On the morning of June 9, I suspect that many of you, over cereal boxes or the office coffee machine, were calling for more than Diane Ragsdale’s head. June 9, of course, was the morning after Ragsdale’s infamous outburst at two citizens who had come to council to defend the Dallas Mice Association. And where was Madam Mayor? you shrieked between bites of All-Bran. Where is the leadership at City Hall? The city is in chaos! We need a stronger mayor!
I heard it more than once that day, and the ensuing days as well. In truth, even Mayor Strauss’s staunchest defenders will admit that she has engaged in some rather curious mayoral maneuvers lately. But it seems to me that just about everyone has missed the underlying point. And that is that in Dallas, 1988, expectations of our mayor-and the city council as well-far exceed the powers granted to them by our system of government. Sure, Strauss could have banged her gavel harder or sooner or louder (and the television cameras could have recorded it). But short of leaping up to tackle Ragsdale or her sparring partners at the podium, what was Strauss to do?
Misguided missiles of blame are common in these baffling, frustrating times. They’re also indicative, I believe, of a general lack of understanding of our city government. And no wonder- the sands of change are sifting beneath our feet even as we struggle to gain our footing.
When we cry out for a “strong” mayor, let us fully comprehend the implications. Dallas doesn’t have a strong mayor system. Regardless of who wears the title, we have a weak mayor, or more accurately, a council-manager form of government, with the mayor simply as the titular head of the council. Though the days when the mayor’s role was confined to ribbon-cuttings and the occasional champagne-smashing are long past, she or he has little real power. She has the same vote as every other council member. She doesn’t have veto power. She has no more say on appointments to boards and commissions than, say, Diane Ragsdale or Jerry Rucker or Charles Tandy. She has a tiny staff and very little budget. She cannot hire a new police chief. City Manager Richard Knight is designated, and supported by the resources and the staff, to run the city.
That is the way Dallas has been run since the Thirties. And in the minds of many people, that is the way it should be run for the foreseeable future.
But there are signs that today’s heightened expectations for more responsive and responsible government are pushing the system toward change. Cries for accountability on the editorial page or at the breakfast table may actually be unwitting calls for a system with greater accountability built in.
It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, in this magazine’s preview of the April 1987 city elections, author Kit Bauman forecast that a new agenda would come to City Hall once the new Dallas City Council was seated. “A new day could be dawning,” Bauman wrote. “Zoning will preoccupy the council much less in 1987.”
Zoning! How distant seems the day that zoning was a communal preoccupation! Yet the majority of issues that came before City Hall during the terms of mayors Jack Evans and Starke Taylor were exactly that: struggles, sometimes bitter ones, over how to manage Dallas’s runaway growth. In hindsight, even the fight over the Oak Lawn Plan seems like a stroll down Turtle Creek.
In the blink of just over a year, the plate has been refilled with today’s modern urban enigmas: police-minority relations, low-income housing, economic disparity among racial groups, the plight of the homeless. These social ills have not been the routine order of business at City Hall. As the stakes rise, so goes the pressure for accountability. Council members say that the increased involvement of their constituencies over the past few years is measurable. That new-felt pressure, coupled with the complexity of the tasks at hand, makes what was intended to be a part-time, volunteer post more like a workaholic’s dream. Says council-member Lori Palmer, “I don’t know anyone on the council who is putting in less than forty hours a week.”
Do we expect more of our elected officials than they can reasonably deliver? Is the widespread dissatisfaction with the current council justified-or should it be aimed at Richard Knight? Is the city too large and too diverse to be run by a professional staff insulated by a part-time council? Are the council jobs too costly in terms of time and loss of livelihood to adequately represent all Dallas citizens? Is it time to reassess the system?
These are questions that will be debated for some months, perhaps years, to come. Any change is sure to be met by strong resistance. Fears of corrupt partisan rule, self-interested “ward” politicians, staff flipflops after each election day, and other concerns have provided more than enough ammunition for those who would protect the status quo.
Perhaps there is some middle ground between a Chicago-like political machine and our system, which is stretching at the seams as the city outgrows it. Redistricting to include more minority representatives on the council seems a near-certainty once the 1990 census is complete. (A lawsuit has already been filed by several who can’t wait that long.) But can we hold onto the city manager? Should we? If so, how can we attract top-flight citizens to elected positions that are increasingly stressful, and all but full-time jobs? Add to that the fact that council seats cost $40,000 to $150,000 to win and pay $50 a meeting thereafter. It’s a wonder that anyone runs at all.
As Bauman’s article during the last election season pointed out, democracy often seems to vacillate between one worst-case scenario-the incompetence of the many-and the other-the corruption of the few. Corruption we’ve managed to avoid; incompetence is more in the eyes of the beholder. But before we demand that heads roll-and before we call for a new system-let’s understand the strengths and weaknesses of the old.