HE SITS AS IF RESTRAINING HIMSELF, COM-manding himself to be still. He is perched in a chair at a small conference table overlooking City Hall Plaza. The sky outside is a brilliant blue, filling the room with a vivid light uncharacteristic of early December. It is Wednesday-city council day-and Richard Knight, the city manager of Dallas, grants an interview begrudgingly. He is distracted, preoccupied with the events unfolding two floors above. “Turn the speaker up,” he commands his administrative assistant, Mary Tod. “I need to hear what is going on.” In a matter of minutes, Knight will be beckoned to respond to an item on the council’s agenda: the fate of the Dallas Shakespeare Festival. His eyes twinkle behind the rims of his glasses, his trim body coiled to spring into action at the appropriate cue. His answers come in monosyllables or short, choppy sentences. You spent a year in Vietnam? “Actually, a little more than a year.” What kind of duty did you pull? “Communications.” You have said that you would like to go into business for yourself some day. Do you know when, and what type of business you’d pursue? “Yes.” End of sentence. End of paragraph. And, very quickly, end of conversation. Richard Knight bolts out the door. Moments later, his voice, subdued and assured, can be heard over the speaker in response to a young man from the Shakespeare Festival.
Richard Knight, the city’s first black city manager, is rounding the bend on his first year in what is arguably the most important job in Dallas. It is a job he has attacked as aggressively as any municipal executive in memory. His eyes are steely though merry as he ducks and dodges questions that he sees as unnecessary or invasive. One comes away with the feeling that Knight would never risk what he has achieved with an inadvertent slip of the tongue to the press.
Knight, forty-two, has a vision-for himself and for the city he serves. He speaks to his staff of 13,646 in lofty terms of integrity and “service.” Upon being named city manager on December 16, 1986, one of his first official acts was to dust off a motto that former city manager Scott McDonald used during his tenure at City Hall: “The Only Reason You and I Are Here Is To Assist The People of Dallas.” The message now appears at the bottom of each sheet of official city of Dallas stationery.
“It’s important to me, important to this organization, and important to the health of this city that we all understand the value of service,” he told a group of management-level employees in November. “Our only purpose is to serve the citizens of Dallas. Many in this organization have gotten away from that. Some have become proprietary. Some have the feeling that everybody owes them something.”
Richard Knight does not believe that the world owes him something. He does believe that success comes through perseverance, hard work, and a measured degree of risk. His “vision,” as he describes it, runs somewhat counter to his demeanor. What he wants for City Hall, he says, is a “user-friendly attitude.” But Knight in person does not suggest easy accessibility. The words used most often to describe him are “disciplined,” “methodical,” “detail-oriented,” a “nuts and bolts guy.” He is an “inside man,” and as such, a departure from his predecessor Charles Anderson, who enjoyed and insisted on frequent appearances in the community. “Richard is just more of a hands-on manager,” says Mary Tod. “He really gets involved in the details of running the city.” Knight is neither a lion nor a lamb, those who know him best say. But he is fierce about his role: “I want us to have an environment of mutual respect where the city council, city management, and all city employees work together toward a common purpose-to make City Hall a place where our citizens can come to seek assistance. To accomplish this goal, we must all have the natural feeling to be servants. Not only those who are led, but also the leaders.”
Dallas has changed enormously over the last decade, meaning that the function of the city manager in day-to-day life is even more vital today than it was in the past. It is the most powerful post in town, and one that is not entrusted casually by those who do the hiring-the city council. Only ten people, all white males, have held the job since 1931, when voters abandoned a form of government that had become corrupt to opt for the council-manager system, wherein the city manager is chief operating officer of the municipal corporation, and the council his board of directors. Today, the post entails the buck-stops-here responsibility for a $1 billion annual budget, the efficient and economical delivery of services to the public that pays for them, the management and nurturing of municipal workers, and the preservation of the city’s precious AAA bond rating, which, in effect, enables Dallas to borrow money at the lowest interest rates.
No city manager in the city’s history has inherited as difficult an array of problems as awaited Richard Knight when he accepted the $125,000-a-year job a year ago. The economy had turned sour. The citizenry- especially minorities-was increasingly contentious and demanding. Dallas police seemed to be shooting people in record numbers and crime had soared to a rate among the highest in the country. The municipal workforce felt battered and unappreciated. Even the once-dependable Dallas Cowboys, always a source of civic pride, had fallen on hard times. Morale was low all the way around.
