Firing City Manager Mary Suhm Won't Fix What's Broken at Dallas City Hall

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

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In my column in this week's paper, I talk about that "flow control" deal, which has to do with how much trash gets trucked into southern Dallas. As usual, some of the responses I'm getting are from people mad about the way it came out who think the answer is to fire City Manager Mary Suhm.

Eh. Look, I'm all for drama, but every time this idea of firing the city manager to fix things comes up, I get depressed, because it just shows how impossible it is for people to even vaguely understand how City Hall works.

Firing Suhm would change nothing, except that she's awfully good at what she does, so we could wind up with a replacement who's not as good.

It's City Hall itself that sucks. The structure. The deal. The way it's set up. Every important deal, from the trash thing to city council redistricting, all of it winds up in the back room because the back room is the only place anybody can get anything done under this system.

We have a weak mayor system. We also have a weak city council. And we have a weak city manager. My political-science term for this is the "weak-weak-weak" system of urban governance.

The mayor is one vote of 15 on the council. All issues are decided by eight votes. The city manager works for the council. The city manager works for the eight votes. The eight votes shift on every issue.

Let's say a big international real-estate developer comes to town and wants to build a theme park downtown. We'll say the developer is a she, just so we can be progressive about it. So she talks to the mayor first. Doesn't like what she hears. Talks to the city manager. Still doesn't like the message. What does she do next?

She lobbies the council in the back room. She goes to the back room, because the back room is where it's at. Let's say she does well in the back room and racks up the eight votes she needs for her theme park. She goes back to the city manager and says, "I got eight votes. Deal with it. Let's negotiate my details."

The city manager goes to the mayor and says, "She's got eight votes. I have to negotiate the small stuff. You're out of it."

And remember: The eight votes are from different people on different issues. In fact, the city manager governs by keeping a finger in the wind at all times to see where the eight votes are on any given issue. It's these guys on this one, those guys on that one.

I always hear from people who say that's bullshit and if that's how the city manager governs she should be fired. She should just do what's right.

OK. What's right? Who decides that? The eight votes decide. If the manager ignores the eight votes, she will indeed be fired. Right away. If her replacement ignores the eight votes, he will be fired. Right away. And it will just go on, fired and fired and fired.

The fact is this: The finger in the wind is the best we can do with this system.

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Photo by Sam Merten
Here's the other downside: At Dallas City Hall, the buck stops nowhere. The issue that always illustrates this dilemma best this is the occasional really bad police chief.

Let's say we get a bad chief -- too flamboyant, crazy, Neo-Nazi or all of the above, very unpopular with some constituencies, very popular with others. Needs to be canned, but whoever cans him will take a big political hit from his fans.

I've seen it happen twice. The circumstances were very different, but it played out exactly the same way. The city manager says, "I know that technically I hire and fire the chief, but this is such an important issue for the community, I feel I must bow to the will of the council." (She bows.) "I shall humbly and respectfully await their guidance."

Ha! Now the knife's in the councils' back. To do what she is asking, the council will have to vote. Then they will be individually responsible for what happens.

Oh, no! Please don't make us responsible! Throw us in that briar patch, stomp on us, take away our travel allowances, do anything, but please don't make us responsible!

The council members all say, "This is an issue for the entire city, and the only elected official who represents the entire city is the mayor. So we await his guidance."

The mayor, no fool, says, "I am but one humble vote among the 15, and I feel it would be arrogant of me to usurp the prerogatives ... blah-blah-blah ... so I await THEIR damn guidance."

And it drags on for a year.

In the meantime, real people out there in the city have no time at all to figure out this crap, so they just can't imagine what's taking so long.

Here's what we need: Give the mayor sole power to hire and fire the city manager. That simple. That makes him or her the thumbs-up, thumbs-down, red-light, green-light responsible party at City Hall. The one who can be sacked. Or revered.

A mayoral election comes up. The people of the city look out upon their community. They say to themselves, "I really haven't had time to follow any stuff at City Hall except for the time the acting mayor called the cops because his wife messed with his apron collection. But the city looks OK to me. I'm going to vote to keep the mayor."

Conversely: "All I ever wanted was the pothole fixed in front of my house. I called those bastards 13 times, and they blew me off. I say we throw the mayor out on his ass."

You have to hope the mayor sees it all coming long before election day. If he knows people's potholes aren't getting fixed and Mary Suhm won't do it, he fires her and gets somebody who will.

In the past when we have dealt with proposals aimed at fixing this problem, they have been called "strong mayor" propositions. That scares people in Dallas and nobody wants to do it, because everybody thinks the mayor is going to be some guy like Mickey Rourke who's real strong and goes around punching people out.

