We get one shot every decade. That’s it. Every 10 years, Dallas gets an opportunity to alter the DNA of City Hall. The city charter contains within it a provision whereby every decade a charter review commission must be assembled to review the very charter itself. The commission can’t change the structure of our city government, but it does make recommendations as to what should be altered. Should the charter give the mayor more power? Should it provide for the election of more or fewer council members? Everything is on the table, once every 10 years.
That time has once again come. The current 16-member charter review commission, assembled in January, is charged with evaluating how the city runs and suggesting ways we could improve. The group will deliver its recommendations this summer, in time to put them on the ballot in November.
It sounds like a grand exercise—unless you attended the first public hearing held by the commission, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, near Fair Park. It was a beautiful Saturday. Only a few citizens showed up to pitch their pet ideas. If you had been there, it would have been hard to stifle a yawn.
The scene belied how important this process is (and how much backroom negotiating had already taken place). The mayor, in addressing the commission, had already identified fixing the redistricting process as his No. 1 priority. In the current model, council members themselves help draw the boundaries of the districts they represent. The mayor called the process “dirty.” Which is why, no matter what else happens, you’ll most likely get to vote on a proposal that will put that process in the hands of an independent redistricting board.
The other stuff up for consideration is only slightly less wonky than redistricting. I’m told the commission might suggest a change to the city staff’s civil-service designation (recommended by the publisher of this magazine more than a decade ago) and a tiny bump in mayoral power (call it strong-ish mayor). The foregoing, however, wouldn’t lead to the sort of dramatic improvement that an average citizen would notice.
Here’s something that would: do away with our current 14-1 council structure (14 council members, one mayor) and replace it with 10-4-1 (10 single-member districts, four at-large seats, the mayor). When we talk about dysfunction at City Hall, how the city manager could cut a secret deal to turn over parkland to drillers and get the city sued, why council members focus on their district’s interests at the expense of the city as a whole, it’s important to remember that none of this is new. Frustrated Dallas leaders have been saying for years that we should have tried harder to implement 10-4-1—a system voters approved more than two decades ago. The argument was that the courts found that system in violation of the Voting Rights Act, but that’s not true. The city was actually forced to defend its previous system, 8-3 (three at-large seats), in court because of a technicality, and then, when the courts said no, the city lost its stomach for another court battle.
And it goes back even further than that. Much further. Here’s a picture of Dallas in the 1890s painted by the history journal Legacies: “Businessmen and other reformers began to call for a shift to city-wide elections both to end ward-level constituencies and to increase the centralizing tendency in municipal government. The end of officials who held their loyalties to a specific neighborhood changed the focus of civic government to a city-wide perspective. … When politicians owed their election to specific wards, allocation of scarce resources and expensive services became contentious issues in city council meetings.”
Single-member districts were a problem nearly 120 years ago. Dallas eventually adopted an all at-large system that allowed white North Dallas business interests to run the city for nearly a century. So, no, we’re not going back to that. But could a blended model work in modern Dallas? We’re not going to find out this time around.
“There is no way we’re going to do that,” one commission member told me. “No one wants to recommend something that will infuriate southern Dallas.” A close observer with ties to the commission said, “I don’t think this group is going to touch anything really controversial, especially issues with racial undertones. So this might be as relevant as talking about strong mayor. Ain’t gonna happen.”
No surprise, really. The group isn’t exactly filled with change agents. It’s run by a legislator (State Representative Rafael Anchia) and packed with former council members, city staff, attorneys (Diane Ragsdale, Jan Hart Black, Tom Perkins, Levi Davis).
Fine. Fear of a white minority running a diverse city is not just understandable, it’s sensible. “The city council is already far too compliant with the harebrained schemes and shiny-object spending that gets foisted on us by the Citizens Council,” says one City Hall insider. “More at-large members would just make that worse.”
So here’s my suggestion. Here’s a change even this commission can get behind. Here’s something that would make a real difference. Let’s pay council members $100,000 a year.
I’m told the commission is already considering a pay hike for council members, taking their current $37,500 salary up to the mid-$40,000s (about what a starting DISD teacher makes). That’s not enough to make a difference.
In fact, there is a growing consensus, even among the council’s staunchest critics, that the 14-1 structure is workable, that a lack of leadership within that system could be fixed with a new pay scale for council members. Council-manager single-member systems will always be messy, the thinking goes, but they can be smart messy—if you can attract the right kind of people to the job with decent pay.
Who are the right kind of people? Working parents. It’s rare to see them on the council. That’s why you mostly get empty-nesters and weirdos trying to run the city. Working parents are the backbone of a city. They’re still young and dumb enough to think they can make a difference and yet still focused on the betterment of someone other than themselves—the next generation. They would make perfect council members.
Other cities realize this. A 2011 survey of 15 major U.S. cities (some of this may have changed; check your Google for updates) showed Dallas one up from the bottom of pay scale, above only San Antonio. Five cities paid their council members more than $100,000, eight paid more than $75,000.
Why? Because these cities are acting like grown-ups. They’re trying to attract the best people to the job, and they’re not worried that a few cranks will wind up with a good salary, too. I can hear the objections: “That’s a lot of my tax money going to fund the lifestyle of angry East Dallas naysayers (Philip Kingston), Oak Cliff bleeding hearts (Scott Griggs), and southern Dallas ward-heelers (pick one).” No, it’s not. We’re talking about a total increase of about $900,000 paid to 15 people. To put that in perspective, have a look at the annual compensation of Phillip Jones, the head of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2011, he made $508,000. It was a down year for him. In 2010, he made almost $550,000.
Sadly, a real pay hike for council members probably won’t make the ballot. Some commission members have made known that they fear suggesting even a modest pay raise because it’s so easy to gin up voters when it comes to paying politicians. Commission members fear opposition to a pay raise could sink every other ballot measure put to voters.
If that winds up being the case, it’ll be a shame. We have one chance every 10 years to give this charter a hard look, to set the rules for our city, and we won’t do the one thing any rational organization would do when posting a job opening: pay enough to get good people interested.