Sunday, August 14, 2022 Aug 14, 2022
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Why Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez Must Go

It was obvious that he was a horrible hire even before we learned he was snooping around in council members’ offices.
By Eric Celeste |
Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

The phone call wasn’t unexpected, but it did disappoint. This was winter 2013, and Dallas was looking to hire a new city manager. The way our government is structured, think of the city manager as the CEO, the person in charge. The new hire would replace career-long Dallas bureaucrat Mary Suhm, the latest in a 30-years-plus line of city managers who had all been groomed at City Hall and come up through the system.

The call came from a top-notch city manager candidate, someone who two weeks earlier had promised to apply for the Dallas job. He was a longtime assistant city manager in one of the best-run large cities in the country, a person eager to take on the challenge of bringing more progressive urban planning strategies to Dallas. Alas, the candidate was calling a Dallas council member to say he wasn’t going to apply for the job after all.

“I have one question for you,” the dejected council member replied. “Are you not applying because you think this job search is rigged, and the choice is a fait accompli?”

The superstar candidate, who had spent those two weeks gathering behind-the-scenes intelligence, replied, “Yes. That’s exactly why.”

Which is how it came to pass that the best candidate never even applied for the Dallas gig. Eventually, there were three finalists for the job. The two candidates who were “head and shoulders above” the third, according to one person who interviewed all three, were passed over and subsequently snatched up to run the cities of Fort Worth and Sunnyvale, California.

The internal candidate for whom the job search was allegedly rigged, A.C. Gonzalez, got his promotion in January 2014. His salary was bumped from $250,000 to $400,000, at the time more than any city manager in the country. Now that Gonzalez, 64, is nearing retirement age, he can leave with a pension tied to that high salary so long as he earns it for three years—meaning he has a year left before we start hearing rumblings that Gonzalez will want to hand his job to the next longtime Dallas employee waiting at the trough.

No. I’ve had enough. We shouldn’t wait another year. After two years, we’ve seen enough, and it’s time for A.C. Gonzalez to go. It’s time for the city to bring in an outside, disruptive force to run the show. Why? Because Gonzalez shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, and he hasn’t followed through on his promise to create a new culture at City Hall.

Let’s go back to the problems Gonzalez had to overcome just to be hired, concerns he himself addressed in his cover-letter application for the job.

“You have seen me through the best of times and, recently, the worst of times,” he wrote to council members. “I am human. I made a mistake, but I hope you consider how I handled it. … No candidate is perfect, and none of us wants to be judged on our worst day. I am asking that you look at the quality of my character and my achievements throughout my 34-year career … .”

Gonzalez was referring to the Uber scandal that preceded his appointment as city manager. To refresh: with help from an attorney for Yellow Cab, Gonzalez, then interim city manager, tried to slip a vote onto the consent agenda (aka, “approve without discussion”) that would have hurt ride-sharing companies like Uber and protected cab monopolies. This scandal was about as bad as it comes in city manager terms—trying to maneuver around elected officials to the benefit of a special business interest. This called to mind the scandal that helped shepherd his boss, Mary Suhm, out of the building. She gave a written guarantee to a gas drilling company that a $19 million payment would win said company the right to mine Dallas land, despite no council members being told of the agreement (an agreement signed while Gonzalez was in the building but not blamed on him).

When he was hired two years ago, Gonzalez promised to create a new culture at City Hall. But he hasn’t changed a thing.

Miraculously, though, the “I am human” defense worked. Perhaps because council members were swayed by the other big achievements outlined by Gonzalez, which included but were not limited to the following:

Gonzalez negotiated a lease to get the Dallas Stars to move here from Minneapolis in 1993. I don’t know if you recall, but Stars owner Norman Green was so money-strapped by 1995 that he all but begged Tom Hicks to buy the team. And Hicks promptly made the city change the structure of said lease to one more favorable to him. But, okay, sure, well done.

