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Commentary: Say 'Effective, Accountable' - Not 'Strong' Mayor

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

People have gotten themselves into what my great-aunt called a "swivet" over whether Dallas should change its form of government. The city council meets shortly to discuss, or decry, the issue.

Dallas is the largest city in the country still clinging to the city manager, an idea formulated in the 1930's ostensibly to minimize graft and corruption. The move to a so-called "strong mayor" has generated opposition, especially from the council's African American members.

Let's call it an "effective" or "accountable" mayor, rather than a "strong" mayor - which has apparently led the other council members to think they would be weaker. Of course, right now, we really don't have a mayor and a city "manager."

We have an unelected city C.E.O. and people called "mayor" and "city member" who aren't really the ones in charge. It's like those advertisements where the actor says, "I'm not really a doctor but I play one on TV." Harsh as it sounds, that's what we have in Dallas.

The difficulty is that the voters and citizens, not surprisingly, think the people whose names they know are accountable, when they're really not. They aren't governing the city.

Interestingly, the most vocal opponents of the change, members Maxine Thornton-Reese and James Fantroy, have also defended their right to interfere in the 311 system (the telephone number we're supposed to call to report problems), uncollected trash, unenforced codes, and so on. Right now, the 311 system is jerked around by council members.

They demand staff pay attention to problems in their district. Thornton-Reese and Fantroy say, "when a constituent calls, they expect service, and we're going to give it to them." That's how it should be. And that's why the "effective" and "accountable" system is what Dallas needs.

The city manager form of government dates back to when elected officials routinely fired all the city staff, filling the jobs with their own supporters. Those days are long gone. The civil service at every level of government has become professional. What matters now is who the staff is accountable to.

I'm going to leave aside the racial component of the debate. Think Ron Kirk. Dallas will have African American and Hispanic mayors in the future. No, this is about power. And it is about being accessible and visible to constituents.

And if we look at other cities like New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, or Chicago - talk about the strong arm mayor system. We find that council members' powers are greatly enhanced when the elected officials really are running the government.

One final point: the city council is famous for, and has just been chided by McKinsey, the consulting firm, for its bickering. I think that's a direct result of the lack of power and accountability. They have nothing to lose. If we had an effective, accountable mayor and council members, they would have plenty to occupy them and real challenges to deal with.

Here's an example of how what you call something affects what we think about it. "Strong" may make for a shorter headline, but it means a longer debate, and Dallas needs to move forward with effective, accountable elected officials. I can't say it any stronger than that. For KERA 90.1, I'm Merrie Spaeth.


Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant based in Dallas. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.

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