The most important thing to keep in mind as we look back on what happened last week is that the average low temperature in Dallas for the first five days of February is 36 degrees. We didn’t reach 36 as a high until Saturday. So any discussion of the city’s response to the storm starts with that: It had both hands tied behind its back, even before it started doing anything.
Compounding the problem were two woefully inadequate weather forecasts. The forecast for Tuesday, when the ice arrived, called for a morning’s worth of rain, which would turn to ice around lunchtime. In fact, the ice got here in the morning. The forecast for Friday, when we got more than five inches of snow, was for a dusting that wasn’t going to stick. In both cases, city officials had little time to change plans that had already been made, and city officials aren’t very good at changing plans to begin with.
Finally, Dallas had to coordinate snow and ice removal efforts with the Texas Department of Transportation, which must have been a nightmare of Texas Chainsaw Massacre proportions. If even the Legislature thinks TxDot is badly run, it must be really, really, really badly run.
Yet, having said all of that, did the city do the best job possible? Almost certainly not. There never seems to be a sense of urgency during emergencies like this, no feeling that the city has to solve this crisis. What happens, happens, and then we make jokes about it later. This was best summed up by Mayor Park Cities, who told the Observer: “We’ve had snow, and we do get that every other year, but in 2006 we had six inches on a Friday night, and by Sunday everyone was out playing golf.” More, after the jump.
Leppert’s quote is a perfect example of the role city government doesn’t play in Dallas. It’s not supposed to do things, other than pick up the garbage and make sure we have enough cops and fire fighters. It’s supposed to stay out of the way and let the magic happen. That’s the result of two things: Our council-manager form of government, which exists to be bureaucratic and unimaginative, and our Texas mindset, which says that the best government is the least government.
Except, of course, when we need it. What struck me, reading the comments here and on other blogs during the storm, was how many people were so angry about the city’s failure to clear the roads. And it wasn’t just neighborhood side streets, but key thoroughfares. On Saturday morning, I drive two of East Dallas’ most important north-south streets, and both were still a mess — icy, rutted and unsafe. There was a nice bit of reporting in Dallas’ Only Daily Newspaper on Saturday that said the city spent almost one-half million dollars plowing, salting and sanding last week. If that was the case, we got very little bang for our buck.
Which, I think, is why so many people are so angry. We don’t seem to be getting very much bang for our buck. Last winter, after that record storm, city officials told residents that we were exaggerating and didn’t need extra bulk pickup to clear away dead tree limbs. And, for good measure, if we left the garbage on the curb, we’d be cited. Then, during the budget negotiations last summer, it took a coup on the city council to find enough money so that a couple of basic services, like filling pot holes, wouldn’t be cut. It was pressure from taxpayers — angry taxpayers — who forced city officials to change the bulk pickup policy and to encourage the council to stage its coup.
Dallas government will never offer the services that residents get in those northeastern cities that Leppert is so fond of bashing for their high taxes. We don’t have the tax base or the desire to see government do that. But what may be changing, thanks to the last two storms and the on-going budget mess, is that we are beginning to demand accountability from our city government to use the resources we do have in a more effective manner. Hopefully, that means we’ll start to see a bigger turnout for city elections, and maybe voters will be willing to support candidates who don’t support the status quo.
Because sitting back and letting the magic happen doesn’t work. The next time city officials court an out-of-city business to move here, what will the out-of-town CEO remember? That Leppert sent him or her an iPhone or that Dallas shut down during the week of the Super Bowl? And who wants to move their business to a city that doesn’t seem to care that it can’t clear the streets?