Dallas' 14-1 Council System Is a Little Broken, but not Enough To Fix

Categories: Schutze

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Before you pick up that phone to call your council person, imagine him or her taking the call from this chair.
Yesterday my item about the no-sewer zone in southern Dallas drew sharp comments complaining about the "14-1" single-member City Council system in Dallas. In that particular case, the council member for the district won't allow sewers to be built in an entire region of his own district because he's afraid a new sewer system built to serve current needs might conflict with his own big dreams of future development in the area.

It's not as if council member Tennell Atkins has no argument. He does have a certain case to make. The people on the other side, who want a sewer main somewhere near them so they can pay to connect their own property to it, have a case to make, too.

The shocker for many people is that one council member has the power, thumbs up or thumbs down, to stop a major public works project already approved and funded by the full council for his or her own district. Somehow that much power in a single council person's hand just seems disproportionate to some onlookers.

And I get that. But the point is this. The power is the power. We're just talking about who's got it. If the power is not in the hand of the council person, then it's going to be in somebody else's hand.

Everybody thinks black people brought single-member districts to Dallas through federal litigation. Actually the first litigant was a red-neck hardware merchant from Pleasant Grove named Max Goldblatt. Minority litigants who came to court behind Goldblatt strengthened the case against Dallas and won the present system of 14 council members elected by district and a mayor elected at large, which went into effect in 1991.

The current iteration of 14-1, where individual council members grant each other royal discretion to decide zoning cases and other important matters within their own districts, has less to do with minority rights than with the need of gentrifying "urban pioneers" to defend themselves against old-guard real estate developers. In the recent history of the city, East Dallas was the first part of town to see significant collisions of interest over real estate development, which is the real stuff of local politics, the quick, as opposed to theoretical issues of rights and standing.

Past mayors and the majority of past councils were always strongly predisposed toward developers. In fact, they favored a certain type of developer with a certain mid-century view of the city: 1) Old neighborhoods were "used" neighborhoods, hand-me-downs for poor people or land to be scraped for apartments and car lots; 2) The main thing middle class and affluent people needed the city to give them was better roads for getting out of the city; 3) The city needed to keep taxes low, devote 90 percent of its resources to new development and 10 percent to maintenance; 4) Whenever a really rich person wanted a hundred million dollars, the city needed to just hand it over and not ask a lot of impertinent questions.

That was like a bunch of Abrams tanks aimed straight at the village walls of East Dallas. Had the power to green-light development deals been in the hands of those mayors, all of East Dallas today would look the industrial stretches of Harry Hines Boulevard on a really bad day.

So naturally East Dallas became the first and most passionate bastion in favor of single-member districts and single-member power. East Dallas council members had to teach the basic math to the rest of the council: "See, if you allow me absolute discretion over development and zoning deals in my own district, then the rest of us will afford you the same in your own district. Otherwise, you must sleep with one eye open and a dagger under your pillow for the rest of your life."

There has been some serious downside to the single-member system in poor districts where poor council members have peddled their power over development deals and wound up in the federal pokey over it. But if you look at the full history of single-member districts in Dallas, there have been a hell of a lot more council members who have served without blemish, at least of the criminal variety. A few feet of clay seem hardly enough to warrant mass amputation of the system.

No, if we were to cash it in and get rid of it, it would need to be over some more fundamental flaw than the occasional mischief. We might begin with the fact that the original justification in the law -- preservation of minority rights -- doesn't work very well for the city's most significant minority, Latinos, who refuse to settle down and stay in one part of town where we could draw district lines around them. They are scattered all over the joint, so single-member districts do little or at least not enough to empower them according to their numbers.

The other thing is that in the minority parts of town supposedly empowered by the system, nobody votes. In District 8, where Landslide Atkins was last re-elected last May 2013, he won with a total of 1,146 votes. The population of the district is roughly 90,000. Of course, the apathy problem is only worse by degree in Atkins' district than in supposedly high-voting District 11, where Lee Kleinman won with an un-whopping 2,953 votes. Mainly in Dallas we just don't vote.

Put it all together and you have a system easily dominated by insiders that is sometimes run for the benefit of the few, sometimes for no discernible benefit to anyone, but then there is this: Back away from it, fuzz your eyes a little, rake the skyline with your gaze, and what do you see? I see a whole bunch of cranes. I see stuff happening, some of it stupid but much of it pretty great.

