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Dallas History

Ask John Neely Bryan: Why’s the Dallas City Manager Strong While the Mayor Is Weak?

Where does the power reside at Dallas City Hall?
By John Neely Bryan |
John Neely Bryan, Our Founder
John Neely Bryan, Our Founder

Would you believe that I have, on a number of occasions, been mistaken for impoverished Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price? I attribute these errors mostly to the fact that none of you damned 21st-century folks read anymore, and so your short attention spans equate any similarly triple-christened gentlemen with one another.

There’s little else that should bind the two of us in the public’s imagination — besides our spectacularly-sized gonads, of course. No inadequately endowed fellow is capable of founding a great American city or dressing like this.

Question: Why does Dallas employ a city manager?  What’s this with a “weak mayor”? — George L.

Prior to 1931, Dallas operated under a charter in which a group of commissioners, officially elected at-large but de facto selected by the city’s commercial elite (through the Citizens Association), jointly administered the increasingly complex municipal operations. Imagine City Councilman Sheffie Kadane directly in charge of the city’s transportation system or water supply, and you can see why this was ultimately considered sub-optimal.

Inspired by a hipper new model of urban management, the Citizens Charter Association (which supplanted the Citizens Association) and George Dealey’s rag began pushing for a system in which a professional administrator — someone well-trained and equipped to handle municipal matters — would be hired. In an October 1930 election, voters overwhelmingly approved a new charter for that purpose.

And though the eventual adoption of single-member districts (14-1) reintroduced all the fun and dysfunction of individual representatives jealously protecting their fiefdoms, which had been the hallmark of Dallas’ (pre-commission) aldermanic form of government, this council-manager form is essentially the same mode of operation in use today.

It’s also the predominant system throughout most of the municipalities of the United States, excepting for the largest, which tend to put their mayors in charge. Laura Miller and D Magazine (among others) pushed for the adoption of a strong-mayor system in 2005, but that effort failed. Dallas’ mayor is weak because he has no more power than any other member of the city council. He’s therefore got to push, cajole, persuade, and appease at least seven others on the horseshoe to go along in order to get anything done. The hiring of city manager A.C. Gonzalez is a fine example of just how well that’s worked out for Mayor Mike “JUTO” Rawlings.

And while it sounds dandy to say that Dallas as a whole benefits in being administered by a professional who’s insulated from city politics, it’s also a damned lie. Bureaucracy is an insatiable beast that learns to protect its own survival above all else. When it requires the votes of two-thirds of the council to replace the man at the top of these shielded operations, in actuality you have a government that is not as responsive as it might be to the demands of the electorate. It’s a government that even, at times, seems openly disdainful of those demands — see the backroom Trinity East drilling deal, l’affaire Uber, and the highway spaghetti they’re aiming to plop down next to the river.

The solution here is obvious, Dallas. Elect John Neely Bryan. While I have no interest in serving as a weak mayor, or even as a “strong” mayor, I am willing to lead this city as its first benevolent dictator, granted limitless power. Think of the upside of employing a man who is free of such needs as eating, sleeping, or obeying the laws of time and space. These are important days in the history of the city, friends. They require a bold vision, spearheaded by someone unhampered by and unaccountable to the dilly-dalliances of that laughable cast of characters that gathers weekly on Marilla Street. I stand ready to serve.

No fooling,

John Neely Bryan is the founder of the city of Dallas and an expert on all matters. Email him for advice, to have a dispute adjudicated, or to seek his wisdom on any of a myriad of topics, at [email protected].

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