A.C. Gonzalez to step down as Dallas city manager

Dallas city manager to retire in January

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez announced Monday that he’s retiring after two-and-a-half years as the most powerful staffer at City Hall.

Gonzalez said he plans to retire in January, putting him at the three-year mark as city manager. Gonzalez is effectively the city’s CEO, overseeing a $3.1 billion budget and 13,000 employees.

A long-time city employee, he was named city manager in January 2014, winning the job over two outside candidates.

Gonzalez sat down with News 8 for an interview Monday afternoon, saying he is ready to have his life back and that it was a good time personally for him to announce his retirement. He turns 65 this week.

“I know it will be an opportunity for me to get my life back in terms of a better work and personal life balance,” he said.

Over the last year, a vocal minority of council members have openly voiced displeasure with Gonzalez over the way he manages city staff and the city’s money. Gonzalez says he is not being forced out, but it was pretty clear that it did have an impact on his decision.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a time when a city manager has not had some level of those individual that’s that are out there second guessing what they may be doing,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez says he still the support of about two-third of the city council.

His announcement comes just as council is scheduled to discuss in executive session his performance, as well as that of the city auditor and the city secretary.

Mayor Mike Rawlings says as the review approached, he and  Gonzalez had been discussing how long he planned to stay on as city manager. Rawlings says Gonzalez told him he was ready to retire.

“I said, ‘Well, let us tell that to the people so that we can kind of do this in a measured way and get a city manager to pass the baton to,” Rawlings said. “He said, ‘I’d love to.”

Rawlings calls Gonzalez a “class act” and says he was not treated well at times by some members of the council. He gives him high marks for his performance.

“He’s given a lot to the city of Dallas,” Rawlings said. “Citizens probably don’t appreciate the 24-7 nature of the job.”

Council member Lee Kleinman says he’s disappointed that Gonzalez is leaving. “It’s unfortunate that some council members create a hostile work environment when they don’t get their way on certain things,” he said. “He was clearly supported by the majority of the council.”

Scott Griggs, one of those vocal critics, welcomed the news of Gonzalez’s impending departure.

“I think there’s mounting pressure at City Hall,” he said. “I know there are many on council that aren’t happy with the way things are going.”

He wants the next city manager to come from outside Dallas City Hall. He believes that will be an opportunity to truly change the culture at 1500 Marilla Street.

Gonzalez, however, points to the recent results of a survey of 1,500 people that shows the city rates high in customer satisfaction as evidence that the city is running well under his leadership.  That survey found overall satisfaction is 17 percent higher than other major U.S. cities.

“At the end of the day, we’re a national leader,” he says. “We’re a model.”

Gonzalez replaced Mary Suhm, who had served as city manager for more than eight years. He’d served as her second in command. In many ways, he was the polar opposite of Suhm.

Suhm was a force of a nature, a powerful, gruff and charismatic leader adept at managing the diverse personalities of the city’s 14 council members. By contrast, Gonzalez is a quiet, even-tempered technocratic who avoids the spotlight.

When asked why he’s not saying as long as Suhm, he says her tenure was actually outside the norm for most Dallas city managers. 

He calls her the “outlier.”

Under her tutelage, Gonzalez had been her go-to person during the push to build the city-owned convention center hotel. He also was heavily involved in efforts to reform the city’s troubled municipal court system, as well as in reconstructing and revitalizing Love Field’s terminal.

When the council unanimously voted to make him city manager, change was the buzzword. Council members told him they wanted him to bring transformative change to City Hall. They wanted a change in the way City Hall was managed. 

Griggs and council members Philip Kingston – who later became his most persistent critics -- voted for him, but they and others made it clear that they would not settle for the status quo.

Council members also voted to pay him an eye-popping salary of $400,000, making him one of the highest paid city managers in the country. He made 25 percent more than Suhm’s final salary of $305,000.

At the same time council were saying they wanted change, they were following a decades-long tradition of picking city managers from inside city government. For some, Gonzalez – with his mild-mannered personality so steeped in the ways of City Hall – did not seem like the transformational leader that Mayor Mike Rawlings and some council members asked for.

“He’s brought in some change and I’ve told him I want more change,” Rawings said. “We’ll be able to take it to the next act with the next city manager.”

Gonzalez says he believes he brought significant change to City Hall, increasing transparency and efficiency.
Gonzalez’s detractors, like Kingston and Griggs, have argued City Hall isn’t well managed and that he hasn’t followed through on his promises to bring change.

A audit released back in March found a disturbing lack of documentation that resulted in the awarding of about $30 million in affordable housing contracts.

