YEARS AGO, Dallas’ Tom Clark, longtime Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, appeared on KERA’s Newsroom and talked about his philosophy of government. “You don’t have to pass a law every morning,” he said.

Isn’t that some of what’s gone wrong with us? Haven’t we had too many congressmen with too much staff needing to “pass a law every morning” for the same reason that a thoroughbred needs to run or a bird dog needs to hunt?


It’s this philosophy of Tom Clark’s and his solid grounding in human nature that suggests we should think carefully before committing the City of Dallas to a government of paid politicians. Not that I don’t advocate changes at City Hall. Indeed, I’ve been urging that we consider granting the mayor the power of veto, the right to name the chairs of all boards and commissions and a four-year term. These measures would strengthen the mayor’s hand in hammering out a working consensus on a council increasingly prone to narrow causes. Given single-member districts, the mayor cannot lead by personal charisma and private clout alone. The mayor must have the tools of leadership, and they must be implicit in the powers of the mayor’s office.

The veto, of course, would be subject to override, possibly by eight votes on the council (which would need to be increased to 11 members, three at-large and eight from single-member districts, to prevent tie votes). Naturally, the council would ratify the mayor’s appointments to chair boards and commissions, and the council would appoint all other board and commission members. Council members would continue to serve a maximum of three two-year terms, while the mayor would be permitted two terms of four years each.

This does not mean that the mayor needs to be a highly paid full-time operating officer of city government. That’s why we have a city manager -to run City Hall according to the policies set by the council. But if, because of dissension and stalemate, the council is unable to formulate policy and articulate a direction to the city manager and staff, we could easily have a power vacuum and a city staff that became undesirably politicized. Unprotected by the council, the city manager would be subject to the ravages of warring interests, and balanced, objective government would go.

Beefing up the powers of the mayor would not diminish the role of the city manager. Rather it would assure the city manager sufficient policy protection from the council to function effectively.


Turning the council into a cadre of paid politicians almost certainly would trigger the destruction of council-manager government. Salaried council members would want personal staff, enclaves of office space, expense accounts and ever-expanding agendas. They would indeed pass a law every morning. The losers would be the taxpayers.

Of course, there’s the question -a serious question – of the vast amounts of time and energy demanded by the council and the mayor’s office these days. Even so, the concept of public service from citizen volunteers is valuable. To sacrifice it would be to lose many benefits to the city, and the most important of those benefits are intangible. They have a great deal to do with the spirit of Dallas.

We have not suffered a dearth of willing candidates for public office because of our system; nor has the council been composed primarily of the rich. On the contrary, a careful examination of councils during the past 40 years reveals a pattern of candidates solidly in the working world. That’s one of our strengths: We have a city government of people intimately acquainted with the marketplace. They don’t leave off the pressure of making a living in the crucible of commerce to run for public office; hence their service has the ring of reality about it.

To keep this style of government in Dallas, something needs to be done to reduce the pressure on our council members’ time. City Manager Charles Anderson’s proposal to schedule public meetings every other week instead of weekly as they are now makes much sense. While it’s important that citizens have access to the council, certainly this privilege is more and more often abused, causing meetings to run well into the evening. Anderson’s idea of council briefings every week would offer a workable way of keeping the city’s business in order without turning council service into a full time job.


Within the framework of volunteer public service, it may be reasonable to pay council members more than the current $50 for each meeting they attend. While service on the council will always involve sacrifices, it’s not fair to expect members to bear all the expenses incurred in the course of a term. A survey of corporate director’s fees might be useful in arriving at appropriate compensation.

Next year will find us facing three important elections in Dallas: for the counciland school board in April and for a permanent transit authority in August. Afterthat it may be time to consider a charterelection to revise our council-managersystem. It’s tempting to go along withwhat we’ve got, knowing that our form ofgovernment has served us very well forclose to 50 years. But doing nothing andhoping for the best carries with it certainrisks. A chaotic council will not attractcompetent people to public service, whichmeans that our system will die of its owndeficiencies. Like all things in this evolutionary life, our council-manager form ofgovernment must adapt in order to surviveand be effective.


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