Mayor Eric Johnson, speaking during the State of the City address in 2019. Courtesy of the Dallas Regional Chamber

Local Government

Breaking Down the New Dallas City Council’s First Committee Appointments

The mayor has announced who will lead some of the most important work the City Council will do. What does it all mean?

Yesterday, Mayor Eric Johnson revealed his committee appointments for the new City Council. These committees are important. They are, in many ways, where the real work happens and where oversight begins. It’s where staff presents city business as they’re working through it, where partner agencies like Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Dallas Housing Authority give updates on their operations. It’s where council members can poke and prod and peer into the processes that drive this city. Committees are also the font of the mayor’s primary power. He alone picks the chairs. Then political insiders read between the lines. Let’s explore why these matter.

Let’s look at the biggest moves yesterday, starting with Chad West. 

Last month, the councilman from District 1 in North Oak Cliff was appointed mayor pro tem by his colleagues, which allows him to step in for the mayor when he is unavailable. (And it lands him a nicer office at City Hall.) In the memo announcing these assignments, Johnson noted that pro tem “is, by definition, predominantly a ceremonial role.” (Burn.)

But the mayor is focused on what he is calling his Back to Basics Agenda. He wants to fix the nuts and bolts of city services, particularly as trash pickup is delayed, the permitting office is broken, and the 911 call center is understaffed. He has decided to bend that ceremonial definition a bit.

“I believe our Back to Basics agenda is important enough to warrant enlisting the Mayor Pro Tem in our efforts to hold our city government accountable for achieving results on behalf of the people of Dallas,” the mayor wrote in his memo.

This strategy isn’t unheard of. Former Councilwoman Mary Poss was mayor pro tem under Ron Kirk. She told us this week that the mayor “set his agenda and identified core issues” and it was then her job to whip votes and identify the priorities of their colleagues. Johnson appears to be positioning West for a similar role. This is probably smart for the mayor; in his first two years in office, he failed to build consensus for priority items and would have benefitted from a solid No. 2 to help build that consensus. His priorities this time around are things that everyone can agree with. It is not controversial to want the city to be better at providing basic services.

West is respected across the horseshoe. He’s respectful to staff, even when he’s needling them, and is willing to work with people with whom he has had disagreements.

Here is the other thing about West: his name keeps coming up in background chats with City Hall insiders as someone with mayoral aspirations. People have their eyes on him. He has also butted heads with the mayor, but most of Council can make that claim and many still landed chair positions.

A note before we go further: West has said nothing about any sort of further political ambition and has only spoken about focusing on issues affecting the city of Dallas. This is all background chatter. (He is also only in his second council term.)

The interesting thing here? West didn’t get a chairmanship and was removed from the Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee. He has made housing a priority during his tenure on City Council and, before that, as a plan commissioner. He is the reason the city is now exploring eliminating parking minimums, and he has spoken in favor of spreading lower-income housing paid for by federal tax credits into more affluent neighborhoods near transit and on city-owned land. That’s a voice the city needs at the table as it tries to facilitate the creation of more diverse housing options.

He knows how to navigate politics and City Hall operations to get his voice heard. And now, for better or worse, he is charged with helping the mayor advance his agenda instead of leading his own committee. That is one to watch.

“In terms of my role, I think the mayor’s priorities align with my own and with what I believe our constituents’ align with, which are public safety issues, sanitation, and fixing the permitting offices,” West told me. “I think you’re going to see some very heavy discussions on the permitting office during the budget talks and I’ll leave it at that.”

Now, let’s talk about some of the council members whose campaigns the mayor most certainly did not support.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Jaime Resendez, who is in his second term, will only chair an ad hoc committee, which meets as needed and doesn’t have the same procedural heft of the eight permanent committees. The mayor endorsed Resendez’s opponent in the most recent election, which triggered the councilman to call the mayor “the most divisive and combative political figure in a generation.” Today, Resendez says he wants to get to work.

“I’m happy to see the committee leadership spread out among more council members,” Resendez wrote in a text. “The most important thing for us to do right now is focus on getting some good things done for the residents of Dallas.”

Councilman Adam Bazaldua, whose District 7 opponent the mayor supported in the last election, was appointed chair of the Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee. (He’ll also serve on Environment and Sustainability, Government Performance and Financial Management, and Transportation and Infrastructure.) He tweeted that he’s “excited for these opportunities to serve District 7 and the city of Dallas” and thanked the mayor, but he didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Councilwoman Paula Blackmon, whose opponent near White Rock Lake the mayor quietly supported but never endorsed, was appointed chair of the Environment and Sustainability Committee. In a text, Blackmon said she was excited for the opportunity and would prioritize dredging White Rock Lake and implementing the climate action plan. “We have lots to get done and together it will happen,” she said.

Neither Bazaldua nor Blackmon were granted chair or vice chair appointments in 2019. You can read their appointments this time around as a sort of olive branch.

Now let’s go into some of the chair swapping.

