Eric Johnson speaks at the Fairmont to supporters after winning the mayoral election. (Photo by Bret Redman)

Coronavirus

Eric Johnson Uses Pandemic to Go Strong Mayor on Council

He has asked the AG and the city attorney to bless his recent moves.

We are in the midst of an existential threat the likes of which has not been seen in a century. Dallas County is three weeks into an order that requires us to stay at home, forbids dining in restaurants and drinking in bars, and defines which businesses can remain open. People are dying. Unemployment claims have hit a historic high.

How is the mayor of Dallas handling it all? When he’s not attacking the elected official who runs Dallas County, Mayor Eric Johnson has been attempting to wrest power from the Dallas City Council and the city manager. One council member thinks Johnson is seeking to change our form of municipal government, making himself a strong mayor.

The signs of trouble started showing up weeks ago, but the clearest signal came over the weekend. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, had his chief of staff write a letter to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who has spearheaded the local response to the pandemic, saying that the state might take away the county’s pop-up hospital at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center because the judge had said he didn’t want it. Not true. But the governor never called the judge to talk it over. Communication had broken down somewhere. Here’s our reporting on the mess.

Into the confusion waded an uninformed Mayor Johnson, firing off his own statement, saying he was “stunned and deeply disappointed” about “Dallas County’s position on the pop-up hospital.” He, too, hadn’t called Judge Jenkins to ask him what was really happening.

It’s one thing to fire off an ill-informed statement undermining someone who should be an ally, it’s quite another to restructure the way the Dallas City Council conducts the people’s business, using a pandemic as cover. To understand the gravity of the mayor’s moves, we have to wade through some rather dry, arcane procedural matters at City Hall. Even some council members, based on how they recently voted, seem to have a loose grasp on them.

Yesterday, in a memo circulated to council members, Mayor Johnson revealed that he has asked the interim city attorney and the Texas Attorney General’s office for opinions on his authority to issue emergency regulations while the city is operating under state or local disaster declarations. “Several of you have asked about the legal authority and decision-making process for enacting emergency regulations,” Johnson wrote to the Council. “I have had some questions as well.”

Johnson’s memo wasn’t entirely unexpected. Some council members have expressed concern that the mayor is using the current state of emergency — and a loophole it created — to extend his control over city business. At the city manager’s request, the mayor has suspended all usual committee meetings. Without their committees, council members are left without a primary mechanism of introducing items to be taken up for consideration by the full Council.

Although the interim city attorney has not responded to Johnson’s request for clarification on his emergency powers, a letter from the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says state law supersedes Dallas city code regarding emergency powers. City code grants emergency powers to the city manager, not the mayor. But, right now, the city code loses out to state law. Paxton’s letter argues that Texas law designates the mayor as the city’s chief authority during a disaster declaration, which was extended on March 18.

In other words, Dallas may not have a strong mayor system, but, according to the AG’s interpretation of Texas law, it does during a crisis.

The ruling is the not the only time in the last week that Johnson has asked how much power he has. The end of the Dallas City Council briefing Wednesday devolved into a bitter debate between Johnson and several council members over the mayor’s authority to quash an attempt by South Dallas Councilman Adam Bazaldua to reopen the Council’s parliamentary rules. Understanding the implications of that debate requires context.

The disagreement had its roots in a proposed eviction ordinance Bazaldua had drafted to extend and strengthen protections to Dallas residents and small businesses facing eviction in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown. Bazaldua sent Johnson a memo on March 28 asking the mayor to add the item to the Council’s agenda.

Bazaldua believed the ordinance needed a vote at the April 1 briefing to be most effective, but the mayor instead diverted it to one of two ad hoc COVID-19 committees. The move relegated the ordinance to a legislative limbo. The earliest the full Council would be able to discuss and vote on Bazaldua’s proposal would be April 22, three weeks after rent comes due.

The fact that the mayor stopped the vote isn’t as important as how he did it. In the past, the mayor would not have been a council member’s only recourse for fast-tracking a new ordinance. In addition to petitioning the mayor on policy issues and the city manager on operational issues, city code allows a coalition of five council members to place items on the City Council’s agenda. To do so, they submit what is known as a “five-signature memo.” However, last October, the Council amended its rules. Council members can still submit agenda items via the five-signature memo process, but those items are now first sent to one of the Council committees for review.