"Strong mayor" is the wrong term. What we need is a responsible mayor. I don't mean a guy who behaves responsibly. I mean a guy who's responsible. Thumbs-up thumbs-down responsible. It's his deal. As in, "Hey, buddy, you're responsible for this mess." Or, "You get the credit for this wonderful new park."

Responsible.

Suhm, the council, the mayor: They're all trying to get down the road in this broke-down, screwed-up school bus where everybody's got his hand on the wheel and nobody's got a foot on the brake. If we want to fix something around here, we need to fix that.

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29 comments
cp
cp

Hey Jim, have you started watching the new Starz original series "Boss"? 

GAA
GAA

Nuts and bolts is what makes a city world class.  Dallas can only be world class with greater parks, greater libraries, greater public schools and the Trinity River flood plain as it is with an emphasis on nature not tollroads or some gimmicky temporary lake. 

Openyoureyes
Openyoureyes

Mary Suhm is a bully and she appoints bullies and incompetent managers to serve as her minions at City Hall.  How else can you explain her appointment of Forest Turner as Assistant City Manager even after he was reprimanded for bullying and harassing employees as Director of the Streets Department a few years ago?  Turner's antics were secretly recorded by a female employee and broadcast on the local television news and yet he is now Mary's right hand man and enforcer at City Hall.  He continues to bully and persecute employees but is not held accountable.

Also, why is there no accountability for the $$millions spent on sexual harassment litigation?  Mary seems to have been given the green light to spend with no limits placed on her.  At the same time, there has been no additional training offered to staff on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.  She also appointed her friend Molly McCall to be the Human Resources Director.  Ms. McCall has no background or training in Human Resources.  Her best qualification is that she can cover up all the poor HR decisions and conduct pretend investigations with the outcome determined by Mary in advance.  Who holds Mary responsible when she and her staff violate personnel rules and policies  when she can go into executive session with City Council behind closed doors and spoon feed them information that the buy everytime?

Judd D. Bradbury
Judd D. Bradbury

Jim we ended up on different sides of the earlier debate that had some flaws. This idea you have presented above is solid. Needing 8 votes to HIRE the city manager makes sense and is good recruiting policy. Changing the city charter to allow the 8 votes OR the Mayor to FIRE the city manager makes good sense. Chairman do not need the approval of the 8 executives that interviewed the CEO to fire her/him.

With all this said, Mary Suhm is a very good city manager. A lot of people have short memories or do not investigate very well before speaking.

SteveT
SteveT

Primi timpano

There is an inspector general--the city Auditor, who is not accountable to the city Manager, but to Council.  In addition to his audit duties, he has an investigative unit with broad scope and authority.

I worked for the city 14 years; and Jim is right--eight votes rule.  There's also another factor:  any one or more Council members can meddle in staff affairs and have some influence. So if a city department is not doing what you think it should, call your Council member and raise hell.  Sometimes merely being a very squeaky wheel will get results.

Oped
Oped

I believe it actually takes a super-majority to fire the City Manager in Dallas and, contrary to some opinions here, I believe that the Council-Manager form of government is by far the best.   With a little research you will see huge problems with the Mayor having the sole power and all of the turnover of staff everytime there is an election and a new mayor is elected.

Veritas
Veritas

In light of your past demonstrated competency regarding city hall, I am amazed that you have taken this opinion of Mary Suhm.  But, it simply further demonstrates to those of us that have real knowledge of her power within the City that she is still succeeding.  As a previous poster stated, the vast majority of decision are made absent of any real input from the City Council and these decisions are the ones that truly affects us all.  By the time any sort of vote or briefing is done to council regarding a "marquee" issue, there have been literally hundreds of man (women) hours spent laying the foundation and making smaller decisions that leave the Council little room for a decision that does not bend to the will of Mary Suhm or one of her other Mangers.

I will concede that you do make extremely valid point about the public arena of city hall and an unwillingness of the council, mayor or Mary to take responsiblity for almost anything that might cast negative light on them.  But, this fact has little to do with the decisions that are made every day behind the scene that Mary controls and that have extreme impacts on our City.  My biggest disappointment is that someone like you, J.S., is so deceived.

