Would the strong mayor initiative be good or bad for Lake Highlands?
On the surface, giving new powers to the mayor would seem to have little impact one way or another. Who cares whether the city’s workforce reports to the mayor instead of the city manager? Does it really matter who hires the director of the Department of Storm Water Management?
Maybe, maybe not. But many current and former Lake Highlands elected officials are convinced that if voters approve the so-called Blackwood proposal, the power shift will hurt neighborhood interests.
“No matter what kind of a spin they put on…let me vote against that mayor about three times and see what kind of support I get when I want something in the Lake Highlands area,” says District 10 council member Bill Blaydes. “It will be non-existent.”
If voters approve the measure May 7, the city manager’s job will be eliminated and the mayor will receive the power to do everything from setting the city budget to hiring and firing the police chief – along with the rest of the city’s 13,000-member workforce. (See accompanying chart for a breakdown on how the measure would affect certain city government procedures.)
The measure would also shift substantial power from the City Council to the mayor, which explains why Blaydes and all 13 of his council colleagues are unanimously opposed to the plan.
“If you are in a situation where you have a mayor under the Blackwood proposal, there is no need for a council,” Blaydes says.
Current council members have joined forces with many of their predecessors to try to build grassroots opposition to the plan.
“What this is asking for, and what it’s outlined, is incredibly bad for the city as a whole and for neighborhoods in particular,” says Alan Walne, Blaydes’ council predecessor and a co-chairman of the Coalition for Open Government.
Members of the group, which is trying to defeat the measure, says the strong mayor proposal would drastically cut individual council members’ ability to represent their districts.
“I think the potential is a monumental negative for neighborhoods, depending where your council member stands with the mayor, first of all,” Walne says.
He recalled that when Lake Highlands was up in arms about a bingo hall at Kingsley and Audelia, he was able to get action just by getting four colleagues to agree to put the matter on the council’s upcoming agenda. Under the Blackwood proposal, the mayor will control the council agenda – meaning items he or she opposes likely won’t be considered by the council.
“So suddenly I no longer can get anything on the agenda unless I have concurrence with the mayor,” Walne says. “The opportunity for the mayor to cause you a problem is there.”
But supporters of the strong mayor proposal, including current Mayor Laura Miller, insist the mayor’s office needs more institutional power for the city’s top official to make things happen. Detractors say having so much power in the hands of one official increases the likelihood of political patronage and outright corruption.
Miller formed her own interest group, Strong Mayor, Stronger Dallas, which is trying to drum up voter support.
Meanwhile, a third group, Citizens for a Strong Mayor, was launched by Beth Ann Blackwood, the attorney who authored the measure. It is also focused on building voter support.
Both sides in the battle say Miller’s support is a tactical advantage for the supporters of the May 7 measure.
“The mayor is for this, and the mayor is going to be mayor for the next two years whether or not this thing passes,” Walne says. “Laura, she’s extremely strong. People don’t mess with her. People don’t want to get crosswise. They may not want to be supportive of the effort, but they’re going to be very careful about being seen as against it.”
Pete Oppel, interim executive director of the Dallas Northeast Chamber of Commerce, agrees.
“I have a feeling it may be an up-or-down vote, unfortunately, on the popularity of Mayor Miller,” says Oppel, which opposes the May 7 measure. “If this was about Mayor Miller and giving her more authority, I would do it. My concern is who’s the mayor going to be 20 years from now?”
Business owners in Northeast Dallas are worried that if the measure is approved, area council members will lose their clout and the mayor – any mayor – won’t be as responsive to their needs.
“A councilman can go a long way toward getting things through like the City Plan Commission because they appoint the people who are on the commission” under the existing structure at City Hall, Oppel says. Under the Blackwood proposal, “a city council member is not going to be able to do those things to help new and emerging businesses or business that want to expand and grow as well as they could,” he says. “That’s my concern, and I think it’s the concern of a lot of our members.”
Opponents also say the proposal was drafted without citizen input. Blackwood hired workers to circulate petitions to get the requisite 20,000 signatures to place the measure on the May ballot. The petition workers were hired with funds donated by a handful of wealthy contributors, some of who live in the Park Cities and would not be able to vote on it themselves.
“That’s the problem: This was done in a backroom, there was no light of day, there was no test by fire. None of that happened,” Walne says.
Many of those who oppose the May 7 proposal say they could support other, less drastic shifts in the balance of power at City Hall.
“People have to say, ‘OK, we realize there’s a problem, but there’s a better way to fix it,’” Oppel says. “That’s part of the message that opponents of this plan need to come up with.”
Blaydes agrees: “It’s not the strong mayor (concept) we’re opposed to, it’s the Blackwood” version that’s objectionable.