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A Few Questions from Tracy Rowlett

Dallas city manager Mary Suhm speaks out to Tracy Rowlett.
By D Magazine |

Mary Suhm is the consummate insider, a team player, and an extremely patient professional. But more than anything, Dallas’ newest city manager is a survivor. She started her career with the city in 1978, and in May, a majority of the Council voted to forgo a national search and promote her from interim city manager to her current post. We sat down at City Hall to discuss how the city responds to its residents, the politics of working for the City Council, and the continued debate over a strong mayor.

ROWLETT: How desperate are Dallas’ money woes? You have presented a budget with a nearly $22 million shortfall.
SUHM:
I wouldn’t define it as a shortfall. It is really easy to project expenses for next year. It’s not so easy to project revenues. I just wanted to give the Council an idea of what we are working on as they were heading into their vacation.

ROWLETT: I know it was preliminary, but it appears you will be coming up short.
SUHM:
No, I won’t come up short. I’ll have a balanced budget. The Council over the last several years made decisions that really commit them to moving forward. In the bond program, which the voters overwhelmingly passed, it was very clear that there would be an increase in taxes. The Council has made a commitment to economic development, and they’ve put more money and more people in that. They’ve made a commitment to improving public safety. These are the kinds of gutsy decisions that you have to make for the future that may result in tax increases.

TOP MANAGER: “We have to be responsive,” Suhm says. “Everything we do here should be transparent to folks in this community.”

ROWLETT: When you do your budget, do you take your lead from the Council, or do you tell them what the city needs?
SUHM:
Last year, the Council set down its five priorities and, for me, that is very empowering. They not only gave priorities, but they gave weights to the priorities, too. Now, my budget, which I am very excited about, is not by departments, but is based on priorities. So every service in the city, whether it is police or fire, the health department or even the library department if it contributes to public safety, shows up under public safety. It’s all money we are spending on public safety. Then the Council can see how much money is being spent and whether it is the best place to put that money to accomplish the Council’s goals. The Council has not had a budget like this before, and it will be based on those services, not just on departments.

ROWLETT: Council members, Mayor Miller, and so many others have focused on fighting crime. With all that the Police Department needs, can we get a handle on crime without a tax increase?
SUHM:
I think it would be very challenging to do that. I think the Council has made a very wise and brave decision in saying they want to fight crime and commit money to public safety. They seem to be very willing to do that, and they did last year. They had a tax increase to provide officers with tools that the police needed. And I think they will again.

ROWLETT: How important is it that we get that handle on crime?
SUHM:
It is absolutely critical to the success of our community. You can’t do economic development without it. You can’t have quality of life in the neighborhoods. Nothing is going to work for us unless we first get a handle on crime. We have to provide adequate support to our Police Department so they can get the job done. They have to have the tools for their safety, and they have to have the tools that will make them faster and stronger than the bad guys.

ROWLETT: So, do you think we’ll see a property tax increase in Dallas?
SUHM:
Yes. But I don’t know exactly how much that will be, probably three or four cents. We’ll have the bond program and will need a little more for police and public safety.

ROWLETT: How much additional money do you want to raise?
SUHM:
Well, the preview I’ve given to the Council says that we will spend an additional $11 million to $12 million on police.

ROWLETT: That sounds low. Will it be enough?
SUHM:
I think it’s the beginning of the process. A lot of people tell me we need to hire 200 officers, but you can’t do that. I worked for the Police Department when we tried to do that. You have to have the time to hire the right people and to train them the right way to be sure they’re effective on the streets. The Chief and I agree that the best approach is to add a manageable number of officers each year, and then make sure you watch your processes to make sure you are using them most effectively.

ROWLETT: What about the other department heads? Do you dictate to them? What are some of your management goals?
SUHM:
I think it is very clear in the City of Dallas right now that the citizens expect a change in the way we provide service. I’m reorganizing the structure of the city based on the Council priorities. There will be assistant city managers responsible for each of those priorities, including public safety, economic development, staff accountability, and the Trinity River. And on top of that, I’ll also have one for customer service. That commitment to serving the public must be instilled in the entire organization. We will have a structure that will be responsive to citizens. I need to spend a lot more time doing surveys, getting feedback, secret shoppers, and 3-1-1 enhancement. There needs to be a better communication with the citizens of Dallas so they know what to expect of us and they can tell me when those expectations are not being met.

ROWLETT: Have you started getting citizen feedback?
SUHM:
Yes. We have just finished one survey, and we will brief in August. Some of those answers may not be very pleasing to some people. But if I don’t ask those questions, the direction we need to take is not clear. We need to start from where we are and improve, and I need to tell our people what they need to do to improve. I wouldn’t define myself as heavy-handed, but I have been very clear with the people who work with me that it is time for us to make those changes.

ROWLETT: Did you take something from the recent strong-mayor initiative?
SUHM:
 We listened to the discussion about the form of government the city should have. It was a very appropriate discussion, and the citizens of Dallas have every right to have that discussion. But what administrators and employees of the city should take from that is that the way we are providing services has got to change. We have to be responsive. We have to be clear. Everything we do here should be transparent to folks in this community.

ROWLETT: Do you have a problem with Council members calling department heads directly–even the police chief–and skipping the City Manager?
SUHM:
Well, my department heads are prepared to deal with those kinds of requests, and I have asked the Council to give me feedback on what they see with the city staff. But I think it is really troublesome for the organization if elected officials call down to their favorite police officer or code inspector or pothole filler because we have this real need to please and we’ll stop the world to do something for our bosses. But it stops the whole system, and that’s not appropriate.  The Council agrees with that. And on our side of the fence, they need to feel comfortable when they ask us to do something. They need to have confidence with the 3-1-1 system, and they need to have confidence with the executives who work for this city. If they don’t have that kind of confidence, that’s when they will seek other avenues.

ROWLETT: Do you have to tread softly with a very political Council?
SUHM:
I’m pretty direct. I don’t think I’m rude. I will listen to the Council, and I will try to meet their needs. But if the city can’t do it, we will have a conversation. Working in a political environment is part of the job, and I have been at this a long time. I have my hands full just running the organization and seeing that the citizens’ needs are met.

ROWLETT: Have you had conversations with Mayor Miller or Council members Mitchell Rasansky and Gary Griffith since you were named to this job and they voted against you?
SUHM:
Yes. They have said to me, “We don’t have anything against you. We think you have done a good job over this past year, but we just wanted a search to see if there was anybody else that we’d like to think about.” That doesn’t bother me.

ROWLETT: Any thoughts on the Council’s promise to present its own plan to strengthen the mayor’s job and how that might impact you?
SUHM:
No. It’s the Council’s right to present changes in city government. And if this job lasts two years or 20 years, there is plenty for me to do here without worrying about that discussion. I want to be a great city manager, regardless of the discussion about the form of city government.

 

Photos: Suhm: Kris Hundt; Rowlett: Tom Hussey