Monday, June 27, 2005

What’s the Matter With Dallas?

Brutal but well-written article in the July Texas Monthly about Dallas' governance issues (previously discussed here with several good comments). Last month Dallas rejected going to a strong mayor form of government like Houston has. The link might require subscriber login, but the article is too long to post in its entirety here, so here are the key excerpts:

MAY 7 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE when Dallas decided what it wants to be when it grows up. That was the day Dallas voters considered replacing their city’s current organizational chart, where real power is vested in the city manager—a sort of learner’s-permit government for adolescent urbs—with the kind of strong-mayor system favored by mature metropolises like New York, Chicago, and, yes, Houston. As it turned out, Dallas decided overwhelmingly not to take off the training wheels, proving that the city that recently adopted “Live large. Think big” as its official slogan can only think small when it comes to its political culture. ...

Perennially beset by the highest crime rate of any major American city, with businesses fleeing to the suburbs and potential new corporate citizens turning up their noses, Big D has begun to think of itself in the lowercase. Last year the Dallas Morning News published a twenty-page special section, “Dallas at the Tipping Point,” which offered a particularly painful analysis: Far from being a glitzy Sunbelt growth capital, statistically Dallas was starting to resemble a Rust Belt loser like Detroit. ...

Yet none of the Blackwood [strong mayor] supporters effectively made the case that a strong mayor would remedy the biggest problem with Dallas’s democracy: Nobody votes. What Hanson calls Dallas’s “phantom public” just might show up if real issues of the city’s long-term vision and viability were raised in the quadrennial mayoral elections. In Houston wild gyrations in public policy are possible with each election: One mayor opposes mass transit, the next is in favor of it, but somehow the two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach actually gets things done at a pace Dallas can only envy. From fighting crime to revitalizing downtown, Houston’s messy public forum is producing measurably better results than Dallas’s decorous, closely held private consensus. It’s not that Houston has a genius for leadership that Dallas doesn’t; it’s that its superior civic entrepreneurship is based on public participation. In Houston’s last mayoral election, more than 30 percent of the voters turned out. In Dallas the figure was 10 percent.

Other parts of the article go into greater detail about Dallas' political history and the political factions on both sides of the referendum.

I hold no ill will towards Dallas (although maybe a little friendly competitiveness from time to time). A strong Dallas would be good for Texas and good for Houston, so I'm hoping they find a way to get their act together soon. I just think that Houston sometimes goes so overboard lamenting our weaknesses that we forget that we have some great strengths we need to protect. I think it's called the "grass is greener" (on the other side) syndrome. This article does a good job of reminding us about one of those strengths.


At 11:53 PM, June 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dallas City Council has a huge influence in running Dallas, and there is a lot of corruption. This is regularly reported in the Dallas Observer (equivalent to the Houston Press) and was the subject of recent legislative hearings in Austin. Basically, council members extort money from businesses in south Dallas via intimidation and police harrasment. See for a recent report.

The power of council members leads to district-focused management, not what's in the best interests of the city. South Dallas council members care only about siphoning off money to their districts. Mayor Laura Miller has spoken frankly and truthfully about this problem, and in doing so has infuriated the blacks on city council. This is why south Dallas voters turned out in large numbers to defeat the strong mayor proposition.

Crime is recognized as a big problem but city hall says they don't have enough money to do much about it. Recently some business people started a campaign for private funding to help save Dallas. Crime at apartments is especially bad, and until recently city hall was blaming apartments rather than doing anything about it. See
The Deep Ellum district near downtown has suffered recently due to a perception of a crime problem.

While Deep Ellum is having problems and the West End is in a long-running funk (see
there is talk of pouring more public funds into the south side of downtown near the unused Reunion arena and Belo land. Belo owns Channel 8 (ABC), the Dallas Morning News, and it financed the McKinsey report last year. So let's see - they'll let existing areas decline but then want to spend a lot of money on another part of downtown whre there is political influence.

On a brighter note, Uptown just north of downtown is doing very well, and the Victory development near American Airlines arena could turn around that area.

Still, I see Dallas' problems as mainly due to the city council, and especially due to the south Dallas representation.

At 4:42 PM, June 29, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You couldn't be more right about our need for a strong Dallas.

A few other 'structural' problems in Dallas politics that keep them from moving forward.

1. No at large districts - 14 council members have district only constituencies. Only one (the Mayor) has ANY electoral interest in pursuing city-wide progress at the expense of district and local consituent projects and programs. This adds huge opportunity costs to city wide intitiatives.

2. Incorporated Dallas County - Richardson, Grand Prairie, Irving and the other cities are large and active enough to undertake significant initiatives on their own and occupy the civic energy of suburbanites who want to contribute to Dallas life. Compare to Houston, where unincorporated Spring and the Woodlands really keep some skin in the game at Houston City Hall. Evidence includes bloggers like Tom Kirkendall and Ann Linehan. One of the best lines in the full Article: "By virtue of being largely excluded from privatized Dallas, they became a gutsy, politically engaged public, the only real public the city currently has."

3. Stakeholders - Everyone currently involved in Dallas politics and public life who gets what they want from City Hall has an interest in keeping the current form of government, or in keeping the current form happy. Arguing for change means introducing risk in the political process for contractors, politicians, and favored business interests.

4. No consensus agenda - What would a strong Mayor accomplish, and who's turf would they accomplish it on? If Dallas had something like a quality of life agenda or a broad based group that supported one, it would have been much easier to convince people that a strong Mayor could hav been working for them.


At large council members. Introducing other council members who may be concerned with City-wide issues and don't have an interest in pitting neighborhoods against one another would help immensely. In Houston, at large members are a huge part of our civic success. They can bring focus to issues that might not be addressed by a distrcit only member (generously construed, they cirrently are: Finance and budget - Ellis, Elderly and Homelessness - Quan, Health - Sekula-Gibbs, Housing and Courts - Green, Traffic - Berry).

Here is a map of the current distrcits in Dallas
Suppose the 14 were reduced to 11 or even 9, and the other members would be elected at large.

Watch the consensus start to happen as people have to start working together in order to get elected. The other thing that will start to happen is the at large members will begin to pay extra attention to the areas that represent a minority within individual districts.


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