The Stacked Deck

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From this morning's Whirled, about yesterday's County Commission meeting, in which the Commission voted to send the $885 million sales tax increase to the voters:

At one point, Collins, the commissionís chairman, was interrupted by an outburst from Michael Bates, the state committeeman for the Republican Party, who alleged that the leadership team had been stacked with downtown special interest groups that donít represent taxpayer interests.

Here's some context: Commissioner Wilbert Collins gave a few people -- the Mayor, City Councilors Medlock, Christensen, and Roop, and myself -- the opportunity to speak before the commissioners took up the five agenda items on the election (one for each ballot item, plus one for a sales tax overview committee). Chris Medlock requested that the Commission split the ballot item that includes both higher education funding and the arena and convention center, so that the arena and convention center would stand alone on the ballot. Bill Christiansen echoed Medlock's call, and also requested that funding for the Fred Creek project be restored -- it had been on the list a couple of weeks ago, but was cut for some reason. The Mayor also spoke about the importance of the Fred Creek project, but said nothing in support of splitting off the arena and convention center as a separate ballot item. Then Councilor Roop spoke in favor of making the split, as did I. I pointed out that the "leadership team" was merely an advisory body, but the decision belonged to them, the elected representatives of the people. I also expressed concern that the arena, twice rejected by the voters, would drag down higher education, common education, and the Morton Health Center, which deserve to be considered on their own merits.

The issue here was clarity and fairness -- will the voters be able to make meaningful choices to approve or reject the various projects?

Then the Commissioners spoke. A motion was made to approve all five agenda items (four ballot items, plus sales tax overview committee) at once. Bob Dick reiterated his pledge to support whatever the leadership team recommended. Randi Miller expressed her support for splitting the arena and convention center from the other projects, and again voiced her feeling that it would be best to go forward with Boeing and American Airlines incentives and leave the rest for another time.

Last week, when the question of separating the arena and convention center came up, Commissioner Collins was supportive of the idea, as were six city councilors (all Republicans except Neal, plus Democrats Justis and Williams) and other elected officials. But yesterday, when Wilbert Collins spoke, he pointed out the unanimous vote of the leadership team to recommend the fourfold package to the County Commission. He said he could not undermine the "process", just to help out a few friends.

It was at this point that I said, "All the citizens need your help. The leadership team was stacked." I did not rise from my seat, I did not scream or shout -- I did use a speaking voice that would be audible around the room. And I said nothing more. Collins admonished me, then said that since his words appeared to be making people angry, he wouldn't say anything more, and they would proceed to a vote.

Despite her objections Commissioner Miller voted yes, along with the other two commissioners. Collins said that his goal had been to get all three commissioners supporting the project, and he had what he wanted.

So what happened here? Three elected officials, representing nearly 200,000 people each, abdicated their decision-making responsibility to an unofficial, unelected advisory panel, dominated by representatives of downtown business interests. The six special interest representatives plus closely-allied elected officials (Commissioner Bob Dick, Councilor Susan Neal, Jenks Mayor Vic Vreeland) controlled a majority of the leadership team, able to prevail on any issue even if the majority of the County Commissioners, the Mayor of Tulsa, Councilor Christiansen, and the Mayors of Broken Arrow and Skiatook were united on the other side. Adding the six special interest representatives, a 6-3 win for one side turns into a 9-6 win for the other.

Clearly, the leadership team was structured to ensure that the same cluster of interests that defined the 1997 Tulsa Project package and the 2000 Tulsa Time package were in full control of this package as well, with a new big downtown arena as the primary goal. Nevertheless, a majority of County Commissioners still had the power to dispose of the leadership team's recommendations however they wished.

Anyone hoping for a truly visionary result to this process is bound to be disappointed today. For all their boasting about listening to the public, in the end, our elected officials heard and heeded only the voices of the entrenched special interests.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 8, 2003 9:32 AM.

Wanted: Visionaries -- not a vision was the previous entry in this blog.

Small business drives our economy is the next entry in this blog.

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