Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dysfunctional by Design

Watching Richardson city government in action can be frustrating. Sometimes I find myself asking the same question the great baseball manager Casey Stengel asked when hired to manage the hapless New York Mets in their first year of play, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

But then I catch myself. Just how is the game supposed to be played? I end up thinking that maybe the appearance of dysfunction in city government may, in fact, be just how it's designed to operate.

After the jump, am I expecting too much?

Who's in charge of this operation? Watching the city council in action, it sometimes appears as if they are simply a rubber stamp for whatever the city manager puts in front of them. Sure, they act like they're earning their (lack of) pay by micromanaging some of the nit-picky details but they never look like they had a hand in creating the strategies in the first place.

For example, by the time the city council sees a draft budget, almost all of the numbers are already pretty close to final. Last summer, there was some flexibility in budget planning because it looked like property values were coming in higher than planned. One council member (exactly who is not important) said he'd like to see city staff get raises. It was almost as if the city council and city manager were acting out a choreographed dance. The city staff showed the council a budget without raises and a pot of money not yet assigned. The council got to exercise some power by telling the staff to budget raises. Everyone goes home happy. But who choreographed the dance? When did the high-level philosophical discussions take place that determined what the council thinks is the right balance between taxes and services? D*mned if I know.

More recently, the city council has approved all sorts of development plans put before them, no matter how incompatible with the narrative Richardson is pitching of a modern city promoting walkability and transit-oriented development. The council says yes to QuikTrips and 7-Eleven gas stations and self-service warehouses and a redevelopment study for Main Street/Central Expressway that looks like something from a 1980s commercial real estate broker's Christmas wish list. Just what is Richardson's long-term view of its future development? D*mned if I know anymore.

So, I ask again, who's in charge of this operation? Then it hits me. With Richardson's council/manager form of government, no one is. The city council hires the city manager and that's it. As long as the city manager doesn't do anything too crazy, the city council lets him do his thing. Richardson's city managers, to their credit, have been professional city managers, not political ideologues. They make sure the trains run on time, but they don't much care where the trains go. That's left to the business establishment, the Chamber of Commerce types, who focus on the next deal, not the long-term future. Then the council approves the deals presented to them. That's how we end up with 1980s restaurant rows and apartment complexes near our DART stations.

Businesses exploit opportunities to buy, sell and develop property, city staff draws up the required approvals and variances, and the city council dutifully approves them. Things happen with no one in particular in charge. No visionaries required. Richardson's future depends on serendipity. It's hard to see how to change that.

Electing a mayor won't change the mayor's powers. It might increase the size of the mayor's bully pulpit, but it won't change Richardson into a strong mayor form of government. We're still a council/manager form of government.

Maybe electing more diversity of opinion on the council could result in some creative tension that would prod council members out of their "go along to get along" method of operation that seems to prevent any significant new initiatives.

Still, it would be an awkward and delicate job for the city council as a whole to provide direction to the planning function without ending up micromanaging city staff. I don't want day-to-day city operations to become politicized. Besides, the restrictions placed on interactions among council members by the Texas Open Meetings Act makes it all but impossible for the council to do much more than vote yea or nay.

As you can probably tell, I'm thrashing around here. I don't have the solution. But I think I'm right in seeing there's a problem here. Right?


mccalpin said...

Mark, you are correct that no system of government can be fully "efficient" - oh, wait, one can - a dictatorship. Lacking that, every other form of government deliberately diffuses power. This means that while it's hard to do anything bad, it can be hard to do anything good...assuming that we have a consensus on what is "good" which we don't.

Yes, the City Manager is the CEO who runs the City on a day-to-day basis. This means that the City Manager makes a lot of the day-to-day decisions. Duh. The Council could get involved enough to micromanage little decisions, but the long term result would be a new city manager who wouldn't be as strong or as good. That's just human nature. You hire me to run this City, then get out of my way and let me run it. Sort of like Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones...and we all know how well that worked out when Jerry wanted to micromamage. Although it irritates Jerry no end, Jimmy is a better (and happier) sports announcer than Jerry is a GM.

Of course, City Managers know that at any Council meeting, a simple majority of the Council can remove the manager. Thus, City Managers are always careful not to build up a large amount of animosity...which means that, when it doesn't conflict too much with the City Manager's vision of the City, the City Manager will yield to the Council, even if it may be on a tedious matter.

The "City Manager's vision"? Yep. Obviously, the City Manager must have a vision for running a successful city, just as the City Council ought to have one. Since the Council hires and "manages" the City Manager, there is perforce a negotiation process by which the Council's vision and the Manager's vision come together, at least every two years. If they diverge too much, it's the City Manager who will likely go. But casually dismissing a City Manager is perilous, since rating firms and businesses and real estate agents all like stability...

I am puzzled by this statement: "Besides, the restrictions placed on interactions among council members by the Texas Open Meetings Act makes it all but impossible for the council to do much more than vote yea or nay."
How does the Texas Open Meetings Act prohibit Council from discussing at length issues like what you have identified? Indeed, in the current term, you have seen a number of occasions in which the "philosophy" of the Council was discussed? Did you mean something else?


Mark Steger said...

My objections to the Texas Open Meetings Act were explained in March, 2011.

mccalpin said...

Ah! That's what you meant. Your observations that the TOMA needs to be revisited are correct IMHO. It manages in more than one way to achieve the exact opposite of what it intended.

Still, even within the constraints of the current Act, it is possible to discuss these issues within a legal Council just takes work, planning, and a commitment to come prepared to really sort through an issue (and probably not discuss anything else that evening)...note that time constraints prevent the Council from discussing a lot of such issues during the year, so the Council needs to focus on what few things it has the time and energy to deal with...