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Politics & Government

Eric Johnson Shows Us What It’s Like to Be a (Really) Weak Mayor

The mayor was embarrassed by his colleagues on City Council yesterday.
By Peter Simek |
Courtesy of City of Dallas
There is a leadership vacuum at Dallas City Hall. It was on full display during yesterday’s epically long, 13-hour City Council budget briefing. To start, Mayor Eric Johnson was absent for more than 11 hours of the meeting. But it was Johnson’s behavior when he was present at the virtual horseshoe that demonstrated how ineffectual he has been as the city’s top elected official.

Johnson entered yesterday’s meeting with one thing to get done: win approval of his proposal for across-the-board salary cuts for city staff making $60,000 a year or more. The salary cuts, which the mayor has branded as his attempt to “defund the bureaucracy” at City Hall, were rejected by a near unanimous council vote of 13-1.

With that result, Johnson didn’t simply lose a vote, he lost credibility. Yesterday’s loss was the latest in a series of episodes in recent months that have shown us that, after a little more than a year in office, the mayor has managed to alienate his colleagues on the Council and city staff, while showing no capacity—or willingness—to steer city policy within Dallas’ council-manager, so-called “weak mayor” form of government.

It gets worse. After yesterday’s brutal defeat, the City Council paused for lunch. Johnson went to the Flag Room with his COVID-19 czar for a press conference, urging residents to remain vigilant against the coronavirus during Labor Day weekend.

And then he disappeared. The meeting he was supposed to preside over stretched on for hour after excruciating hour, finally finishing up after 1 a.m. this morning. Why did the mayor check out of such an important Council meeting? Was Johnson sulking? Tristan Hallman, Johnson’s chief of policy and communication, says the mayor “left to attend to a family matter” and also noted “that there’s no official action being taken at this meeting.”

Well, sure. But this was a straw vote for the budget, the first time the full Council got to vet each other’s desired changes to what City Manager T.C. Broadnax had presented. After the meeting, Broadnax will try to adopt the changes dictated by Council at this very meeting.

It is understandable that Johnson may have wanted to hide after such a public humiliation. His proposed salary cuts were the primary component of his policy agenda during a particularly significant budgetary season. This year’s budget process has forced elected officials to grapple with the challenges presented by the pandemic, a historic movement calling for social justice and police reform, and a devastating economic recession.

Citing furloughs, layoffs, and salary cuts in the private sector, Johnson argued that his proposed City Hall salary cuts offered the best strategy to free up money in a tightened budget for vital city services. He offered his colleagues three options for redistributing the roughly $6 million created by his proposed salary cuts: fund public safety initiatives (including the hiring of additional police officers), fund infrastructure repairs and bike lanes, or decrease the property tax rate. All three proposed amendments were soundly rejected by the Council.

In the lead-up to yesterday’s vote, Johnson worked to raise awareness for his proposal by taking his “defund the bureaucracy” campaign online, advocating for it in local television interviews, and riding his bike to City Hall. What Johnson didn’t do, however, was the legwork needed to whip the votes from his colleagues on the Council.

As Johnson played optics games, a majority of the City Council—in, according to multiple sources, separate conversations—decided they would not speak when the mayor’s amendment came up for a vote. Cutting salaries, particularly those on the lower end, was a bridge too far for many of the representatives. On background, sources said that 11 council members (the entire body excluding Cara Mendelsohn, Adam McGough, and Casey Thomas) planned to not speak. None of the sources said they discussed the merits of the amendment, only the decision to not participate in deliberations.

It demonstrated a united front against the mayor’s priorities. One source said the thinking was that when Johnson turned over his amendments for open discussion, they would pass on their time to speak before voting, no questions asked. The Council has come to the same decision separately before, like when a majority of members did not log on to one for one of the mayor’s ad hoc COVID-19 committees.

The result was a public embarrassment for the mayor. As Johnson read out each district number, each council member simply said “pass.” The silence was broken only when North Dallas Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates asked Johnson whether the mayor’s office had completed any analysis of how salary cuts might affect the city’s ability to retain key staff members that could make more money in the private sector, such as highly skilled employees like engineers and accountants. Johnson responded by ranting for nearly five minutes about nebulous economic observations without offering any hard numbers or analysis.

“Here’s what we looked at,” he said. “We’ve looked at the economy.”

