PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Strong Mayors Built Dallas

A committee (or a Council) never built anything.

Brian D. Sweany’s excellent story (Can a Strong Mayor Save Dallas?) on the political machinations inside both sides of the strong-mayor campaign tells us a lot about the personalities and power plays behind the May election.

For my part, in considering a question of this magnitude, my first instinct is to look to history. In this case, the history of Dallas shows clearly that Dallas has operated, until very recently, as a strong-mayor city—in fact if not in name.

In the 1930s, Dallas transformed itself from a small Texas town with a railroad into a major American city with a future. It happened when the city rose up in rebellion against the hack politicians who ran the scandal-ridden municipal commission. They not only did away with the commission form of government, but they also put in its place a council and city manager, installed civil service, and established a watchdog group to monitor elected officials. In the middle of the Great Depression, they raised millions of dollars to divert and build levees along the Trinity River so that the city could grow; to spur that growth they offered an extravagant sum to host the Texas Centennial Exposition in Fair Park.

The reform movement was led by a young banker named R.L. Thornton, and although he wasn’t formally elected to the office of mayor until 1953, nobody had any doubt who was in charge.

Thornton stepped down as mayor in 1961. After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, a group of civic leaders went to J. Erik Jonsson, one of the founders of Texas Instruments, and asked him to step into the job. He surveyed the city in his businesslike way and made some decisions. A few months later, construction started on the Dallas North Tollway. A few years later, bulldozers started clearing land for DFW Airport.

Want to talk about strong mayors? In 1967, Dallas voters rejected the proposition for DFW Airport. In 1974, it opened.

The textbooks can say what they like. The political reality is that strong mayors ran Dallas for 40 years.

In 1971, Jonsson stepped down. In the 34 years since, weak mayors (with a couple of exceptions) have run Dallas. Which do you think worked best?

I’m in favor of the strong-mayor proposition because that’s the way cities get built. That’s the way this city got built. That’s the way anything gets built. Alexander Hamilton made this same point in the Federalist Papers. There was strong opposition in many quarters to the powers given in the new Constitution to the president. After all, Americans had just rid themselves of one king; they didn’t want to replace one with another.

Hamilton argued forcefully that an energetic executive was crucial to strong government. The legislative branch’s function was to consider, to debate, to forestall, and to reach agreement. The executive branch’s function was to act. Only a single person could fulfill that function.

In Dallas, under the present system, the two branches have gotten mixed into one. Our City Council acts as legislature and executive; the city manager and mayor are merely its servants. That’s why so little gets done. The Council could be composed of geniuses and archangels, but the confusion would still exist, and the result would be unchanged.

Hamilton cited examples from ancient history, but we need look only at our city’s recent past. Where there is no authority, there is no accountability. When 15 people are responsible, nobody is responsible.

Nothing great gets done by committee. There’s not one person reading this page who doesn’t know that to be true. To take Dallas where we need to go, we need—once again—to give our mayors the authority to act. —Wick Allison


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