5 donors drive strong mayor
Each has given $10,000 or more to effort, says lawyer in council race
10:00 PM CST on Monday, December 27, 2004
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News
Five major donors are funding Dallas lawyer Beth Ann Blackwood's $180,000 campaign to strengthen mayoral power including a Texas oilman, a retired newspaper editor, a billionaire and two real estate developers.
In an interview Monday, Ms. Blackwood said former Dallas Times Herald managing editor Will Jarrett, real estate executive Vance Miller and Dallas financier Harold Simmons each have contributed $36,000 to the campaign. Ray Wallace, retired chief executive of Trinity Industries Inc., donated $26,000. And developer Albert Huddleston added $10,000 to fund the petition drive. The strong-mayor referendum will appear on the May ballot.
"The deterioration of performance at City Hall is astonishing," said Mr. Jarrett, who has lived in Dallas for all but three of the last 30 years. "Who is in charge? No one. A city this size needs strength."
But strong-mayor supporters may have more opposition than they bargained for. All but three Dallas City Council members have said they will fight to ensure the proposition is defeated. And resident groups from deep South Dallas to Far North Dallas are mobilizing, creating anti-strong-mayor Web sites and starting neighborhood campaigns to get out the vote.
On his Web site www.strongarmmayor.com, neighborhood activist Avi Adelman calls on Dallas residents to spearhead a grass-roots opposition effort and to donate time and money to spread the message to city voters "neighbor by neighbor, block by block."
Under a traditional strong-mayor system, the mayor is the chief executive the individual who crafts the budget, hires and fires department heads and puts policy in motion. City employees are accountable to the mayor.
Under the council-manager system, the city manager is responsible for day-to-day activities and is a buffer between elected officials and professional supervisors. Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio are the only U.S. cities with more than 1 million people that use the council-manager form of government.
Ms. Blackwood said the idea for a strong-mayor form of government came to her and her husband, lawyer Tom Thomas, last spring as she was planning her run for City Council.
"We were looking at ways to make Dallas better, and we concluded that the form of government really doesn't work," she said.
The couple spent $30,000 on a citywide poll, and by the end of the summer, had the results they were anticipating. The majority of respondents favored strengthening the mayor's power. And the supporters felt much stronger in their beliefs than the opponents, she said.
It was obvious the City Council wasn't going to consider strengthening the mayor's power, Ms. Blackwood said. So she and Mr. Thomas began poring over election books, trying to determine what it would take to get a referendum before voters.
"We figured out we needed 20,000 signatures, and it seemed doable," she said.
Ms. Blackwood said at first, she and Mr. Thomas were planning on conducting the petition drive themselves. But when they realized how big a job it was, they hired National Voter Outreach, a professional firm.
This step raised the campaign's price tag and set the fund-raising wheels in motion. Mr. Thomas focused his efforts on a few key players individuals with strong views on governance and thick wallets.
The list of potential donors narrowed when they learned their names would be disclosed through the public process, Mr. Thomas said. Campaign finance reports must be filed in mid-January.
While some of the donors live in the Park Cities, they all own land and pay taxes in Dallas, he said.
The strong-mayor effort started under the public relations direction of consultant Rob Allyn, who ran the initial telephone poll. Currently, Ms. Blackwood and her supporters are being advised by the Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group.
So far, the strong-mayor campaign has cost twice what Ms. Blackwood and her husband anticipated. The petitioning alone cost $75,000, and the polling, legal work, consulting and printing has brought the current total to $180,000.
"We certainly blew our budget," Mr. Thomas said.
And the fundraising isn't over. Ms. Blackwood and her husband are currently taking pledges for the remainder of the strong-mayor campaign which Ms. Blackwood says is separate from her own City Council campaign.
"The city is desperate for a change of government," she said. "Right now, strong mayor is more important to me than my council race."
^ So much for this being a "grassroots" effort.