Thursday, 09 October 2008
Edit Note: Tulsans may learn a great deal from other cities that utilize different forms of city government. Tulsa Today began with the Little Rock review and continued with a review of Mobile, Alabama then a review of how Lawrence, Kansas deals with the ongoing challenges of urban administration and progress. Now consider Dallas. Not just anyone would apply.
The challenge Tom Leppert assumed when he strategically campaigned for and won the position of Mayor in June of 2007 is admirable.
With an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and honors from Claremont McKenna College in California, as well as an impressive array of corporate and civic employment experiences, it requires much more than one sheet to summarize his qualifications.
Somehow it seems necessary to be more detailed, especially when the job entails the interests of nearly a million and a half residents, residing in what is reported to be the ninth largest city in the United States: Dallas, Texas.
Leppert’s range of influence is understated in what is a council manager form of government that operates in one of the largest governmental structures of any city in the United States.
A quick synopsis of the organizational matrix detailed on the city website identifies the breadth of it all.
There are council members from 14 districts, one of which serves as a mayor pro tem. There is also a city manager, an interim assistant city manager, first assistant city manager, and three assistant city managers as well as a chief financial officer, the Dallas Police Chief, the Dallas Fire & Rescue Chief, City Auditor, City Secretary, an Administrative Judge and various committee members.
Within this matrix, the Mayor leads appointments and assists with other responsibilities, including overall organizational management.
What Leppert says it takes to operate effectively is notable.
“This type of system requires much more consensus building. In a system with more of an autocratic type of structure, consensus building is not nearly as important and does not necessarily make the governmental process more effective," he says. "If one were looking at what is the best and worst type of governmental system—that would be a difficult question. It comes down to the people in it. You can do some things structurally, but it still comes down to the people and the strength of the people.”
It’s an observation he’s honed over the course of 35 years.
Ongoing conversation inspires a quote. "It’s been said that one of the best forms of government is a benevolent dictator."
To administer kindness while maintaining a well governed community is a noteworthy leadership style in a city of this stature, especially when election processes generate excitability and significant levels of public interest.
"Elections here are a big event,” Leppert says, referencing the size of the population. “It has gotten very expensive to run.”
Talk of election strategy takes center stage, unveiling an unsolicited opportunity for the right marketer. "When you have to reach as many people as you do in Dallas, you have to rely on much more than advertising and that is expensive," he says.
For the capital ventured, the mayor, if elected, is able to serve up to two, four year terms. City council members are allowed four terms of two years and everyone runs on a non-partisan ticket.
The Democratic Party may not be as recognizable as upper class republican constituents here, but there is a lively debate between the forces and a respect for each party within the divides.
Under Leppert’s administration, city development is described as continuing. "We’re making progress. Dallas has a good reputation and a growing reputation,” Leppert said. “We’ve made significant strides in public safety and we are well respected on the fiscal side as we have good stewardship of funds. We are also an economy that is pretty favorable. Clearly, we have our challenges and issues, but we have outperformed most cities."
It’s the sheer size of the community and it’s location that seems to play a key part in its strength. "Dallas is fortunate to have a good infrastructure,” Leppert said. “We have a system of major highways that come together and great transportation system. I think it is a relatively easy city to get around. We also have two airports, of which one is considered the third busiest airport in the United States.”
Although the automobile is the primary means of transportation, the area offers a unique trolley system as well as buses and other modes of travel. The Dallas freeway system is by far one of the city’s most amazing physical features.
Said to be shaped like a wagon wheel, a lot of traffic travels on what appears to be layers of interstate highway, with one road positioned above the other and interconnecting. A good portion of the freeway was constructed utilizing earth tones and there are stars and state outlines craved in the concrete in various locations.
The freeway system offsets the unique architecture of the downtown area, heightened by the many buildings that reach more than 700 feet high. Because of its skyscrapers, Dallas is considered one of the tallest cities in the country.
It is also been called one of the most political, but Leppert seems to be thriving.
Future goals he’s outlined include a focus on public safety, fire and rescue efforts, improvements in education, and continuing economic development as well as investment in the southern part of the city, a minority district.
"It doesn’t happen overnight, but we offer one of the best markets in the nation and one of the most diversified economies. Two of the top 10 companies, Exxon and AT&T are located here,” he said.
Generating significant column inches in the Dallas Morning News and The New York Times during the first half of 2008, was the AT&T decision to relocate corporate headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas.
While the economic foothold Dallas is maintaining and expanding is impressive, when it comes to the progress of the AT&T relocation, Walt Sharp, Spokesman for AT&T, says, "It is ongoing work. We are refitting the one AT&T plaza building downtown for corporate headquarters. Business units are moving into those in waves as they are completed.”
He continues, “Some groups have moved already and others will be arriving in the coming months.”
Sharp describes the city as cordial in the effort.
