Thursday, May 6, 2010

In Memorium: Former Dallas City Manager John Ware

John Ware was Dallas' City Manager from 1993 - 1998. He was the second African-American to serve in that position. Those were five interesting years. Ware served during the same period as Dallas' first black mayor, Ron Kirk. They were two men who understood the power of their office, new how to use it and appeared to relish that power.

This doesn't mean that they were necessarily unpleasant or unkind. The black community was proud of them, loved the idea that two men who looked like them were in authority. But they also bemoaned the fact that they were not overtly black politicians with a 'black agenda'. At the same time, they operated as men who knew the reach of their positions, not as those encumbered by the limitations of them.
John Ware died of cancer last Sunday night at the age of 62.

I liked John Ware. As a pastor involved in community organizing efforts I had the chance to do some negotiating with him. I saw how tough he could be. I saw how, at times, insensitive he could appear. There was no way I could agree with some of the things he did. The one thing that immediately comes to mind was his 'mortgaging' future Community Block Development Grant funds, using the money as subsidies for developers of downtown 'affordable housing'. The housing that was built wasn't 'affordable' to anyone I knew in need of housing. But John's creative use of pubic funds is actually opened the door for downtown dwellers and, ironically, its arguable that Central Dallas Ministries could have made the case for CityWalk@Akard, had John not made that move.

Ware was also largely responsible for getting the bond package passed that resulted in the American Airlines arena. I remember passing by his office one day and he invited me in. As I walked in he pointed on his desk to a really thick binder that dealt with the highly anticipated and controversial project. "You know what that is, Rev. Britt?", knowing that he was going somewhere else besides the yet to be named basketball and hockey stadium, I asked what it was. "A gymnasium; plans for a gymnasium", he said with near disdain. But no one worked harder to sell the city council and the city on the bond harder than he and Ron Kirk. Shortly after the passage of the bond, John went to work for Tom Hicks, the developer of the AAC and owner of the Dallas Stars, the team that would play there.


In another meeting, when Dallas Area Interfaith was after the city to invest money in mortgage subsidy for the neighborhood surrounding the church I served, Ware seemed unmoved by our arguments. We explained how more houses had been demolished in the neighborhood than any other area in the city, and none of that housing stock had been replaced. We talked about the need for economic development. His position was that business should come first; ours was that housing and the new homeowners should come first.

Finally, in an effort to try and get a rise out of him, so that he could see what I thought was the illogical nature of his position, I said, "Mr. Ware, I understand the city spends $200,000 a year to clean the cows in front of the Convention Center". I referred to the now nearly iconic statues of a cattle drive that attract tourists and visitors downtown. Impassively, John replied, "$250,000".


John was heard at some point to have said, "As long as I am city manager, the city of Dallas will not spend one dime of general revenue money on any housing project". But it was Ware who ultimately set aside $450,000 from the city's contingency fund for the mortgage subsidy we were proposing.

Again, the irony was that the reason we had the 'space' to conceive of such an idea was because of John Ware. He initiated Neighborhood Service Teams - representatives from virtually every department of the city to address the needs of communities throughout Dallas, primarily in low-income areas. They were incredibly responsive in areas of code enforcement, neighborhood safety, minor home repair to name a few areas. He generously funded neighborhood policing efforts which resulted in a noticeable decrease in crime. The 'yin and yang' of Ware's personality was interesting, to say the least.

When Ware was recovering from his first known bout with cancer, I invited him to come speak at my church. He immediately accepted. What became obvious during his talk, was that John knew next to nothing about the Bible. But he was a wonderful example of resilience, perseverance, accomplishment and, yes, faith. We all thoroughly enjoyed him. And he apparently enjoyed himself. For months after that, he told me how much he appreciated being invited.

John Ware was a formidable figure. He transcended the designation that many others might have coveted, that of African-American City Manager of a large American City. He did so without shunning the designation, but by simply being competent and effective, whether you agreed with him or not. This may sound strange, but he was someone I enjoyed respecting.

Ware's career in public life was interesting, but even more interesting was the apparent respect of others he continued to enjoy after city hall. It was a couple of years ago that I heard that John was to be the next President of the Dallas Citizen's Council. This is the legendary oligarchical group that, at one time, ran Dallas. In its early years, of course it was made up of all white males. They are the one's the freeways in Dallas are named after - R.L. Thornton, John Carpenter and the like. It's make-up was that of the major business leaders in Dallas. It still is.

Most of black Dallas didn't know that John was the president of the Citizen's Council. It is evidence that his leadership prowess was not limited to a niche of public service, it was significant.

Again, just amazing.

Dallas misses John Ware, whether it knows it or not. He could be awe inspiring in some respects, aggravating in others. He could leave you inspired by his capacity to get things done and appalled by the lack of apparent energy he put in getting other things done. But John Ware was a major player on the field of Dallas' history. I have a special affinity for those who know how to use their office to get things done. John Ware was such a public servant and private citizen. I won't say 'we won't see the likes of him again in this city', because we desperately need to.

Read more about John Ware here.

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