City Hall update: HB 2559, SB 1324, Susan Neal, and non-partisan elections

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An edited version of this piece was published on May 10, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web, with hyperlinks to related articles, on August 18, 2010.

We're now a month past the city election, and it's time to follow up on a few stories that we've been watching.

* * *

First, let's look to the State Legislature, where Tulsa's development lobby has taken its battle to regain total control of zoning and land use planning. HB 2559 has been sent to conference committee. The bill, sponsored by three Tulsa legislators (State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, and State Sen. Brian Crain), would interfere with local control of the zoning process, requiring appeals to Board of Adjustment (BoA) decisions to go directly to District Court and making it easier to remove lots from historic preservation districts (and ensuring the eventual erosion of these districts to non-existence).

The companion Senate bill, SB 1324, is awaiting the Senate's consideration of House amendments, but it appears to be on hold while HB 2559 is in conference. SB 1324 includes a section that would give the BoA oversight of design guidelines, which would affect historic preservation districts and Oklahoma City's neighborhood conservation districts. Combined with the BoA appeal requirement, it would make it tougher to enforce these zoning provisions which aim to preserve the character of a neighborhood. It's likely that this provision will be included in the conference negotiations over HB 2559.

Legislators have gotten an earful about these bills from neighborhood association leaders and historic preservation activists over the last two weeks. We'll see if the voice of the people is enough to overcome the loud voice of campaign contributions from builders' PACs and individual developers. One encouraging sign: State Sen. Randy Brogdon, a former Mayor of Owasso, and one of the most principled members of the State Legislature, has come out in opposition to the bill.

The local monopoly daily weighed in with an editorial on the bill, predictably siding against local control of land use decisions. The editorial set forth a false alternative: Do you want zoning decisions made by professionals or by politicians?

In fact, the BoA is not made up of professionals. It consists of five private citizens, nominated to the board by the Mayor for three-year terms and confirmed by the City Council.

And although much of what the Board does is cut-and-dried, there is a strong subjective element to the approval of special exceptions, where the Board's role is more legislative, rather than "quasi-judicial." Neighborhood compatibility is involved in special exceptions, and it would be reasonable to provide a level of review that doesn't require the expense of hiring an attorney.

Whatever the merits of changing the BoA appeals process or changing historic preservation rules, the issue should be debated and decided locally - a point the World's editorial avoids. The bottom line is that the World and the development lobby don't want land-use decisions made by a body that they don't control.
Keep calling the State Capitol. Our legislators need to get the message - keep local issues under local control.

* * *

Mayor Kathy Taylor is being lauded for reaching across partisan lines to hire former City Councilor Susan Neal, a Republican, to serve on her staff as a legislative and education liaison. Neal and former Council colleague Tom Baker were Taylor's first two permanent hires.

The reality is that, when it comes to local political factions, Neal's hiring doesn't cross any ideological boundaries at all. Neal is very much a part of the Midtown Money Belt faction that crosses national party lines and includes Taylor, Baker, and former Mayor Susan Savage. She and Baker were the Tulsa World editorial board's favorite councilors. The pair was nicknamed Bakerneal by their colleagues for voting in lockstep.

Although she worked for a Republican congressman a decade and a half ago, Neal is considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by most local activists. As a councilor, she would show up at the annual Tulsa County Republican Convention just long enough to wave when the elected officials were introduced.

I'm only aware of one occasion where Neal took a discernibly Republican position on an issue: She voted twice against allowing more city employees to unionize. Then again, that's a position many Money Belt Democrats share, including Mayor Taylor and former Mayor Savage.

Her appointment as a legislative liaison is ironic. In choosing a liaison, you want someone who has the respect of those you're going to be lobbying.

Neal's ties to Tulsa's mostly-Republican legislative delegation are rather tenuous. When Republican elected officials gathered in late 2004 to announce their opposition to the recall of two Republican city councilors, Neal was nowhere in sight. Of the local delegation, she's known to have a good rapport with only Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, both of whom sponsored the aforementioned HB 2559, working to keep a reform-minded City Council from exercising local control over zoning.

