Can a Strong Mayor Save Dallas?

The May 7 ballot initiative has sent the city into chaos. Black leaders are comparing Laura Miller to Hitler. Populists say Park Cities moneymen plan to take over. Meanwhile, our broken City Hall has ground to a halt.

TO HEAR COUNCILMAN JAMES FANTROY TELL IT, the devil is running loose in Dallas.

He came in the form of a petition drive to eliminate the city manager and expand the power of the mayor. The moneymen in the Park Cities are buying City Hall, he says. It’s a slap in the face to minority representation, he argues. It’s an attack on fairness, he fumes. And Fantroy guarantees he’s not going down without a fight.

I’m sitting on a worn-out couch in his office at City Hall in early January, and I sink so low in the cushion that I have to look up and over his massive desk to see his face. When I ask him which part of the amendment he disagrees with the most, he makes a grand sweeping motion with his arm and says, “The entire proposal. All of it.” He announces this with the unwavering certainty of a man who has either studied the document endlessly or who hasn’t looked at it at all. When he offers no more explanation, it’s impossible to know which is the case.

Fantroy scoffs at the critics who say that city government doesn’t work. He rattles off a list of accomplishments: the Trinity River Project, the Victory development, the creation of a UNT satellite campus in South Dallas. “That’s not getting anything done?” he asks. “Come on. I can paint a monkey red and call it a gorilla, but it’s still a monkey. Sure, they’ll try to paint the picture that we’re not getting anything done, but that’s not the facts.”

To be sure, tensions are running high. The previous day, longtime activist Al Lipscomb tottered up to a microphone at a City Council briefing and compared the strong-mayor proposal to a Nazi putsch. Fantroy was quoted in the Dallas Morning News agreeing with his old friend, saying, “It’s no different than what Hitler did.” Now Fantroy is incensed that the quote was used, denies having said it, and tells me, “They’re trying to make this about race, and they’re trying to stir up that part of the white community.” He even insists that I check the official record from the city secretary’s office after our interview. Unfortunately for him, I do what he asked. The transcript shows that he was quoted accurately, proving at the very least that Fantroy has terrible short-term memory.

Still, Fantroy invites me that afternoon to his private business, JL’s Security & Investigation, off Illinois Avenue, where he is meeting a group of South Dallas activists to plan their strategy for defeating the initiative. The low-slung back room has a drop ceiling and white cinder-block walls. Fantroy sits at the front and discusses plans for yard signs, phone banks, and neighborhood meetings. He says that he wants to put up billboards with Mayor Laura Miller’s name on them. “To let people know that it’s her baby,” he says. But others aren’t so sure.

“This is a bigger issue than one problem,” says one man. “Laura Miller is the problem, but we have to stress the need for strong district representation.”

Another person phrases it more bluntly: “I worry that if you put Miller’s name up there, it gives her some credibility just by mentioning her name. And I don’t want this to look like the black folks are beating up on this little white lady.”

But it isn’t long before someone else becomes a problem. A woman who arrived late raises her hand and says in a voice that barely conceals her contempt, “I’d like to know what he’s doing here.” She points at me, the only journalist (and white person) in the room. With a dramatic flourish, she says she’s leaving if I don’t. One person politely asks her to sit down. So does Fantroy. But she understands the mood of the crowd better than anyone.

Another person agrees with her, at which point Fantroy loses control of the meeting. Without saying a word, he looks at me and makes another grand sweeping motion with his arm: hit the road. I leave and in the coming days make three calls to Fantroy’s office—to find out who the woman was, to both offer and accept an apology. Fantroy, after all, invited me to the meeting. But Fantroy doesn’t return my calls.

Dallas politics, it seems, have spiraled out of anyone’s control.

For a woman who has the city on edge, Beth Ann Blackwood doesn’t come across as a firebrand activist. Her detached manner doesn’t make for inspiring political theater. And it’s exactly that blandness that has invited conspiracy theories.

FROM HER SEVENTH-FLOOR OFFICE near Mockingbird Lane and Central Expressway, Beth Ann Blackwood, the woman who brought the devil to Dallas, has a clear view of downtown. We are sitting in an elegant, glass-walled conference room at her law office of Kolodey, Thomas, Blackwood & Thomas. She is an unassuming woman who doesn’t exactly fill a room. On this particular morning, she wears a gray turtleneck and black jacket. If anything about her stands out, it’s a black digital sports watch. Blackwood is an avid runner who has finished six marathons, once qualifying for the Boston Marathon by 55 seconds.

