Benavides’ resignation was hailed as a victory for the mayor. But was it really?

The pundits looked at the city manager Ted Benavides’ resignation and harrumphed and harroophed  and made other pundit-like noises and decided that the mayor had won a great victory over the city manager.

Which made those of us who pay more attention wonder: If this was a victory, what does defeat look like?

Yes, it’s true that after repeatedly trying to fire Benavides (or even to find a way to force him to resign) – and repeatedly failing – the mayor got her wish. The city manager, the scourage of all that is evil and wicked in Dallas, will be gone by the end of the year. So this might be a huge triumph for the mayor, right?

Hardly. The pundits can spin it any way they want, but what happened is this. Benavides retired with a golden parachute-style pension just after hiring a new police chief whose selection epitomizes everything that’s screwed up about the way the city is run. Benavides didn’t lose; rather, he fired a massive Bronx cheer in the mayor’s direction as he skipped out the door, cash in hand, knowing the mayor would be stuck with his police chief for the rest of her term. That doesn’t sound much like losing to me.

David Kunkel, the new chief, may turn out to be everything he doesn’t appear to be, an innovative crime fighter who can negotiate the Byzantine politics at City Hall to get more cops on the street and more money for his department. Because what he looks like is a career bureaucrat who understands how the council-manager for of government works, which means he knows how to take orders. Hence Kunkel’s budget will be the new city manager’s budget, and his ability to make any difference in the crime rate will depend on whether the new city manager wants to give him the resources that can make a difference.

This is how the council-manager form of government works. The mayor, no matter how many meetings she holds, doesn’t have all that much more influence over the police chief than any other council member. The chief reports to an assistant city manager, who reports to the city manager, who doesn’t report to anyone at all. He runs the city as he sees best, and if the council – where the mayor is one vote among 17 – doesn’t like it, they can ask the manager to do something differently or fire him.

In my 21-year tenure in Dallas, the council has often not much cared for any of the city managers. But none of the managers was ever asked to do something differently, and none of them was fired (including two who made Benavides look like the Babe Ruth of managers).

The mayor, in her heart of hearts, knows she got conned. Why else would she be clamoring for the council to pay Benavides off and get him out of here before November?

The other irony is that the mayor probably knows she doesn’t stand much chance of getting a new manager who will do what she says and not what the city charter allows him to do. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the new manager is someone working here now or who has worked here in the past. And how angry will the mayor be if that happens?

The mayor almost certainly wants to junk the council-manager form of government. So do I. It’s silly that the chief administrator of the eighth-largest city in the country isn’t responsible to voters – or even to the people the voters elect. But it’s one thing for me to say it. The mayor is handicapped because her main constituency, the cranky North Dallas vote, likes the council-manager system because it keeps tax increases in check.

Her real victory will come if she can convince those voters to back her if she comes out in favor of a strong mayor system. Until then, she’ll have to bide her time, and not think about Ted Benavides sitting on a beach with that big pension check.


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