Tom Baker: A bureaucrat to the core


District 4 Councilor Tom Baker, former Tulsa Fire Chief, is a bureaucrat to the core, and at the TulsaNow forum he was employing the skills that enabled him to climb to the top of a city bureaucracy and hang on for over a decade. He has that knack for speaking at length without telling you what he is thinking, or indeed if he is thinking at all. Asked if Tulsa's current process needed to be revised, he said he wasn't there to condemn the current process, but didn't explain what was good or bad about it. To several questions, he replied that "there is room for improvement" while carefully avoiding telling us what he thought might need improving.

Another key bureaucratic skill is the ability to make decisions in a way that avoids accountability for the results. A proven technique for achieving this is to develop a process involving quantifying the intangible and unquantifyable, then putting the numbers through complex formulas, and hallowing the result as Vox Dei. This technique dates back at least as far as Aaron at the base of Mt. Sinai: "While I may or may not personally have chosen a golden calf as an object of worship, it emerged from our board-certified, ISO-9000 compliant process of evaluating this nomadic community's quality of life, to which all stakeholders previously agreed, and so we must all accept the result."

Baker frequently returned to the quality of life measurement and strategic process that he's been pushing in the City Council. I didn't tape the event, so the following are paraphrases from my notes:

Question: Some people say the new McDonald's on Cherry Street sticks out like a sore thumb, and Tulsa should have rules so that new development in places like Cherry Street will fit in. Do you agree?

Baker said he would agree with rules as they might come through the strategic process.

Question: Let's imagine that a big box store wants to locate in Midtown, promising jobs and tax revenue, but can't find a big enough parcel of land for its usual store design. Should the city use condemnation to assemble enough land for the store?

Most candidates said "no" without hesitation, but Baker said that the City is legally restricted from doing that. Larry Self, one of the Republicans seeking to replace him, rightly pointed out that the city had used its eminent domain power to acquire land desired by a private institution, the University of Tulsa. Baker took a question that everyone else understood as requiring a moral answer -- is this just or is it unjust -- and dodged the moral issue by giving a legal answer. (And the Chamber report on development openly advocated using eminent domain for private benefit.)

Baker replied to a question about neighborhood conservation districts, which Tulsa doesn't have, by saying we already have historic preservation districts, which aren't the same thing.

When asked what he would change about Tulsa if he could wave a magic wand, Baker gave a surprisingly flowery answer about creating the spirit of community that gave us the Spavinaw water supply and the Tulsa Municipal Airport. He talked about the need for a willingness to listen to one another, which is pretty rich coming from him. He was one of four councilors who tried to prevent the 71st & Harvard neighbors for presenting the shabby way they were treated by INCOG; at a neighborhood forum two days later, he tried to shut down questions about his actions in that case; and just this Tuesday, he quickly moved to the next agenda item when it appeared that homeowners wanted to speak to the committee the zoning protest petition process.

I suspect Mr. Baker has some sort of advanced certification through Jim Boren's organization, INATAPROBU, the International Association of Professional Bureaucrats, whose principles -- the Boren Guidelines -- are as follows:

When in charge, ponder.
When in trouble, delegate.
When in doubt, mumble.

Useful skills in their place, but hardly the stuff of visionary leadership.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 30, 2004 8:08 AM.

TulsaNow forum on land use planning was the previous entry in this blog.

TulsaNow land use presentations online is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Subscribe to feed Subscribe to this blog's feed:
[What is this?]