Run city government like a business?

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In a recent blog post, Steven Roemerman scrutinizes mayoral candidate Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s claim that business experience is an important qualification for running for mayor. Bartlett cited Mayor Kathy Taylor's business experience as the motivation for his endorsement of her (presumably referring both to his 2006 endorsement and Dewey Bartlett's 2009 endorsement of Kathy Taylor).

Roemerman cites three reasons why running a city government is and should be nothing like running a business. A city's purpose is not profit but providing services for the citizens; the CEO's power is deliberately limited, balanced by the City Council; and a city doesn't have stockholders with varying percentages of ownership, but citizens with (what should be) an equal voice. He writes that Taylor's "business-like" approach to decision making has caused some problems:

Tulsa is NOT a business. The Mayor's power is balanced by the council. They are elected to their position the same as the mayor and are due respect. We have seen what happens when the Mayor pretends to be the CEO of the city. Kathy Taylor rules in a way that keeps the council in the dark; forcing their hand without adequate time to weigh an issue. We have seen this with the 7.1 million dollar pay out to BOK to settle the Great Planes Airlines issue and with the Ball Park assessment district. She expects, much the way a CEO might, that when she sets a course everyone will fall in line without question. Presumably since Bartlett seems to be in love with Kathy Taylor's style, and thinks that the City should be run like a corporation, he will rule in much the same way.

Steven makes a good point, but beyond that, I'm not sure how applicable small business experience is to running City Hall. While it's certainly valuable to have an understanding of the challenges faced by small business, the management skills required to oversee the work of 4,000 employees (about the number that work for the City of Tulsa) are a couple of orders of magnitude more complex than running a small business with about 10 employees. In searching online news archives, 10 is the biggest number that I've seen cited as the number of employees of Keener Oil, the company founded by the junior Bartlett's grandfather. The company's website currently lists eight employees, plus, on the associates and relationships page, three attorneys, a CPA, a geologist, a bank, and an insurance company. While small businesses of this size are the backbone of our economy, I don't think that running a business of this size really gives you a leg up when it comes to overseeing a city bureaucracy.

(Another way the city isn't like a business: In Oklahoma, employees of private companies serve at will and can be fired for any reason. Nearly all city employees, including most of the heads of departments, are protected by civil service.)

For his part, Steven Roemerman thinks that Chris Medlock's recent service on the City Council gives him the most recent, relevant experience to prepare him to serve as mayor:

Chris has the experience necessary for this job. As a two term city councilor, he understands the budget process; he has had to deal with the problems with a city in economic turmoil, with furloughs, and budget problems. As a talk show host on the radio, Chris's job was to listen to, and understand our needs and feelings. The Chris Medlock show was an opportunity for us to partner with him to keep the politicians at Tulsa City Hall accountable for their actions. He gave us a voice, and he wants to do it again as Tulsa's Mayor.

MORE: Roemerman asks Chris Medlock campaign volunteers why they're supporting him for Mayor of Tulsa.

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5 Comments

Kinston's work on languages of work supports you. All businesses, not just small ones, speak a different language of achieving than do politicians. It's why there are few business leaders who make good politicians, partly because they keep on trying to do things that are the purview of the bureaucrats and not the politicians.

If you must take your politicians from business, you are much better off with someone who came from the middle than one who came from the top.

Not saying anything about this particular case, just pointing out that there's good support for your general point.

Bob said:

To say that Dewey, Jr. runs a small, local business might really be giving more credit to his business acumen than is reality.

The reality is that he's the third-generation scion of an oil fortune. He's the eponymous local Trust Fund Baby.

The employees of the family business do the work. Dewey, Jr. is thus allowed plenty of free time to serve in local government, and in our plentitude of local authorities, commissioners, and boards.

Sam Roop said:

Business experience and dealing with large numbers of people whither employees of a corporation, small business, customers, or civil servants are important skills needed for running a city. But these are not the only skills and qualities needed for good local government. Skills such as budget understanding, organizational motivation, true leadership understanding, a sense of fairness, ability to carefully listen, a genuine heart for service a servant leader, courage, definite objective direction that can be effectively communicated, and many other skills that cannot be acquired only by being a business man. Running a city is a hybrid between a business and council or organization of enforcing and creating fairness and individual rights between all of us and by all of us. We generally, only rarely get a leader with such qualities and skills and many times do not recognize such a leader at first.

Good points, all. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Sam.

Brooksider Author Profile Page said:

Sam Roop has direct experience with the problems of running a City organization. I worked with him when he was CIO. He's a good man.

Here's more: Government is the representation of the public, of the common good. It should reflect the values of a free and democratic society. There are few things less democratic than a business. We see the Mayor and "her people" rubbing themselves raw trying to push her agenda through the checks and balances of City government. We have seen how few checks and balances there are in many businesses and how those businesses, and our economy in general, might be improved by them. The City is not the mayor's business; it's ours, the citizens. We are more than stockholders; we are the community who prospers and suffers by the decisions and actions of our elected officials. The adversarial relationship between the mayor, Council, and City Auditor is deliberate. City government is slow, messy, and watching it is often confounding. But it is the safeguard of our rights. Elected officials are by definition temporary, and they need to be reminded of that every day.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 16, 2009 9:19 PM.

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