The Dallas City Council, in making Knight its unanimous choice for the city manager’s post, knew it was hiring a competent, proven manager. What the council may not have bargained for was a leader with the inner fire of a preacher. A lust for action, an inner grit, a calculated determination have made it possible for Knight to face-with enthusiasm-what he concedes was a “doomsday kind of deal.”
RICHARD KNIGHT WAS NOT LOOK-ing for a new job. In fact, he had a new job, in addition to his old job plus an interim job that he was bound to fulfill before he could begin his new one. Earlier that fall, Knight, then an assistant city manager, had announced that he would follow his old boss, Charles Anderson, who had left the city manager’s post to assume the leadership of DART. It was not a decision that had set well with members of the council, who clearly wanted to hang on to Knight while they searched for Anderson’s replacement, “About a week before the candidates came to town for the interviews, I was in Starke’s [Mayor Starke Taylor] office and we were talking about a public-private deal that the city was involved in. We’d taken care of the agenda when he said, ’You got a minute?’ And he put his feet up on the desk-which was uncharacteristic of him,” Knight remembers. “He leaned back and said, “I want to talk to you a minute like a son. 1 know you have probably heard the word that there are some members of the council who would like for you to have this job. Now, I’m not going to pressure you one way or the other, but I do feel some responsibility to have this conversation with you. I want you to go home and think about it, because I don’t want you to be unprepared if you’re called upon to answer the question if it’s asked.’ And that was it. It was unsolicited on my part”
As the process of interviewing the six candidates for the post entered its final week, Richard Knight still had not been formally approached. Then, around 4 p.m. on December 16, a consultant who had been hired to assist in the search for a new manager dropped by at the behest of the council to ask if Knight would “accept” an interview. He agreed.
The interview lasted several hours, proceeding along the exact same lines as the six previous ones. When Knight finally left, he says it was not with the sense that “they wanted me for the job. It was my sense that a number of people had said, “We ought to interview Richard Knight, notwithstanding what decision we make.’ It was my view that the process was designed to satisfy that need, not because they wanted me for the job.”
Knight went home. He had been there just long enough to shower and “to fuss” with his wife Mavis “about whether she was going to feed me” when the phone rang. The council wanted to talk to him again. Knight remembers his reaction:
“I was tired. I mean, I hadn’t been sitting around all day wondering what the council was doing. And I’d just gone through this lengthy process with them. So Mavis and I debated for about fifteen minutes on whether or not I should put on a suit. I said, ’No, I’m tired. They probably just want to ask me something about negotiating a contract with their candidate.’ That’s where my head was. But Mavis insisted. So I put on a suit.”
It was Starke Taylor who put the question to Knight when he returned to City Hall. “He said to me, ’Richard, it looks like the council wants you to have this job as our next city manager.’ I said that there were a couple of things we needed to talk about. One of them, and 1 said this very directly to them, was the DART post. ’You realize,’ I said, ’that I have a moral commitment to my former employer.’ I told him I would come over to DART as his deputy. And Starke said, ’I can take care of that.’ So I said yes.”
Working under the theory of better the devil you know than the one you don’t know, Dallas has selected its city manager from within the ranks at City Hall every time but once. The ranks of candidates that December boasted two other finalists who were home-grown: Levi Davis, a former assistant city manager, and Dr. Camille Cates Barnett, deputy city manager under Anderson. Both had had trouble engendering enthusiasm among council members for their candidacy. Knight does not like to discuss it-in fact, he will do so only in very general and polite terms-but it’s common knowledge among City Hall insiders that Knight’s selection did not sit well with Camille Barnett. Knight reportedly called his former colleague from City Hall immediately after accepting the council’s offer (he also called Levi Davis, a close friend) and was met with a frosty reception.
“I didn’t sleep a wink that night,” says Knight. “And when I went in the next mom-ing, when I pulled into the City Hall garage, the most eerie feeling I’ve felt in years came over me. People were watching the relationship between me and Camille because she’d been the deputy city manager, and I used to report to her. Now that had changed.”
