Whatever Dallas Does, We Can't Have Another City Hall Insider as City Manager

Categories: Schutze

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Former Dallas mayor Laura Miller has a great piece today on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News about the absolute insanity of hiring yet another city manager for Dallas from within the inbred, cultic, code-talking clan of apparatchiks usually described politely as "city staff."

She cites the example of the current mayor, Mike Rawlings, who apparently has asked the city manager a question about a recent contretemps over taxicabs and now must hire legal and linguistics experts at a cost of $50,000 to help him determine if the acting city manager's answer to him was a yes or a no. I say he'd have better luck hiring Margaret Mead. Sadly, the famous anthropologist is dead.

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Harry Wilonsky
Don't even ask the Park Department if the stupid $4 million "whitewater feature" has been fixed. All you'll get is munchkin helium giggling.
We need a new city manager, because the old one's leaving. So what's wrong with replacing from within? And by the way, I'm a convert to Miller's view on this. I sort of thought hiring the one who's leaving, Mary Suhm, was a good idea. I still have great admiration for Suhm's superb personal abilities. But Miller is right. Hiring these people from within is wrong.

The staff live within their own cultural shell at City Hall, and that shell is so thick and so hard a cat couldn't scratch it. They will always protect their own, no matter what, often at great cost, in fact no matter what the cost to the elected officials and the people who put them in office, who would be us.

Part of the secret to understanding that culture is knowing that it doesn't make them bad people. For such a large and sprawling entity, Dallas City Hall probably maintains a higher rigor and standard of performance for staff members than most institutions, public or private. You meet a lot of really smart people at City Hall, most of whom intend to do the right thing.

But it's their right thing. Not ours. That's half the problem. The other half, the one I find myself dealing with more often by the nature of my job, is when they do the wrong thing. That's when you have to spend $50,000 to get an answer out of them -- fifty grand I don't have.

The mayor wants to know who on the city staff slipped a new taxicab law designed to help Yellow Cab into the fine print of the city council's voting agenda in hopes the council would be fools and vote for it without even knowing they had. Pretty dirty trick, eh? Sort of like slipping a check written out to yourself into a stack on the boss's desk in hopes he'll sign it without looking. Kind of a firing offense in a lot of employment situations.

But if you ask them who did it, they're all sucking helium all of a sudden, giggling like munchkins and bouncing off the ceiling, pointing every which way but at each other. Hey, believe me, I know this scene.

Here is my current example. Going on four years ago, City Hall spent more than $4 million to create a manmade "white water" kayak park on the Trinity River. The original design was based on manmade kayak parks on very different kinds of rivers in Colorado . Something - either the nature of our river, the execution and construction or all of the above -- made ours a disastrous bungle. I believe the legal concept is "attractive nuisance" - something that lures people in and then maybe maims or kills them. You can sue for that, if you're not dead.

The Trinity "whitewater feature" was so terribly bungled that it had to be closed off to paddlers almost as soon as it was finished. But the worst thing about the whitewater feature is not the whitewater feature. By its very presence in the river, it has choked down all paddling on that entire stretch of the Trinity -- canoes, rafts, kayaks, whatever. This comes at a time when interest in outdoor recreation in the city is surging. It also happens in a legal context where increased recreational usage is the one important legal element that could push the state to do a better job of policing pollution.

Over the years, I have attempted repeatedly to get city staff to tell me who made the decisions on design modification and construction. You guessed it: lots of squeaky giggling, ceiling bouncing and finger twirling as the strange apparatchik tribe of City Hall goes into its bizarre CYA rain dance. But no answers.

Nevertheless, I consider it my job to be boring and irritating about some things, or, if it's not really my job, OK, maybe it's just my personality. Anyway, this week I posed a series of questions to Willis Winters, who is the new director of the Dallas Park and recreation department chosen from within the tribe to replace his predecessor, Paul Dyer, who was director of Park and Recreation back when people were still painting themselves blue and wearing raccoon skins for suits.

I like Willis Winters. He's a good man. He has done some brilliant work in bring better architecture to public spaces in Dallas. But when I reached out to him for someone I could talk to about the whitewater feature, I was informed he was not available. I was told I could put my questions to Michael Hellman, the assistant director.

In my questions to Mr. Hellman, I kept in mind a principle I have learned the hard way over the years in dealing with the tribe. Keep it simple. Very simple. Every little complication you throw in, every qualifying phrase, even adjectives will serve only as handles they can use to toss your question up to the ceiling where you may never be able to capture it again.

I asked Mr. Hellman these questions about the whitewater feature, in exactly these words: "Does it work? Did you fix it? Can people use it? Is it pretty?"

Mr. Hellman informed me that these questions must be submitted to the city's new city attorney, recently appointed from within, so that a legal review may be made of them by a staff of city-paid lawyers, or, for all I know, expensive outside counsel.

