It hasn’t popped up on many people’s radar screens yet, but before long we should be hearing more about what could be one of the most significant developments in a long time regarding how individuals and neighborhoods deal with city hall.  Unless you read the inside of the Morning News’ Metropolitan section pretty closely, you may not have noticed that the mayor and each council member have appointed a 15-member Charter Review Commission to do a comprehensive review of the city charter and perhaps suggest amendments.

The city charter is the basic governing document for the city of Dallas, pretty much like the Texas or United States Constitutions are for the state or federal governments.  As you probably know, Dallas – unlike most big cities – has what is usually called a “council manager” form of government, in which the mayor and council members have limited powers and act, in theory at least, more like a broad policy-making board of directors and less like hands-on executives.  That role is filled by the city manager, who, along with the city secretary, city attorney and city auditor, is one of only four city employees actually hired directly by the council.

Almost every one of the other thousands of city employees works for the city manager, including assistant city managers, department heads, the police chief, the fire chief and many others.  This system was put in place in the ‘30s in an effort to insulate city government from nasty old “politics” (as if that’s something bad) and clean up what was perceived to be influence-peddling and corruption at the time.

Of course, that’s completely unheard of now.

As a consequence, again in theory at least, council members have a limited ability to influence the city bureaucracy.  Not only can they not hire and fire people, they’re not really even supposed to contact them other than through the manager or his assistants under most circumstances.

Council members also have very small staffs, really just administrative assistants, and few if any sources for independent investigation, research and analysis, very much unlike our congressional or legislative representatives.

So what happens, in reality, is you have underpaid, overworked council members, without an independent analytical staff.  They may or may not be able to work full time on council business, and they get almost all of their information filtered through and controlled by the staff.  Problem is, only 15 of these folks are actually elected by the people, so you have precious little in the way of accountability.

Any positions on issues that vary from those of the staff have to be figured out by the council members themselves, sometimes with the help of lobbyists or other interested parties – in other words, like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, dependent on the kindness of strangers.  The citizens often find out too late if at all what is really going on, and our council members are the one who get stuck having to field questions in Town Hall meetings.

We need to get over our fear of “big-city ward politics” and vest more direct authority in the mayor and the council.  Not to interfere in every process or hiring decision, but at least to be able to get more information, more input on what goes on in their districts, and maybe even have a bigger staff of their own to help with analysis.

Plus, we ought to look at this with a clear eye and not be swayed by whether one liked Ron Kirk and doesn’t like Laura Miller or likes Laura Miller and didn’t like Ron Kirk.  And changes needn’t be to strengthen the mayor at the expense of the council members, as some seem to fear.

It’s a historical fact that our government works best when it’s the most open and responsive to the citizenry.  We in the city of Dallas deserve to have the same level of openness, responsiveness and accountability.  A good place to start would be by strengthening the authority and independence of our mayor and council.

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