The Outsiders

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Ken Neal's weekly rant in Sunday's Whirled takes a new tack in his ongoing campaign against the Tulsa City Council's Reform Alliance. (Nice to see that the term I coined is taking hold -- let's see if the Whirled starts referring to the rest of the Council as the Cockroach Caucus.)

He has now concluded that this majority of meddlesome troublemakers is the result of a structural problem with our form of government -- it makes it too easy for the wrong sort of person to win:

When the average voter turnout per council district is but 2,500 or so, outsiders can shape the election with relatively small amounts of money and that is what happened last spring. Tom Baker, Tulsa's former fire chief and one of the most knowledgeable and reasonable of councilors, barely won with a 24-vote margin.

There was a concerted effort to beat all the sitting councilors because of zoning decisions at 51st and 71st Streets and Harvard Avenue. In both cases, councilors had little choice under the law but to approve the zoning changes.

A slight change in the way Tulsa elects a council would make it much harder for a few well-heeled activists to shape the election.

I could spend all night dissecting the internal contradictions in those three paragraphs. Ken, are they "well-heeled" or are they spending "relatively small amounts of money"? Either way, the point is clear -- the current system makes it possible for well-organized grass-roots campaigns to succeed, and in the Whirled's eyes, that's a bad thing. It means that the Council might be run by "outsiders", strangers to the corridors of power, who will interfere with all the cozy insider deals and relationships that have traditionally characterized Tulsa city government, certainly over the last 20 years.

So Ken's solution is to change the City Charter dramatically, by making five of the Council seats elected at-large, with the remaining four seats elected from much larger districts. Instead of council districts of 44,000 population (already bigger than a state House of Representatives district), five of the councilors would represent all 400,000 residents of the city -- more than half the size of a congressional district -- while the four district councilors would represent 100,000 each, as many people as in one and a half State Senate districts.

This should ensure that no one can be elected to the City Council without a pile of money and the endorsement of the Tulsa Whirled. It would also make it very difficult for the district councilors to represent their constituents effectively, which would be fine with the Whirled. Mr. Neal would no doubt hope that the Councilors elected under the new system would understand that their job is to represent the entrenched interests that financed their expensive campaigns, not the interests of ordinary Tulsans.

Neal claims that the conflicts on the Council are all about ward politics:

All nine councilors in the current government are elected by district, creating, as we see clearly today, ward politics of the worst kind....

As it is, the council is charged with considering what is best for Tulsa, but we have seen since the beginning that the councilors are far more worried about purely parochial matters. And why not? That's where they get elected. In effect, they are elected to try to put their district ahead of the overall welfare of the city.

Neal's theory doesn't explain why the Reform Alliance is using political capital to bring about change on city boards and commissions, look into operations at Tulsa's Airports, and to examine the role of the Tulsa Metro Chamber in Tulsa's economic development efforts. Voters in District 5 and District 2 have no interest in the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority other than the interest they share with everyone in Tulsa -- clean, abundant water at reasonable rates. The Tulsa International Airport is in District 3, but Tulsans from every district fly from TUL, and they should be concerned at the possibility that airport mismanagement may result in the loss of Federal airport improvement funds. Voters in District 6 and District 1 may not know or care how much of the city's hotel/motel tax goes to the Tulsa Metro Chamber.

Without any parochial interests at stake, without any likelihood of these issues deepening their support in their own districts, these councilors are pursing reform because they care about the City as a whole, not the special interests of a few. These men are not worried about losing their seats on the Council. Most of them have faced political defeats at one time or another, and they are ready to do the right thing, even if it means not getting re-elected.

The Cockroach Caucus has made good use of ward politics over the years, for example by swapping votes on zoning issues, so that one councilor can vote with the neighborhoods in his district while ensuring that the development is approved anyway. For from being ward-heelers, the new Reform Alliance majority is showing proper concern over the citywide precedents set by zoning decisions.

Neal unwittingly hints at the way former Mayor Susan Savage made brutally effective use of ward politics:

Mayor Bill LaFortune does indeed have the administrative power to play hardball politics with roads, street lights and other city services with the council, but he is too honorable for that kind of petty politics. But other mayors might.

That is precisely the sort of thing that Savage used to keep councilors in line, and it requires a certain amount of ruthlessness. It also requires the support of a majority on the Council to pull it off. With the current Council lineup, if LaFortune were to try something like that, the Council majority could easily retaliate. These five men are not easily shaken, despite the Whirled's belief that they can rattle Councilor Sam Roop, to whom Neal obliquely refers as a "holdover [who] turned against his former colleagues to form the majority."

With a comment like that you have to wonder if Neal is really paying attention. Roop was targeted for defeat by the Whirled and the Chamber and they very nearly got him in 2002. Roop has often been the lone voice for reform on the Council, placing him in opposition to Whirled favorites like John Benjamin, Gary Watts, and Vickie Cleveland.

Neal gets this wrong too:

There was a concerted effort to beat all the sitting councilors because of zoning decisions at 51st and 71st Streets and Harvard Avenue. In both cases, councilors had little choice under the law but to approve the zoning changes.

The effort -- he probably refers to the work of Homeowners for Fair Zoning -- wasn't all that concerted, and it wasn't to beat all the sitting councilors. We wanted Medlock and Roop back in office, and no efforts were made on behalf of the strange person who opposed Susan Neal. And Ken Neal is wrong about the strip club opening at 51st & Harvard being a factor. The Council never voted on that case because the club could locate there by right, although you could fairly blame the councilors on duty in 2002 (Medlock wasn't yet elected) for failing to act on a TMAPC recommendation to change the distance minimums for sexually-oriented businesses. The key issue was the unfair treatment accorded by the city to homeowners seeking to exercise their rights in the 71st & Harvard case, and the councilors who supported the city's trampling of the homeowners' rights were held to account at the ballot box, despite all the campaign money they received from people associated with the zoning applicant in that case.

I can't end without marvelling at the irony of the Tulsa Whirled proposing such a draconian change to the City Charter, when they pointed to my very modest charter reform proposals as a good reason to vote against me and for Tom Baker in 2002.

Strange too to see Ken make it sound as if the Tulsa Whirled was duped into supporting the new mayor-council form of government in 1989. I recall the paper being chief proponents and cheerleaders for the change. Ken also pooh-poohs the importance of the Voting Rights Act, but if you thought the Black Officers lawsuit was a mess, wait until Tulsa tries to dilute the African-American vote by creating at-large districts.

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Oklahoma City is divided into eight wards of roughly similar population (65,000 or so), each of which is represented on the City Council. Tulsa has a similar system with nine... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 7, 2004 12:32 AM.

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