BANKER R. L. THORNTON JUMP-STARTED the economic engine of this city when in the 1930s he formed a group he called the “Yes and No Men.” It was not a diverse collection: no women, no minorities and not even a single Republican. And Thornton’s exclusionary tactic didn’t stop there. He wanted only men who could commit their companies’ money or their personal fortunes without having to ask somebody else’s permission, so he vetoed lawyers (who’d have to ask their partners), corporate presidents (.. .directors) and clergymen (…trustees). He wanted up and down votes, and money on the table.
This group made its greatest political contribution when it rammed through the council-manager form of government. The ward-commission system-in which elected officials had real power over city departments-had become so corrupt the only way to clean it up was to blow it up.
The novel idea of acitizen board of directors, with a professional city manager as CEO, was modern, progressive and efficient. In the six decades since, the Dallas model has been copied by every suburb. Almost every city in Texas employs it. That’s because our city government has been almost totally graft-free since the system was voted in.
The dynamics of 14-1 has changed the system for the worse, investing even more power in the city manager than was originally intended. Now, instead of answering to City Council members, he spends most of his time playing them off against one another. But it still works. At any weekly council meeting listen to the members whine about the money spent in their districts, and you can see it work. The city manager holds the line, and that’s because he holds power over the bottom line.
Council members are paid $50 a meeting. Admittedly, that’s a token. And true, it keeps many people from running for council positions. But it was meant to be a token. And it apparently wasn’t such an encumbrance that it kept the present incumbents from running.
Why should council members be paid more? Because their phones ring a lot? Because folks want the garbage picked up?
Raising council pay-even by a small amount-would signal a change in the philosophy of how this city is run. Council members are not employees of city government. They are overseers of city government. They don’t run our government; the city manager runs our government. And that’s the way it ought to stay.
Some council members think they ought to be able to hire and fire their own staffs so they can better render “constituent service.” But, again, they are board members. No board hires and fires its own staff. It hires and fires the CEO.
The reformers who gave us the council-manager form of government were businessmen. They had seen the damage politicians can do.
Today, the politicalization of the Dallas City Council is well under way. Council members have turned into ward healers, trading their votes to protect their districts’ interests. That these interests may collide with the well-being of the city as a whole is apparently a matter of little concern.
Mayor Ron Kirk thinks the solution to this problem is more power for the mayor. Former Mayor Steve Bartlett agrees. In essence, their argument is that if politics is changing the council for the worse, politics should be used to counter-balance it. Their arrival at this solution is not surprising. After all, they have both spent their lives in politics, one as a lobbyist, the other as a congressman.
More political power as a counter to politicalization strikes me as taking a bad situation and making it worse.
Dallas voters should vote “no” to any change that would diminish the council-manager form of government. Then they should take a close look at the people they’ve elected to run it.