Now regarding Mary and her competency, she is an extremely intelligent woman who knows how to do her job very well.  At this point, I would say that there is no one else in the ranks of city hall who would do as good a job as she does.  My statements about her power and about the decisions that she leads are true, but that does not mean that all her decisions are wrong or that I feel she does a pour job.  In fact, on most issues I would argue the opposite.  She manages the coucil's competing wills and finds avenues for keeping the city running. The reason she has lasted so long is because the coucil and mayor (all the mayors she has worked with) know how good she really is at what she does.  Now, do all things come to an end eventually? Yes, of course, even for Mary Suhm.  When that day comes, she will leave on her terms just as she has done all things during her time at the City.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano

Jim, I'm with Wylie H on this one.  There is a lot of day to day ordinary stuff that is rotten to the core.  In my own experience Building Code inspectors are straight from the mob, turning a blind eye to problems pointed right to them.  Builders and developers can do no wrong.  In my old neighborhood in Oak Lawn they demolished a house to make a duplex, but crossed the property line and demolished the stairs to the neighbor's garage.  A builder next to my house built over the easement and would have new lumber delivered to my driveway. Suhm, O'Donnell and the inspectors cared not one wit, even after the builder admitted he used internet blue prints that did not conform to the Dallas building code.  They are corrupt, incompetent or some combination of the two.  And this is the very small stuff.  God knows what kind of favors and money changes hands on the big tickets.  Yes, the council and mayor are complicit, but that doesn't exculpate Suhm and her staff for their crimes.  I agree, let the mayor appoint the manager but put the Manager to an up or out vote every two years.  Now that we are recreating the world, why don't we have an inspector general to ride herd over these overfed cattle.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

After thinking about this for a bit, my comments are as follows:

1)  I don't buy the idea that a collective (but ever changing) group of eight city council members are driving the bus.  With limited exception, it is Suhm (rather than the Council) who engages in behind the scenes maneuvering to marshal support for her various (and frequently ill-conceived schemes).

2)  In limited high-profile situations (i.e. the convention center hotel), it IS true that one or more elected officials take the lead and Suhm's job is to keep her head down and execute.  Indeed, Suhm appears to have mastered the art of kow-towing to the elected officials on these "marquee" issues, knowing that the rest of the time they will lack the cohesiveness to check her power on the day-to-day stuff.

3)  It is on the day-to-day business of running the City wherein Suhm wreaks the most havoc.  Almost across the board, city departments appear to be poorly managed-- many of the managers appear to be inept, and the rare competent managers seem to be subjected to attack, perhaps because of their competence (case in point: Kenneth Gwyn).

Suhm exercises extraordinary leverage over council members-- particularly those from South Dallas, with little independent means of support.  Her ability to steer resources and no-bid contracts in one direction or another is not to be underestimated.  She also has the ability to drive wedges between council members, by setting up false competitions for artificially scarce resources (or playing them off against each other in other ways).  Using these tools, she can effectively defeat any collective, organized action on the part of the City Council to oust her.

RTGolden
RTGolden

Are you bucking for a job at DMN?  You have, in uniquely American journalistic fashion, managed to be nowhere and all over the place at the same time on this issue.  You hold everyone accountable, yet give them all a free pass.  You advocate for a hazy notion of a single, 'thumbs up/thumbs down' chief executive (which flies in the face of representative democracy, by the way) which is basically what Suhm is.I started reading unfair park basically because of yours and Wilonski's articles.  I hardly ever agree with either of you in totality on any given issue, but I appreciated the effort that went into the articles and the strong stands taken.  This article, however, represents journalism that needs Levitra.  Journalism: F-

Guest
Guest

A mayor who goes around punching people out would be awesome!

Where to I go to vote for that?

Bettyculbreath
Bettyculbreath

I supported Strong Mayor for the very reasons you stated in the above story.I was talked about almost run out of Town.I know just like you, how it works ,and its that way today.Nothing will change until the system changes. Single member District folk, Minorities in particular said it took their power.Someone needs to be in charge according to the Charter,not take charge as Leppert did, and dictate to staff.

Perry Moore
Perry Moore

Mr. Schutze, you've been around here long enough by now to realize that it is a long-standing Texas tradition to prefer and promulgate the least effective form of government. It has to do with that Reconstruction thing.

Mike
Mike

If you just have the mayor firing the manager with no other changes, what happens when the 8 votes bring her back?  The mayor would be stupid to fire a city manager without the same votes necessary now to fire the manager.  This change is almost like King George III firing prime ministers and Parliament kept sending the guy back.  We do not need strong mayor by default.  We either get a real mayor as a real chief executive, that is not a member of the Council, and dump the city manager or keep what we have.

If the Council took its Board of Directors role seriously and set the strategic direction of the city, then Mary Suhm would not have a free hand in filling in all the gray areas.  Instead our leaders are worried about how the fire department computes overtime in one station. 

