Why squeaky wheels are needed on the Dallas City Council

“Why can’t you just get along?”

I remember being posed this almost-but-not-quite rhetorical question when I served on the Dallas City Council. More than once. More than twice, actually, but who’s counting? It was usually when I was expressing an opinion about some proposed city project, and my opinion differed from the majority of the council.

When I was accused of “not getting along,” it wasn’t that I was banging my shoe on the lectern. Or shouting expletives into the City Hall mic. Or engaging in personal attacks or making up “facts” or otherwise flying off the handle. No, I had simply arrived at a different conclusion from my colleagues after independently researching an issue and listening to my constituents.

In Dallas, expressing an alternative viewpoint from the majority of the council – particularly one that is in opposition to the mayor – is oddly perceived as “not getting along.” It is considered impolite, a breach of etiquette. One is labeled a “maverick” at best, a less kind moniker at worst.

This was made clear to me during a council discussion about gas drilling in parks. In 2013, the city council was debating limits on urban gas drilling. Many residents were particularly concerned about fracking in city parks. Then-City Manager Mary Suhm and her staff had repeatedly assured the council that there would be no gas drilling in parks. Yet Councilmember Scott Griggs and I had uncovered a letter from Suhm in which she had simultaneously assured a gas drilling company that her staff would do their utmost to allow park drilling. So which was it?

During a council briefing, I took the opportunity to challenge Mary Suhm on these irreconcilable statements. I didn’t raise my voice. I presented the conflicting documents and pointedly asked Suhm, the city’s most powerful appointed official, to explain this chasm of a discrepancy.

I wasn’t surprised when Suhm dodged my questions. But I was surprised by the reaction of my colleagues. I expected them to be similarly outraged by the deceit, or at the very least, concerned. Instead, many of them expressed offense at my interrogation. (One even likened Suhm to Jesus Christ and me to Haman, the Biblical killer of Jews, but I suspect that even Suhm found that a smidge over the top.) Others were less theologically extravagant but nonetheless chastised me for my public questioning. It simply was not done. I half expected to be challenged to a duel.

Whether it was gas drilling, the Trinity Toll Road, convention center hotel financing, protecting neighborhoods from bad development, or a range of other issues, I remember the suggestion, at times posed by the city’s daily paper, that those of us who challenge the status quo or question the opinion of the majority should work harder to “get along.”

What they really mean, of course, is that we ought to work harder to go along to get along. Not rock the boat. Fall in line with the majority. Ask our tough questions behind closed doors, beyond the delicate ears of the public who might swoon at the unpleasant sound of intellectual debate.

The disturbing truth about those who wag their fingers and admonish council members to be nicer is that they fundamentally misunderstand both etiquette and politics. In the realm of politics, manners properly exist to discourage ad hominem attacks, to lower raised voices, and to enforce adherence to the civility of parliamentary procedure. Manners do not, however, mandate a blind acceptance of bad governance, nor do they insist on ideological unanimity.

Glad-handing and back-slapping aren’t going to fix Dallas’s very real problems. Something to keep in mind when you head to the polls on May 6.