THE CITY Hart Choices

She may be new, but the city’s problems are old - and they’re growing.

Jan Hart, new city manager, is not what she seems. Small, almost frail, she’ll sink into a deep chair and crawfish into one corner, sometimes folding one leg beneath her. She sits with arms crossed loosely against her stomach. It’s a body language that could be taken as a sign of weakness or insecurity. “It’s not weakness,” insists a City Hall insider, who says Hart just does not easily disclose information about herself. “She’s a very private person. But she’s also very tough. There is never, never any doubt about what she thinks or where she stands on the issues she’s dealing with.”

That inner strength is why, in March, the City Council unanimously elevated Hart from first assistant city manager to the top slot after Richard Knight left for a corporate job. Asked about the choice of Hart, council members each rattle off a similar list of qualifications: she’s a professional, she has seventeen years of experience in a variety of city jobs, and she’s a Dallas native. City staff members who work with Hart are keenly aware of another strength: that her comfortable, demure demeanor, combined with her detailed knowledge of what makes the city work, will let her easily win the confidence of council members. The City Council may have unwittingly created a leader.

“If there’s a power or leadership vacuum on the council,1’ says a Hart staffer, “Jan will really step in and shape things. Not by outright policymaking, but by subtle politicking, hinting at things that are a good idea so that the council member can treat it like his own idea. That’s the real power of the city manager.”

The timing for Hart couldn’t be better. The city is in an upheaval of change, especially at the top. Business leaders are preoccupied with pulling their own companies through to economic rebound, and the City Council itself is in the midst of a court-ordered reorganization designed to bring more minorities to the council. In response, council members have scattered to the grass roots of their districts, trying to protect their political turfs instead of providing leadership. The first elections of the new federally mandated City Council system will probably fill the council with as many political neophytes, mavericks, and radicals as conservative, old-Dallas-way politicos. And off to one side of this no-consensus council will stand our mayor, Annette Strauss (who will probably retain her seat), clicking her heels together like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like Dallas, there’s no place like Dallas.”

No, there’s no place like Dallas, not right now, anyway. We’re on our own, a $1 billion-a-year city government getting tossed about in a raging storm with all kinds of people trying to get a hand on the tiller, but with no one strong enough to actually steer the ship. The time is ripe, maybe even desperate, for a real leader to emerge. Someone who can let the high drama of politics play out and still manage, amid the clash of egos and power-grabbers, to set and keep a course. Someone like Jan Hart, if she will seize the day and rise to the level of leader.

Hart unquestionably has the necessary prerequisites to sit on top of the city heap. She also has a strong, focused philosophy: that the most important things to the city are the most basic. Asked to rank her priorities as city manager, she lists: 1. enhancing public safety (more cops); 2. economic development, particularly in the city’s southern half (a bow to the new political reality); 3. continuing the capital improvement program (building things); 4. maintaining the infrastructure (keeping up streets and sewers); and 5. keeping city employees happy (paying them more and training them better).

This is a laundry list typical perhaps of any new city manager. But notice what’s missing: social services and the arts. Hart sees those things as luxuries the city cant afford in these brutal economic times. She’s perfectly willing to take and spend federal money on social services and arts, but it’s against her nature to spend city money on them if basic city services will suffer.

Former council member Craig Holcomb, who is also chairman of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission, says he believes there’s nothing particularly alarming in Hart’s stance. “I dont see Jan as any different from Richard Knight on this,” says Holcomb. “There is very little organized lobby for pothole repairs, for instance, as there is for health services, library services, and the arts. That forces city managers to champion basic city services.”

Although everyone anticipates a smooth, almost imperceptible, transition from Knight’s regime to Hart’s, some differences bear watching. Knight, the city’s first African-American city manager, was under scrutiny and pressure from the minority community to hire and promote minorities. Hart says she has no intention of slowing down affirmative action at City Hall, but it would be surprising if minority hiring didn’t fall a few notches in priority.

For that, and for her approach to social services and arts, she seems to be prepared to take some heat. Hart has the self-confidence to experiment with her new role, unafraid of what people may think. That attitude may overcome her one personal barrier to taking firm control of the city: her narrow definition of “city manager” as an executive who stays out of political decisions.

“I don’t know how politically astute she’ll be,” says one City Hall insider. “Not that she couldn’t be, I just don’t think she thinks it ought to be important, therefore it’s not to her. She’s definitely less politically astute than Richard Knight.”

But until the council is restructured, Hart has the full support of the current council to concentrate on writing the city budget and addressing problems in the police department. Sources say Hart is well aware of the morale and management problems on the force and that support for Chief Mack Vines is eroding. Should Hart fire Vines and successfully choose a strong replacement, it could solidify her grip on the council.

The time to really watch Hart, however, will be after the new council is seated. Then, on the periphery of the fire in the council chambers, we may see the quiet but deliberate ascension of Jan Hart to the position of the most powerful person in Dallas.

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