As long as the arrangement keeps clogging along and doesn't step too hard on the wrong toes, I don't think the vast majority of people will want to take on the sheer bother of changing it. If you're in southern Dallas and your council person has decided you can't have a sewer, then, yeah, you're very screwed. There just is not a way around him.

For most of us, there are only two tricks to pull. The first trick is to love and be loved by your council person. The second is to hide from him and just do what you have to do, the hiding part being especially important if you don't have a sewer.


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25 comments
MikeWestEast
MikeWestEast

How can someone with any sense say their vote does not count?  We elect people to run the 10th largest city in the country with fewer votes than the winning Prom King in some high schools.  We do have an oligarchy here, the 5% that vote decide for the other 95%. 


Somehow we can get 150,000 people from city to watch the Mavericks parade in the middle of a work day yet a fraction of that number make it to vote over a three week period with multiple options for location and time.  They care more about men playing a ball game than people that decide their future and future of their children.


Yes, they are lazy.  Instead of sending home some ecological stuff on whales, why not send each school kid home to ask his parents if they voted and why that didn't.  Start by listing all the people that died in the 60's to get them the vote and then ask why they could not get their obese behind away from the TV for an hour to vote.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Jim, take another look at how the city council works.  Basically, a councilcritter's power lies in the ability to say no, not yes.


For Mr. Atkins, his power lies in blocking the sewer line construction until he sees something he likes and behind the scenes gives his thumbs up to the City staff.


The main problem that we have with our current city governance is that a government is supposed to equitable to all players according to the policy set by the City Council.  Instead we have a feudal system that is not only corruptible but is a corrupt system.  The majority of the individuals do not believe that their individual actions are corrupt because they believe in their heart of hearts that what they are doing is "best" for the city.


A further corruption is the concept of zoning.  Originally it was meant to allow certain types of development based on geographical areas in order to avoid having nuisances next to each other, for example a scrap yard next to housing; or, a multi story building in the midst of single story buildings.


Now zoning is used by the government to determine actually what will be built on specific parcels of land and more importantly, what developer will do it.  As an example, do you really think that the new development at the west end of the string thingy bridge just sprung up overnight?  Or, the development around the AA center?

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

People don't vote because they believe their vote doesn't count.  

Vote fraud debases any system, and vote integrity is the first to suffer - PARTICULARLY at the local level.  Here it is the appearance of pettiness and corruption married to an unelected staff wrapped around a perennial lousy school system that scores the trifecta.

so people just move to places where they DO count.  Where it DOES matter and where a kid CAN get an education from the right Big Brother.

bbetzen
bbetzen

"We might begin with the fact that the original justification in the law -- preservation of minority rights -- doesn't work very well for the city's most significant minority, Latinos, who refuse to settle down and stay in one part of town where we could draw district lines around them. They are scattered all over the joint, so single-member districts do little or at least not enough to empower them according to their numbers."


Jim, It doesn't work because Dallas still likes gerrymandered districts because they confuse voters and thereby keep the "wrong ones" from voting.   It helps to avoid covering voting and our political system in our schools, and having as few questions as possible about the democratic government system on the state mandated tests.   Texas does not want to graduate from public schools 400 thousand students registered and ready to vote every year! 


Jim, are you telling me you have never noticed this pattern before???!

dallasdrilling.wordpress.com
dallasdrilling.wordpress.com

You can add in that both Hill and Atkins still have the capability to raise the remembrances of Ragsdale, Lipscomb, in their heydey of radical performance art if things don't go their way. We have already seen it too many times with Hll, whereas Atikins does it more stealth like. The only thing that the council or Mayor has to do is to give an indication that there is a move to go against either council person, and the signal is given. Case closed. We all have to wait until May 2015 for their departure.

Rumpunch1
Rumpunch1

I always thought the system sucked, but it was better than better than any other choices. 


While some my see unbridled power to block something in a single district, I see a single person accountable.  If they didn't have this power they would just blame the rest of the council when the new landfill got built in their district.  Now they have to own the decision.  If Adkins' voters don't like it, then they have to ability (even if they choose not to exercise it) to get rid of him if they don't like it. 


This is one of the few situations where I feel that the City has its act together more than the school district.  At DISD, they all just fight for their District with nothing accomplished and then Miles does what he pleases.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

I'm not sure how to take this post, Jim.  We've got 5 articles from you, blasting the City on this issue since December 2013.  You have used racism, socialism, cronyism and graft to highlight the reasons why the city's actions (or lack of them) are wrong.

But when the political ideology that, at its root, enables these grifters comes under attack, when the power behind the throne comes under attack, you seem to be backing off.  In your own words to the citizens of Southern Dallas county "You're screwed.".

