A few years from now, we will look back on the mayoralty of Ron Kirk as a kind of political miracle.
I’m already nostalgic for it. I’ll miss the bluster, the profanity, the good humor, the startling candor. That made him fun. But I’ll also miss his heavy hand on the gavel. That made him effective.
Kirk was so good he almost made it look as if the mayor had real power. Of course, the mayor has no power. Before Kirk was elected, conventional wisdom down at City Hall was that anyone who could get eight votes on any issue was the mayor. Because Kirk wielded his popularity in the black community and his majority on the city council like a hammer, he overcame the fact that the mayor has only one vote. But it didn’t change the system, and the system isn’t working.
Kirk himself has warned against the weak mayor system. I’m one of the people who refused to listen. I’m listening now. I can see as well as anyone what’s coming down the road, and it has scared me enough to convert me to the concept of the strong mayor.
The present 14-1 council-manager system will not work. If you don’t think potholes are being fixed now, just wait a few months.
The council-manager form of government, invented originally as a progressive reform of the old patronage system, is now a danger to the city.
For one thing, under 14-1 the way the system works is a prescription for corruption. City government is about little things like zoning exceptions. The decisions that matter to somebody’s pocketbook are rarely citywide. They rarely get newspaper or media attention. They are usually neighborhood matters. In those decisions, only one person matters. No council member will be overruled by his colleagues on an issue confined to that member’s district. It doesn’t take long for vendors, contractors, nightclub owners, and developers to figure this out. Paul Fielding and Al Lipscomb can testify to what results.
Internal disarray follows as night follows day. City employees know they now have 14 bosses. They are doing the same thing you would do if you were told to report to 14 bosses. They are fleeing. People who work with City Hall on a daily basis report that morale is low and employee quality isand I quote from three people who each used the same word”awful.” It doesn’t help, of course, that Ted Benavides is the weakest city manager in memory (see the “The $5 Million Mistake” on p. 70), but it also doesn’t make much difference.
The council-manager form of government is dead. The voters drove the final nail in its coffin when they approved salaries for city council members. Now is the time to admit the obvious, to perform a decent burial, and to set up a new way to govern this city for the future.
Ron Kirk was a great mayorthe best mayor in a generationby dint of his personality and political skills. He staved off the inevitable even while he warned it is coming. To compete for jobs, to rebuild our infrastructure, to set an agenda for our community, Dallas needs a strong mayor system.