Then, when Gates attempted to ask the same question of city staff, the mayor broke in to tell Gates that her time to speak had expired. A brief, testy exchange followed. Johnson, who has a penchant for fixating on the minutia of parliamentary procedure, explained to Gates that she had essentially yielded her time to speak when she directed her question to the mayor. Had she asked a city staffer, her time remaining to speak would have been paused. That’s not the case when the question is directed to a colleague. Minutia.

The mayor told her she would have another chance to speak during a second round of questioning. When that round came, however, Gates passed.

Right before the vote, Johnson appeared to attempt to make concessions, telling his colleagues that there was still time to tinker with the details of the proposed cuts before the Council formally approves the budget during two upcoming sessions this month.

But this last-ditch effort to save his policy only underscored Johnson’s political naïveté. These are the kinds of negotiations and adjustments that are supposed to be worked out with your colleagues before you decide to bring an item up for a vote.

That was Johnson’s first big mistake yesterday. The way Dallas government is structured, effective leaders—both mayors and council members—are supposed to know where their colleagues stand before a vote. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t let your item go up for vote. That’s how you avoid the kind of embarrassment and public display of weakness Johnson experienced yesterday.

The mayor’s second mistake was disappearing after his defeat. Perhaps he had to address some pressing familial problem, and if so, it would behoove him to be more transparent about whatever kept him away from the Council for the next 11 hours.

The optics of his disappearance smack of humiliation and disdain, offering yet another example of Johnson’s basic lack of respect for his colleagues. His behavior builds on a public image he has cultivated through his petty memo wars with the city manager and his wielding of committee appointees to punish and reward his council colleagues based on who is on his “naughty or nice list,” as one council member puts it.

“If you don’t have the votes, you don’t let your item go up for vote.

The meeting, of course, also should never have stretched on so long. It is not the first meeting during Johnson’s tenure that has forced the Council and staff to endure grueling, draining, and unproductive marathon sessions. It is odd that a mayor who prides himself on being a stickler for parliamentarianism has overseen—or, in this case, excused himself—from a series of out-of-control meetings.

What we witnessed yesterday was an inefficient, nontransparent, downright stupid means of conducting the public’s business. We won’t even know the results of it until tomorrow. The city of Dallas’ chief financial officer, Elizabeth Reich, says it will take the better part of the day for the city manger and staff to sort through the Council’s straw votes on roughly 80 amendments. Only then will it finalize how yesterday’s decisions will impact the shape of the budget, a draft of which the council will vote on next week.

The amendments the Council voted on yesterday are not insignificant. During the late hours of the night, the City Council made a number of potentially impactful votes in the mayor’s absence, including a plan to redirect funding from police overtime pay to fund expanded wifi access at community and recreation centers. Another carved $3 million out of the police budget to fund grants for community organizations engaged in workforce development.

An effective mayor, even one working within Dallas’ so-called “weak mayor” system, may have been able to bring some transparency and efficiency to this process. Perhaps the mayor could have helped foster greater communication, discussion, and clarity among his colleagues about the 80 amendments before the meeting so there was a better sense of what was being proposed and why, speeding up the straw vote process.

Perhaps the mayor could have pushed the city manager to split up the amendment review process over a few meetings to allow for more open and public discussion of each item. Both of these things, however, would have required the mayor to collaborate with colleagues and staff, and Johnson, despite running a campaign that promised a less divisive tone at City Hall, opts for confrontation over collaboration.

It used to look like the mayor believed this combative interpersonal style served his strategy for consolidating power. Yesterday’s vote, however, showed that is has the opposite effect, making it impossible for him to garner support for his policies. But more than being ineffective, Johnson’s style doesn’t make sense.

Johnson is an intelligent guy. He has degrees from Ivy League universities. He is well-read, well-spoken, and demonstrates a depth of knowledge on a wide range of policy issues. Some of his concerns about the city manager’s decision-making are worth exploring. Robert Caro’s seminal biography of Lyndon B. Johnson—the master whip of the Senate—sits on his bookshelf. And yet, for some reason, the mayor doesn’t seem to grasp the most basic principle of politics and power in Dallas. After all, the only thing you really need to know to be an effective mayor in this city is how to count to eight.

Eric Johnson stops at one.

Matt Goodman contributed to this report. 

Correction: Language was changed to clarify that the members of the council agreed to not speak during the discussion period for the mayor’s amendment, not that they agreed together to vote against the amendment. 

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