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Good News Dallas
by    Tue, Jan 3, 2006, 11:59 AM

Downtown Dallas.jpg

In 2004 the Dallas Morning News did the seemingly impossible: it united the Dallas City Council. The News published a special section titled “Dallas at the Tipping Point.” Its thesis was that Dallas was a city in rapid decline and that it was fast approaching a “tipping point” from which there would be no turning back. The section was partly reportorial and partly a report by the management consulting firm of Booze Allen Hamilton. It was impressive, well documented, and should have been must reading by anyone who lives and pays taxes in the city. According to the members of the Council it was bunk.

The response of the council to the Morning News effort is perhaps most indicative of why Dallas was a city in decline. The people with the responsibility for managing success couldn’t even see, or maybe admit, failure.

This past year the News published an update. It tried to be a bit kinder by suggesting that changes like a new City Manager and Police Chief and new employees at the street level were taking some small steps and making some incremental progress but on whole the assessment was the same: decline.

It is hard to say that a city with Dallas’ crime rate and poorly performing education system can be in anything but decline. But set aside the volumes of Booze Allen stats. One word captures the decline of Dallas: Haggar. A Dallas brand known nationwide, whose family members have served on every board in town including the City Council, left Dallas for Irving. When is the last time you can recall a name brand company relocating to Dallas from the suburbs or anywhere else. I cannot recall one in 10-years.

Still, all is not doom and gloom. This past year saw the groundbreaking of what will be two spectacular Arts District facilities and a signature bridge across the Trinity. There are construction cranes again over downtown. And the crime rate did edge down. However, encouraging, these are but candles in the gathering darkness. The fact remains that our school district performs terribly, our basic infrastructure is still coming apart, and our crime rate is among the highest in the nation and the FBI is crawling all over City Hall.

One key problem identified by Booze Allen was a lack of accountability at City Hall. Translated from consultant speak the charge was simple: no one is in charge. There were two efforts to correct this problem in the form of two elections to put the Mayor in charge of the city. The first overreached and was opposed by everyone except an increasingly unpopular incumbent. The second was defeated because most people had ceased to care except for the city’s African Americans.

And there lies the problem: racial politics. Black Dallas struggled for decades to get what they considered their rightful piece of the city’s political pie. They got it in the form of four members out of 14 on the present Council. Black Dallas simply didn’t want to give up power on a powerful Council to a Mayor they voted overwhelmingly “no” on both propositions. More, noting that Dallas will soon be a majority Hispanic City many African Americans believed Ron Kirk would be both the first and last African American Mayor the City will ever see. Holding on to 28% of the council seemed preferable to a powerful Mayor they doubted would ever again be black.

And so Dallas is still stuck with a government with no one in charge and absolutely no hope of any change any time in the foreseeable future. No wonder Haggar left.

The Booze Allen study also talked about the lack of strategic direction. Mayor Miller had, of course, brought in a Booze Allen competitor, McKenzie & Company to provide a strategic plan and vision, and at no charge. The plan was fine, and useful and generally ignored.

But does Dallas really need a Strategic Plan? Or does it simply need to do what cities do they way those things are suppose to be done? What are cities about? They are about providing services: protection of life and property, drivable roads, drinkable water, etc. The city’s strategy should simply be to do these things well and efficiently. It requires a mindset among the city’s management and employees that they are to serve the taxpayers. Paving roads and hiring cops doesn’t require grand strategy. It requires trained motivated employees, efficient processes, and money.

There is a simple six step program that can carry Dallas where it needs to go even if the Mayor were elected by the Council.

Step One: Get rid of the city’s Civil Service system. No one gets fired in Dallas. They get paid vacations waiting for the City’s Civil Service Commission to reinstate them. No other Texas’ city operates this way. While the system may have been put in place decades ago for the best of good government reasons it is a failed anachronism. City Hall is full of deadwood that needs to get cleared out. That won’t happen until the Civil Service system is axed. Axing it would be a far more powerful way to change things than bulking up the powers of the Mayor.

However, it would be no less difficult. While the deadwood cuts across all demographics,

Minorities, particularly the city’s African Americans, would have to be convinced this wasn’t simply a way of firing minority city employees. It would also take an initial toll on city employee morale. But the struggle would be worth it. Until know they can lose their jobs for failure to perform there will be no incentive for employees to perform as needed.

