Why the Council matters, and the qualities of a good Councilor

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I wrote the essay below for my 2002 campaign website. It explains why I think the City Council matters, why voters should care who sits on the City Council, and what qualities voters should look for in choosing their representative on the Council. The gist is that we need Councilors who will seek first to represent their district's interests -- no one else will -- while being mindful of the needs of the City; who have the intelligence and desire to do the hard work of thoughtful legislation; and who will ask polite but tough questions to ensure that taxpayers are getting their money's worth.

Here are some excerpts, the link below will lead you to the full essay:

...when you've gone down to City Hall for Tuesday morning committee meetings and Thursday night regular meetings, as I have, and talked to Councilors, Council staffers, and the ordinary citizens who come to address the Council on some matter, you realize that the City Council has an impact on Tulsa's quality of life, and it has the potential to become an even greater asset to the City.

The Council performs three crucial functions that no other body can perform: representation, legislation, and oversight. If it fails to fill these roles adequately, Tulsa loses.

On representation:

By speaking for his constituents' interests, a City Councilor bridges the gap between City Hall and the parts of the city that feel disenfranchised. By recommending candidates for mayoral appointments, a City Councilor helps ensure that Tulsa's diversity is represented throughout city government. By taking an active role in setting city priorities, a City Councilor ensures that our plans for the future will benefit Tulsans from every walk of life.

A City Councilor must remember that he is there to represent his district's interests at City Hall. He is not an ambassador from City Hall to the district.

On the Council's law-making role:

The Council frequently deals with zoning and land-use laws: changing the zoning on an individual piece of land, revising the Comprehensive Plan for an area, or general reform of the zoning laws.

A Councilor needs to have a grasp of the complexities of the law, and an awareness of the risks and potential rewards of a change. The Law of Unintended Consequences is in full effect, and a bad decision can undermine years of hard work and thousands of dollars that homeowners and business owners have invested in their properties. A Councilor must also be able to think "outside the box" -- willing to consider creative solutions to reach a win-win outcome for all concerned.

On oversight:

To fulfill its oversight and legislative responsibilities, the Council needs the independent resources and freedom of action to research issues and to evaluate the information it receives from the city administration. There is a cost involved, but the ability to get a sound second opinion is necessary if we want a excellent, efficient government.

From time to time, exercising effective oversight means saying "no." A good Council will cooperate with the Mayor whenever possible, but some plans are wrong for Tulsa, and the Council needs the guts to send them back to the drawing board.


Why run for City Council?

Most people who hear I'm running for City Council congratulate me, or thank me for my willingness to serve. Others -- close friends, mostly -- ask, "Why in the world would you want to be a City Councilor? Do you need the aggravation? Why do you want to join that useless, bickering bunch?"

My answer: I want to be District 4's City Councilor because the City Council matters to our City's quality of life and its future. I am running because I believe that with my skills, knowledge, and experience I can promote Midtown's quality of life, and I can help the Council become more effective in doing its job, to the benefit of all Tulsans.

Some would say that the City Council was created in 1989 as mere window-dressing, a means to avoid a civil rights lawsuit. The real power rests in the Mayor's office, they would say, and the Council isn't meant to do much besides act as a rubber-stamp. Many voters may be tempted to give all their attention to this spring's [2002] mayoral race, while ignoring the candidates for City Council.

The Council matters

But when you've gone down to City Hall for Tuesday morning committee meetings and Thursday night regular meetings, as I have, and talked to Councilors, Council staffers, and the ordinary citizens who come to address the Council on some matter, you realize that the City Council has an impact on Tulsa's quality of life, and it has the potential to become an even greater asset to the City.

The Council performs three crucial functions that no other body can perform: representation, legislation, and oversight. If it fails to fill these roles adequately, Tulsa loses.

Representing Tulsa's diversity

The primary reason behind the pressure to adopt a Mayor-Council form of government, and moving from at-large election of officials to election by districts, was to ensure that all segments of the City were represented at City Hall. The Tulsa City Commission lacked racial and geographic diversity. Many Tulsans felt left out of the decision-making process.