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

JS, the City does 10,000 things every day.  We all have an opinion on how well it does each one, and if you ask me, the answer is not very well.  Now, you've described what sometimes happens on a dozen issues a year.  Granted, those are the big, news-worthy issues for which we should expect better political leadership.  OK, I agree with you there.  Meanwhile, the City is still getting a big fat F on its work on the other 99.999999% of its work that really never hits Council's radar and isn't handled at all as you've described.  That's the issue with Mary Suhm, and that's what we might reasonably expect to improve with a new manager.  Maybe one that was chosen after an actual search and not based on her ability to find hidden dollars in the budget to solve whatever exigent parochial concern a Council member has on a given day.

The team keeps losing; fire the coach.

Ellum08
Ellum08

Laura Miller didn't seem to have a hard time forcing Ted Benavides to oust that POS Bolton and then in turn showing Ted the door without an 'official' vote from the council.

Only way to change the form of government is a city wide vote to change the city charter. And that didn't turn out so well the last time it was attempted, so who is going to try it again?

Say what you want about Queen Mary, she covers her ass. And covers it very well.

Lakewooder
Lakewooder

And add to the problem that frankly, voter turnout says that no one cares about the City of Dallas when it comes to voting in local elections. 11% turnout this past May simply said (as it does every year) to City Council that we the voters do not care about what happen at City Hall. Just keep our taxes down and identity politics alive and well.

Jim S. is right about some needed reforms. Have the CM fired by the Mayor only. Also, have a strong (or competent) Mayor form of government. Then, double the salary of all city council members as a way to make up for all the "donations" from developers that they will be missing, and slap on a tough ethics law. The doubling of salaries might make a lot of people groan about waste, but the half million will be some of the best money ever spent, as more folks who can read at a 4th grade level (thus eliminating Carolyn Davis) might make it on City Council.

heart and soul
heart and soul

Mary should be fired and there is no one thing that would do more for the city than getting rid of her. The tollroad, flow control, gas drilling.  She is driving the agenda and it isn't for eight votes. I don't know who she works for but sure would like to. Anyone that knows how she operates know she doesn't work for the council or the residents of Dallas.

She is the boss, Jim. She may not be any good at it but she is in charge and needs to be held responsible.

yeahIsaidthat
yeahIsaidthat

Let's start by firing Mary Suhm via telling the council if they want to keep their job on the next election cycle they should do it. Then we take care of them at that time. It's really simple.First, fire Mary Suhm.

Tom L (No, Not That L)
Tom L (No, Not That L)

I mostly agree with you, Jim. You are dead on the money about "the buck stops nowhere". And I agree that it's the system that sucks and a good first step is to give the mayor the sole power to hire and fire the city manager.

But I think you're not quite on the money when it comes to Suhm. For the same reasons it's nearly impossible to fire a police chief it is also nearly impossible to fire the city manager. As a result I think she cares a lot less about what the council does than you think. In fact, more often than not I think the council members individually care a lot more about what Mary Suhm does.

Still, just firing Suhm is not the answer. Changing the system, just that little bit, and electing a mayor who will fire Suhm, will get us on a better path than the one we're on today.

DFD
DFD

I agree 100% how many incompetent police and fire chiefs has she hired and fired.  How many millions has she cost the city in lawsuits?

She needs to go.....

primi_timpano
primi_timpano

Our neighborhood was a very squeaky wheel.  We lived in Hunt's district and arranged a meeting with her and two of her staffers, presumably called the planning commission.  And then nothing was done.  It is hard to imagine but at just one site there were problems almost everyday and the 311 code enforcers did not like the multiple complaints around the neighborhood.  The point being there is a complete lack of governmental responsibility to neighborhoods in general and citizens specifically.

cp
cp

Don't we already do that?

yeahIsaidthat
yeahIsaidthat

She most likely has a lot of shit on the other council members, hence the fear they have of her.

Urbandweller203
Urbandweller203

If you double the salary, it will not help. Look at other othe politicians or board members in Dallas who have a fat check. They still want more. It won't change the thought pattern or the intellect. Dumb is dumb and greed is greed.

Julytonio
Julytonio

This is obviously a case of the tail wagging the dog.  Suhm leads the council wherever she wants them to go.  She has made consistently horrible decisions.  The list is too long and ridiculous to list here.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano

Sorry, we didn't meet with Hunt and two staffers, Hunt arranged a meeting with Theresa O'Donnell and two staffers.  Our neighborhood sent three reps to the meeting, and a subsequent planning commission meeting (a complete joke), along with letters from well over 50% of our block.

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