Finding a new city manager takes learning from our past mistakes

You never forget your very first published article, even one written so very, very long ago.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I couldn’t have been a day over 41 — a bright-eyed cub reporter just learning the journalistic ropes here at the Advocate, cutting my teeth on a 600-word polemic about the City of Dallas’ search for a new city manager. I recall opining about the importance of the search firm’s meeting not only with business organizations, but neighborhood groups as well, to get a sense of their priorities for a new city manager.

Ah, those were the days.

Because it couldn’t have been just a scant three years ago that Dallas was searching for city manager candidates, could it? I mean, what would it say about our city if the most recent city manager left after less than 36 months? But a search through the Advocate archives reveals that yes, almost exactly three years ago, our city embarked on a hunt for a city manager to succeed Mary Suhm.

I’ll grant you that our futuristic city of 2016 bears little resemblance to the sepia-toned year of 2013 — a much simpler time in Dallas’ history. Despite the gulf of months, there are still lessons to be learned from the previous city manager search, so get out the microfiche and reread a few old articles for some spookily prescient insights.

They say if you ignore history, you are doomed to repeat it. So what can we learn from our experience in 2013?

Despite protests from some council members, in 2013, the city skimped on funding the city manager search. Short-changing the headhunting firm arguably tilted the search in favor of internal candidates, and the council ended up hiring First Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez to fill Suhm’s shoes. That has largely resulted in the maintenance of the status quo at Dallas City Hall.

Today, at a modest cost of $30,000 (unadjusted, 2016 dollars), we are once again failing to invest enough in our search for the next city manager. I’ve never been one to advocate throwing taxpayer dollars at a problem, but this is one time that we simply cannot pinch pennies, not if we want to conduct a robust national search and find the very best candidates.

Dallas’ city manager is an incredibly powerful figure at City Hall. Recall that we don’t have a strong-mayor form of government, but a council-manager set-up, just like our ancestors in 2013. The city council hires the city manager to serve as our top administrative official, who is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operation of our city government as well as organizing departments and proposing the city’s $3 billion annual budget. The city manager’s impact in shaping our city cannot be overstated.

Here are some of the arguments we’ll hear for picking an internal candidate: They know their way around Dallas City Hall. They understand the way our city works. They can hit the ground running from day one.

But those are the very same reasons that the council should not hire from within. An insider’s experience at 1500 Marilla makes it impossible for them to approach the job with fresh eyes. Yes, they know how things are done at Dallas City Hall, but what do they know about best practices in other large cities? What innovations can they bring?

We have an historic opportunity to hire a top administrator who will champion systemic change at Dallas City Hall. Dallas has selected internal candidates for decades. This has, by and large, resulted in a careful maintenance of the status quo.

When things are going well, maintaining the status quo makes all the sense in the world. But today Dallas faces an inordinate number of challenges, from crumbling infrastructure to dangerous loose dogs to chronic homelessness, to name just a few. We must acknowledge that the current way of doing things isn’t working. We need a change agent to right the ship.

We’re living in the future. It’s time for some new blood and new ideas.


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