Despite the change in government, many in east, north, and west Tulsa, even in parts of Midtown, still feel that they have no effective voice in the way they are governed. You can see this in the pattern of votes that defeated the two Downtown arena sales tax proposals [in 1997 and 2000].

Try as he might, a Mayor cannot hope to represent the diversity of views in the City. A Mayor is an individual, with a particular background, point of view, and circle of friends. It's only natural to look to people you know and trust to appoint to boards and commissions, or to seek advice.

The nine City Councilors bring nine more perspectives to the table. More than that, in the course of an election, a City Councilor speaks to thousands of citizens and hears their concerns and ideas. The new Mayor would be wise to look to the Councilors as valuable partners in city government, not rivals.

By speaking for his constituents' interests, a City Councilor bridges the gap between City Hall and the parts of the city that feel disenfranchised. By recommending candidates for mayoral appointments, a City Councilor helps ensure that Tulsa's diversity is represented throughout city government. By taking an active role in setting city priorities, a City Councilor ensures that our plans for the future will benefit Tulsans from every walk of life.

A City Councilor must remember that he is there to represent his district's interests at City Hall. He is not an ambassador from City Hall to the district.

Setting the rules

The City Council is not only a representative body, it is a law-making body. The Council enacts rules which affect the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

The Council frequently deals with zoning and land-use laws: changing the zoning on an individual piece of land, revising the Comprehensive Plan for an area, or general reform of the zoning laws.

A Councilor needs to have a grasp of the complexities of the law, and an awareness of the risks and potential rewards of a change. The Law of Unintended Consequences is in full effect, and a bad decision can undermine years of hard work and thousands of dollars that homeowners and business owners have invested in their properties. A Councilor must also be able to think "outside the box" -- willing to consider creative solutions to reach a win-win outcome for all concerned.

As a legislator, and not an executive, a Councilor cannot act alone. A Councilor must be able to build coalitions with his fellow councilors and the Mayor to reach the needed majority to pass an ordinance. To get things done for his district, a Councilor must also be able to build support for his proposals in the community.

Keeping watch

Although the Mayor is responsible for day-to-day operations, we need the City Council to oversee the performance of city departments, to ensure that our essential city services are delivered efficiently and with excellence. To do its job, the Council needs clear, complete information about expenditures and outcomes from every branch of city government. This same information needs to be made accessible to the public on the Internet.

To fulfill its oversight and legislative responsibilities, the Council needs the independent resources and freedom of action to research issues and to evaluate the information it receives from the city administration. There is a cost involved, but the ability to get a sound second opinion is necessary if we want a excellent, efficient government.

From time to time, exercising effective oversight means saying "no." A good Council will cooperate with the Mayor whenever possible, but some plans are wrong for Tulsa, and the Council needs the guts to send them back to the drawing board.

How to build a better Council

Tulsa has been blessed with many able Councilors, and the Council as an institution has matured, but there is more progress to be made. Three seats will be open [in 2002], and who fills those seats will greatly affect the Council's ability to fulfill its responsibilities.

Your job as a voter in this election is to get to know the candidates running in your district. Will the candidate be an effective advocate for your neighborhood's particular needs? Does the candidate have the intelligence and experience to handle zoning and other legislative issues? Is the candidate committed to a City Council which asks tough questions and demands answers, a City Council with the confidence to say "no" when it should? Don't be shy about calling the candidates and asking tough questions of your own.

If you find a good candidate, vote for him, of course, but find other ways to help, too. Display a yard sign, publicly endorse him, give money, make phone calls, host a coffee. Your time and effort will be repaid with a City Council that is ready to build a better Tulsa for all of us.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 25, 2004 11:44 PM.

District 7 Republican Primary: For John Eagleton was the previous entry in this blog.

City Council Primary Preview is the next entry in this blog.

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