My DMN Editorial: Strong Mayor Bad for Neighborhoods

The following is an editorial I drafted for the Dallas Morning News concerning the current Strong Mayor proposal. The editorial will appear in the DMN tomorrow, in slightly edited form.

In 1893, a clever salesman and self-proclaimed cowboy by the name of Clark Stanley began selling a “miraculous” tonic at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Promising immediate relief from everything from rheumatism to sciatica, the tonic quickly sold out and remained quite popular until the public realized that Stanley’s elixir was little more than turpentine, mineral oil, and a touch of camphor.

Like Stanley’s tonic, the current strong mayor proposal has been promoted as a cure-all for our city’s ills. Tired of running over potholes? Think we need more police officers on our streets? Want to see our parks revitalized, our economy thriving, and the Trinity ditch rebuilt into a glorious river? Just sip a little Strong Mayor Tonic, dab a touch behind your ears, and things will be better in no time.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are few things more attractive than change when the status quo doesn’t seem to be working, but this proposal is not the change we need. It puts too much control in the hands of one person, the mayor, with no checks and balances.

While giving our mayor more control over some aspects of city governance may be a good idea, it’s important to be clear that we aren’t voting on the general concept of a strong mayor system. Instead, we are voting on a very particular amendment to our city charter that eliminates the city manager, transfers all authority to the mayor, and renders our city council impotent.

Putting all governmental power into the hands of one person is like sipping Stanley’s concoction of turpentine and mineral oil. It not only fails to cure the problems you have, it creates a new set of ailments.

The mayor’s powers under this proposal are expansive and range from the most momentous to the most mundane. The mayor would have the power to create and eliminate city departments at will, to condemn privately-owned buildings, and to hire and fire all 13,500 city employees, including police officers, with or without cause. If any of those employees wanted to appeal the mayor’s decision, they would have to go before a review board selected by the mayor.

The proposed charter amendment would also change our city’s board and commission appointment process. Currently, each council member appoints citizen volunteers to the city’s 40 boards and commissions, ensuring that neighborhoods from across Dallas have a voice at city hall. Under this proposal, the mayor alone would appoint all 500 board and commission members (except plan commissioners), threatening broad-based public representation on such boards as the Board of Adjustment, Park Board, Landmark Commission, Library Board, and Cultural Affairs Commission.

Most troubling is the mayor’s new authority to enact “orders” that would have the same force and effect as ordinances passed by city council. With no oversight or public debate, the mayor alone would have the power to create new law by decree.

In addition to these sweeping powers, the mayor would also oversee such day-to-day tasks as selecting secretaries for council members and appointing clerks to the municipal courts.

With so much power concentrated in one person, residents who aren’t “in” with the mayor will be shut out of Dallas city government for four to eight years and their council members will be powerless to help them. Right now, there are fourteen other people who can champion a cause or give voice to concerns that may not be among the mayor’s priorities, whether it’s downtown revitalization, our non-discrimination ordinance, historic preservation, or arts funding. If the new plan is enacted, unless the mayor is on your side, you will not have a seat at the table.

Still not convinced the Strong Mayor Tonic is bad medicine? Consider this: Dallas’ much-criticized ward politics, the so-called “fiefdom” mentality in which council members allegedly take care of their own districts to the detriment of the city as a whole, would only get worse under this strong mayor proposal. Under “Boss” Daley, the strong mayor of Chicago, council members who didn’t see eye to eye with the mayor saw trash pickup in their district reduced to once a month, while the mayor’s buddies enjoyed smooth streets and clean parks. That’s ward politics. And let’s not even talk about the corruption and cronyism that can arise in a system with no checks and balances.

This proposal is fraught with problems not because many of its primary financial supporters are from the Park Cities, and not because of the questionable motives of its chief proponents, but because, on its own terms, it is a poorly conceived change to our city government. The argument that some change is better than none ignores the dangers posed by this proposal. The citizens of Dallas deserve the opportunity to develop a reasonable alternative that gives the mayor additional authority while preserving balanced government and equal representation at city hall.

The real medicine of sensible charter reform may not offer the promise of a quick fix that the Strong Mayor Tonic does, but it also won’t leave the citizens of Dallas with the bitter aftertaste of a flawed form of government peddled as a cure for everything.

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