Step Two: Create a Privatization Commission. I have no idea if there is single city service that it makes sense to outsource. But I bet there are plenty. Unfortunately, the Mayor is hostile to the concept and few politicians are inclined to outsourcing and while I have no idea what Mary Suhm’s views are on the subject few managers are anxious to shrink their empires. But it is well worth the try. A Citizen’s Commission that could take a clear eyed look at each department and city function could decide if there was tax dollars to be saved or greater efficiency to be had.

Step Three: Replace the City Auditor with an elected three-man Ombudsman Commission with power to investigate reports of wrong doing, poor service, inefficiency, etc. The Ombudsman Commission should have subpoena power. This is no criticism of the City Auditor. But Dallas has a corruption problem that can be solved only when those in power know that someone with the power of the people behind them can look where it wants and find what it will.

Step Four: Conduct a top to bottom productivity and quality review. The kind of consulting Dallas needs is the kind that will look at the city’s processes with a clear eye for efficiency. The Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze wrote last year about the multi-step process the city employed to fill pot holes. Jim had the right idea: send on truck to see if the hole needed filling and if so shovel in the asphalt, and if didn’t drive on. I have talked to dozens of city employees who want to do well that explain they are hemmed in by absurd processes or no processes at all.

I am a partner in a firm that has helped major corporations get their employees to take responsibility for quality and productivity. Long before I joined it our CEO was doing wonders for companies with budgets the size of Dallas. Obviously, I am not suggesting the city hire us, but I do know what is possible and there are firms that can help Dallas dramatically transform its workforce.

Step Five: Establish a one-time Citizen’s Commission for IT Infrastructure. There is every indication that Dallas government is relatively inefficient because it is technologically deficient. IT done right can in and of itself make an enormous difference. IT done wrong can drive up budgets and do more harm than good. But IT can be done right. It can revolutionize purchasing, dramatically cut losses from theft or incompetence, and cut wait times for services.

Step Six: Offer pay competitive with private industry and tie raises to productivity increases. If City Hall is run efficiently, with the latest IT and processes, it will realize productivity gains that can fund significant pay increases. My bet is that handled right City workers would buy into all of the above if they thought serious raises and public acceptance and a job perceived to be well done were waiting at the end of the rainbow.

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by    Tue, Jan 3, 2006, 11:31 AM

Will Pryor
By unofficial count, 93 Dallas County Democrats filed for county offices by the 6 p.m. deadline on January 2. This is the largest number of Democratic candidates to file in Dallas County in recent memory, perhaps the most in history. When Democrats last dominated the county, there were fewer offices on the ballot.

The mood was more-than-upbeat at a standing-room-only, post-deadline party at Poor David’s Pub on Lamar—the largest in 20 years or more. Judges Sally Montgomery and Dennise Garcia were present as the first countywide Democrats to seek re-election since Judge Ron Chapman.

Democrats will have contested primaries in some 15 races , including those for District Attorney (Larry Jarrett, Craig Watkins, B.D. Howard), County Clerk (Greg Albright, John Warren, Darryl Brigham, Harry Trujillo), Commissioner District 4 (Scott Chase, Rose Renfroe), House District 107 (Andy Smith, Allen Vaught), House District 100 (incumbent Dr. Jesse Jones, Barbara Mallory Caraway), House District 109 (incumbent Helen Giddings and Cedric Davis, Sr.), and a number of countywide judicial ra ces .

Charlie Thompson
Republican Pete Sessions will be challenged by well-known Dallas lawyer Will Pryor in Congressional District 32 and Charlie Thompson will challenge Jeb Hensarling in CD 5.  All but two state house districts are contested by the Democrats. Among those, Phil Shinoda will take on Will Harnett in state house district 114, Harriet Miller will try again in House District 102 against Tony Goolsby, and Katy Hubener will again seek House District 106, which she narrowly lost to Ray Allen (who did not seek re-election) in the last election. She will face the winner of the Republican primary, in which two candidates have filed. (Look for this district, followed by District 107, as potential Republican losses in Dallas County , with the wild card being HD 102 for a potential third.)

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Jack Abramoff: The Bad Guy of the Year Award by Tom Pauken Print E-mail
by Special to    Sun, Jan 1, 2006, 05:34 PM

Jack Abramoff
Indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abromoff symbolizes the worst of what our nation's capitol, Washington, D.C., has become.  In the words of Andrew Stephen of the New Statesman, "the U.S.  capitol is swarming with lobbyists who are paid absurd sums to do shady deals with elected politicians." Abramoff and his associates reportedly pocketed $82.5 million in lobbying fees from Indian tribes to influence casino gambling decisions by the federal, as well as state governments, and that's just the take from one category of Abramoff's clients. 