Gonzalez oversaw the expansion of the Convention Center in 1990. Okay, that’s excusable. Convention business didn’t start declining across the country until the mid-’90s, and Gonzalez was gone in 2003 when the city approved another ill-conceived expansion of the center. 

Gonzalez led the fight for the Omni Convention Center Hotel. Wait, that’s a highlight? Because the city now owes nearly $500 million on something worth not even $300 million (once you take out all the government subsidies that nourish the bottom line). And the hotel’s presence hasn’t staunched the decline of the Convention Center business like it was supposed to. 

Gonzalez did some school district stuff. He left the city in 1995 and took a job as deputy and then interim superintendent for Austin ISD, until 2000. In his application for the city manager’s job, he noted that he’d executed a big bond program during that time. Not noted: when Gonzalez was in charge at Austin ISD, criminal charges (for manipulating state testing data) were filed by the state, a first in Texas history. 

Let bygones be bygones, you say? Fine. Let’s look at how Gonzalez and those directly under him have fared since he was named boss:

Gonzalez oversaw the entire despicable Scott Griggs affair. Space prevents a full recounting of it. Suffice it to say that the trumped-up, ridiculous grand jury proceeding against Councilman Griggs for allegedly raising his voice to a city employee—a felony!—covered in shame nearly every high-level employee at City Hall. The disgusting mess could have destroyed Griggs’ career, and it should have resulted in resignations and/or firings.

Gonzalez has watched as the Great Trinity Forest has been bulldozed for a golf course. Thanks to the dogged work of environmentalist Ben Sandifer and the reporting of Eric Nicholson of the Dallas Observer, we know the city has been anything but transparent (Gonzalez’s buzzword during the hiring process) as contractors have chopped down trees and damaged wetlands in building the southern Dallas project no one in southern Dallas wants. And when Sandifer has demanded answers along the way, he has been lied to or stonewalled.

Gonzalez, in a move widely seen as kowtowing to the suits at Southwest Airlines, which wanted two free gates at Love Field after American Airlines’ departure, delayed approving the gates for Virgin America until pressure from the feds forced his hand. 

Gonzalez hasn’t changed a thing at City Hall. When he was hired, he promised to shake up city management, proving that he wasn’t beholden to the past. Instead he gave all top managers at City Hall except one a raise. Then he hired two new assistant city managers. But he has fired no top managers to date.

Gonzalez waited at least two weeks before telling the Council, in January, that the Army Corps of Engineers had threatened to shut down the city’s municipal water system unless the city paid $5 million to fix the screwy Trinity River fake-rapids feature. In fact, he waited until just five hours before the Corps’ deadline to break the news. 

Fine, though. As he said, none of us wants to be judged on our worst day—especially if we’ve had a lot of worst days. The last straw, for me, was the bug sweep.

In January, some council members were astonished when Gonzalez and his staff told them that staff sometimes swept council members’ offices for listening devices. Councilman Griggs, the subject of the previously noted smear campaign, was deeply troubled. He wrote an email to Gonzalez, cc’ing Councilman Philip Kingston, asking for “details on the scope, dates, and findings of all searches conducted in my present and previous offices. Please indicate if you or anyone at the city of Dallas has ever installed any type of device … in my office or any other office.”

Gonzalez replied that he would ask for documents to satisfy the request. 

Kingston rightly noted in an email response that he would have been more comforted had Gonzalez been as outraged as Griggs, saying he would have preferred hearing that “no such horrendous and illegal activity had ever taken place to my knowledge and [Gonzalez] was committed to determining whether it had ever happened.”

But in a follow-up interview, Kingston acknowledged what he and others at City Hall have resigned themselves to. Gonzalez is what he is, a lifer Dallas bureaucrat bent on protecting those in the building, not serving those outside it. “The only thing I’m sure of,” Kingston told me, “is that no one is bugging us because they want to know how to run a city.”

A funny line. But the joke is on us, the citizens of Dallas. Why should we—and our elected officials—sit around while Gonzalez waits for his pension to max out? It’s time to hire a real city manager, someone who cares more about Dallas than he does his retirement checks.