When it came time last Wednesday afternoon for the Dallas City Council to hold its briefing on the bond issue that would add to the city’s debt while addressing, among other things, its deteriorating streets, Mayor Mike Rawlings finally had the opportunity to present his formal case for pushing back the vote, and thus any implementation, from May to November.
Rawlings, whatever else he may be, is a clear-headed leader of relative candor who is capable of presenting a reasoned argument by which to advance his views without degenerating into nonsensical sloganeering. This sets him apart from several of his allies on the Council, as well as several of his detractors. It also provides for a largely straightforward discussion on the pros and cons of a given question. Indeed, the initial debate was as straightforward as one could desire. The mayor’s case for a delay on the bond issue, as could be gleaned even before Wednesday’s hearing, stems not from any serious opposition to the actual policy questions involved, but rather from a political question — the entirely legitimate political question as to whether a May vote on the bond would actually pass, as the mayor says it would not, and whether a November vote would be more likely to do so, as he says it would, given some changes to be hashed out in the interim.
There may be other considerations in play here, of course, given the extent to which Dallas expenditures are always subject to the occult currents of upscale corruption, but at least as stated, Rawlings’ stance is an entirely legitimate one for a mayor to put forth. The problem is that the mayor is widely believed to be lying, either in service to certain occult currents or as part of some well-intended obscurantist master plan that may not as yet be made known to the laity.
I’m in no position to speculate as to which of these things is true. And I’m actually more interested in a certain aspect of this that may have been intended as window dressing but which happens to be rather indicative of a larger problem. In what was either a candid explanation of how these things work or what was merely intended to appear to be a candid explanation of how these things work, Rawlings stated that whenever a public vote is needed on some or another major expenditure, it was necessary for the city to go to some small group of wealthy city fathers and ask them for money with which to purchase television ads. Sadly, though, our civic sugar daddies just don’t like this particular bond proposal as currently written. The “big supporters won’t be writing those checks in May,” the mayor concluded. We’ll come back to this, as well we might.
Councilman Philip Kingston countered Rawlings’ allegedly pragmatist Voters-Won’t-Pass-It-Anyway gambit by disputing the relevance of the past electoral results the mayor had cited as evidence and noting the straightforward nature of the case to the be put to the voters. “The sale is pretty easy. It’s, ‘Do you want the streets fixed?’ ” In terms of actual civic policy, Kingston cited, among other things, the additional fiscal advantage of maintaining infrastructure now, rather than later, in a way that ought to have neutralized any counter-arguments on supposed grounds of fiscal responsibility — the move would improve the city’s credit rating at a time when Dallas needs to inspire confidence. “These ratings agencies,” Kingston declared, “are telling us to fix our streets.”
Councilman Ricky Callahan, usually a reliable Rawlings backer, delivered a message from the sans culottes of southeast Dallas. “The Pleasant Grove people are mad, they’re angry, they’re upset, they’re ready for something to happen,” he rumbled, stopping just short of threatening to place himself at the head of the mob and seize control of the building. Instead, the subsequent monologue was given over largely to illustrating how his mad, angry constituents wanted him to do things for them so as to better assuage their murderous rage; alas, he said, he couldn’t do anything “substantive” without money, emphasizing the syllable “Stan” and pronouncing it as you would the name.
Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold is upset because of the inclusion in the proposed package that would apparently “disregard a city councilwoman’s desire to represent his or her people; in this case it’s her constituents,” as she attempted to put it. She vowed to obtain the “geographical data” on this park, and then either went on to denounce another park or the same park. “Now in one of the documents … there’s a proposal on the table to produce half of a rec park. How does that work? You create half of it as you build it you extend it to go out to get the one? And so is the District 4 side set here for the homeless population that sits on Exit 424 and 425!” What began as a question quickly graduated to an outraged declaration. “So I don’t support a bond package that disrespects MY decision and my representation of my constituents.” She went on to denounce the gentrification that would surely follow from the proposed placement in her district of an entrance to a proposed zoo; perhaps they could move the homeless population over there to tamp things down? She concluded by complaining of the city’s “neglect” of her constituents.
Councilman Scott Griggs wants to go forward with the package as originally planned, objecting to Rawlings’ idea that this is going to be some really contentious vote for which we’ll need piles of precious gemstones from the Nine Secret Masters of Dallas. “I think there are people out there that will fund them,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s going to need much funding. I think people are going to go out there to the ballot box … and see that this is going to get my streets fixed … . The plan right now may be imperfect, but we can fix it. We can get this going today.”
But, alas, we couldn’t, as the Mysterious Delay faction had recourse to another argument, as if the Shadowy Oligarchy Won’t Allow It Argument wasn’t convincing enough. This was the Pretend Fiscal Conservative Argument, as presented by the inimitable Councilman Lee Kleinman. “I don’t believe in borrowing money to fix things. We borrow money to invest,” Kleinman began, thereby establishing for the record that an investment in infrastructure is not an investment. Unless it is: “I don’t have much issue investing in our community, investing in things like parks, investing in new streets, or new items if and when we need them.” The Gentleman from Beltline refrained from explaining why it’s okay to borrow money for new streets but not to borrow money to fix the streets we’ve already built and which service still-growing communities from which our tax base ultimately derives; nor did he make any forays into the question of why it counts as an investment to build another park but not to repair the infrastructure that ratings agencies are specifically citing as something that would improve the city’s credit rating, on top of all the other benefits that come from maintaining our roads in the manner of all civilized people for millennia past.
Instead, he pointed out that “we had a plan about two years ago that I think City Manager Mr. McDaniel put forward to bring our streets up to par using our general fund. That plan seems to have just withered away.” Which is a sad story. It’s also a pointless one unless Kleinman intends to rekindle that plan, or at the very least use it as an opening to provide us with some helpful lesson as to why it withered away and how things might be done differently next time. But he didn’t do that. Nonetheless, his rambling carried the day. The bond was put off.
Like others I’ve spoken to, I happen not to think that Rawlings really believes what he’s put forth (though, sadly, there’s a good chance that Kleinman might actually ascribe to the confused set of pseudo-economic quasi-principles that he may or may not have made up on the spot). The idea that any major move by the city of Dallas is ultimately dependent on the blessing of a couple of wealthy guys and that this is merely to be taken as a given by our mayor is worth further discussion, regardless of whether it’s true or merely intended as cover for some other, quieter reasoning. Certainly this sort of thing is nothing new in Dallas, which was more or less openly governed on a de facto basis from the Dallas Citizen’s Council for several decades and still remains subject to its ebbs and flows.
But much else in Dallas is indeed new, including large parts of its demographic makeup. And so the conditions that have allowed for this sort of governance in the past will have changed, too, at least to some extent. Change can beget change. 2017 may very well turn out to be the year when the Old Guard went too far.
I’ll be back at City Hall on Wednesday.