"I'm melting! Melting!"

"Who would have thought that some little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?"

The Tulsa Whirled editorial board is madder than the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy doused her with water. Read over the witch's speech -- that's a pretty good fit with what the Whirledlings, the Chamber Pots, and the whole Cockroach Caucus must be thinking right now. They just don't have total control of City Hall any more, and does it ever frustrate them.

You need to keep in mind that in the months to come the Cockroach Caucus will do anything and say anything to restore things the way they were before the voters of Tulsa voted to take their city back and elect leaders who would look out for all Tulsans, not just the favored few. They may stop short of outright lies, but remember that media bias expresses itself most forcefully in the selection of what will be reported, and in the careful selection of descriptive words to insinuate meanings that can't be supported by the plain facts.

The Whirled whined today about the Council's allocation of this year's Community Development Block Grant funds. The Whirled's main problem seems to be the fact that there was a debate over how to allocate the funds and this debate was held in full view of the public.

It's funny that the Whirled takes the opportunity to condemn the Council's majority (they call them the "Gang of Five") when the final allocation passed by a 7-2 vote. The only two holdouts were the Whirled's most favorite Councilors. They passed up the opportunity to condemn Councliors Christiansen and Sullivan, who also participated in the reallocation of funds from the original recommendation.

CDBG is a chunk of money from the Federal Government to be used to help people who live in low-income areas of cities. As a "block grant", it's left up to the city government to decide, within Federal regulations, how the money is to be spent. Some of the money goes for projects which will be run by non-profits, other money is spent by the City itself, for example through the Tulsa Development Authority for "urban renewal" projects.

Under Mayor Susan Savage, the allocation process was simple: The Mayor decided how all the money would be split up and submitted her recommendation to the Council. For the Council to deviate from the Mayor's allocation, it would mean taking money from an organization already expecting to receive it, therefore making the Council the bad guys. To get CDBG money, it helped if your organization's director traveled in the Mayor's social circles. It helped even more if your organization was NOT faith-based in any way.

With the change in administrations in 2002, the Council adopted a new process that has worked to ensure that the same sorts of organizations continued to get the money. A committee run by the Whirled's favorite Councilors -- Susan Neal and Tom Baker -- and staffed by the aide they share, and including "subject matter experts" selected by Neal and Baker, made the initial recommendation for allocations. The Mayor's Office had a hand in this initial recommendation as well. The recommendation then went through the normal Council committee process, and like any other motion, was open for amendment when it came up for consideration by the full Council.

Councilor Medlock had this to say about the process on the TulsaNow forums:

The ultimate problem is, there are far too many worthy programs and projects chasing too few dollars. Many of our more successful social service programs have become reliant on CDBG for most, if not all, of their operating expenses.

As such, it becomes very difficult for new programs to get funding, as well as one time projects like what the Arts & Humanities Council and Neighbor for Neighbor are proposing.

The difficult choice we are left with is, defund ongoing programs to fully fund one time projects, or offer a small percentage of what is needed and hope that each group can leverage the public infusion of funds with enough private and foundation money to be successful.

Never a fun time of year.

One observer says that Baker and Neal, who represent affluent areas, approach the process as if the social service agencies are the target beneficiaries for these funds. In other words, they tend to see the agencies as ends in themselves, and in terms of the people who run them and work for them, rather than means to an end. Councilors like Henderson, Medlock, and Turner, who represent most of the poorer neighborhoods, regard the poor and needy as the people who should be served by this money, and aren't necessarily concerned about the impact on an agency, which is just a means to an end.

* * *

Councilor Turner gets singled out by the Whirled for criticism because he did not recuse himself from the deliberations. He serves on the board of Reaching Hands, one of the organizations that is receiving CDBG money. The Whirled calls this a "conflict of interest". That would be true if Turner or a relative stood to benefit financially from the grant -- for example, if he were a paid staffer for the organization. But Turner is on the board of Reaching Hands for the same reason that he supported giving it a grant -- because he believes it is effective at helping people in the community he represents.

Elected officials, just like other prominent community leaders, are often asked to serve, without compensation, on the boards of non-profits. They can help raise the visibility of the organization and can use their knowledge of the community to help the organization become more effective. Because a public official is usually active in his communities before seeking public office, he may already be on the board of an organization when he takes office. (For example, State Rep. Pam Peterson was on the board of Mend Crisis Pregnancy Center for years before running for office.) I'm sure every Councilor is either on the board of a non-profit, or received campaign contributions from someone who is.

As for the Whirled's complaint about the administrative costs of Reaching Hands -- different needs require different proportions of labor, materials and capital. Reaching Hands is about meeting the physical needs of elderly people who can't do for themselves any more -- housecleaning, shopping, help with personal hygiene, yardwork. As such, it is very labor-intensive. But the program makes it possible for seniors to stay in their own homes and helps to keep those homes presentable, not a blight on the neighborhood, which can happen when an elderly person can no longer do his own yard work and can't afford to hire anyone.

* * *

The Whirled also gets riled about Councilor Medlock going over to and whispering to Councilor Roop at one point in the debate, after which Roop dropped his objection to an amendment Medlock had proposed. They seem to believe that Medlock's whisper was a reminder to Roop of some earlier conspiratorial agreement, some diabolical pact made before a bloody altar. Perhaps Medlock said, "Vote my way, or tonight you sleep with the fishes."

I asked Councilor Medlock about this, and he said he went over to repeat exactly where the money would be coming from and going to if his amendment were adopted, making it clearer to Councilor Roop by pointing to the handout listing the proposed allocation of funds. Even for auditory learners, it can be hard to follow numbers in a discussion without some visual aid. When Roop had the changes pointed out to him, he realized his objection didn't apply and he withdrew it. All five members of this so-called "gang" are sufficiently independent that the Whirled has criticized them for being too independent and unable to work as a team. It's unlikely that a whisper in the ear would whip Sam Roop back into line.

And a private conversation between two councilors does not violate the Open Meetings law.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 10, 2004 11:37 PM.

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