My guess? Oh, about fifty grand. Do I mean they'll spend fifty grand? I have no idea what they will spend reviewing my questions. They don't talk about that sort of thing. No, I mean fifty grand is about what it would cost me to hire my own lawyers to force some kind of response out of them that anybody could ever understand. I think I mentioned already that I do not have fifty grand. So here we are. Yet again.

It's an easy fix. You don't wade in and fire all of those very able people. But you do hire a new boss for them, somebody who can hire and fire them, who comes from way outside, way out of town, who absolutely does not speak their language and does not have a helium jones.

You hire a boss who says, "Wait, the guy asked if you fixed it and if it's pretty. Why are we paying lawyers to review this questions? Why don't you just answer him? NO I DO NOT WANT ANY HELIUM, THANK YOU!"

When Laura's right, she's right. She's right about this. They're good people at City Hall. Just very very strange good people.


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20 comments
whocareswhatithink
whocareswhatithink

Considering Suhms hands are dirty in the Uber fiasco....want to rewrite the story?

mcdallas
mcdallas

"The staff live within their own cultural shell at City Hall, and that shell is so thick and so hard a cat couldn't scratch it."

Shameless attempt to get a comment from Myrna...


holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

Under a strong-mayor form, Miller could have fired the city manager.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

Can someone explain to me again why we even need a city manager and don't just let the Mayor run things (and I'm not a fan of Rawlings)? It just seems like bureaucracy on bureaucracy. Mayor is elected and faces re-election, city manager is appointed and then lurks in the shadows but makes all the real decisions. The Mayor's function is basically to show up at ceremonial ribbon cutting ceremonies until he decides to run for state or national office.

muddystick
muddystick

The core problem is true of all government at all levels.  Once "they" have a budget, "they" have to actually do or appear to be doing the thing for which their budget was appropriated.  Thus, the whitewater feature.

The elected politicians will go through the motions of overseeing the government's expenditures, but, in the end, they only know what the staff tell them.  Staff runs the place.

My Dad was an aircraft inspector for the Navy Department in the forties and fifties.  He once showed me rows and rows of small motors used for various purposes on the aircraft he inspected.  He said they would never used them because they weren't needed.  The people running the place ordered more every year and they were added to the rows of rusting motors.  Never leave a dime unspent was SOP and ask for more.

True then, true now.

becoolerifyoudid
becoolerifyoudid

So you want Mike Miles to be the City Manager?  Cause he is totally an outsider.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

If the bar for being a "good person" is simply not to be an intentionally bad person, I suppose you & Miller are right about them being "good people" - but that's a pretty low bar.

Being responsible stewards of city resources would make them better people.

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

Jim you say can't but don't you know Dallas is 'can do' city?


For the right campaign contibution

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Jim, I recently have had some discussions with the "city staff" about a building going up in my neighborhood.  I was told that the building height is the "average height of the building" and that the "average height of the building" cannot exceed the maximum allowed building height.  When I asked how "average building height" is calculated, I was told that "it depends."

dallasdrilling.wordpress.com
dallasdrilling.wordpress.com

While dealing with the gas drilling debacle, I have see first hand the protection of their own kind quite frequently although once in a while, you could get some off the record info from certain staff. The attorney's are the worst. Like winged monkeys working for the Wicked Witch, they do go to great lengths advising staff and council to refer all questions to their office about anything that may have some controversy attached to it. Vonciel is one of the worst. During her recent campaign, she wouldn't answer any gas drilling questions due to "pre litigious" circumstances.....that don't exist. You heard the Mayor say the same thing. Mary must have gone to bed with the devil to on those lease agreements for her staff and council members to encircle, protect her that way, and send her to City Manager heaven. The only way all that hidden stuff will come out will be a law suit. Which is why a law suit will never happen.

ruddski
ruddski

" They will always protect their own, no matter what, often at great cost, in fact no matter what the cost to the elected officials and the people who put them in office, who would be us." --- So, how do you feel about public employee unions, or a federal beuracracy which is comprised chiefly of democrat voters?

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul Was Dallas the city where you could put a giant 8 foot tall planter outside your building and they would use the level of the dirt in the planter as ground level?


JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul 

OK, geometry challenge. Hep me out here. If the average height cannot exceed the maximum allowed height, then no portion of the building can be higher than the maximum allowed height, so who gives a shit what the average height is? And you determine the maximum height with a very long tape measure. Yes no?

CitzenKim
CitzenKim

@ruddski Much better than I feel about our State government that is comprised of officials that serve only the most ignorant redneck segment of our population.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@ruddski 

With only one eye like that, do you find you have to turn your head sideways a lot?

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@JimSX @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  

Jim, this is occurring inside City govenrment, which means that the normal state of matter which we all are accustomed to does not apply.  Just think back to the original "Twilight Zone" episodes.

 

"You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Dallas City Hall! 

-----

"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into... the Dallas City Hall.

-----

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call "The Dallas City Hall". 

 ----

PS:  I did measure it with a very long tape measure.

ruddski
ruddski

Not if I can get in a good dig that makes you go "hmmmm".

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