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Dallas Divided Over Powers of Mayor

May 3, 2005

DALLAS (AP) _ Job losses. A downtown hollowed by urban sprawl. The highest big-city crime rate in the country. Racial tensions. Mayor Laura Miller and others believe they have an answer to the city’s long list of problems: a proposition on Dallas’ ballot Saturday that would radically rewrite the city charter to give the mayor more governing power. Opponents say it will only exacerbate the city’s troubles.

The ``strong mayor″ proposal is one of several issues that voters around Texas will decide Saturday, including a mayor’s race in San Antonio. In addition, a transsexual businesswoman is running for the Dallas city council, Austin is considering a smoking ban, and the Democratic mayor of President Bush’s adopted hometown of Crawford has decided not to seek re-election.

Dallas, unlike cities such as New York and Chicago, designed its mayor to be weak, entrusting the real power to the 14 council members who work with the city manager to represent the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

Miller and an army of residents are hoping to give the mayor more power, freeing her to act swiftly to attack high crime and spark downtown investment and renewal.

``If we do not see the need for 100 senators to manage the White House and run the country with the president, why are we scared of having a strong mayor in Dallas that will speak for the city and be held accountable for any abuse or missteps?″ said E. Edward Okpa II, a real estate business owner who has contributed $10,000 to the campaign.

He said the current system of council members looking out for their own turf paralyzes Dallas, making it impossible to lure projects _ such as the Dallas Cowboys stadium or Texas Motor Speedway _ that went to neighboring cities.

But former Mayor Ron Kirk, like all 14 council members, say the proposal goes too far, giving the mayor too much power while failing to ensure adequate checks and balances.

``They approach this surgery with a chain saw instead of a scalpel,″ said Kirk.

Miller said while she would benefit from the measure, it wasn’t her idea. She endorsed it only after council members rejected her plan for altering how Dallas is run.

The plan was drafted by a local attorney who collected signatures to get it on the ballot. It would eliminate the city manager’s job and allow the mayor to hire and fire employees, draft the budget and appoint most of the city’s hundreds of board and commission members.

But Miller’s endorsement may have harmed the proposition’s chances in some sectors.

The former journalist-turned-politician, known for her sharp tongue and go-it-alone style, has many critics. Some black residents believe she orchestrated the ouster of the city’s first black police chief, Terrell Bolton, whom the city manager fired for poor job performance.

To her detractors, the strong-mayor issue has become a referendum on Miller’s performance. And her enthusiasm for a strong mayor has raised suspicions that she wants to seize City Hall and sideline rebellious council members.

``She got people scared, that’s what it is. They don’t know what she might do,″ said Carl Simon, a barber in Dallas’ predominantly black southern sector who opposes the proposal. ``Would you get you a dog that bites and put him in your house?″

In other Texas elections Saturday:

_ In San Antonio, mayoral hopeful Julian Castro is fielding criticism after acknowledging last month that his twin brother, a state representative, took his place in a parade and waved to onlookers who mistook the stand-in for the candidate. Castro has said he had a conflicting event, but didn’t intend to deceive anyone.

_ Monica Barros-Greene, the transsexual owner of a popular Mexican restaurant, is challenging two candidates for city council in a competitive race that may require a runoff. On the campaign trail, the well-known businesswoman has downplayed her male-to-female sex change in the mid 1990s.

_ In President Bush’s adopted hometown of Crawford, about 120 miles southwest of Dallas, Democratic mayor Robert Campbell says he is not seeking re-election because of disagreements with the council _ not because of community criticism last year after he joined the National Conference of Black Mayors in endorsing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

_ In Austin, voters will decide whether the hip, freewheeling city with the unofficial motto ``Keep Austin Weird″ and a reputation as the most liberal town in Texas should ban smoking in bars, bowling alleys and pool halls. The city already bans smoking ban in most restaurants.

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