By the time the investigations into the activities of Abramoff and his associates are completed, it is anticipated that a slew of prominent Republicans as well as some Democrats will be implicated in what former Sen. Alan Simpson calls the worst scandal since the Abscam FBI sting. Good riddance to a bunch of corrupt lobbyists and politicians for whom money and power replaced any committment to principles and ethical behavior.

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by Special to    Sun, Jan 1, 2006, 12:00 AM

George W Bush.jpgGeroge W. Bush. He's the guy: your man of the year whether you like, merely tolerate, or -- as is often the case -- deplore and despise him. Because who, other than our president, sat closer to the malestrom of events in 2005? Iraq, Cindy What's-Her-Name, Katrina, the Social Security debacle, Supreme Court nominations, taxes, deficit spending -- if you looked, there was Bush: not always covering himself with glory, more than occasionally stumbling but not really messing up, save in his failure to fight federal spending and in his cave-in to John McCain on the "torture" measure.

To my own way of thinking, Bush's achievement, in a rather bad year, especially in PR terms, consisted in his sheer endurance. Which is naturally what the media hated him for. The media wanted him to put on sack cloth and ashes and announce his newly discovered consonance with the philosophical positions of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. Of course had he done so, the media then would have skewered him for intellectual inconsistency if not political treason.

The media, my longtime profession, was absolutely, grotesquely awful in 2005: these various decaying specimens of the '60s and '70s looking up from their yogurt and fava beans just long enough to aim another kick at a Texas cowboy. Were Bush as bad as his press notices, we'd probably have to impeach him, then hang him from the nearest live oak in Crawford. Fortunately that won't be necessary.

What was overlooked this year, amid the monotonous drone from the Eastern seaboard, was that Bush

1. Stayed steady in pursuit of an Iraqi settlement advantageous both to Americans and Iraqis;

2. Named John Roberts chief justice;

3. Nominated Samuel Alito to succeed Sandra O'Connor;

4. Tapped Ben Bernanke for the Fed;

5. Spoke Truth to Irresponsibility as he sought Social Security reform;

6. Hung in with John Bolton for U.N. ambassador;

7. Presssed hard, if not artfully, for tax cut extensions;

8. Brought a useful (i.e., centrist) immigration reform proposal to the table;

9. Kept his cool;

10. Didn't whine.

Not half-bad, given the obstacles to such a performance.

I think and hope I am not widely celebrated as a Bush (or Karl Rove) apologist. Nevertheless, I think we owe the guy a little more appreciation has been his lot during a year we almost can't help but improve on.

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VIEWPOINT: MAN OF THE YEAR by Bill Lutz Print E-mail
by Special to    Sat, Dec 31, 2005, 02:23 PM

Supreme Court Justice, Nathan Hecht
It’s the one public policy problem the legislature would not solve – the Robin Hood system of public school finance. No one could broker consensus among lawmakers on this issue. Not George W. Bush. Not Rick Perry. Not Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Not Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Not countless special committees. Not the press. And certainly not the educator lobby.

Only a Texas Supreme Court order and an impending school shutdown could force the legislature to act.

That’s why Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht deserves Man of the Year honors. He wrote the opinion that will force the legislature to redo school finance.

Equally important, however, is how Hecht came to the conclusion the school finance system did not pass constitutional muster. The educator lobby wanted the court to order the legislature to fork over billions of tax dollars ($11 billion or so) to public school bureaucrats. It’s a legal concept often called "adequacy."

But in Hecht’s ruling he cautioned "While the end-product of public education is related to the resources available for its use, the relationship is neither simple nor direct; public education can and often does improve with greater resources, just as it struggles when resources are withheld, but more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students." He ordered the legislature to fix a broken system by declaring Robin Hood a statewide property tax but did not hand a blank check to school districts in the process.

The Texas Supreme Court has experienced substantial turnover in the past few years. Hecht is now the court’s longest-serving member, first elected in 1988. In his time on the bench, he has established himself as a voice for conservative values and judicial restraint. Because of Hecht’s tenure and record, he speaks with degree of stature that few Texas jurists can match.

Texas government in 2005 was characterized by inaction. Hecht took action, making him the obvious choice for Man of the Year.

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