Neal isn't Taylor's worst choice for a liaison to the City Council - that would have been Baker - but she comes close. She wasn't highly regarded by the reformers on the Council, a perspective that now holds a solid majority on that body. During Council debates, Neal would try her colleagues' patience with her lengthy soliloquies on the agony of decision-making, complete with sighs and anguished facial expressions. Her wilderness wanderings invariably led her to whatever position the Tulsa World editorial board favored.

I received a good deal of flack for endorsing Bill LaFortune against Taylor in the general, after working for his defeat in the Republican primary. I was accused (ironically, by someone married to a member of Taylor's campaign staff and transition team) of selling out for a chance at an unpaid appointment to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC); others said I was acting out of pure Republican partisanship.

I wrote at the time that a chastened LaFortune was Tulsa's best chance for City Hall reform. The primary result opened LaFortune's eyes. The voices he had dismissed as a fringe group turned out to represent a broad, bipartisan, and geographically diverse coalition that prevailed in most of the contested council seats and, if it hadn't been for Randi Miller's spoiler role, would have taken him out in the primary.

Taylor obviously hasn't had that wake-up call yet. Taylor's choice of Baker and Neal confirms my suspicion that she will do nothing to challenge the City Hall status quo. If you were a Medlock or McCorkell voter, if you're from north, east, or west Tulsa, she won't be listening to you. She appears to be encasing herself in a Money Belt bubble, where she can remain uncontaminated by the concerns and opinions of the rest of Tulsa.

I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Taylor's appointments to expired terms on the TMAPC, the BoA, and Tulsa Airport Authority will be very telling.

* * *

Speaking of partisanship and city government, this Friday I will be speaking about non-partisan municipal elections to the Citizens' Commission on City Government, a body appointed by former Mayor LaFortune to study changing the City Charter. I'll be presenting the alternative of multi-partisan elections, which I described in this space back in April, and advocating for instant runoff voting, which I wrote about in March.

The Commission is meeting at the TCC West Campus (a strange venue - it's not within Tulsa's City Limits) on Friday at 1:30pm.

I've been hearing that the two recommendations most likely to emerge from the commission are non-partisan elections and appointment of the City Auditor. The commission has been told in no uncertain terms that the addition of any number of at-large or supercouncilor seats would provoke a Federal Voting Rights Act case because of the diluting effect such a move would have on minority representation. (Attorney Greg Bledsoe, representing the group opposing at-large councilors, set out the legal issues in great detail. You can read his testimony in detail at tulsansdefendingdemocracy.com.)

Non-partisan elections would deprive voters of useful information in the voting booth. My alternative, spelled out in full in my April 6th column, would put all candidates on a single ballot, giving every voter a choice of every candidate. But rather than concealing the reality of factions and interest groups by stripping the ballot of any partisan labels, my idea would allow both national party labels and the names of locally-based political action committees to appear on the ballot, so that voters would know how the candidates line up on local issues.

Instead of pretending that these divisions don't exist, let's make them apparent.

One issue the commission should examine, but hasn't: Moving city elections to the fall of odd-numbered years. It would give candidates more daylight hours and better campaigning weather, and it would give new officials a full six months to find their way around City Hall before the next budget cycle begins.

The City Auditor's post has worked well for decades as an elected post. If it must be changed to an appointed position, let the Council make the appointment, not the Mayor. Above all, the Auditor should act as a check and a watchdog over the executive branch of government, which the Mayor heads. Many Tulsans were uneasy enough with the idea of a mayoral staffer running for City Auditor this year; imagine if Bill LaFortune had been able to appoint Michael Willis directly to the post.

The commission will wrap up work and issue their recommendations in June. I doubt the new Council will do anything with them right away, given the other issues on their plate. At the earliest, the commission's ideas may be given a hearing as part of the usual charter review cycle which will begin in the summer of 2007.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 10, 2006 1:18 AM.

Third-penny roundup was the previous entry in this blog.

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