Indeed. According to a former staff member, the inner door between Anderson’s office-which now was Knight’s-and Bar-nett’s had remained open at all times. “The first morning after Richard became manager,” the ex-staffer says, “she closed that door and that sucker never opened again until she left.” In May, Barnett took a high administrative post with the city of Houston.
But Knight had more on his mind than turf battles. “I remember thinking, ’Now what have I got myself into?” Many of our public institutions and public officials are coming under scrutiny and investigation, and there seems to be a general deterioration of values and a loss of public confidence. My question to myself was, ’Is this a good time for me to be taking a job like this?’ But I was determined to be upbeat about the situation. I care about performance, and when I go for it I give 150 percent-and I believe I usually make a dent or two.”
RICHARD KNIGHT JR. WAS BORN ON a form in rural Georgia on May 31, 1945, the only son of Freddie and Richard Knight, an automobile salesman. He was raised in Fort Valley, a small town located about a hundred miles south of Atlanta, surrounded and nurtured by an extended family. Knight’s grandfather owned a farm, and it was he who would have a lasting influence on young Knight. He says he can’t remember a time when he didn’t feel self-reliant and confident. He worked long hours on the farm, even as a boy. Farming is something he hopes to get back to someday, Knight says.
Knight was a scrapper, even as a pre-teen. At the age of twelve, he began to pump gas at one of his uncle’s two service stations. Six years later, he was managing both of them. A natural competitiveness exhibited itself at the all-black high school he attended; he was active in student government, played football, ran track, and played trumpet in the band (he still plays the trumpet today, and he’s reputed to be a fine blues singer).
A music major when he entered Fort Valley State College, Knight switched to a more sober field of study and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. A year before graduating, while attending Yale on a one-year Ford Foundation scholarship, he met and married Mavis Best, a North Carolina native who was also attending Yale on a fellowship. They spent the last year of school living apart, then in 1969 moved to Atlanta, where Knight spent a semester on scholarship at Atlanta University doing graduate studies in political science. That’s where he was when the Army called him to active duty and sent him to Vietnam. Knight won’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam, saying only that he “would like to forget it.”
After his discharge in 1971, Knight became a prison rehabilitations programs director in North Carolina. A year later he got his first job as a municipal administrator when he became assistant to the Durham, North Carolina, city manager.
In 1976, Knight became the city manager of Carrboro, a small, mostly blue-collar white suburb of Chapel Hill with a history of racial problems and a reputation for chewing up city managers and spitting them out. Knight was confident he could achieve resuits in Carrboro; his colleagues were not so sure. The man who offered Knight the job, I. Harding Hughes, now city manager of Hillsboro, North Carolina, told a newspaper reporter last year that he “really wondered whether Richard was ready, particularly in terms of budget experience. But I could not bring myself to tell Richard that he was not ready to become the first black city manager in North Carolina. He wanted it so.”
As it worked out. Knight was more than capable; under his leadership the town achieved a string of significant “firsts”-its first bond election, its first long-range financial plan, its first downtown development in more than twenty years. Richard Knight was a hit.
After four years in Carrboro, Knight moved in 1980 to the city manager’s post in Gainesville, Florida. He recalls his recruitment with a chuckle: “Some of my friends were not content to see me get satisfied; they wanted me to have a new challenge.”
Richard Knight’s star rose rapidly and visibly, especially within the ranks of the prestigious International City Manager’s Association, where he was elected vice president. It was at an ICMA meeting that Knight met his first Dallas contact, former city manager George Schrader, who remembers being impressed by Knight’s maturity and discipline. “My image of him is of someone who contributed to the stability of that organization and to the profession,” Schrader says. “Many of the members [of ICMA] come to the table with a personal agenda. Then there are those who come with the intent to be a team player. That was Richard.”
It was at an ICMA conference in Salado, Texas, where Knight met Schrader’s successor in Dallas, Charles Anderson. “We were at one of those evening functions where they teach everyone to do the Cotton-Eyed Joe. I really had a great time, and I hit it off with Chuck right away,” Knight recalls.
Even so, Anderson’s early attempts to persuade Knight to come to Dallas, which began the week after the conference, were rebuffed. “Chuck said that he didn’t think I made a good decision and that he would work to change my mind,” says Knight. A year later, he did. Richard Knight, his wife and three young sons in tow, was on his way to Dallas.