"We have a very large presence in Dallas,” he said. “With the relocation, we’ll move 700 jobs to the area, making a total of 14,400 positions that we’re sustaining there. We’ll have a strong presence not only in downtown, where our corporate headquarters are located, but throughout the entire Dallas area.”
The decision to leave San Antonio, Sharp says, was an issue of access. "One of the attractions of Dallas is that there are so many headquarters or major offices in the area and many of those people are our customers. Relocating gives us better access to customers and access around the world. They have the airport, facilities, suppliers, innovation and resources that we need as we continue to grow," he said.
One thing is certain—Dallas is well positioned in high tech and computer advancement. The city already has a significant number of telecommunications companies and continually welcomes invitations for development.
As Sharp states, Dallas employs 190,000 telecomm and technology workers and has close to 1300 telecomm companies. “Many are global leaders and partners. Those are key things for us,” he said.
That draw is significant for another company, Orametrix, which specializes in new technology for Orthodontics. Grant Zipursky is a Canadian entrepreneur employed by the Dallas based company. He says the company headquartered there for reasons that involve a love of technology, the people, and their commitment to expand business to new geographical areas in North America.
Working to open new markets of business, Zipursky, seems every much the epitome of a growing population of commuters and residents.
"I like it here," he says genuinely, preparing for a client meeting. "We’re going to the game tonight." That, of course, would be the Dallas Cowboy game, where Tulsa’s own Felix Jones was recruited.
The same appeal that Zipursky finds in Dallas is also cherished by the local residents. Bernie Hauder, with Adkerson, Hauder & Bezney, a Dallas law firm, has worked in the area for more than 23 years. It is the available opportunities that he enjoys the most. “The business environment here is good,” he said.
In addition, there is no personal or corporate income tax.
Along with Exxon and AT&T, Dallas is well known for Texas Instruments and for making significant gains in industries such as insurance, transportation and banking.
Leppert says healthcare is also one of the leading economic resources for the area. “We have five of the top healthcare facilities.”
That Dallas continues to thrive as a center of economic opportunity is all the more relative to the fact that the community was originally founded as a frontier trading post. “Because we are in the lower middle part of the country, it is very convenient,” Leppert said.
Home to the 7-Eleven chains, the first car radio, the first drive up bank window, the frozen margarita, invented by Mariano Martinez in 1971, and more—Dallas residents have ingenuity and language expertise.
Although English is the predominate dialect, bilingual communication abounds–even the local McDonalds will ask to take your order in both Spanish and English in most locations. Area schools also send home information with English printed on the front and Spanish on the reverse side of the paper.
The Dallas media market, considered to the 5th largest market in the United States, highlights a mix of both Spanish and English formats.
Area demographics vary according to sources and even the city website offers a handout with access to a large number of statistics, of which prove to be contrary to other sources, printed earlier.
In the most generic sense, area population is characterized as having a significant number of white, black and Hispanic or Latino residents, more so than other areas of its size. It is reported that black and Hispanic races comprise nearly 50% of the population, as the area is a major destination for Mexican immigrants, greatly influencing area arts and culture.
Dallas is also home to the Dallas Desperados, Dallas Mavericks, and the Dallas Stars. There is opportunity for soccer, hockey, rugby, and more as well as a NASCAR presence. In addition, there’s a state lottery.
Although the city provides the major attractions one expects to find, it is characterized much more by its rich Texan heritage. Samuel Johnson once stated, “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”
As Leppert says, “It is, in general, a very livable city.”
When it comes to the day to day management of it, Leppert looks at individual services. “I would never privatize what I consider to be core services such as fire rescue. It’s really no different from when I was running a big company,” he said. “When it comes to crisis readiness, you really find out when you test it. We are well prepared and are recognized as a leader in that regard.”
He continued, “We’re probably in a better position than most places, as we don’t have to worry about earthquakes and such. Since we are a big city and hold quite a high profile, we tend to have more public safety and security issues.”
If there was a passage adequately summarizing Dallas the most, Pete Hammill may have nailed it best in his description of the state. “There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.”
Dallas may, in fact, belong to the lawyers. Interestingly enough, it was named by one. According to the Dallas Historical Society, John Bryan, who was born in Tennessee and later lived in Arkansas, named it. Bryan traveled to the area in an attempt to farm the land, after shooting a man for insulting his wife. In 1877, he was committed to the State Lunatic Asylum and died there Sept. 8, 1877.
In the words of Benjamin Disraeli, “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
If there’s one thing to know about this area, as Toby Keith sings, it’s that “this big dog will bite when you rattle its cage.”
Nobody messes with Texas.
About the author: Tracy L. Crain is a freelance writer. She holds degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and completed post graduate work at the University of Memphis in Tennesse. To reach her, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert ran for office in 2007, he ran against someone by the name of Zack Crain. Crain was an area newspaper writer. Tracy L. Crain is no relation. It is interesting how many Tulsa Today readers from the Dallas area asked and we thank you for your interest. This series continues.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 October 2008 )