Commentary: Jeff Siegel bids farewell to Mary Suhm and her letdown-littered legacy

How will Dallas ever survive without departed city manager Mary Suhm?

After all, she has been compared — and quite favorably — to Jesus Christ; has been recognized as perhaps the smartest person ever to work at City Hall, and certainly smarter than slobs like you and me; and has even been feted by the city’s richest and most powerful on the news that she was leaving. Or, as Dallas’ Only Daily Newspaper phrased it: Suhm, who will retire in September, had “a remarkable eight-year career.”

How will we survive? Quite well, actually.

Suhm’s legacy as the woman who really ran Dallas for almost a decade — brushing aside the mayor and council in the process — is broken budgets, failed police and fire protection, and a fanatical devotion to building a toll road that we don’t need and can’t afford. In between, she lied to the city council, which would have gotten her fired in a lot of other places but earned her the Jesus adulation here, and fostered an agenda favored by the Downtown and Park Cities elites at the expense of the neighborhoods. If you doubt that, try driving more than a couple of blocks without hitting a pothole. But we do have a deck park.

In dollars and cents, we spent about the same amount of money on city services (adjusted for inflation) in 2012-13 that we did in Suhm’s first budget as full-time city manager in 2005-06. All it took was a 6.7 percent property tax increase during the worst recession in almost 40 years and gutting our libraries and parks to perform that magic.

Nothing demonstrates the smoke and mirrors that defined Suhm’s tenure better than the annual budget process, which reaches its climax this month with town hall meetings across the city. The town hall meetings are supposed to let us know what’s going on with the budget and allow us to offer our take on what the city should spend money for. Suhm’s town hall meetings, on the other hand, were designed to do just the opposite — obfuscate and confuse. Can’t let the taxpayers know what’s going on, can we? Then we can’t build bridges that no one uses.

First came the PowerPoint presentation, written in wonderfully boring bureaucratese. Imagine what it was like to attend a town hall in a crowded high school gym in a Dallas August, with the air conditioning straining to get anywhere close to cooling the room and everyone fanning themselves. Talk about lulling the audience into a stupor.

Then, if someone did have a pertinent question and managed to articulate it, we got The Answer: “You have to understand. We don’t control the budget. The city’s resources depend on what’s going on with the national economy.” This was always a treat to hear, given how smart the city staff was supposed to be. What would they have said if they weren’t so smart? And I always wondered what would happen if I used that excuse on my bank — “Sorry, can’t make my mortgage payment this month. I don’t control my budget. It depends on what’s going on with the national economy.”

One of the most depressing moments in my reportorial career came a couple of years ago at a Lakewood town hall meeting. That’s when library supporters, who had suffered through draconian cuts in the previous budget because they thought they had been told all would be made right the next year, found out that the system doesn’t work that way. The cuts would continue, and there was nothing they could do about it. The looks on their faces — shock, disbelief, betrayal — have stayed with me to this day.

Not that I begrudge Suhm an enjoyable retirement. I know the taxpayers will enjoy it — because if we can’t do better than Suhm, then we need to close Dallas and move to Manhattan.


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