WE ARE STROLLING THROUGH THE gravel parking lot at Old City Park, headed for Knight’s car, when he comes to a sudden stop. A couple of parking spaces away is a city of Dallas pickup, with two uniformed employees seated inside. “How ya doin, fellas?” he inquires. The two men, maintenance workers for the Park and Recreation Department, have come noticeably alert at Knight’s approach and are sitting erect. “Just fine, Mr. Knight,” they say in unison, having obviously recognized their boss. “We’re just taking a break.” “Hey, nothing to it,” Knight says in a reassuring tone of voice. “The only thing is. . .well, you know how people are. They see a couple of city employees sitting in a city vehicle, doing nothing, and they immediately start thinking about ’lazy public servants’ and ’my tax dollars going to waste’ and stuff like that. They don’t know you’re on break. The next time, how about doing it in a less public place, okay?”
The driver has already reached for the vehicle’s ignition key. “Yessir,” they both say. By the time Knight resumes his stride to his own car. the pickup is out of the parking lot and headed down the street.
Knight is deadly serious about the notion of service. His highest priority coming into the job a year ago, he says, was to raise the level of expectation among the city’s employees. “’I knew that I had to communicate to the troops and employees that I was the same guy that I was when I was an assistant city manager,” Knight says. “I wanted to let people know that I wanted to be open and caring and helpful with them, but that we also had to make some tough decisions and that I expected everybody to come along.”
Knight was barraged, in those early weeks, with telephone calls and telegrams from well-wishers. Community leaders who had yet to meet him called to arrange appointments; business leaders and civic groups asked him to speak. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a close-up look at the new city manager-and many of them were curious because he is black.
“There’s no question that a lot of folks were looking at me as the first black city manager, but when I gave my speech, I didn’t give one that was colored black, white, green, or whatever” Knight recalls. “At first people were introducing me as ’the first black city manager.1 After a point, as I moved about, people amended that to ’Dallas’s new city manager.’ Finally, they started saying ’Dallas City Manager Richard Knight.’”
Knight acknowledges that there are members of the black community who feel that he’s not “black enough.” Black city council member Diane Ragsdale has repeatedly criticized Knight for what she sees as foot-dragging on the problems of the Dallas Police Department. Ragsdale says Knight “needs to let people know he is in charge.” He’s also aware that members of other constituencies wonder whether he has a “black agenda.” In his customary fashion, he either shrugs off or deflects inquiries about each faction.
Knight does tell of an episode in January 1986, when a number of organizations-Knight’s fraternity, his church, the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, and other minority groups-hosted a reception at the Hall of State in Fair Park to honor the Knights. The Anglos in the crowd were a minority, and some of them talked afterwards with a sense of uneasiness about the evening. Knight, who had no involvement in the planning of the event, laughs about the reaction.
“Some people, whites, came away talking about how ’black’ that function was, and how nervous it made them, which is funny. It’s like when Mavis and I go to the symphony and look out over the audience and realize that we’re the only two who look like the sun has gone down on us. Me, I’m thinking it’s nothing, because I’ve been me all my life. When someone experiences that in reverse for the first time, they begin to conjure up all kinds of weird things, like, man, I hope this guy’s not a monster. I would really hope that whatever fears of that type that existed have been allayed by now.”
KNIGHT HAD NOT BEEN IN OFFICE long before Dallas’s problems caught up with him. There was the drain on the city budget caused by the soft economy. There was the brewing tension between the Dallas Police Department and members of the minority community-including those on the city council. But the toughest issue, Knight says, actually came before he officially became city manager, when, while serving in an interim capacity, Knight announced that Police Chief Billy Prince was temporarily being assigned to the manager’s office. Seen in the context of a managerial move, the Prince gambit made sense. Relations between the Dallas city manager’s office and the police department’s administration have never been exactly harmonious. “The police have always taken the position that every time they get a call from the manager’s office, it was because they were going to get chewed out because somebody had screwed up something,” says one long-time city administrator. “They also felt that the manager’s office never came to see them. It was a breakdown in communication.”
