Grab the light sabers. Rev up the Millennium Falcon. Darth Vader and the Death Star are nearly here.
This, in the words of the legendary Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne, is a yuk. But to many panicked residents of Dallas, to say nothing of our fearless leaders, it’s not funny at all. It’s a calamity. It’s a catastrophe. It’s — horror of horrors — a strong mayor system of government.
Yes, that’s the same strong mayor system that they have in Houston. And Atlanta. And New York City. And even, the last time I checked, in Washington, D.C., running the United States. Some fellow called the president, if I recall correctly.
But not here. We’ll lose our virginity, our children will go blind, and our crops will fail. One poor soul, who is rational in nearly every other respect, told me that we can’t have a strong mayor in Dallas. It would be a dictatorship. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I went to high school with a girl who hid in her bathroom when the Chilean military overthrew and murdered the elected president in 1973. That was a dictatorship, not a mayor who would be elected by the voters.
Because, as near as I can tell, we’re running around with our dresses over our heads about a system that would allow us to choose our elected officials. This elected official will have more power than the current mayor does, but the same rules will apply. If we don’t like what the strong mayor does, we can chuck her — or him — out.
This fear is more than irrational. It’s baffling. I can understand why Dallas’ African-American and Hispanic communities are suspicious about any scheme put together by rich white people (and the white folks behind the strong mayor drive do seem to have more than a few bucks behind them), but why the white political establishment is equally terror-stricken is beyond me.
They usually quote from the Gospel According to Good Government, which prophesies vice and corruption if we stray from the city manager path. But given the problems in the police department and in code enforcement over the past 18 months, I’m not sure how much worse things can get. The cops were stealing money and putting innocent people in jail, while city inspectors were writing people up (or not) for no apparent reasons at all.
Their other argument is that we just need a better city manager. And while it’s convenient to make the departed Ted Benavides a scapegoat, his predecessors weren’t much of an improvement. The council, city employees and the media were saying the same things about Charles Anderson, Jan Hart and John Ware at the time, even if they don’t want to remember it now.
Finally, they blame the messenger. I don’t know Ruth Ann Blackwood, who is behind the strong mayor petition, but she doesn’t seem any more evil than most of the affluent Republican types who are currently on the City Council. And I do know Will Jarrett, who contributed money to the petition campaign, because he was the editor of the late Times Herald when I worked there. He didn’t seem to be the spawn of the devil.
Does Dallas need a strong mayor? This is the question no one addresses, because it requires defining what we want from Dallas. I want the streets paved, the libraries stocked and a police chief who is accountable for his performance. Right now, we don’t have that, because the goal of the city manager system is to balance the budget, not to provide services. That’s its appeal to the council. They can take credit for the good stuff — no tax hikes — and blame the manager for the potholes.
But what if a strong mayor gets elected on a platform to provide services? Then the council will need to vote to increase taxes to pay for the services. Talk about a brave new world. It would be almost like democracy.
And if that’s what the political establishment is afraid of — voters exercising their franchise — then give me Darth Vader every time.
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