Thursday, July 9, 2015

Peering into the Dallas Looking Glass

Dallas city government is dysfunctional. It's not even a provocative thing to say anymore, is it? Everyone knows it's true. It's almost self evident, right?

In case you don't know that (perhaps you don't live within shouting distance of Dallas), you might want to check out this story in The Dallas Morning News by Elizabeth Findell. City council members shout at each other. City Council members shout at city staff. There's a whole lotta shoutin' going on.

But if you knew that already, you can just jump ahead to this story in FrontBurner by Peter Simek. He reads between the lines of Findell's story to understand the structural reasons behind all that shouting.

Peer into the Dallas looking glass and you might have a hard time seeing Richardson. Well, maybe if I cock my head just so, I think I see Richardson's future.

Here's Simek's description of the way Dallas used to be.
The city's old council-manager organization, with its at-large elected representatives, treated the city council as something more like a board of directors than a legislative body. The council members were largely representatives of the city's business elite volunteering their time to make sure a bureaucracy of experts -- city staff -- executed the city's business. The real authority lay with the boss, the city manager, the city's CEO whose job included reporting the city-company's dealings to the board, the council.
Source: FrontBurner.
Does Dallas's past sound a little like Richardson's present? It does to me. Simek goes on to describe how a simple change in Dallas city government changed everything.
The switch to single-member districts effected a quiet revolution, the implications of which may not have been fully anticipated. The switch changed the way citizens and elected officials believed power worked in city hall without really altering the fundamental power dynamic between the council and staff.
The bureaucracy is set up to execute the directive of the city manager, who is hired by the council to steer the city's business. What is broken is that on top of this governmental structure we've plopped a council with 14 individuals who would all like to be city managers for their own specific districts, and one mayor who is little more than the last at-large council member.
Source: FrontBurner.
The result? A whole lotta shoutin' by council members to city staff.

So now let's peer together into the Dallas looking glass with our heads cocked just so and see if perhaps we can't see Richardson's future.

Step 1. If you're a regular reader of local social media, you know that there's a vocal faction who feel the Richardson City Council isn't listening to them. The successful citizen petition to change the city charter to allow for direct election of the mayor was a consequence of that feeling of neglect. Richardson didn't elect a populist mayor in 2013 (or 2015), but some day the city will. When it does, that mayor will begin behaving the way Findell and Simek report that Dallas city council members behave today, like a wannabe city manager instead of a chairman of the board of directors. When that happens, Richardson's image in the looking glass will begin to look more like Dallas.

Step 2. Bubbling quietly away for years has been a parallel desire to move Richardson to single member districts, on the belief that council members would then be more responsive to residents. Just like direct election of the mayor, the public would vote for single member districts if given a chance to do so. Single member districts were not included in the recommendations of the recent charter review commission, but I can see such a change coming in Richardson, maybe not soon, but eventually. Maybe another petition will target this, maybe a court case, but something will trigger the change. When that happens, all the structural changes in government will be in place for Richardson to turn into Dallas.

Step 3. Dallas!

As much as everyone likes to say Dallas city government is dysfunctional, I see no populist movement there to go back to the old way of doing things, the Richardson way. It might just be that voters love to complain about dysfunctional government, but wouldn't have it any other way. That leads me to believe that it just might be in Richardson's future.


Mark Steger said...

From the archives: "Are Richardson's Voting Districts in Need of Change?"

Mark Steger said...

Maybe relevant to single member districts, maybe not. The City Council voted 6-1 to approve a "new retro arcade that will sell games, alcohol" in Richardson's Place 1. The one council member who voted no? Place 1's Bob Townsend.