Other city managers have worried privately about how to handle the problem and have tried, privately, to improve the relationship. Knight’s move was a public one.
“It was something that had been in the pipeline for a while. Chuck Anderson had already taken the job at DART, and one day while he and I were meeting, I said, ’Let me lay an idea on you. I’m thinking about bringing Billy over as an acting assistant city manager. I know that there are a lot of risks associated with that, but I also think a little stint will be really good for Billy, and I think it would be good for the office.” Chuck thought it was a good idea.”
The timing, though, was terrible. A string of police shootings of citizens had dominated headlines for days. In fact, the announcement came less than a week after the shooting of Etta Collins, an elderly black woman who had called police to investigate a possible break-in of a neighbor’s home. Knight says he “damn near got run out of town” when the move was made. But pressed for his reaction, Knight chooses anecdote rather than analysis. “Everybody and his brother was second-guessing the decision, but I’m not uncomfortable with that,” he says. “I’ve always taken the position that I’m the one in the pit with the tiger, and you can stand up there and say, ’Well, Richard, why didn’t you grab him by the ear, because if you had, he wouldn’t have hit you so hard alongside the head?’ My response to that is, ’Well, I don’t see you down here. You come down here and hold him if you think it’ll work.” The thing with Billy worked out real well-Billy proved that he had always been an excellent manager within the police department, and he proved it again here. A lot of people at City Hall knew him only as the police chief; when he left here, those people had a respect for him as a manager.”
Now, with the hindsight of another year of continuing problems in the police department, Knight does not seem as confident that the positive momentum established in the aftermath of the inquiries and reports of last spring will be sufficient to create a new. more positive environment in the police department. Privately, city insiders say that Knight is “madder than hell” about police shootings that have resulted in the deaths of citizens. But on the record, Knight professes faith in Prince, and a measured degree of optimism. “I have a grip on the situation,” he says. “A few more months will help me determine whether the plans we have in the pipeline will work. It’s just one of the ironies about what we cannot control external forces, no matter what the calendar and the agenda say.”
Looking back over his first year, Knight says that he took his greatest risk in proposing a tax increase to help offset the city’s declining revenues. “A lot of people would have looked at the situation in terms of only being here for a matter of months and said, ’No way am 1 gonna go in there and suggest raising taxes.’” But Knight says that the budget process, “challenging” as it was, provided the most positive moments of his inaugural year. “It was my sense that the council believed us when we presented the budget and worked through that process,” Knight says. “Notwithstanding some philosophical differences among the council members, I got the strong sense that they believed I was shooting straight with them, and that’s not to imply that anyone felt that any of my predecessors had not. Given all of the hills I’ve got to climb, it’s nice to have that.”
Is it possible, then, that Richard Knight’s first year in office has not turned out to be the almost impossible test that many people expected? The answer seems to be “yes,” if you accept Knight’s view.
“My deal is that I believe in trying to capture the moment, to take things as they come. I don’t think there have been any ’toughest’ moments this last year. I’ve had some pretty interesting challenges-the whole concept of trying to keep the work force motivated, trying to negotiate through this tough fiscal period. But it’s all part of the job.”
Dallas itself is a special challenge, Knight maintains-but also a perpetual motivator. “If there’s anything that turns me on, it’s this city. I don’t care how late I’m up at night, or how hard I worked the day before, at five o’clock in the morning, every day, I’m on the floor, getting ready to come do this deal. I am charged up by this city. Some of the toughest things that you have to do sometimes are negotiate or resolve-but I’m charged, and that’s no lie. I think my energy level tells people that.”
So far. Knight has been praised for his performance. Council members laud his approach to problem-solving, his ability to pull people together, and his skill at motivating city employees and improving morale. Knight has cast a wide net in order to stay in touch with the community and his profession, reaching out to former members of the council, former staff members, community activists, some business leaders, professional colleagues in other cities-and he believes that his presence and perforin-ance have reassured his advocates. Inside City Hall, he has established a reputation for being positive, articulate, and low-key : but a man you would not want to cross, one who insists upon loyalty among his assistants and aides.
“I can only say that I think a lot of people feel comfortable now” Knight says. “I think that people see me as a competent manager who will take on a buzzsaw, and if I see a wrong I will try to right it.”