Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
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What Dallas Needs From Its Next City Manager

For four decades, the city's top staff job has been an internal hire. Can we hope this time it’ll be different?
By Eric Celeste |

Dallas has hung up a “Help Wanted” sign for its next city manager, the top spot at City Hall. The job description: the successful applicant will run a public enterprise of 12,000 people; manage a $2.7 billion budget; and appease a fractious, multiethnic electorate. The applicant will need to avoid media land mines, establish a working relationship with the mayor and 14 City Council members, and grow the tax base with dwindling resources. Also, the applicant will need to find time to pretend to have a family as well as hit the gym. No one likes a fatty on the dole.

If you read the recent 103-part series in the Dallas Morning News that asked, “What do we need from our next city manager?” then you know all this. You know that our next city manager must be wily yet transparent, big-picture yet detail-oriented, obsequious yet ball-busting. You know that the city manager should let the City Council dictate policy but also be a friend to big business. And if those qualities sound mutually exclusive to you, well, you’re probably an excuse-making quitter.

But guess what? None of those qualifications, while important, should be the determining factor when the Council hires the next top city official. No, the primary consideration should be the job applicant’s answer to this one question: what will you do when John Scovell calls?

I chose the Woodbine Development CEO and president and Ray Hunt protégé because I happen to know Scovell does call, and I assume he will call again. When, for example, the city decides to do something like build a new convention-center hotel that competes with Woodbine’s iconic Hyatt Regency Dallas, the man has some things he’d like known by the powers that be. But feel free to substitute the name of any Dallas power player who doesn’t hesitate to make such calls: Donna Halstead, Ross Perot Jr., Ray Washburne, Ron Kirk, Wick Allison. The test works for all those names.

Your phone rings—Scovell doesn’t go through the secretary—and you catch an earful about Project X. Scovell says he doesn’t much care for the thing. Project X is a Big Picture Project. It has taken you months of backroom dealing to get the eight votes you need on the Council to pass Project X. (As former City Manager Ted Benavides once explained to an incredulous Mayor Laura Miller, in a story too good to fact-check: “I don’t work for you. I work for the eight votes.”) 

Back to the test question: what will you do? You will not open the bottom drawer of your desk and reach for a bottle of whiskey.

I’ll tell you what the city manager has traditionally done when Scovell calls. He or she goes to the mayor, because the mayor, while only one Council vote, sets the agenda and will therefore get the same phone call. Then the two decide what needs to be done. Then they relay their decision to the assistant city managers and other staff, and the staff works to make it happen.

I’m not saying the city manager and mayor necessarily decide to do what our hypothetical caller wants done. I’m saying they make the decision. Then they either stall a project—city staff has many ways it can slowly let the air out of the balloon—or put together a deck with facts and figures that fit the narrative needed to get the project fast-tracked.

That’s the way it has been done forever in Dallas. That’s why every city manager hired since 1972—almost 42 years—has been promoted from within the city staff’s ranks. The insiders make the calls months before an issue sees a public hearing and the amateurs show up at Council meetings, take the mic, and actually believe their opinions matter. It has been an effective way to run a city, if you have the right phone numbers in your contact list.

But the current city manager, Mary Suhm, is leaving because (among other reasons) that’s increasingly no longer how the city runs. You see, the current City Council has, against all logic and reason, decided it wants to be a part of our little municipal democracy. Not just a part. An integral part. It wants to set policy.

Whether or not you think this is a good idea—and it’s perfectly understandable if you don’t, because, good heavens, who knows where these people come from?—it’s happening. It’s not just one rogue Council member like Laura Miller or Angela Hunt asking why important policy decisions (Trinity River Project, secret deals with fracking companies) are finalized outside the Council’s purview. Philip Kingston, Scott Griggs, Sandy Greyson—they all actually read the agenda and demand data before they vote. The nerve!

Take the recent controversy over Yellow Cab and Uber, which has caused loud grinding of the city staff’s gears. Bottom line: under the direction of Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, an early favorite to replace Suhm, city staff revised an ordinance using language supplied by Yellow Cab designed to make it harder for Uber to operate in the city, because the smartphone-based taxi service had started taking business from the cab company. Staff didn’t tell the Council members and then tried to slip the measure past them by placing the ordinance-revision vote on an addendum to the consent agenda, which is where routine items that need no discussion are placed. Councilman Kingston spied and removed it.

“It is sneaky. It was designed to avoid the light of day. It’s creepy. It’s whatever you want to say about it,” Kingston says. “You really can’t characterize it too negatively. … [That’s why] we have got to be looking for a manager who has demonstrated personal commitment to transparency and accountability and to the policy division in the council-manager form of government. We’ve got to have a manager who trusts Council enough to give them the straight dope, reliable data, and strongly worded professional opinions. I have no fear of a manager who tells me, ‘Look, you’re wrong.’ ”

But insiders do. Because that means the city manager is taking a Council member’s opinion seriously enough to have a conversation about the issue, and that means a loss of control. Controlling the outcome is the entire reason for the phone call in the first place. As Kingston says, “The previous Council was a rubber stamp for the manager’s office.” That’s the way the power players want it.

It’s clear from the Uber fallout, though, that the next city manager will have to deal with an active, inquisitive, and, yes, policy-setting Council. Which is why, for the first time in four decades, the new city manager may—may—be an outsider.

“This job was A.C. Gonzalez’s to lose,” says a longtime City Hall insider. “And I think he’s losing it. City staff can’t play the game the way they used to. They would tell the mayor whatever they wanted, lie if they had to, and get him on their side. And they’d tell the Council nothing. And in that way, they’d be sure to pass what the insiders want on the big issues and let the Council argue over grocery bags. This new group won’t put up with that.”

This is the environment within which our new city manager will operate: a mayor and Council members who no longer trust city staff, and media that may finally hold the city manager accountable, because they see how off base they were with years of bowing to Mary Suhm. 

That doesn’t mean we need a novice. We need someone who has taken just such a phone call before, lest a pair of slacks be soiled. Someone who has the sand to say no to power when it’s the right thing for the city. My own long-shot suggestion: former Police Chief David Kunkle. He has been a deputy city manager in Arlington, knows Dallas, and had a good relationship with both the Council and city staff.

Whoever gets the job, that person will understand times have changed. That person will say all the right things at the introductory news conference. There will be talk of conciliation, of moving forward, of mending fences and fixing potholes, of big vision, of world-classiness, of twirling toward freedom. And somewhere John Scovell will be checking his phone, making sure his contacts list is duly updated.