One year ago, few people outside of legal circles had heard of her. Now she is one of the most talked about people in Dallas, a figure some see as the savior of city government and others as its curse. Last year, Blackwood set in motion a successful petition drive that put a strong-mayor proposal on the May 7 ballot. “If you look at how things have been working on the City Council, they don’t work quickly, they don’t work efficiently, and they don’t work effectively,” she says. “I don’t think that’s the fault of the people who are down there. I think that’s the system they’re trying to work with.”

Her effort to change that system started in June 2004, on a Friday night, at Avila’s Mexican Restaurant. She and her husband Tom—the first “Thomas” in their firm—were venting their frustration with City Hall. (This is apparently what happens when lawyers are allowed to marry.) They had discussed the idea of a strong-mayor system for years, but while driving home, Blackwood turned to her husband and said, “There has to be a way to go around the City Council.”

So the next morning—a Saturday, no less—the couple got up early and hit the books. They scoured the city charter, but they didn’t find what they were looking for. Then they turned to the mammoth Texas Statutes, and that’s where they found their answer—there in the Local Government Code.

Blackwood discovered that she could get an item on the ballot if she collected 20,000 signatures from eligible voters. She even called in another Dallas law firm, Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, to double-check her work, but she had read the requirements correctly. No infighting, no delays, no distractions—which is exactly how she wishes City Hall would work. She soon formed a nonprofit corporation named Citizens for a Strong Mayor and set out to change Dallas.

Still, for a woman who has the city on edge, she doesn’t come across as a firebrand activist. When I ask her why she got involved, I expect to hear a passionate story about the road-to-Damascus moment that persuaded her to take up such a monumental task. Instead her answer begins: “It’s a number of things, but an excellent example is the fake-drugs scandal.” Her manner is so detached that it doesn’t exactly make for inspiring political
theater. And it’s exactly that blandness that has invited conspiracy theories.

Because Blackwood has come from nowhere, because she has no forceful story to tell about her motivation to change the city’s governance, her opponents have had an easy time labeling her. They call her an interloper who doesn’t even live in Dallas, though she has lived in Uptown for almost three years and in Dallas for 12 of the past 16 years. They say she is the pawn of the Park Cities powerbrokers, a charge that got traction when her list of financial backers was released and it was found to include wealthy donors who live there. And why, her critics ask, did she flirt with the idea of
running  for a spot on the Council when her own amendment would weaken the power of that office?

Blackwood remains unfazed, perhaps even a bit amused. A slight smile slides across her face. “There’s always the old knee-jerk reaction against change,” she says. “I’ve heard comments from people who say this is extreme, this is radical, or this is way out there. Frankly, those people either haven’t read the charter, they read it and didn’t understand it, or they have another agenda.”

DARRELL JORDAN OCCUPIES A CORNER OFFICE on the 16th floor of Renaissance Tower, one of the premier addresses in downtown Dallas. A managing partner at the law firm of Godwin Gruber, he has run for mayor (and lost), argued a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and won), and sits on enough boards and committees to know all the players in town (with the photos, plaques, and citations to prove it). He is an imposing, avuncular man with white hair parted down the middle like an old-school Church of Christ preacher. He has the respect of both his supporters and his critics. And he’s dead set against Blackwood’s amendment.

“You can’t cram this down without having an inclusive process and expect it to work,” he says. “I don’t think when it’s fully explained it will be defensible. The voters will see through it.”

I tell him I’m a bit puzzled by this response. My college textbooks taught me that a ballot initiative was a pure form of democracy, of the people, by the people, all that good stuff. By way of response, he adopts a look on his face that translates roughly to “poppycock.”

Then he says, “They obviously hired people to go out and get the signatures. When you’re paid on the basis of how many names you get on the petition, you may not be as constrained about what you’re going to say. And I think most of the people who signed the petition couldn’t tell you 10 minutes later what they had signed.”

His stance puts him on a boat with an odd crew who’s gathered to defeat Blackwood’s strong-mayor amendment: Fantroy and his followers, leaders of homeowners’ associations, former city officials like Jan Hart Black, the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce, and grass-roots activists itching for a fight.

Yet Jordan has a message that differs from those who predict that plagues will soon descend on the city. Yes, he believes that a city manager is essential to Dallas. Yes, he believes the council-manager system still works. (“Other mayors under this exact system have been able to make this work,” he says. “I think the people who are there now would have trouble making any system work, strong-mayor or not.”) But he also believes that—listen closely—the fight will be good for Dallas.

Jordan wants to see the city hold a kind of constitutional convention to bring everyone to the table to talk about what works and what doesn’t work at City Hall. If it’s an inclusive process with some real give and take, groups won’t feel so isolated and the sides won’t be so divided. But all of that comes after one thing happens: the current proposal is defeated. And for that he’s putting his reputation on the line.

