A Council that can say "no"


Tulsa is a city where the conventional wisdom says the only way to accomplish anything is to agree with everything. Many public figures who opposed the Vision 2025 tax increase kept their opposition to themselves for fear that their opposition would jeopardize the projects and causes they supported. I'm amazed at the number of times a public official has told me he felt unable to vote according to dictates of his conscience.

So it was heartening to see the City Council decline to reappoint two members of the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority (TMUA). I have nothing against Jim Cameron and Lou Reynolds, but the recent discussions over annexation and extension of water lines to Tulsa's booming suburbs have revealed a difference of basic philosophy between the Council majority and the TMUA board members. The Council majority believes that the City of Tulsa's water authority ought to be first and foremost concerned with promoting the City of Tulsa's growth and prosperity. The TMUA seems bent on promoting growth outside Tulsa's city limits.

Article V of the City Charter describes a Tulsa Utility Board, a board of six members plus the mayor ex-officio. This board has a great deal of power -- if the board passes a rate increase, the Council is bound by charter to approve it.

The Tulsa Utility Board may exercise full, complete and exclusive rights, powers, and duties in performing each and all and every of the things to be done and performed in the construction, extension, improvement, operation, management, and maintenance of the waterworks system and system of sanitary sewers and sewage disposal plants of the city. It shall be the mandatory duty of the Tulsa Utility Board to fix and establish rates and prices for services rendered and commodities sold sufficient to meet the mandatory provisions elsewhere provided in this Article and it shall be the mandatory duty of the Council to approve all such rates and prices herein authorized to be fixed and established by the Tulsa Utility Board. The Tulsa Utility Board may enter into such contracts necessary for the performance of its duties and may appoint, employ, and contract for the services of superintendents, attorneys, managers, hydraulic, civil and management engineers, and such employees necessary for the performance of its duties, all subject to the approval of the Mayor.

In 1984, the City of Tulsa signed a 50-year-lease with the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority to operate and maintain the city's water system. The TMUA was created as a public trust with the City of Tulsa as the beneficiary. You can read all the details, including the lease agreements and amendments, here, in Title 39, Chapter 3 of Tulsa Revised Ordinances. I haven't gotten all the way through it yet. I have the impression that the membership of the Tulsa Utility Board and the TMUA are identical, although I don't know that for sure. But it appears that they always meet together.

Given the power wielded by this board, when unelected board members are at odds with the City's elected representatives, it makes sense for the elected officials to use the power at their disposal to effect change, since the elected officials are directly accountable to the voters. In this case, the City Council used its power not to ratify the Mayor's reappointment.

The Cockroach Caucus was scandalized by this development, according to articles in Friday's (jump page here) and Saturday's (jump page here) Whirled. The common thread of their comments seemed to be that mayoral appointees deserve reappointment by default. There were complaints, too, that the rejection came without any indication that the reappointments might be in jeopardy, although as I watched a rerun of the committee meeting (on Tulsa Cable channel 24) earlier in the week, I noticed that councilors were asking some detailed and pointed questions about the operation of the TMUA. It was funny to read Tom Baker's complaint that the five voted "no" without hesitation or discussion, given that his vote and the votes of others in the 71st and Harvard case came without a coherent explanation of their decision.

The Whirled's breathless Saturday editorial tried to suggest that the negative vote was the result of Jim Cameron's direct mention of Medlock as an opponent of the TMUA's decision to extend a water line to Bixby.

But Medlock's comments and those of the others in the majority make it clear that the concern is that TMUA is facilitating the development of suburbs while many parts of Tulsa remain underserved. This was driven home to me as I sat through a Board of Adjustment (BoA) meeting last Tuesday. There was a case involving a 10-acre lot along Lynn Lane Road south of 11th Street. Monte Dunham, a developer and a long-time member of the BoA, made a comment that the area, still rural, would develop quickly once city utilities were extended to the area. This is an area that has been in the city limits since 1966. It is about a mile away from one of the city's two water treatment plants, but the homes in this area still use well water and septic tanks.

I hear whispers that the reason the TMUA has been pushing for water line extension into the suburbs is because board members or their business associates have land holdings outside the City of Tulsa that they hope to develop. I haven't investigated this, but it would explain why the board would continue to overlook underserved areas already in the city limits.

Whether there's anything to those rumors, the clash of philosophy on the focus of TMUA's expansion efforts is a sufficient reason to seek a change in personnel. Beyond that, there's the matter of bringing new blood into the system. One of the stories about Cameron and Reynolds noted that both had previously served on the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy (TARE), which runs the city's trash system and manages the trash-to-energy incinerator in west Tulsa. We see the same few dozen names cycling through every board and commission. In a city of 400,000, there are plenty of able and intelligent people who could serve the city on these boards and commissions. Perhaps the two new members of TMUA could be people who live in parts of the city not yet served by city water and sewer.

I can't close without a poke at the Whirled's claim that the timing of the Council's rejection of Reynolds and Cameron was suspicious, because it came the day after the TMUA's approval of the Bixby water line. The Council had nothing to do with the timing of the appointments. The Council voted on these appointments Thursday because the Mayor put them on the Council's agenda late the previous week. The current practice is for the Mayor to announce appointments, and put them on the Council Committee schedule by Friday at 5 p.m. The Council considers the appointments at the appropriate committee meeting on Tuesday, then the full Council votes on Thursday night. It would be better for the public if there were more time between announcement of an appointment and the Council hearing. It would also be useful to require more detailed disclosure of financial interests and business relationships by each appointee, especially when the appointee will serve on a board concerned with development issues.

Something also needs to be done to ensure that board and authority members whose reappointments have been rejected don't continue to serve forever. As it stands, these two will continue to serve as board members until the Mayor appoints replacements who can get the Council's approval. A three-month grace period after the expiration of a board member's term ought to be sufficient, or perhaps the seat should become immediately vacant if a current member's bid for reappointment is rejected by Mayor or Council.

Hopefully, the Council will pursue these sorts of reforms. In the meantime, thanks to the Council majority for being a "meddlesome cabal," as the Whirled put it. We need a meddlesome cabal as a counterweight to the "timeless relationships" that seem to control our city's business and governmental workings.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 2, 2004 5:44 AM.

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