Three Things That A.C. Gonzalez’s Replacement Should Promise to Do

And a way to hold Gonzalez accountable before he leaves.

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Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez has promised to resign come January, a development that will not surprise D Magazine readers. In March I wrote the following:

Now that Gonzalez, 64, is nearing retirement age, he can leave with a pension tied to that high salary so long as he earns it for three years — meaning he has a year left before we start hearing rumblings that Gonzalez will want to hand his job to the next longtime Dallas employee waiting at the trough.

Now, I was wrong in that I thought he’d wait until nearer that date to turn in his notice. I thought he wouldn’t want to look like a short-timer making a play for the most coin. My bad. I underestimated the zero effs Gonzalez has left to give. Still, in that column, I called on the City Council to fire Gonzalez so we wouldn’t get to this point, but they did not listen, and we are going to suffer for their inaction. The lesson: always do what I say.

(Quick digression: there aren’t enough votes to force Gonzalez to leave before then, but why not make him accountable for his policies if he wants that full $400K pension? Have him sign a deal that says his official retirement will retroactively be January 1, 2017, if and only if in September 2017 the city hits 14 of the 21 measurable goals listed under Gonzalez’s strategic plan. If not, his last day is December 31. He should at least earn a letter grade of D to qualify, right?)

The question is, What now? As I said in that column, Gonzalez was the latest in a three-decade-plus string of internal hires. This will change nothing if the city doesn’t look to the best candidates outside 1500 Marilla. I think there is will on the Council to do this.

Let me start the interviewing process by saying I think there are three things a city manager must promise to do to be successful here. These are things not on your normal list of what smart cities must do, although they may fall somewhere under the broad categories in the graphic at the top of this post. (It’s taken from a 2013 McKinsey report — most of which are garbage, but this one’s pretty okay-ish, in a few parts. Read it.) To me they represent an understanding of the myriad challenges ahead for the next city manager:

Be a better politician. The hell, you say? You heard me! Local politics are rough and dirty. They also are often the precursor to important reforms, because smart politicians are channeling the frustrations of youthful, smart, growing, progressive core. So you can’t, as Mary Suhm did, pretend you’re just a city servant and above all the rancor. You end up siding only with those who are nice to you, which is fine if we’re paying you $43K a year. For 10 times that, we expect you to play the game with court awareness. Figure out a way to get the ball to Griggs AND Young AND Kleinman. If you don’t know that you’ve to kiss babies, take their lollipops, and keep your options open while dealing with the horseshoe and its cauldron of competing interests and values, you’re not enough of a grown up to do the job.

Admit your limitations. I think A.C. was on his way to doing this when he hired Alan Sims to run Neighborhood Plus, but like too many of his ideas, this one was poorly executed. The next city manager needs under her a chief political strategist (yes, just like the mayor has one) and a ruthless bean-counting accountability chief to ride herd on the department heads. The idea that our city manager can do all these things is again rooted in the dream that this is an apolitical position, and this self-deception directly contributes to the lack of accountability the recent audits have confirmed at City Hall. (Read Schutze on what the auditor found if you’d like the most entertaining and scary overview.)

Rethink the way the city gathers community input. Public hearings are necessary. But too often they draw the same band of commenters who air gripes of varying levels of helpfulness, many of those complaints tied to some sort of self-interest. The opposite of these, council- or (double ugh) mayoral-appointed commissions, can be useful but are often neutered by their makeup. Too often, the intellectual honesty of their appointees ranges wildly from high to nil. Keep these instruments of study and input, fine, but don’t expect them to lead to good solutions. Find a system that give agency to those in the neighborhoods who’re affected by policy and gives some oversight to those nonprofit/business/political stakeholders whose resources and capital are needed. To me, that is some variation on the model many nonprofits and school systems around the country use to solve their problems of practice. It’s often called a “community of practice” approach, and it involves turning the problem-solving model too often favored by City Hall on its head. Instead of going on a listening tour, disappearing into their offices, and then presenting a solution (which usually means “a PowerPoint”), CoPs provide a framework for the neighborhoods/groups/districts to a) define their problem themselves, b) test solutions themselves, and c) do all this with structure, coaching, and resources the community doesn’t have itself. It’s not a new approach, and it’s one the best council members use intuitively within their neighborhoods, but it’s not the way our city works, and it’s certainly not the way our city managers have worked. Unless you think Ray Hunt = “our community.”

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