Buried on Page 6 of today’s DMN is an interesting story that says more about the future growth and vitality of the city than most of the other stuff in today’s newspaper. The News story describes a "sharp Dallas City Council debate over how much power an individual member should have when it comes to development in her district."
At the center of the excitement, as often seems to be the case these days, is that renegade councilman Angela Hunt, who this time appears to be trying to broker some type of compromise between neighborhood residents and a developer proposing a retail/residential development at Lovers Lane and Matilda Road (better known as a bunch of older apartments just east of Central Market). Note: The project is in her council district, and more often than not, council members defer to the zoning judgment of the representative who should know the area best. Now, whether this is a good idea or not is certainly debatable, but as a general rule, that’s the way things are done here in Dallas.
Anyway, Hunt was asking the council to delay a vote on the project a second time (and send the project back to the City Plan Commission for further study) when fellow councilman Ron Natinsky, who represents the relatively distant Far North Dallas (and who also was a big supporter of the Trinity tollroad), announced to the rest of the council that "this is the type of development this city needs in the future."
I don’t know the details of the development, nor was I at the council meeting to witness the exchange. And Mayor Tom Leppert made the common-sense comment a little later in the discussion: "It is the obligation of every single person on this council to vote on eery single thing that comes through. If that wasn’t the case … we should never see any zoning case that comes to the City Council."
He’s right, of course: Every council member is charged with knowing everything there is to know about everything on the council agenda each week. But that’s also a flat-out joke: These supposed part-timers don’t have the time or the skill to be experts on every zoning case in the city, much like most of them don’t know enough about the budget process, either. So they, as a necessity, are forced to rely on each other — as elected representatives of individual areas of the city — to determine what to do on many of the issues affecting primarily (or solely) a certain portion of the city.
In other words, like it or not, Angela Hunt is the best person to know what’s best for her district, just like Ron Natinsky presumably is the best person to make decisions in his district. If we don’t like the decisions Hunt or Natinsky make, we get a chance to vote them out — that’s the ultimate check and balance.
Don’t like that plan? Well try this one: What if, all of a sudden, the everyone on the council threw out the doctrine of relying on the impacted council member and instead began voting his/her "conscience" on every zoning deal? Dallas would become an overnight developers’ dream, with developers in this town running from council district to council district with so much money in their pockets that the rest of our lives would be spent reading about bribery testimony in a never-ending barrage of criminal prosecutions.
So what happened with the Hunt-Natinsky cage match? The council voted in Hunt’s favor to delay consideration of the zoning request, but Natinsky garnered five votes. And then the council turned around and supported Lake Highlands’ Jerry Allen’s lead in a controversial zoning request at Ferndale and Shoreview, which mattered in large part to no one else on the council but to a whole lot of people in Lake Highlands.
Score one for tradition and common sense, at least today.