Councilman Adam McGough was most recently chair of the Transportation Committee; he’s now off that completely. And Councilman Omar Narvaez, who helped usher through the passage of the city’s climate action plan, is no longer on the Environment and Sustainability Committee, which he chaired. (Narvaez got a promotion of sorts to chair the Transportation Committee.)

McGough is an appointed member of the Regional Transportation Council with the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Will the mayor change that appointment? Maybe replace him with Narvaez? That’s not clear, and the mayor’s office says a decision hasn’t yet been reached. But it’s just another domino that could be affected by the musical chairs.

McGough will return to chair the Public Safety Committee. That’s interesting, because the mayor first gave him that chairmanship in 2019 before demoting him to a regular member in 2020. Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of Far North Dallas, will be the vice chair of Public Safety. Both have been vocal supporters of increasing police funding and voted against the effort to remove $7 million for the department’s overtime budget. The Public Safety Committee includes a few folks who voted in favor of reallocating that pool of money: Resendez and council members Tennell Atkins and Casey Thomas.

That could be the sort of healthy debate that the committee needs.

Meanwhile, the newbies get their chance to step up.

Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz, who won Lee Kleinman’s seat in North Dallas, is the only rookie to win a chair. She’ll be over the Workforce, Education, and Equity Committee. Councilwoman Gay Donnell Willis, who won the seat vacated by Jennifer Staubach Gates in Preston Hollow, is vice chair of Government Performance and Financial Management.

Councilman Jesse Moreno, who’s now in Adam Medrano’s District 2 seat, is the vice chair of Housing. Councilman Paul Ridley, of District 14 in downtown and Uptown and East Dallas, will be vice chair of Environment and Sustainability. (Somewhat oddly, Ridley isn’t on the Transportation committee despite major projects like the D2 subway line and I-345’s future, each of which will have a huge impact on District 14. Moreno, in neighboring District 2, is on Transportation.)

Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, of southern Dallas, is the longest-tenured council member to not land a chairmanship. She’ll be vice chair of Economic Development, serving alongside longtime chair Tennell Atkins.

In conclusion, the mayor is entering the back half of his first term with clear goals and, at least, a public commitment to working with his colleagues. He says he wants to “push our city government to provide reliable and effective basic city services for our mutual constituents and better position Dallas to reach its full potential.”

The mayor’s right hand, Tristan Hallman, said one goal of these appointments is to have “the most boring” Council Dallas has ever seen. Time will tell if the fans of palace intrigue will be disappointed.

***

Full committees:

Economic Development

Tennell Atkins (Chair)
Carolyn King Arnold (Vice Chair)
Adam McGough
Omar Narvaez
Jaime Resendez
Chad West
Gay Donnell Willis

Environment & Sustainability

Paula Blackmon (Chair)
Paul Ridley (Vice Chair)
Carolyn King Arnold
Adam Bazaldua
Jaime Resendez
Jaynie Schultz
Chad West

 Government Performance & Financial Management

Cara Mendelsohn (Chair)
Gay Donnell Willis (Vice Chair)
Tennell Atkins
Adam Bazaldua
Adam McGough
Paul Ridley
Chad West

Housing & Homelessness Solutions

Casey Thomas (Chair)
Jesse Moreno (Vice Chair)
Carolyn King Arnold
Paula Blackmon
Cara Mendelsohn
Paul Ridley
Jaynie Schultz

Public Safety

Adam McGough (Chair)
Cara Mendelsohn (Vice Chair)
Tennell Atkins
Jesse Moreno
Jaime Resendez
Casey Thomas
Gay Donnell Willis

Quality of Life, Arts, & Culture

Adam Bazaldua (Chair)
Chad West (Vice Chair)
Carolyn King Arnold
Paula Blackmon
Omar Narvaez
Paul Ridley
Casey Thomas

Transportation & Infrastructure

Omar Narvaez (Chair)
Tennell Atkins (Vice Chair)
Adam Bazaldua
Cara Mendelsohn
Jesse Moreno
Jaynie Schultz
Gay Donnell Willis

Workforce, Education, & Equity

Jaynie Schultz (Chair)
Casey Thomas (Vice Chair)
Paula Blackmon
Adam McGough
Jesse Moreno
Omar Narvaez
Jaime Resendez

Ad Hoc Committee on COVID-19 Recovery & Assistance

Casey Thomas (Chair)
Tennell Atkins
Cara Mendelsohn
Jesse Moreno
Paul Ridley

Ad Hoc Committee on General Investigating & Ethics

Cara Mendelsohn (Chair)
Tennell Atkins
Paula Blackmon
Adam McGough
Jaynie Schultz

Ad Hoc Committee on Judicial Nominations

Jaime Resendez (Chair)
Carolyn King Arnold
Adam Bazaldua
Paul Ridley
Casey Thomas Chad West
Gay Donnell Willis

Ad Hoc Committee on Legislative Affairs

Tennell Atkins (Chair)
Adam McGough
Cara Mendelsohn
Omar Narvaez
Gay Donnell Willis

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