The news last month that Highland Park was considering charging tolls along its portion of Mockingbird Lane was not surprising on two counts: First, that the town considered itself so special that it could get away with something so silly, and second, that our elected officials were almost completely silent on the subject.
The first point attracted the most attention, which is not surprising, either. An estimated 18,000 drivers use Mockingbird through Highland Park every day, and most of them don’t live there. This has always annoyed the thousand or so people who live on the street; they apparently feel they should not be bothered by the traffic because they live in Highland Park. The toll plan was an attempt by the town to appease its residents, and that it was withdrawn almost as quickly as it was proposed was due as much to public outrage as good government. (Check out our Back Talk blog at advocatemag.com to see just how angry so many in our neighborhood were about the plan.)
But it’s the second point that’s the most interesting, because it shows how little our feelings enter into the considerations of Mayor Park Cities and our other elected officials. Save for Angela Hunt, I didn’t see one member of the council say one negative word about the proposal.
Think about that for a minute. A plan to toll Mockingbird, which would not only harm city residents but increase the city’s road costs (to pay for extra maintenance caused by the increase in traffic elsewhere as drivers avoided a tolled Mockingbird), didn’t elicit one comment criticizing the plan.
How is that possible? Consider that, earlier this year, when Hunt asked that a Lovers Lane zoning change be sent back to the plan commission to reconsider the traffic implications, North Dallas councilman Ron Natinsky lit into Hunt, calling her an obstructionist for slowing economic progress in Dallas. It was overkill of the highest order, but it was also telling. By Natinsky’s logic, it’s OK for Highland Park to listen to its voters, but if someone in Dallas does it, she’s being anti-growth.
And that’s why I wasn’t surprised by the council’s silence. Most of them, sadly, don’t understand what they’re supposed to do, which is to serve as a counterweight to the city staff. Instead, they get downtown and listen to the staff and watch Power Point presentations, and their eyes glaze over. It’s almost as if they’ve been assimilated, becoming the pod people in the original “Night of the Living Dead” movie. This is not to say that the staff is always wrong or is always trying to lead the council down some dark and evil path. Rather, it’s that the council members almost always accept the staff’s word on the staff’s say so, regardless of what the staff says. As long as some assistant city manager prefaces his or her comments with: “If we do this, Dallas will be an even more wonderful city that it is already,” the council rolls over and puts its feet in the air like a puppy having its stomach scratched.
How silly is that? Who runs a business that way, let alone a government? The bosses always question the managers. In fact, in our council-manager form of government, the council’s entire reason for being is to ask questions. Why are we doing this? Why hasn’t this worked? Has something else been considered? What’s this going to cost us? What happens if it doesn’t work?
And this isn’t being obstructionist. It’s good government. But, sadly, the council seems incapable of doing it, as the Mockingbird toll plan showed. Absent the guidance of an assistant city manager and a Power Point presentation, no one knew what to say. Which is scary. If no one can figure out that tolling Mockingbird is a bad idea, how are they going to deal with the hard choices coming up in next month’s debate over the deficit-ridden budget?
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