Council to raise taxes.
Mary Poss doesn’t have what it takes to be mayor because she doesn’t understand what Dallas needs. Presumed winner Laura Miller doesn’t deserve to be mayor because she has squandered an opportunity to lead.
The last time I met with the mayor, she looked at me with her very big eyes wide open and said, "I get it. I promise you, I get it." But that’s not the question. The question is whether she has the fortitude, the persistence, and the persuasiveness to lead this city to do what it needs to do to save itself.
Foxes are hard to follow because they are never quite sure where they are going. Laura Miller could learn a lot from the stubborn wisdom of the hedgehog.
May 3 Is An Opportunity
for the voters to show a stronger belief in Dallas’ future than either of the mayoral candidates or the city council have. The bond package is only bare-bones, but it is significant, and we endorse it strongly. We especially urge your support of Props 5 and 12 to provide $20 million for the performing arts center.