As we’ve heard time and time again, the city manager really runs the show in Dallas, and the mayor acts as the city ambassador, often at the mercy of the city manager’s plans. Since the mayor can’t fire the city manager without a two-thirds vote from city council, the mayor has to form a true coalition-style arrangement with the city manager’s office and the city council to ensure that campaign platforms and promises actually get accomplished.
This government-by-committee structure might have served Dallas well in the past, but when the mayor and the city manager don’t see eye-to-eye, gridlock results. Supporters of this system tout the advantages of having a city manager who isn’t a politician, subject to re-election, and the pandering that the re-election process requires. They promote the impartiality of this civil servant position and point out that a career city manager makes the job immune to the vagaries of politicians’ whims. They point to the success of the city manager’s office in Farmers Branch and Carrollton.
That system’s all fine and good if all you want to do is put a leash on Barney in Mayberry, but we’re talking about a city of 1,188,580 people and an operating budget of $1,912,845,956, and we need some accountability in City Hall of the elected official kind. We would never elect such a lame duck leader as the nation’s president, so why do we tolerate it in our city government?
Recently, a Dallas city council candidate organized a petition drive, called Citizens for a Strong Mayor, to gather signatures from Dallas residents to place a charter amendment on the May ballot that calls for eliminating the city manager position. Unfortunately, the petition drive has been plagued by accusations that signature collectors have consistently misinformed residents about the facts behind the petition.
Early polling place workers and Preston Hollow grocery store patrons complained to city officials that petitioners were informing people they should sign the petition because the city manager had been indicted, or that they were simply joining a mailing list by signing. And when asked who was funding the petition, petitioners’ answers allegedly varied from a law firm to the chamber of commerce to the city itself. Though organizers of the petition drive deny any irregularities and have explained the misinformation as confusion on the part of the petition company workers, the doubt about the legitimacy of the petitioners’ tactics remains.
That doubt is unfortunate, because while we may not need to eliminate the city manager’s position completely, it is high time that Dallas residents revisit the city charter requirement that limits the mayor’s powers. The Citizens for a Strong Mayor petition needs 20,000 signatures by the second week of December to have the amendment included on the spring ballot, though some current city council members vehemently oppose the idea and have organized mass mailings to urge local residents not to support the petition. More than one city council member is on record in support of the current city charter and the current city manager’s job responsibilities. But the issue of division of responsibility between city manager and mayor is a legitimate question for city residents, and it should not be tainted by dishonest and underhanded petition collectors.
The mayor herself supports a charter proposal that would give the mayor’s office the jurisdiction to hire and fire the city manager (instead of eliminating the position altogether) and line-item veto power during budget negotiations. In the mayor’s proposal, these two additional mayoral responsibilities could be overturned by a two-thirds majority vote of the city council and, if approved, the changes would not take effect until after her term ends in 2007.
The mayor is not just the ambassador for the city – she or he should also be the city’s chief executive officer. But the office will never have the ability to create real change, mandated by the voters, if the city manager’s office continues to maintain autonomy.
It’s time for the coalition building at City Hall to originate at the top – let’s make it an idea whose time has come.
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