IT’S CLICHE TO SAY that the city manager was created to keep politics out of City Hall, but that is the intention of a council-manager form of government. A city manager is chosen by the Council and wields the enormous power of a chief executive: submitting the city budget to the Council, hiring and firing key positions such as the police and fire chiefs, and overseeing the daily operation of the city. The original goal of early Progressive Era reformers was to insulate the position so that municipal governments ran without political interference. Managers in Dallas can be removed only by a two-thirds vote of the Council, but, increasingly, opponents see the job as one that requires the manager to cater to enough council members to stay on the payroll. That leaves the mayor with largely ceremonial powers—and with hardly more clout than an individual council member.

The issue of a strong-mayor system has swirled around City Hall for years. Before he became the First Husband of Dallas, then State Rep. Steve Wolens filed a bill in 1991 that would have shifted the duties of the city manager to the mayor. Ron Kirk advocated a “strong-mayor, strong-council” plan when he was mayor. Miller has been talking about expanding the issue since she was a candidate, and the issue heated up as she clashed with city manager Ted Benavides, who announced his retirement in May 2004. But those proposals went nowhere, the political equivalents of a snowball in a fireplace.

Still, it’s not as if Dallas is the only city to consider a strong mayor. Of the 10 largest cities in the United States (Dallas ranks ninth), seven use a strong-mayor form of government. San Diego, the seventh-largest city, voted to switch last year. That’s part of the reason Blackwood outflanked the Council, which had solidified its opposition to change after the 2003 Charter Review Commission. She went straight to the voters with a simple question: do you want to eliminate the office of city manager and transfer those powers to the mayor in an effort to create accountability at City Hall? Because the mayor is the only member of the Council who is elected citywide, that person can be voted up or down by the entire city. With the power to formulate budgets and name department heads, the mayor gains the political clout to carry out a vision for the city. With the power of the chief executive, the mayor can move decisively. If the residents like what happens, they can reward the mayor on Election Day. And if they don’t, they can toss her out on the street—or at least send her back to her Preston Hollow mansion.

Critics see it another way. They are concerned that giving too much power to one person will lead to corruption. The mayor has her hands in too many places, leaving open the opportunity to install cronies and yes men. Another concern is the dilution of the power of individual council members, who fear they won’t be able to get things done in their districts without kowtowing to the mayor. And in a city charged with racial tension, the issue of minority representation sends sparks flying. Until 1971, after a group of activists including Al Lipscomb filed suit, Dallas elected all of its council members citywide, which crippled the ability of minority residents to elect leaders responsive to their needs. That suit resulted in 8-3 (eight single-member districts and three at-large seats, including the mayor), and the system was expanded to 14-1 after another lawsuit was filed in 1990. Some residents—black leaders in particular—are not willing to accept what they consider, justly or not, an attack on 14-1.

Royce Hanson, a professor at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and the author of Civic Culture and Urban Change: Governing Dallas, dismisses those views. “This is a fairly straightforward strong-mayor proposal,” Hanson says. He believes that it strikes a good balance between the powers of the mayor and the Council, which would have confirmation power over appointments to commissions and boards and would retain the power to appoint members of the Zoning Commission. (The Council, however, would not confirm appointments such as the police and fire chiefs.) He also notes that the mayor would remain part of the Council, which is an unusual feature of strong-mayor governments. “That has the advantage of giving the Council more influence,” Hanson says. “It has a salutary effect because the mayor has to face their questions. Mayors sometimes have a tendency to take themselves too seriously, and this assures that they are working with the Council.”

WHATEVER HAPPENS ON MAY 7, on the morning of May 8 political bedfellows all across the city will wake up, see who’s next to them, and flee. Such are the strange alliances that the strong-mayor initiative has created. During the meeting I got booted from, Fantroy spoke of the diverse coalition north of the Trinity River that was on his side. He even held up a page he had printed out from, a site run by the tireless City Council critic Sharon Boyd. Fantroy must have found it in his heart to forgive Boyd for accusing him of abusing his office and calling for a criminal investigation less than two years ago. On the other side of the issue, D Magazine editor and publisher Wick Allison has found himself arm in arm with Robert Decherd, the chairman, president, and CEO of Belo Corp. That’s another strange pairing, given that Allison’s two favorite pastimes are fly-fishing and lobbing grenades at the News.