Let that sink in: a council member needs a bloc of five members to get an item on the agenda without the mayor’s help. But that bloc first must clear a committee. And the mayor has suspended all the usual committees.

That’s how the city’s state of emergency has strengthened the mayor’s power. It has effectively given him complete veto power over council members’ policy objectives.

With his eviction ordinance in limbo, Bazaldua moved at last Wednesday’s briefing to address council members’ inability to affect the Council’s policy agenda during the state of emergency. He asked the city manager to reopen the debate over the Council’s parliamentary rules.

He did so hoping to solicit enough of his colleagues’ votes to restore the previous five-signature memo procedure, even with the new pandemic reality at City Hall. Bazaldua had support, even from Far North Dallas Councilman Lee Kleinman, who had led the move to amend the five-signature-memo process in the fall. Kleinman was now troubled by the way the amended procedure locked council members out of the agenda during a time of crisis.

“Now you have this new situation where none of the committees are sitting and that’s definitely problematic,” Kleinman says. “That’s one way to consolidate power. You have this methodology to put stuff on the agenda and then you somehow shut down a component of that methodology.”

Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of policy and communications, said the rules are the same as they have always been. Council members can ask the mayor to add policy items to the agenda, or they can ask the city manger to add operational items. Though he did admit that there is some ambiguity during the city’s existing disaster declaration when it comes to the role of those committees.

“I guess we haven’t had that issue yet,” Hallman said. “I mean, we are in a state of local disaster so it’s a little bit extraordinary.”

But what felt truly extraordinary was that, despite Bazaldua’s attempt to offer some clarity to this procedural situation, the Council never got to address the issue at Wednesday’s briefing. Before City Manager T.C. Broadnax could reopen debate around the rules of procedure, the mayor intervened.

Johnson didn’t object to reopening the five-signature-memo rules for debate. He argued that the city manager didn’t have the authority to do so. Now he wasn’t just taking power from the Council; he was taking it from the city manager. It was a revealing line of argument.

Johnson had some confusing back and forth with an assistant city attorney who said it was a parliamentary gray area. The matter was put to a vote. The mayor won 8-7. The Council, with its vote, agreed with the mayor that he was correct in his determination that the parliamentary issue was a matter of policy, and, therefore, he had to authority to prohibit the city manager from reopening debate about how the Council conducts its business.

Again, think about that: what the Council essentially decided was that the mayor can decide to remove an agenda item set by the city manager if the mayor believes the item relates to a matter of policy. That is a sweeping assertion of mayoral power, one with implications that go beyond the mayor’s authority during the city’s current disaster declaration. It challenges the very functioning of Dallas’ 14-1 Council district system, minimizing the decisions of the city manager and his staff, which generally govern what is discussed and what isn’t.

“We have someone that is really, really trying his hardest to make his position a strong mayor,” Bazaldua told me.

We will see how long Wednesday’s vote lasts. Several council members I spoke with don’t expect Johnson’s claim to hold. They believe the Council will raise the issue—as well as the issue of the five-signature memos—again.

With the pandemic still weeks away from peaking in Dallas, the mayor’s leadership style will have lots of time to yield either dividends or disaster. Right now, his demeanor seems to be all the talk at City Hall: how he rewards and punishes his allies and enemies, how he shuffles co-chairs onto and off of ad hoc COVID-19 committees, how he daily issues proclamations and orders through memos and press conferences.

Observing Johnson’s behavior during this crisis, it is difficult not to recall how his predecessor responded to Dallas’ last outbreak. When a patient tested positive for Ebola in Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings and Judge Clay Jenkins were inseparable, Rawlings quite comfortable riding shotgun while Jenkins drove. They continually appeared in public to reassure a rattled citizenry that the county and the city were operating in lockstep, that the lines of communication with state and federal officials were open, and that the crisis would be addressed through a spirit of collaboration. While Ebola was a far more localized event, and the messaging targeted at calming a nervous public rather than governing their behavior, Rawlings never paused to ask the state attorney general whether he or the city manager had more power.

Where a mayor is concerned, strength can be measured in many ways.

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