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PUBLISHER’S NOTE: How to Fix Dallas in One Easy Move

Let the mayor hire and fire the city manager.
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Somebody in Dallas city government needs to be held accountable. That person should be the mayor.

Currently the city operates under a structure that pretends we’re all living in the 1950s. We’re not. It pretends that all city managers are steadfast professionals above the clamor of politics. They’re not.

Let’s stop pretending.

Right now, the city manager can be fired only by a two-thirds vote of the 15-member City Council. If six members want to keep him—even if the entire population is up in arms—he stays.

As a result, if you were the current city manager, you might do exactly what Ted Benavides does. He spends his time worrying more about six members of the City Council than about the city he’s supposed to be managing. If you’re a mediocre manager, which Benavides is, that means things slide. The newspaper may devote an entire special report to how much things are sliding, but in spite of all the pressure that generates, all the city manager needs to do is to keep focused on those six council members.

This is a system so broken—and so obviously broken—that it’s a miracle of human endurance and a compliment to our city staff that anything gets done in Dallas at all.

Of course, the people most blind to the gigantic fault line in the system are the people at the top. Talk with City Council members, and they express bewilderment that anyone would think Dallas doesn’t work. Either they’re totally out of touch, or they are such ego-driven individuals that they enjoy a system that is devoted to their care and coddling, not to the benefits of the citizens they serve. After all, if I’m one of the six members on whom the city manager’s existence depends, the city staff will jump through hoops to make sure I’m taken care of. That feels nice. Makes me feel important. Makes me feel I’m taking care of my district, because the city staff caters to my slightest whim.

Meanwhile, the rest of the city slides, and these council members don’t know it. They don’t want to know it.

Only one person on the City Council is elected to represent Dallas as a whole. That’s the mayor.

The framers of our Constitution knew that a government needed an “active, energetic executive.” Harry Truman, heir to the office they created, placed that famous sign on his desk, exactly mirroring their intention. It read, “The buck stops here.”

If someone walked around Dallas City Hall with a sign like that, they wouldn’t know where to put it. There is nobody to whom it applies. Instead, people at City Hall—and on the City Council—spend their time finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and hiding under their desks until the problem goes away.

The sign belongs on the mayor’s desk. Citizens would then know who is responsible when the city slides. They would know whom to blame for failure, and whom to reward for success.

The mayor needs to be the city manager’s boss. She needs to hire him, and if he doesn’t perform, she needs to fire him. Then the City Council can return to being the board of directors it was originally envisioned to be. Then the city staff will know exactly what the lines of authority are and whom to follow.

I propose a charter amendment. And I propose it be on the ballot in the scheduled May 2005 city election.