The council needs to do the right thing for the Dallas city manager — but do it right

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Perhaps a millisecond elapsed between Friday’s first official news that City Manager TC Broadnax’s job is on the line and the start of what is now an ugly public war over whether or not to oust him.

It’s a lousy distraction from what the conversation needs to focus on.

Many systems are currently failing at City Hall – building permits and affordable housing, to name just two. People like me, who are paid to stay current on these issues, have felt for quite some time that none of these critical city services are improving – nor that enough urgency is being applied to try to improve them.

But what should be a substantive conversation keeps slipping away as everyone has run to their political corner of the glass house that is City Hall and started throwing rocks.

I worry that if future city managers dissect this spectacle, doing the right thing too quickly could actually harm Dallas.

It was clear that Broadnax was heading towards a settlement since the May 18 permitting briefing he was required to present to City Council.

After claiming that almost everyone who has ever had a complaint with the department concerned has been guilty of exaggerating the permitting issues, Broadnax admonished the council to simply trust it would get the job done.

That’s a promise City Councilman and Mayor Eric Johnson have heard too many times on many issues.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, frustrated by the city manager’s lack of progress on permitting issues, appointed city council member Paula Blackmon (center) in February to lead the mayor’s permitting task force. Blackmon selected consultant Macey Davis (left) to be her co-chair in this effort.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Broadnax’s shortcomings were slowly being talked about behind the scenes as the pandemic eased. After the May briefing, many council members decided it was time for a change.

That culminated in a meeting Wednesday night between Broadnax and City Council members Gay Donnell Willis, Tennell Atkins and Chad West. They told him a change was needed and gave him the option of quitting by noon on Friday or expecting a special meeting on Wednesday on his performance and retention.

They upped the ante by referencing a five-signature memo signed Wednesday by West and colleagues Adam Bazaldua, Paula Blackmon, Cara Mendelsohn and Jesse Moreno, telegraphing that swift action was needed for the city’s well-being.

Broadnax did a quick math – seven votes for his downfall, not counting Johnson. It would take eight to boot.

He received another visit from two council members – Donnell Willis and Blackmon – on Thursday and was again encouraged to tender his resignation rather than face Wednesday’s proceedings.

So far, his arguments to extend his tenure beyond August 15 hadn’t blown away his critics. He had a choice to make, and Broadnax chose to fight. He let the deadline pass on Friday afternoon without taking any action.

After the news broke, Broadnax issued a statement welcoming a performance review to “demonstrate progress and ensure transparency” at the work he is proud of, in order to “make the lives of Dallas residents responsible, to improve in a fair, accountable and legitimate manner. ”

The raging politics had begun — and along the way, at least some of those solid eight votes got muddy.

Dallas City Manager TC Broadnax (left) listens to Mayor Eric Johnson during a city council meeting...
Dallas City Manager TC Broadnax (left) listens to Mayor Eric Johnson during a City Council briefing on the Dallas Police Department personnel study early in the mayor’s term.(Shaban Athuman / Staff Photographer)

Johnson and Mendelsohn used social media to get people on their side. Johnson’s weekly newsletter to voters, which landed in my mailbox at 6 p.m. Sunday, outlined his list of grievances and his intention to vote to sack Broadnax.

But even before Johnson’s first tweet, Broadnax supporters — who, not entirely coincidentally, support potential challengers in the next mayoral election — had privately emailed me a scathing criticism of Johnson.

The job of Dallas City Manager is a ridiculously difficult job, but it’s also one that we taxpayers shell out a hefty salary to get done properly. Broadnax makes $410,000 annually and his contract includes a full year’s salary as severance pay.

Looking back at the regular citizen satisfaction surveys — with Consensus, which has been regularly digging into almost every category of city services since Broadnax was hired in 2017 — many residents don’t seem to think they’re getting their money’s worth.

Two of the many findings in his citizenship report that struck me are that the percentage of people who said they were “satisfied with the overall direction the city of Dallas is taking” increased from 49% in 2016 to 36% in 2016 year 2020 has fallen. and the percentage of those who said they got good value for their city taxes fell from 45% to 31%.

A new group has been hired for the 2022 survey; Those results are expected later this month, according to City Hall’s most recent memo.

So, yes, I believe the City Council is right to hold Broadnax accountable. I just hope that what has happened over the past few days doesn’t undermine the effort. And I wonder – even if the mayor and his side win the war – what does this episode signal to future potential Dallas city managers.

As someone who bends over backwards to play nice — sometimes to my own detriment — amid the backlash, I’ve wondered if Johnson’s “take no prisoners” strategy since Friday is the right one.

If I put myself in his shoes and those of the Council members who want change, they feel they have given Broadnax a lot of time. But it is easy for outsiders to believe that this was an unnecessary and hasty ultimatum.

If Broadnax leaves, at any point, will what has happened over the past few days pause on how the next candidates for the city manager job see the appeal of a job for Johnson and this councilman?

Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall speaks with her then-boss, Dallas City Manager TC...
Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall speaks with her then-boss, Dallas City Manager TC Broadnax, during a February 2019 City Council meeting. (Shaban Athuman / Staff Photographer)

Johnson employed a similar strategy to expose Police Chief U. Reneé Hall’s shortcomings — particularly when it came to reducing violent crime — and that didn’t seem to deter high-profile applicants for the chief’s post. So far, Dallas appears to be the winner with the hiring of Chief Eddie García.

But I’ve spent enough time speaking to Dallas CEOs over the years to know that when you part ways, how you publicly treat your CEO matters.

The next potential top boss will surely think: “Can I work with this board?”

Whatever emerges from this staff drama, the city – and its residents – would be best served if the City Council agreed on a set of goals and clear metrics for the future with the City Manager, who then reports regularly on progress.

If the goals are not being met and sufficient time has been allotted for implementation, make a quiet switch and look for a new leader.

That sounds like a no-brainer until you remember I’m talking about Dallas City Hall. Among the many dirty secrets is that expectations are rarely set.

How this process continues is important for the future of our city. Finally, what Broadnax might say privately to national candidates asking his opinion on working with our council will also be relevant.

In the end, it shouldn’t look like it’s about egos and small grudges, but about what’s right for the city.

As several local business leaders told me this weekend, how well the City Hall machinery of elected officials and staff work together is largely a matter of people, trust and relationships

So it can’t just be about doing the right thing. It is important that the right thing is done right.

The Dallas City Council will meet to consider firing and disciplining City Manager Broadnax
Council members face a difficult decision about the fate of Dallas City manager TC Broadnax
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