Democracy Must Replace City Manager’s Ward System

The rise of the city manager form of government during the early Progressive Era was welcomed as a significant reform and improvement over the often corrupt ward system that had previously dominated. When adopted in 1931, Dallas saw the city manager as a sign of modernization, an ambitious ideal for an emerging city. This seemed to preclude a Chicago mayoral type form of government, creating a political machine ripe for corruption. This reflected the progressive view that cities, like society, should not be run by elected politicians but by ‘neutral’ professionals. Yet increasingly, this system no longer works as well and has eroded the democratic hold on the town hall.

Chicago can vote for mayor

The citizens of Chicago can at least elect a mayor for corruption or inefficiency. Dallas voters don’t have the luxury of electing a city manager — who essentially runs the city — for incompetence or inefficiency. It’s unfair to wards that represent 14 single-member ridings. It also matters now because the city manager proposes the budget, spends the money, and even hires the chief of police, who actually dictates policy.

Dallas city manager cannot be removed by majority of city council

The Dallas City Charter specifies that it takes a super majority of the city council to remove a city manager if he does a poor job or is unresponsive. That means the city manager only needs the support of six city council members to keep his $436,000-a-year job. The combination of the city manager setting the budget and spending the money, and the almost total control the city councilors have over their respective districts, can spawn an unholy alliance between six compliant city councilors and the city manager. For example, if hypothetically a developer seeks a favor from a city councilor for permission to build a low-income tax credit or subsidized apartment development, the councilor can request a favor from the city manager to approve this development in exchange for the protection of the city manager. work.

Dallas city manager has too much control over low-income housing

I cite low-income housing as an example of a potential problem because it’s the area that has landed the most Dallas city councilors in jail over the past two decades. It’s also currently the most contentious issue in South Dallas. Citizens of City Council District 3, made up of mostly minority residents and led by retired Black architect and city planner Darryl Baker, have filed a formal complaint with HUD alleging harm to South Dallas homeowners, due to the many cases where the city of Dallas dumped low-income and mixed-income apartments in their neighborhoods. The Mayor of Dallas and City Councilors outside of South Dallas have little to no say in this continued proliferation of new subsidized low-income and mixed-income apartment developments in South Dallas , as each district is controlled by its councilor and the city manager. As long as subsidized apartments from low-income and mixed-income developers are dumped into low-income minority neighborhoods, these neighborhoods are unlikely to attract single-family homes and quality development that would increase tax revenue for any the city.

Single-member districts separate Dallas and create a ward system in the form of city manager government

The old and now outdated argument in cities is that single-member districts give minority voters a greater voice. It is simply not true. Residents of a city council district have much more influence if they have more than one city council member to represent their interests. Now, if a single member of city council decides for any reason to place a warehouse or multi-family building next to a neighborhood of single-family homes, residents of that neighborhood have no other elected official to plead their case. The result is that favored political supporters and developers can get the zoning they want and residents’ concerns are often ignored.

At-Large City Council Districts Give Voters More Opportunities to Vote for a Minority

In 1990, on the eve of Dallas’ referendum on the 14-1 single-member district plan (an elected mayor at large), I wrote an op-ed explaining how single-member districts would resegregate the city. Contrary to popular belief, general precincts gave more voters the opportunity to vote for a minority candidate for office, and white voters were open and willing to do so. In fact, two of Dallas’ elected mayors are black. While white city councilors have been elected in minority districts, a minority has never been elected in a majority white district. The more anticipated problem of single-member districts creating a ward system also proved true. City council comity that extends to nearly all zoning or other matters pertaining to a specific district often means that no city councilor could effectively pursue the best interests of the entire city, leaving decisions to be scaled of the city largely in the hands of the city manager.

Why the municipal manager form of government is no longer effective

Our current mayor, Eric Johnson, a brilliant and insightful mayor generally interested in benefiting all Dallas citizens, has been a strong advocate for increasing the police funding budget, lowering the tax rate, eliminating tedious delays in the building permit process, creating a pathway to better jobs for low-income workers, and promoting home ownership that creates generational wealth for minorities, rather than artificially integrating white neighborhoods with subsidized apartments. I’m frustrated that the mayor can’t do more to push these ideas forward.

City manager challenges mayor and city council over permit streamlining

The best example of the City Manager getting in the way of the priorities of the Mayor and City Council is the delay in fixing the permit process. Long and tedious permit approval times are not West Coast proportions, but Dallas lags its surrounding cities in building permit efficiency. Since the mayor took office, he, the city council, business groups and city leaders have been pushing the city manager to fix the problems and make the building permit process smoother and faster. Recently, the General Manager, in fact, told the Mayor and the City Council that obtaining a building permit is only a problem of perception and that he did not provide a solution to solve this problem. An upcoming vote is pending to remove the city manager. However, the city manager should not have so much power that he can defiantly refuse to pursue the priorities of the mayor and city council who are technically responsible for running the city.

Neighborhood system city manager can override the mayor

The second reason I changed my mind about a city manager form of government is the public attitude of current city manager TC Broadnax. In the past, the City Manager of Dallas, whatever power he held, was publicly very respectful of the Mayor of Dallas. When we still had City Council members, legendary Mayor Robert Folsom and City Manager George Shrader worked together to create some fantastic projects for Dallas, including Bryan Place (the premier downtown single-family home development in decades This contrasts with the lack of cooperation between the current city manager and the mayor and city council.

City manager impedes progress on Dallas priorities

Currently, the Dallas City Manager appears to be impeding progress on the mayor’s priorities. Some of the mayor’s priorities have been set aside; others were fired. It is widely reported that he is unhappy that there was an objection to the way Dallas’ building permit process was handled. In remarks to business and civic groups, the city manager openly ridiculed the mayor of Dallas for his notoriety and his prolific emails and tweets — in which the mayor updated the public on issues Dallas was facing and action being taken. This year, when the City Manager addressed a large group of business leaders and citizens I attended, I was shocked by his tone and gratuitous disrespect for the Mayor. It’s hard to remember a high-level employee of an organization who was so openly dismissive of his boss as Broadnax was of Mayor Johnson. Even though the city manager earns four times the salary of the mayor, technically the mayor is still the city manager’s boss. In reality, in our current form of city manager neighborhood government system, the city manager has no boss, just an alliance with six city council members who protect his position.

Dallas must make two changes to the city charter to reform the city manager’s form of government

Dallas urgently needs to make two changes to its city charter to maintain its position as the nation’s most prosperous city. He must reconfigure the city council so that at least some of the city council positions are elected at large, to give the citizens of Dallas the opportunity to be represented by more than one person controlling a council district fief. municipal. It must also change the city manager’s form of government to a mayor’s form of government, or at least allow the mayor to propose the budget and hire the chief of police.

Like other cities, Dallas, although located in a rapidly growing region, is falling behind, even losing population in the past two years. The current system no longer works in favor of the city. Managerialism has clearly failed. Maybe democracy will work better.

American Flag, Texas Flag, Dallas Flag at Dallas City Hall


Douglas Newby is a nationally award-winning realtor who writes about real estate, cities, architecture and Organic Urbansim. He gave the TEDx Talk Homes That Make Us Happy. You can read more about him and his work on his website Architecturally SignificantHomes: DougNewby.com and on his blog DouglasNewby.com.

Main photo: Swiss Avenue, the street on which this house designed by architect Hal Thomson is located, is a good example of saving houses by implementing the first and second stages of the five stages of house preservation.

Top photo: Dallas city manager impedes progress on Dallas priorities, by author.

Michael J. Chiaramonte