I guess it's all ok though, because, hey, Jim got his sidewalks fixed a couple of years ago.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

But, the power WAS ALREADY exercised, by the bond issue and council vote. So, by what mechanism foes Atkins call the Public Works Dept and divert him from his appointed rounds? The pwd works for me, we the peoe.

NewsDog
NewsDog

I miss 'Monorail' Max. I would have voted for him when he ran for Mayor if I could have. 

When does Atkins get term limited out?  

RobertStinson
RobertStinson

We could change voting habits in a snap. Let's vote in November, not the Spring.

WylieH
WylieH

Looks like Mr. Schutze came into the office well-rested today, full of vim and vigor! 

Very insightful.  The power will, indeed, reside somewhere.  And, it's probably not going to reside with the people when they don't vote or otherwise participate in the democratic process.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@holmantx

people don't vote because they are lazy and indifferent.

Rumpunch1
Rumpunch1

@bbetzen Bill, on your point regarding gerrymandering, its a slippery slope.  If a certain group is scattered about the City, they will most certainly dilute their voting block.  While western districts of the city could run the risk of deliberate gerrymandering to dilute the latino vote despite their majority of the population, the small but growing contingent in SE Dallas will be effectively stifled due to the current district boundaries.  In my opinion, this is what Jim is referring to. 


More basically, when is it gerrymandering and when is building a representative district?

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

And in all fairness, we have this little gem from two days ago:


from JimSX to a comment by saten  "No kidding.  Needs to be redubbed "14-1FU" "

WylieH
WylieH

@ozonelarryb  That's an interesting point... doesn't the City Charter or something ban interference by Council members in day-to-day management?  The bonds were approved by voters, now it is the job of City staff to implement.... at what point is Atkins allowed to reinsert himself and squirt glue into the cogs?

Rumpunch1
Rumpunch1

@WylieH I agree, power never disappears.  Take the home-rule discussion.  The stakes are really not about improving the district, it is a shift in power.  New people want the power, those with the power now don't want to lose it.  Both sides will use a improving the district tone during the debate, but that is just because they have to.  They might talk about the other sides relationship with the power, but not theirs. 

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@mavdog @holmantxActually, most of the people I know who don't vote, give as their reason "My vote won't count anyway".  When I pry at them to get a reasoning it is frustration that the crooked incumbent is going to win anyway, whether they vote or not.

Your blanket categorization of all people who don't vote as being lazy and indifferent colors you more than it does the people who don't vote.

James080
James080

@Rumpunch1 @bbetzen 

Let's not lose sight of the fact that there is a significant Hispanic population in Dallas whose numbers are used in determining districts, but who are not legally entitled to vote.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@WylieH

the Bonds were sold and the money was collected by the City, but to actually have the project done a Contract for the work must be noticed to the public, presented during the Council session specified in that notice and approved by a majority of the Council.

James080
James080

@WylieH @ozonelarryb 

City staff must agree with Atkins, otherwise they would ignore his objections. Utility improvements would enhance the value of the land beyond the actual cost of the improvements. Now if you wanted to purchase that land down the road below market value, you might entice city staff, or Atkins, or both, to delay implementing the improvements covered by the bonds.

WylieH
WylieH

@Rumpunch1 @WylieH  Right.  So, in the case of DISD, I believe the new boss will be better than the old boss.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@mavdog I encourage everyone I know to vote, as I see it as not just a right, but a fundamental duty of a free people.  I can, however, see the frustration some people have with the system.  I'm a relative new-comer to Dallas and when I first came here I kept looking for all these republican dictators who were supposedly running the place.  I mean, every office was held by a democrat, so how could the repubs be running things?  It wasn't until I began to build a historical perspective that I understood the sentiment.  Truth is, it isn't a political ideology that runs Dallas, it's a financial cult.

An even more difficult idea, among the independents I mostly associate with, is the idea of 'wasting' or 'stealing a vote.'  There is this odd notion among my conservative friends that if I vote for an independent (Libertarian, Green, whatever), I am wasting my vote, or stealing a vote from Republicans.  They can't seem to understand it is MY vote, so I'm not stealing it from anyone.  The only way I could waste it would be to cast it for someone who does not best represent my views.  This seems as if it should be  simple concept, but it isn't.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@RTGolden1

a protest of one's vote "not counting" is itself a lazy excuse for not voting. it shows an indifference to the citizen's role in the process.

every vote "counts". that's why they tabulate them.

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