In 1965, newly installed Mayor Erik Jonsson invited a cross-section of Dallas leaders to join him in establishing Goals for Dallas, which became the city’s blueprint for the next two decades. Nearly 40 years later, I modestly propose an update with six simple actions that could restore the same zest and efficiency that characterized the Dallas of the Jonsson years.
Let the mayor hire and fire the city manager and the city attorney. We don’t need a strong-mayor form of government. Yes, the mayor is the only citywide elected official. And, yes, City Hall is a mess because power is diffused and nobody is accountable. But with one change to the city charter, we could restore accountability to City Hall with an up-and-down reporting structure. At the same time, the City Council would return to its proper function as a board of directors, setting policy instead of fumbling around while trying to implement it.
Eliminate city civil service. This Progressive Era reform is 70 years out of date. Today the problem isn’t patronage; it’s lethargy. Firing a lazy or incompetent employee under present charter civil service rules is nearly impossible. Texas is an at-will state for private employees. With a charter amendment, we can make it the same for non-uniformed city employees (police and firemen are protected under state laws). At the same time, we can restore a sense of purpose and esprit de corps to our city staff.
Make crime the city’s No. 1 short-term priority. The primary reason we organize governments is public safety. Dallas’ crime rate is out of control. The Dallas police are far behind their large-city counterparts in introducing the systems and methodologies to reduce crime. Many City Council members seem unaware these systems and methodologies exist. (Do they think a fairy godmother waved a magic wand over New York and Los Angeles?) Dallas needs to launch immediately the proven tactics that will drastically cut our crime rate. Start by benchmarking our public-safety performance against that of other cities of our sizeand make the comparisons public.
Make the Trinity River the city’s No. 1 long-term priority. Dallas has no beach and no mountains. So we’re building our own. The Trinity River Corridor Projectthe world’s largest urban parkis immense and complicated. Properly managed, it will unleash huge amounts of private investment near downtown and across the river. The city must act decisively, keep to its timetables, and meet the federal and state deadlines. If the project needs more money, the voters will approve itonce they can see that it will actually happen.
Make wealth creation the raison d’être of City Hall. Most small-business people and developers say that City Hall is a hindrance, not a help. Here’s a simple economics lesson: people who make more money hire more people and pay more taxes. (Even people named Hunt and Perot.) The city should be in the business of facilitating the creation of wealth, of making projects possible, of making land more valuable. Dallas City Hall should operate in a spirit of win/win and beg business people to bring their ideas and their cash to invest in Dallas.
Hire a chief planner. Unlike Fort Worth, Dallas has no urban planning director. As a result, in Uptown the residential boom has caught the city by surprise, and the area is notoriously unfriendly to pedestrians who now throng its meager sidewalks. Engineersnot urban specialistsrun Dallas planning, so downtown is a mishmash of one-way streets no normal person can negotiate. Put a planner in charge and give him the authority to make the changes we need.
With these six simple ideas, Dallas, like Pegasus, will fly.