Sharon Boyd, Editor/Publisher

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04/27/04  Redistricting and Other Issues Revisited

Editor's Comments:  Ruth Morgan served on the City's Redistricting Commission.  Sunday's DMN ran an Op-Ed from her in response to Belo's report:  Is Dallas on Tilt?  I responded directly to Dr. Morgan and she back to me.  She has granted permission to post our discussions.  sb

Ruth Morgan: Dallas needs to do more than change city charter
Editorial Page:  12:04 AM CDT on Sunday, April 25, 2004
In a city historically obsessed by image, The Dallas Morning News took a bold step by commissioning a consultants' study to identify Dallas' problems and, with a team of reporters and editors, providing a "road map for renewal."
   The call to action no doubt stems from experiences of the last decade, when city officials occasionally have been obstacles to good governance, when citizens of all economic, racial and social status have become disillusioned with City Hall, and when Dallas' image as a "city that works" has lacked credibility.
   Among its recommendations,
The Morning News said "it is time to fix the city charter." It proposes to end the distracting debate over an executive mayor vs. city manager form of government by clarifying the roles of the mayor, the City Council and the city manager and by creating a strategic plan to guide decisions.
   The proposal to end the debate over the form of city government is a positive step. But progress on revising the charter will require fixing three potholes in the road to renewal: (1) Charter changes are controlled by the City Council, (2) there is a lack of political will to enforce the charter and (3) there are historical disincentives for effective city planning.
   Let's look at each.
   First, any charter review commission that is appointed by elected officials who have a vested interest in a proposed change or in the status quo is doomed to only limited success. The recent commission illustrated that point. Its recommendations only tinkered with the structure and powers of government. A voter initiative may be required.
   Next, a fundamental problem of governance in Dallas hasn't been omissions in the city charter but, rather, the unabashed violation of the letter and spirit of the charter.
   Good government can be restored without major changes in the city charter by challenging the practices that have modified the functioning of Dallas' council-manager government. Specifically, these steps need to be taken:
? End the inbreeding at City Hall. In the last half-century, no city manager has been appointed from outside the City Hall culture. The last nine city managers have been appointed from within or have returned as manager after briefly holding positions in other cities. The next city manager should be one who opens City Hall to fresh ideas.
? Cast the spotlight of publicity on the corruption and cronyism that can occur on issues that concern only a single council district. Council members must stop deferring to their colleagues on zoning and budget requests. More public knowledge of that problem could help remedy it.
? Stop council members from meddling in personnel decisions at City Hall and involving themselves in other day-to-day operations. That may require regularly posting reports of when individual council members make requests of city staff.
? Address the unavailability of information and lack of transparency at City Hall. For the study commissioned by
The Morning News, Booz Allen Hamilton had to get from other cities information that was unavailable in Dallas. In researching a book on Dallas government, I repeatedly ran into the problem of unavailable data. On one occasion, a city staff member told me, "That's the way they want it."
? Halt the habit of attacking the messengers: Professional city planners and city auditors are essential to good government.
   Dallas has experienced a decline in electoral competitiveness, an overall decline in voter turnout and a general perception of a decline in the quality of city government. City officials, civic and business leaders, and citizens have the power, if they have the will, to reverse those trends.
Finally, the finding that "Dallas still is the largest city in its peer group operating without a strategic plan to outline where the city's going, how it's going to get there and how it will measure success" isn't surprising.
Over the years, city planning has flourished and ebbed in response to the priority given it by civic and business leaders. A common thread has been the preference given to unbridled speculative real estate development over quality-of-life considerations, like green space, human services and environmental protection.
   Nor is a call for a beefed-up city planning staff a panacea. City staff planners in Dallas historically have found their professional judgment in conflict with the interests of powerful business leaders. Planning staffs can have only marginal impact without the support of the mayor, the city manager, the media and the public.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, two city planners, James Schroeder and Jack Schoop, tried to direct the explosive growth in Dallas. Both lost their positions in their attempts to stop the onslaught of the developers. Since 1982, Dallas hasn't had a strong planning voice; professional planners have come and gone because of the inhospitable climate. The Dallas Plan of 1994, officially adopted by the City Council, was quickly ignored and circumvented.
   A change in the city charter isn't going to remedy the absence of strategic and long-range planning unless countervailing forces exist to offset the business orientation toward short-term profits. It is in the city's best interest to require and publicize a process for public review and comment on requests for exceptions to city plans.

Ruth P. Morgan is a professor emeritus of political science at Southern Methodist University and the author of a just-released book on Dallas politics, "Governance by Decree: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas."


