Politics & Government

Why Dallas Needs an Outsider as Its Next City Manager

Three ways to overcome City Hall's horror story of a culture problem.

In the March issue of D Magazine, I wrote about why A.C. Gonzalez, the city manager of Dallas, needed to go. The piece eloquently noted that Gonzalez needed to be fired because he never should have been hired in the first place and because he didn’t follow through on his promise to create a new culture at City Hall.

Gonzalez was not fired. But two months after my powerful, earth-shaking column, he resigned, effective in January. That’s sort of like being fired, right? Bottom line is that the person who failed to change the culture—a bureaucracy that protects its pensions and caters to the establishment—is leaving. Citizens should rejoice that he has one foot out the door, yes? There are three answers to this question:

Answer No. 1: No, he’s a nice person. Several people who’ve worked closely with the lame-duck city manager describe him to me as kind, thoughtful, and well-intentioned. “He would be a wonderful professor,” one longtime co-worker said. We don’t have enough of those people in the world, certainly not at City Hall.

Answer No. 2: Yes, he’s too nice of a person. When I got him on the phone, Councilman Lee Kleinman struggled to pinpoint just where Gonzalez had gone wrong. He tried to explain how the highest-paid city of Dallas employee in history will be remembered as—my words, not his—at best inconsequential, at worst a failure. “You know, A.C. tried to please everyone,” Kleinman finally said. “You can’t do that in this job. He never learned to say, ‘Fuck you, I’ve got eight votes!’ ”

In other words, Kleinman believes the job requires a taskmaster, someone who doesn’t try to placate all 15 council members and their egos, as well as someone the staff fears enough to shake themselves out of their bureaucratic stupor.

Answer No. 3: It depends on his replacement. This is where I land on the question about whether we should rejoice. Because there is an argument to be made that Gonzalez was set up to fail. When he was promoted from within City Hall, he was given an enormous pay increase ($250,000 to $400,000), which invited not only scrutiny but ridicule. He inherited a staff largely beholden to his predecessor, longtime City Manager Mary Suhm, who managed largely through intimidation. (Some see this as a positive; I do not.) And although our mayor is technically just one of 15 council members, some in the past have used their bully pulpit to become effective whips for their city manager, an enforcer and vote counter who ensures legislative discipline. Mayor Mike Rawlings has not proven himself such a politician. Gonzalez, then, never had the temperament, tactical skills, or support to succeed. His chief quality—his experience at City Hall—meant little, as the structure of our city government invites gridlock, and the moldy culture of 1500 Marilla makes failure more likely than not.

There are three ways to overcome the culture problem at City Hall. One is for eight progressives (the majority of votes) to be elected to Council. This may happen eventually, perhaps as soon as 2019. We’ve already got, oh, 6.5 or so on the horseshoe now. But that doesn’t help us today, and with 14 distinct districts, nothing is certain. Another way to end the status quo would be to change our local government to a “strong mayor” system, thereby making one politician more accountable for success or failure. Such a move would bring its own problems. It could undermine the growing influence of the Council’s progressives. Regardless, it won’t happen anytime soon.

Then there’s the third route: we could simply get this hiring decision right. The Council could do what it should have done two years ago and hire a city manager who is a room-wrecking change agent.

To understand why this is so important, it’s instructive to recall how Gonzalez’s hiring went down. There were three finalists to replace Suhm in 2014, Gonzalez and two outsiders, David Cooke and Deanna Santana. Progressives and moderates on the Council couldn’t line up behind one outsider, despite a desire for someone to shake up a city staff largely seen as something between complacent and defiant. (A charming hangover from Mary Suhm’s “I’ve got eight votes” style.) They settled for Gonzalez. Several council members put a brave face on it, suggesting the high salary he was being paid would put pressure on Gonzalez to keep his promises.

But change never came. It’s easy to look back and say the Council should have hired Cooke (immediately snatched up by Fort Worth to be its city manager) or Santana (now city manager in Sunnyvale, California). Santana in particular “would have taken a wrecking ball to this place,” one council member told me. “She would have put fear in everyone who worked for her that they needed to perform, they needed to help the Council solve problems, and that’s what I think we need now.”

I talked to council members who could be considered progressives, moderates, and conservatives. Each one told me a variation of the same theme. This time, we’re going to get it right. We’re going to get someone in here to shape this place up, work with the Council, fix our problems.

Which I take to mean: this time, we hire the wrecking ball. Right?

Maybe. But there are some roadblocks.

One concern expressed is that the city is being too cheap in its search for new candidates, as it’s spending only $30,000 to comb the entire country for applicants. But that’s not something we should get hung up on. A sampling of other Texas cities that have recently looked for city managers (Arlington, McKinney, El Paso, Plano) shows that each spent somewhere between $18,000 and $28,200. Municipal employee searches are much cheaper than corporate head-honcho searches, and “We can’t afford an outside-the-box, big-time corporate candidate” with the salary Dallas is offering, Kleinman says (he’s on the search committee appointed by the mayor).

No, the bigger concern about the search, the elephant-in-the-room-size worry, is that one of the applicants is Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel. He’s an insider.

Or is he? McDaniel has been with the city just two years. He was the city manager in Tyler and was a finalist in McKinney for the same gig before he withdrew his name from consideration. Several council members spoke highly of McDaniel when Gonzalez made him one of his two outside hires (the sum total of radical change he offered). Council members as disparate as Kleinman, Erik Wilson, Adam McGough, and Scott Griggs speak highly of him.

Maybe, the thinking goes, he’s the perfect mix of new and old. Never having worked under Suhm or her predecessors, maybe he is independent enough to have his own ideas about how the city should be restructured, informed by his relatively brief time getting to know firsthand who is worthwhile and who is not. As more than one council member told me, what’s important is the city manager’s mindset, not where he or she comes from.

You know, the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to talk myself into this. Heck, McDaniel would be a smart, safe—

NO!

Oh, my sweet heavens. You see how fast it happens? How easy it is to believe? The gas smells like lilacs, it relaxes you, so you breathe deep, and then everything goes warm and dark. This is how you wind up with more than three decades of city managers taken from the same pool. You take the safe route. You settle for easy. You shrug your shoulders and hope.

The point is not that McDaniel is qualified or that he says the right things or that people like him. The one thing the Council must do this time is break the cycle. This job cannot go to a staff member, because it always has. Three decades plus of knighting can’t continue. Sorry, Mark. It’s not fair, but you need to pay for the sins of those who came before you. Because it’s tough to take down a building if you’re swinging a wrecking ball from the inside.

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