Change the charter?


One of the interesting items on the City Council agenda this week is consideration of proposed changes to the City of Tulsa's charter -- our City's constitution, which defines the structure of City government. Tulsa's charter was completely rewritten in 1989 and took effect in 1990, replacing a system of five elected commissioners acting as both executives and legislators with a "strong mayor, weak council" form of government, which vested all executive authority in the Mayor, and creating a relatively powerless City Council designed to provide representation for all parts of the city. The charter has rarely been amended. I've proposed a few changes in the past, mostly advocating for election reforms: non-partisan elections (a first round election, followed by a runoff if no one gets a majority), adoption of "instant runoff voting" when voting machine technology makes it practical.

The charter specifies that amendments will be put before the voters at the biennial general election. The Council sets the timetable for considering amendments, receiving suggestions from the public and from Councilors the summer before the election, then selecting some for which a draft amendment will be prepared by the City Attorney's office, and finally settling on which amendments will be put before the voters. Few amendments have made it all the way to the ballot, and of those that have, I think all of them have passed.

The proposals are scheduled to be discussed at this Tuesday's Council committee meetings (2nd floor of City Hall, 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.), and a public hearing will be held on November 6.

This year there were proposals to increase the Council's term from 2 years to 4, to make the City Auditor an appointed official, and to move city elections from the spring of even-numbered years to the fall of odd-numbered years. I haven't seen all the details yet, but I like the election date proposal and am skeptical of the others.

There are two good reasons to support moving the election date. The current election sequence culminates with the swearing-in on the second Tuesday in April. Within two months of taking office the Council must consider and approve a city budget for the coming fiscal year. New councilors have complained that there isn't enough time to get up to speed on such a complex document. The current schedule has new councilors taking their seats in the midst of the budget process, dealing with a budget largely shaped by their predecessors. Moving the elections back to the previous November -- swearing in could be that same month, December, or January 1 -- would give incoming councilors plenty of time to find their feet before budget crunch time.

It's been suggested that moving the start of the fiscal year to January would alleviate the problem and eliminate the need to move the election dates. But there's another great reason to move the election dates to the fall of odd years: It's better for grass-roots campaigning, putting the candidates in touch with the voters.

Door-to-door campaigning is important for a number of reasons. Candidates learn a lot about what matters to their constituents, often changing their preconceived set of priorities, and making them more effective representatives. Voters get a chance to talk to the candidates face-to-face, get their questions answered, and form an impression of a candidate unfiltered by the media or by the candidate's own publicity machine. And door-to-door campaigning is an equalizer -- you can knock doors even if you don't have the money for lots of direct mail or newspaper ads.

Currently the primary is the first Tuesday in February, leaving only four weeks to campaign for that hurdle -- no one will be paying attention before Christmas and New Year's Day. And that campaigning must be done during the darkest and coldest part of the year, with very little prime time for door-to-door campaigning between when people get home from work and when the son goes down. Although I've been blessed with unseasonably warm weather for most of my two campaigns, I did take a nasty spill on an icy driveway toward the end of the 2002 race.

A fall campaign enjoys warmer weather and plenty of sunlight, as most of it will be conducted during Daylight Savings Time, and during the late summer and the warmer part of autumn. Candidates will be able to start campaigning as early as they need to to allow them to meet as many prospective constituents as possible.

On appointing an auditor: By default, I'm skeptical of any proposal to make an elected official no longer elected. When Tulsa's charter was proposed, Bob Dick, who campaigned for the new charter, described the Auditor under the new form of government as the "anti-mayor", someone with enough power and scope to act as a check on the Mayor's power. It hasn't worked out that way, perhaps because of the man who has held the office since before the charter changed. Phil Wood is a dedicated public servant and committed to the ethics and principles of the auditing profession, but tempermentally he will never be an "anti-mayor". The proposed change would create a nine-member board, one member appointed by each councilor, to appoint the auditor. Advocates of this change believe it will make the auditor more responsive to the City Council and provide more of a counterweight to the Mayor.

I don't like the idea of longer terms for councilors either. I think running for election every two years helps keep councilors from becoming alienated from their voters -- at least it should, assuming the councilor has a strong challenger and has to work hard for re-election. I would also oppose staggered terms -- I think it's healthy to have a way to throw all the bums out at once. I hear that supporters of the idea believe that it would give councilors who wish to challenge the status quo more time to pursue reforms before the establishment comes after them in the next election. Again, I'm skeptical.

I'll add a link to the proposals once their available online.

If you're curious, Savannah has its municipal elections in the November of the year before the presidential election. The City Council consists of a Mayor, elected at large, two at-large councilors, and six councilors elected by district. Day-to-day, the city is run by the City Manager. All the councilors are up for election every four years. Elections are non-partisan -- everyone is on the initial ballot, and if no candidate gets more than 50%, a runoff between the top two contestants three weeks later. The election was in full swing during my visit, and the Mayor's race is a wide-open, six-candidate contest. The incumbent was term-limited out. Here's a link to the election coverage of the Savannah Morning News, and a link to Savannah city government's home page. The paper had nice things to say about all six mayoral candidates, but they favor Dicky Mopper, owner of a real estate company.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 27, 2003 12:39 AM.

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