   Ruth, I agree with most of your op-ed comments, but I was shocked at your position.  It is at complete odds with your stances on theRedistricting Commission.
   You had a chance to do some good and restructure this city  away from ward politics when you served on the Commission.  Instead, you participated in dissecting several important neighborhoods in East Dallas, Oak Lawn, NW Dallas and Oak Cliff, so you could protect what you wanted for your far North Dallas District.  You helped create the most convoluted district lines we have seen to date.  Victoria Loe-Hicks confirmed last week on Mark Davis that the study shows the city council district shapes are problematic and are causing disenfranchisement and disinterest among Dallas activists.
   What you did on the Redistricting Commission was as harmful (if not more) than anything one of our many inept city managers has ever done. 
   I have never been more disappointed in an elected or appointed official as I was with your complete deaf ear to all of us begging you to protect neighborhoods before playing racial politics.  It was to be expected from some of the political hacks and unprepared members on the Commission, but you knew exactly what you were doing.
   The lines you helped draw have finished off any chance of a stronger NW Dallas and have created fiefdoms in Oak Lawn and East Dallas that may be impossible to break up.
   The real tragedy is that you have the education and expertise to know better, yet you chose the wrong way.
Sharon, Thanks for writing. I am just surprised that you are shocked--if you listened to some of my questions and points carefully.
   My views now are the ones I had when I served on the commission and they have been my views since I was well into the research for my book on Dallas politics, Governance by Decree.
   If you will recall, I tried my best to get the commission to accept one of the basic principles of redistricting--not to divide precincts. The reason for this is obvious--this was a neutral way in advance of drawing district maps of trying to prevent gerrymandering block by block to split neighborhoods in order to pick up minority votes. If you will also recall, the unspoken point was not lost on the Commission or on the Council and my motion was rejected hands down at the outset. That was a clear signal of what was going to happen when we got to the point of actually drawing maps.
    You will also find in my book any number of instances in which I address the issue of not dividing neighborhoods. Unfortunately, there is no way that we are going to be able to restore primacy to neighborhoods in redistricting--given the DOJ and court decisions-- until we have an opportunity to address issues raised by the temporal provisions of the VRA. Furthermore, the city needs through citizen initiative and referendum to require an independent redistricting commission--not one on which each council member appoints a commission member to protect incumbency and to enhance a "safe" district.  To her credit, the council member who appointed me to the commission did not instruct me and left me to use my best judgement.   This was clearly not true of many of the others, as you could tell by the discussions.
    You are way off base to suggest that I participated in dissecting important neighborhoods so that I could protect what I wanted for my far North Dallas district. I'm not even a resident of the far North Dallas District, but as a matter of fairness, it did not make sense to me to devise two more districts in the city that would have gone all over the map, when two compact districts could be drawn.
      I don't know specifically to whom you are referring as being disenfranchised and disinterested, but I certainly would be the first to agree that the current districting in Dallas has negative effects not only on elections, but also on governance and public policy. If  you are interested in reading Governance by Decree: the Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas (Kansas University Press, 2004), and want to discuss any of my data or my conclusions, I would be pleased to do so, as I really can't respond to your allegations when I don't know what facts you are basing them on, except your view that the final map unconscionably split neighborhoods, and with that I agree.
Ruth, Thanks for your reply.  The problem with your plan to consider precinct lines is that they weren't drawn yet when the Commission was doing its work.  Any districts drawn on precinct lines would have little or no connection to the new precinct lines.
   It was not necessary to draw districts based on race.  The Supreme Court has dealt with it.  Race could be considered but was not to be the sole justification for drawing lines.  No more than the number of telephones per household as you and your colleagues let Joe May get away with.
   You were in a position to go public with the bad stuff that was happening.  You chose to be a team player.  Old Bill Andis was so out of his league that he appeared to be in a stupor.  You could have influenced him, but you went along to get along.  You could have worked with Corky Sherman and Rob Richmond, but you wanted to be on the winning side rather than make a statement that could have brought attention to the disaster looming for us.
   I would like to post your response on 
Sharon,  In the interest of furthering discussion, I have no problem with your posting my response, as long as it is posted in its entirety and not excerpted.
   You are correct that the precinct lines were not drawn yet, but your response implies decade-long permanency to precinct lines.  I have looked at changes in precinct lines since the 1970 census and they have been changed almost every year during each decade, but the changes citywide have been only marginal.  Not crossing precinct lines is an accepted principle in districting--often embedded in state law.  And like many other things, districting has to be based on existing data at a snapshot in time, and principles cannot be ignored even though future changes--in this case in precinct lines--are anticipated.






  Ward politics is the Devil's key to the soul of the city council.  It is how some council members got themselves in trouble in the past.  It is the bait that will get others in trouble in the future. 4/6/8