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City Council Debates Definition of ‘Interfering’ With Staff

Dallas City Council Meeting
Dallas City Council Meeting | Image by City of Dallas

During a briefing on Wednesday regarding the Charter Review Commission’s recommended amendments, Dallas City Council members were primarily concerned about how language in one of the proposals may impact their interactions with department heads and other City employees.

Chapter 3 Section 15 of the current charter prohibits the Dallas City Council and its committees from dictating or trying to dictate “any person’s appointment to, or removal from, office or employment by the city manager or any of the city manager’s subordinates, or in any manner interfere in the appointment of officers and employees in the departments of administrative service vested in the manager by this Charter.”

The provision further provides that “except for the purpose of inquiry,” no member of the council “shall deal with that part of the administrative service for which the city manager is responsible solely through such manager, and neither the council nor any city council member shall give orders to any of the subordinates of the city manager in those departments, either publicly or privately.”

Council Member Paula Blackmon (District 9) addressed Amendment 9, which would “delete the provision prohibiting the city council from interfering with appointments and subordinates of the city manager.”

“I’m not going to go into the weeds on this, but I want to understand [something] here,” Blackmon said. “I believe when we look at [this], it kind of takes away the spirit of [the] city manager form of government. By the ‘interfering,’ that was the definition that we probably need to understand. Interference, to me, is preventing work.”

Dallas has operated under a council-manager form of government since 1931. Under Texas law, a city manager is the chief executive officer who implements policy set by a city council. Appointed by the council, the city manager hires and fires most department heads, with the exception of the city secretary, city attorney, municipal judges, and city auditor. Those positions are appointed by the council.

“The way the charter is written, any kind of communication is prohibited,” said Allen Vaught, chair of the Charter Review Commission. “In practice, that’s just not how it happens.”

Council members, including Paul Ridley (District 14), argued during Wednesday’s meeting that they interact daily with department heads, managers, and other employees but do not “interfere” with their work.

“Further to the issue about the prohibition of city council interfering with appointments and subordinates, I agree that we should have the right to talk to staff members,” Ridley said. “We do that every day now. But I don’t think that we interfere with them. I think, perhaps, that can be left in as a prohibition. But there’s also a question of, ‘How do you define interference?’ I think the use of the word ‘interfere’ is fraught with difficulty, definitionally.”

Council Member Carolyn King Arnold (District 4) agreed.

“When I arrived to the City Hall [in 2015], there was a history that had already been established with this conversation around council members dealing with staff,” she said. “At that point, I walked into a hornet’s nest with council members basically abusing staff members.”

Specifically, women were the target of that abuse, Arnold said.

“This is something I think we need to keep attacking … because [of] the mental anguish that those women went through dealing with condescending, arrogant, demeaning, demoralizing language and threats that were made to them. Even if I’m frustrated, I’m just not going to start cursing you out and threatening you,” she said.

Members of the Charter Review Commission ended their work in April following six months of meetings. Of the 125 amendments considered, the commission agreed to put forward 35 for the Dallas City Council’s review.

Among those highlighted in Vaught’s presentation were:

  • Allow boards and commissions to elect their own vice chairs.
  • Delete the requirement for bids to be opened in a public place.
  • Treat reorganizations and reductions in the workforce in the same manner with respect to compensation and reassignment.
  • Require that special-called meetings of the council require five council member signatures instead of three.
  • Provide the city secretary and city auditor with assistants and employees.
  • Broaden the city’s notification process to include other media options in addition to newspaper publication.
  • Require that the Office of Community Police Oversight director be appointed by and report directly to the city council.
  • Establish the Office of Inspector General, with the inspector general being appointed by the city council.
  • Delete the provision prohibiting the city council from interfering with appointments and subordinates of the city manager.
  • Extend the deadline petitioners must meet to collect the required signatures on a petition from 60 to 120 days.
  • Reduce the number of signatures required on a petition in support of a referendum.
  • Allow authorized residents to serve on the Park Board, Redistricting Commission, Civil Service Board, and City Plan Commission — not just lawful citizens or registered voters.
  • Establish a Community Bond Commission.
  • Add a provision triggering the implementation of ranked-choice voting in municipal elections if the state law is amended to allow it.
  • Increase the annual salary for council members to $125,000 and for the mayor to $140,000, based on the Consumer Price Index.
  • Allow city council appointments to boards and commissions to be replaced by the city council before the completion of the members’ terms.
  • Add eligibility criteria for serving on the Redistricting Commission.

“You’re going to have the opportunity to decide which of these proposed charter amendments you want to put forward to the voters,” Vaught said. “We had 125 proposed charter amendments, and only 35 of those made it … to you. We considered just about everything you can think of — from the public, from members of the council, from different departments in the city.”

Every 10 years, the Charter Review Commission votes to include or exclude proposed amendments to the charter for council members’ consideration. The council must then decide whether to place any or all of them on the ballot — as submitted or modified — for voters to approve or disapprove. The recommended deadline for the council to approve amendments is June 26, and the date to order the election is August 14.

Election day is November 5.

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