Is the Mayor hamstrung?


Mayor Bill LaFortune acted late Wednesday to place Tulsa Airport Authority director Brent Kitchen on administrative leave with pay, apparently with a view toward removing him entirely. A lot of people, particularly those who were part of the Mayor's performance review team, have been asking him to clean house at the airport for months.

Because the Tulsa Airport Authority is a public trust and not directly a part of city government, it was unclear to me whether Kitchen was an employee of TAA or the City. Since the Mayor acted to suspend Kitchen, it appears that he is a city employee and therefore under civil service protection.

Here's the Mayor on why he acted and why he waited so long (jump page here:

Speaking at press conferences before and after a two-hour executive session of the Tulsa Airport Authority, LaFortune said the federal investigation yielded troubling management issues at the airport.

LaFortune said civil service regulations prevent him from going into detail about what triggered his decision to remove Kitchen. Likewise, he said, he couldn't estimate the timing of a settlement or the process the city would use to name a new airports director.

The mayor, however, said the federal investigation was key in his decision to remove Kitchen, who has been airports director since February 1988 and an airport executive since 1986. ...

As a former prosecutor and judge, LaFortune said, "You have to have all the evidence in your file. There are people who have opinions and people who can act on opinions in a public forum. I have to act on facts.

"You don't just fire people. It can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation costs if I don't act on facts."

Now, this gives us a useful insight into the Mayor's mindset. He seems to be applying a presumption that a city employee deserves to keep his job unless there is some iron-clad proof of malfeasance. That must be why nearly all of Susan Savage's department heads are still in place, more than two years after Susan Savage left office.

A lot of us who supported LaFortune expected him to start fresh with the best new ideas borrowed from successful mayors like Rudy Giuliani, Indianapolis' Steven Goldsmith and Jersey City's Bret Schundler. We also expected him to clean house and and replace the department heads with a team of people who believed in those ideas and would work wholeheartedly to carry them out.

The City Charter is an obstacle to cleaning house. Article X target="_blank">Article X includes a lot of detail about the civil service system that ought to be in an ordinance, where it would be easier to adjust. The charter enshrines the notion of seniority -- if jobs get cut in a department, first hired is first fired, even if the newest hire has needed skills.

Nevertheless, there is a system for dismissing or reassigning or demoting a civil servant, and hopefully the members of the civil service commission understand that the TAA administration is ultimately responsiblity for the mess there, and that failure of leadership is sufficient cause for removing those in charge.

But the Mayor must take the initiative to remove a department head. No one else can do it for him. Is his reluctance to act swiftly because he's a natural people pleaser, hesitant to make anyone mad at him? Or is he caught between a rock and a hard place, between the political imperative to respond vigorously to the mess that has been uncovered on the one hand and on the other hand, the desires of some of his political backers to maintain the status quo. Who was it who said, long ago: "So-and-so may be a crook, but he's our crook." There may be some powerful people who find it pleasant and profitable to deal with the current TAA administration and these folks would strenuously object to any changes. The Mayor may be looking for a way to say that his hand was forced -- he didn't pull the trigger, the FAA or the US DOT Inspector General or the Civil Service Commission did it.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 20, 2004 12:57 AM.

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