Tuesday, November 8, 2011

City Charters: Can Richardson Learn From Dallas?

Everyone in Richardson seems to be in favor of some kind of charter review. What's not so clear is whether anyone agrees on what changes, if any, are needed.

Richardson is not alone in this introspection. Jim Schutze, in Unfair Park, offers his opinion to Dallasites who think that all the problems of Dallas could be solved if only they got rid of the city manager. Schutze thinks the problems go deeper than any single person.

After the jump, what Richardson can learn from Dallas.

The city charter of Dallas has some similarities to Richardson. Both have a council-manager form of government. To get anything done, you need a majority of the council to agree. The mayor has only a single vote. The city manager, who has day-to-day responsibility for running the city, is hired by the council. She'll do whatever a majority of the council tells her to do.

Schutze says the way this usually plays out in Dallas is that no one takes responsibility for anything. The city manager says she looks to the council for her marching orders. Council members, each elected in a single-member district, say they look to the mayor for leadership on citywide issues because the mayor is the only one elected citywide. The mayor throws up his hands and says he has only one vote. Every issue seems to come down to an 8-7 split, with different coalitions forming the majority on every issue.

Compare and contrast with Richardson. Like Dallas, Richardson has a weak-mayor form of government. The mayor has only one vote on the council. Like Dallas, the council hires a city manager, who has day-to-day responsibility for running the government. Unlike Dallas, Richardson's council members are all elected at large. And the mayor is elected by the council from among the council's own ranks. Those small differences seem to make all the difference.

Unlike Dallas, in Richardson there is never any doubt where responsibility lies. It's a shared responsibility. All seven council members (elected by the same voters at large), including the mayor (who is chosen by the council from among their own ranks), and the city manager (hired by them to execute their vision), act as one and share responsibility as one. The result is that Richardson's council has many 7-0 votes.

I see little to be gained by Richardson moving in the direction of Dallas, with single-member districts and a direct election of the mayor. Is Dallas, with its reputation for dysfunctional government, really a model for Richardson to emulate? On the other hand, I doubt that Dallas would benefit from moving in the direction of Richardson. Dallas has geographic divides along racial/ethnic/socioeconomic lines that Richardson does not have. Single-member districts are merely a reflection of those divisions, not a cause of them.

Still, I recommend reading Jim Schutze's analysis of Dallas's form of government and his ideas for improvement. Government is an intricate machine that we mess with at our peril. The law of unintended consequences is a real possibility for the unwary. It's best if Richardson reformers understand the pitfalls that lie in wait of their reform efforts.

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