But the maneuvering of Mayor Miller has been the highlight of the show. Last fall, Miller addressed a group from Leadership Texas, a professional women’s organization, on the same day that Blackwood’s group filed its petition at City Hall. Miller was late to the Leadership Texas meeting, but when she got there, she said that she had bumped into Blackwood’s group and was thrilled about what they were doing. Soon after, however, she changed her mind and blasted the proposal as unworkable and too extreme. Then, more than a month later, Miller unveiled her own strong-mayor plan to the Council, which she had been planning for some time. Though her proposed changes weren’t as far-reaching as Blackwood’s, the plan was dead on arrival. Feelings ran so high at the Horseshoe that a shouting match broke out, uniting the members of the Council in a way that happens as often as an 800-year flood.

As Blackwood’s petition gained steam, which Miller admits she never expected, she started to warm to it. Then, in late January, she announced the formation of her own committee, called Stronger Mayor, Stronger Dallas. Miller had decided to campaign for the proposal that she had originally panned.

There was no way she was going to let Blackwood take all the credit, should the measure pass.

Given the climate at City Hall, some skeptics believe that Blackwood and Miller are working together behind the scenes. They point to the fact that they have several backers in common and at one time used the same political consultant, Allyn & Co., which is headed by Rob Allyn. The skeptics couldn’t be more wrong.

Blackwood originally hired Allyn in August 2002 to lay the groundwork for her run for office, but they later had a falling out over the development of the charter amendment. Both sides are tight-lipped about the specifics, but it’s clear that Blackwood worried that Allyn was too close to the mayor’s agenda. In October 2004, Blackwood fired Allyn and hired another powerful firm, the Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group, which is headed by Bryan Eppstein. Blackwood released a statement that described the firm as “an independent political consulting firm with no current ties to the mayor and members of the Dallas City Council.” That provided smart political cover—and took a jab at Allyn relationship’s with Miller.

With Allyn’s services no longer needed in the Blackwood camp, he was free to coordinate the mayor’s own strong-mayor committee. Miller now says that because this is the only proposal on the ballot, she has no choice but to accept it. “Because this goes into effect in September, there’s only one person in the city who can talk about how it’s going to work, and that’s me.” That may be, but egos are also on the line. Allyn is one of the most powerful consultants in town—not the kind of person who gets fired—and it’s hard to imagine that he would allow himself to be pushed out of the spotlight. The same can be said of Miller.

So, to recap: Blackwood and Miller are not working together. They’re working separately. But toward the same goal—even though Miller originally poo-pooed that goal. And they are using their own consultants (who are rivals), thank you very much.

Having been overshadowed by Blackwood, the mayor appears to feel that she has to make this issue her own, which might explain why she sometimes refers to the petition in first person—as in, “We certified 20,000 good signatures of registered voters in Dallas who wanted this on the ballot.” But a practical political component is also in play. If the measure fails, the City Council will likely view it as a mandate to put forth their own charter amendment to expand the powers of the individual members. Miller may also believe that she can win the election based on her own popularity, even if the entire Council opposes it. A poll conducted by Allyn in late January showed that Miller has a 62.5 percent approval rating among Dallas residents who are likely to vote. (The Council received an approval rating of 35.4 percent.) When asked if they would vote for or against the initiative, 50.5 percent said they would vote for it. Only 38 percent said they would vote against, leaving 11.5 percent undecided.

And that will be the 11.5 percent both sides—all three sides?—battle for during the next two months. For Miller, in her pantsuit-and-pearl-necklace uniform, it’s a chance to spend her political capital on a big-ticket item that would be just perfect for her office at City Hall: the strong-mayor mandate. For those who oppose her, it would be the end of the world. Cue the locusts.

The battle for the city has begun.

Photo: Blackwood: San Sellers


Strange Bedfellows

So you’re still confused about who’s backing the strong-mayor amendment? That’s understandable. Just consider the following: BETH ANN BLACKWOOD (far left), who started the petition drive, also wants a seat on the City Council. She hired ROB ALLYN’s (second from the left) consulting firm to help her win it. But then they had a falling-out because she believed Allyn was too close to the mayor. So Blackwood fired Allyn and hired one of his rivals, BRYAN EPPSTEIN (far right), who runs the Fort Worth-based powerhouse Eppstein Group.

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, MAYOR LAURA MILLER (cuddled up in the middle) criticized Blackwood’s proposal from the start. She came up with her own strong-mayor plan—a weaker version than Blackwood’s—and floated it to the Council. Shouting ensued. The weak mayor’s semistrong-mayor proposal crashed and burned.

But look! Up in the sky! It’s Rob Allyn! And when Blackwood’s petition drive gained steam, Miller changed her mind, endorsed it, and hired Allyn to get it passed. So now Miller is backing a proposal she once opposed, and she’s doing it with the help of a consultant who was fired by the woman who created that proposal.

That leaves Dallas with two competing campaigns, both working to pass the same proposal. Hey, no one said democracy was simple.




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