Another recent audit recently found that the city was about to award a $209 million contract to a firm that had brought in a subcontractor previously convicted in the 2005 City Hall corruption scandal.

That scandal resulted in city council member Don Hill ending up in federal prison for bribery.

A city auditor’s report also indicated there were issues with the city’s selection process for large contracts. Southland Mole, the firm selected, also bid $20 million more than Odebrecht Construction. City officials had disqualified Odebrecht, concluding that they lacked the required experience, even though Odebrecht built tunnels in Latin America.

The council had been scheduled to vote on the project last week but it was pulled off the agenda at the recommendation of Gonzalez.
“In every department, we’re just seeing repeated failures become catastrophic,” Griggs says.

Gonzalez acknowledges  the criticism in the audits but says he doesn’t believe the issues they are bringing up tell the whole story.

“It’s a fair criticism that a lot of our departments have not been as buttoned up as we would like it to be, but I would suggest to you that if you were to look at the same criteria for organizations across the country – government or in the private sector – that sort of level of detail of having all that documentation is not the norm at all,” he says.

As for the situation with the tunnel project, he says that there were issues with the low bidder having difficulties from a “legal and criminal standpoint” in Brazil,” he said.

He did not directly address the subcontractor employed by the other bidder.

His animal services department is under fire after the recent mauling of a 52-year-old South Dallas woman. Animal services had repeatedly hauled dogs away and issued citations after complaints from neighbors.
The fatal mauling put the spotlight on the city’s failure to control the problem of loose dogs.  The city is now bringing in a consultant to come up with a plan.

Gonzalez’s stint as interim city manager may have foreshadowed some of the challenges the city now faces.

When he was acting as interim city manager, Gonzalez ordered a police crackdown on Uber. He also worked with a Yellow Cab attorney to draft a proposed ordinance that would have made it next to illegal for the rideshare service Uber to operate in Dallas.

He then put it on what’s known as the “consent agenda,” meaning that it would have been voted on without discussion.

Council members were infuriated that he had done so without input from them. Gonzalez said he had learned from what happened and promised to do better.

But the consistent theme of council members being left in the dark would plague Gonzalez throughout his tenure as city manager.

Earlier this year, council members were again angered when they felt that they had been blindsided in an emergency executive session with the U.S. Corps Engineers demanding that the city either fix or remove the Standing Wave, a failed multi-million whitewater project on the Trinity River.

The Corps is demanding that the city comply with a permit that requires safe passage both upstream and downstream. The Corps was threatening sanctions and legal action if the city didn’t comply.

Several council members say they were told that they had just hours to make a decision to approve a fix that would cost in excess of $3 million. Council members balked, refusing to agree to what city staffers had recommended.

Gonzalez told News 8 in an interview earlier this year that he wasn’t trying to keep the council in the dark. He says he didn’t know the deadline was fast approaching – and he pointed out that the parks department, which oversees the project, does not report to him, but instead to the park board.

He also said that he had notified the council as soon as he could legally get it on the agenda.

Last year, the rancor at City Hall spilled out into public view when Griggs was accused of threatening to break the fingers of an assistant city secretary in an argument over the posting of a special meeting on the proposed Trinity Parkway.

When Police Chief David Brown decided to refer a felony charge to the grand jury, it prompted rampant speculation that Gonzalez, the mayor and others were orchestrating a controversy to get one of their most vocal critics. Griggs was also one of the council members who would later lead an effort to replace Brown last fall.

A grand jury declined to indict Griggs, who denied any wrongdoing.

Last November, City Attorney Warren Ernst announced that he was leaving after documents were released showing his extensive role in pushing the felony investigation of Griggs.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Erik Wilson says Griggs has been on a "personal vendetta" against everyone who was involved in that situation.

"I just think (Gonzalez) did a great job in terms of professional commitment to the city and in terms of trying to move the city forward," Wilson said. "Can we do a better job?  Yeah but I don't think there's perfect city manager out there."

He praised Gonzalez's efforts to improve the southern sector.

"It's a loss and I wish him well in his next endeavor.

Gonzalez says he doesn’t know what he will be doing when he leaves Dallas City Hall. He also saying by announcing now, he will be giving the city of Dallas plenty of time to choose a successor.

For the next six months, he’ll say he doesn’t plan to slow down. He says he plans to name a new fire chief in the coming weeks.
 
Asked if he would wish the job on his worst enemy, he says, “You know I can truly say – at least for myself – that this has been my dream job.”

A.C. Gonzalez biography

Contributing: David Schechter, WFAA

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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