Reforming the City Attorney's office


When Mayor Bill LaFortune took office two years ago, Tulsans expected changes, particularly among the heads of city departments. You would expect the mayor in a strong-mayor form of government to be able not only to set policy but to be able to appoint department heads who would effectively and enthusiastically carry out the mayor's policies.

To date there haven't been many changes. It turns out that civil service regulations make it rather complicated for a mayor to control who runs city departments. Unless he wants to go through civil service proceedings, a mayor is pretty much stuck unless the department head retires. This wasn't a problem for Rodger Randle -- as the first mayor under the new form of government, he got to appoint all the department heads. Susan Savage was Randle's deputy and presumably was content with the leadership she inherited, and if not, during her 10 years in office nearly every post became vacant and she had the chance to choose a replacement.

With Bill LaFortune, we have the first real change in administration under the new form of government and for the first time can see how the rules hamstring a new mayor's ability to implement the platform that got him elected. There was some talk about amending the charter to improve the situation, but nothing was done about it during the last charter change evaluation in 2003.

Now Mayor LaFortune has the chance to name a City Attorney. The City Attorney is one of the most powerful and least accountable public officials in the city. The office is defined by charter in Article III, Section IV. Title 19 of Tulsa Revised Ordinances fleshes out the City Attorney's powers and duties. The City Attorney's duties are diverse grouping together in one office anything in city government related to the law -- prosecuting violations of municipal law, providing legal advice to the Mayor and the City Council, representing the City in court, ruling on the legality of ordinances approved by the City Council.

On a number of occasions, these diverse duties have turned into a conflict of interest. For example, when the Mayor and Council are at odds over an issue, the City Attorney must provide legal advice to both sides, which is impossible. If the Council has concerns about the legality of the City Attorney's actions, the City Attorney has the authority to prevent the concerns from being pursued.

The Council sought to have the power to hire its own attorney, answerable only to the Council, but that would require a charter change. Instead, they were assigned an attorney out of the City Attorney's office, nominally working for the Council, but ultimately responsible to the City Attorney. That interferes with the principle of the separation of powers, and the ability of the Council to legislate and exercise oversight of the executive branch.

Given the diverse legal functions involved, it would make sense to amend the charter and establish several independent offices -- a City Prosecutor, a City Council Attorney reporting to the Council, an attorney reporting to the City Auditor, and a City Solicitor reporting to the Mayor and handling lawsuits. Until the charter could be amended, a similar de facto arrangement could be accomplished by appointing a City Attorney who is committed to allowing the City Council attorney to function independently, with as little input and control as possible from the City Attorney.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 31, 2004 2:55 AM.

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