In early May, Dallas voters will have a chance to dramatically change the way the city operates. Instead of a “city manager” form of government, Mayor Laura Miller and others want to see a “strong mayor” system put in. Houston and a lot of other big cities use the strong mayor model, and they recommend it. The present system allows a city manager to run most aspects of the government while the mayor, who is elected citywide, and the 14 councilpersons, each elected from limited districts, oversee the process.

A strong mayor, under the new proposal, would appoint nearly all the committees and staff, even including the personal staffs of the individual council members. The argument being presented is that the city could be run much more efficiently than it is now.

If you watch the council meetings, you can see councilpersons scurrying around to one another as they try to drum up a majority vote for their own particular projects. You can also see some pretty strong disagreements. But the argument for the present system is that it preserves democracy and “minority” rights better than the proposed system.

As with other political questions, it is a good idea to delve into the background.

From 1935 to the 1980s, power in the Dallas City Council came from at large elections. The mayor and councilpersons had to run citywide, and it was possible for one well-organized segment of the electorate (read: “white businesspersons”) to maintain a majority on the council. In reality, a “shadow government” of white businessmen, organized into the Citizens’ Alliance, funded the candidates and ran the city.

A federal court found that electoral system undemocratic and required the council members to run in their own districts only. For the first time in its history, Dallas began to get meaningful input from African-American and Latino council members! There were some good, outspoken councilpersons for the next several years, but the Citizens’ Alliance money was never overcome. They could always elect the mayor, and the mayor could generally keep a majority of councilmembers on their program.

One of their mayors was Ron Kirk, a lobbyist and employee of the Citizens’ Alliance before becoming a famous mayor. Kirk was African American. After he stepped down to run for U.S. senator, maverick journalist Laura Miller ran for mayor. The Citizens’ Alliance, with Kirk’s help, was able to get a lot of support among African American religious leaders for their candidate. African Americans didn’t like Miller anyway, because she had attacked some councilmembers, including Kirk, when she was still writing columns. In the resulting elections, the Citizens’ Alliance lost and Miller became the mayor of Dallas. Interestingly, though, Miller’s strength was in the whiter, more conservative areas of the city. Most of the Latino and African American precincts opposed her, and their councilpersons continued the fight in the council.

Miller wanted a strong mayor system, and she asked the council for it. They refused. She offered to implement the new system after her own term of office expired. They still refused. Dallas attorney Beth Ann Blackwood found funding for a massive petition campaign to get her own version of strong mayor, which was actually much stronger than Miller had proposed, on the ballot. The campaign prevailed, and the proposal will be voted on. Miller decided to support it. All of the councilpersons decided to oppose.

The arguments against the proposal include dislike for Miller. One outspoken political figure compared her to Hitler. A stronger argument holds that the present system, though far from perfect, is much more democratic and gives Black and Latino communities a strong voice in city government. More importantly, under the new proposal the mayor is still elected at large by a citywide vote. If the office has more power, then it will be possible, again, for one well-organized section of the electorate (read: white, conservative) to run over the rest of the city. It would simplify matters if the Citizens’ Alliance would make its position clear. One can usually feel comfortable with a position if it opposes the proponents of big business. But, so far, the Alliance isn’t saying.

Preserving democratic rights is the key issue in the strong mayor controversy in Dallas.

Jim Lane (flittle7 at yahoo.com) is a World correspondent and labor activist from North Texas.