A deceptively quiet-looking Dallas City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Politics & Government

Could Dallas Reform Its Government Without Going Full Strong Mayor?

Austin will vote on a change in government in May. But when it comes to local governments, is there a perfect system?

Last week I suggested that Dallas should (again) consider adopting a strong mayor form of government. If you want to read the full argument, head here, but here are the main points. Under the current council-manager system, there is no way for voters to hold the city manager accountable. Council members and the mayor end up running work-arounds to enact their agendas. And there are conflicting incentives with regards to forming council coalitions, making it difficult to set and maintain momentum on policy.

Since then, I’ve heard from a lot people who hate the idea of a strong mayor and thought my argument was garbage, as well as others who love the idea and think we should go ahead and set a referendum for 2023, the year when Mayor Eric Johnson is up for reelection. I’ve also heard a handful of intriguing theories that offer additional insight into what works and doesn’t work about the city’s system.

Here are few of them:

The Council Can Effectively Ignore the Mayor
Under the current system, any five members of the Dallas City Council can set an agenda item, and any three council members can call a meeting. These two council powers have only been used sporadically in recent years – such as when three council members called the special council meeting that inspired last week’s post. But because one-third of the council can circumvent the mayor and the council committees to add items to the council’s agenda, five council members, bound in a tight coalition, could basically ignore the mayor and run the city government. Then, they would only need to secure three additional votes from the remaining 10 members to pass any items – but they would only need five to run the show. How they organize without creating quorum issues is a problem, but let’s leave that aside.

To me this shows the weakness of the Dallas system and the way in which it allows small factions and individual council members wide leverage. After all, a warring alliance of council members and a politically isolated mayor sounds pretty close to what we have now. But council members could, theoretically, assert more power than they have historically. A strong, consistent coalition of five council members – perhaps branding themselves as a block or caucus  – could basically take over the city in a kind of legislative coup. Could be interesting – and messy.

We Can’t Discount Southern Dallas Disenfranchisement
Dallas’ 14-1 system represented a significant victory for southern Dallas and communities of color against a city government that, since its founding, silenced their voices at City Hall. While I argued in the piece last week that history offers little evidence that this system has improved representation for these communities, the strides made under 14-1 still can’t be discounted. The problem is electoral politics. In the last election, council districts north of Interstate 30 had more than double the number of voters turn out than districts south of I-30. A strong mayor would almost inevitably mean a North Dallas mayor. It is a reminder that fixing local politics will require much more than changing the system of governments.

Strong Communities Tend to Hate Strong Mayors
Forgive my ignorance, but at the time I wrote the piece, I had no idea that Austin was in the midst of its own strong mayor fight. Yesterday, the Austin city council approved a referendum vote that will decide the future the city’s form of government this May. The proposed system is close to the one I suggested in the piece, which would remove the mayor from the council altogether and allow the council to set its own agenda. Notably, this is not how Houston’s strong mayor works, which retains the mayor’s power to set council agendas (I find this to be a terrible idea since one of the advantages of the strong mayor system, as I see it, is to strengthen the council as well by removing the mayor from the council’s legislative role).

Opponents of the referendum in Austin argue echo many of the concerns I heard after publishing my piece last week, namely, that a strong mayor reduces the impact of council members who are directly representative of community interests and potentially politicizes the city bureaucracy. Opponents of the referendum in Austin also don’t want the mayor to have veto power over the council’s actions.

A Strong(ish) Mayor
Another idea I heard was for a moderate strong mayor reform that is imagined as a way to unblock gridlock at City Hall while preserving some of the virtues of 14-1. The idea is to give the mayor veto power that can be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the council but only over three specific issues:

  • Direct reports
  • The annual budget
  • Any bond election

Think of this way: with a veto that can be overridden by two-thirds of the council, the mayor would essentially only need four votes to make decisions on these three issues. What is the advantage of this? It effectively gives the mayor more authority over managing the city manager and dictating the budget process. This fixes two big problems with the current system. The first is that the city manager basically doesn’t have a boss – he has eight bosses, the majority vote on the council needed to fire him. If the mayor, however, can more easily fire the manager as well as other top brass, he can hold staff more accountable. Voters would also know that the vote for the mayor is, in effect, a vote on how to run city hall.

The power over the budget would help keep the budget season from turning into a pre-baked party run by unaccountable city staff followed up by the divvying out of favors and priorities to individual council members. In a typical strong mayor system, the mayor sets the budget, and the council approves it. In this system, city staff still creates the budget and the mayor – and his circle of allies – essentially approves it.

I’m still mulling this last idea over. I don’t like that it removes much of the council from the budget approval process while also retaining staff’s primary role in setting the budget. I believe one of the advantages of having a strong mayor is that he or she would be able to direct the budgeting process, thereby having an elected official involved in building the budget from the bottom up, while retaining the full council’s power to approve it.

Maybe It Doesn’t Really Matter After All
There is also a suggestion – laid out in this Bloomberg City Lab article – that the form of government doesn’t really matter. According to research cited in that report, policies enacted by city governments tended to reflect electorate’s ideological preferences, regardless of governance structure:

Political scientists Chris Tausanovitch of UCLA and Christopher Warshaw of MIT aggregated a collection of nationwide survey results to determine the political leanings of 1,600 U.S. cities and towns. They then paired those results with the types of government structures used by those same municipal governments, and compared each one to a 2010 survey that outlined the social, political, and environmental policies enacted by each individual local government body.

What they found is that all municipal governments, irrespective of their structure, tend to implement policies that align with the political ideology of their constituents. In essence, all local governments are more or less equally good at listening to their voters.

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