Rodger Randle on proposed Tulsa city charter changes

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Rodger Randle, a Democrat, was the last Mayor of Tulsa under the old city commission form of government and the first under the mayor-council form of government. When he defeated incumbent Mayor Dick Crawford in 1988, a new city charter was a key plank in his platform. He has issued a two-page statement of his views on the proposed charter changes currently under discussion. Randle believes that the proposed changes will not fix the problems facing our city government and would actually make matters worse.

(If you're on the home page, you can read it via the "Continue reading" link; otherwise just scroll down.)

In reading his comments, keep in mind that the goal of those shaping the new charter back in 1989 was to produce a representative government in name only. We would have geographically-elected councilors but only with just enough power to avoid a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit. As much power as possible would be concentrated in the mayor's office. Councilors were to be kept in line. That attitude seems to explain some of Randle's comments, e.g.:

The rationale in the 1990 charter placing council members up for re-election every even-numbered year was to provide the Mayor, who has a four year term, an opportunity to attempt any necessary housecleaning on the Council on the off-year when all the members of the Council were up but the Mayor was not....

Nine Council members are a lot for the mayor to try to look after already. Making that number bigger will only increase the amount of time that the Mayor will have to spend lobbying and politicking them....

In addition, the more counselors there are, the more difficult it will be for voters to keep track of who is who and who deserves to be reelected and who does not....

I had thought mayoral contempt for the City Council was a Susan Savage innovation, but evidently it was there from the beginning.

It seems to me that the more councilors there are, the fewer constituents per councilor, the more likely a constituent is to have regular, direct access to his councilor and the more likely he is to know whether his councilor deserves to be re-elected or not. Randle's comment makes more sense if you replace "voters" with "special interest groups like the Chamber and the homebuilders."

Randle worries that adding councilors would create the kind of dysfunctional legislative dynamics at work in Chicago city government. But Chicago has 50 aldermen, which is a far cry from 13, a number small enough to seat everyone around the same table. Care to guess how many members serve on the city council of Detroit, the poster child for urban dysfunction?

Although Randle's central concern -- protecting the mayor's power and prerogatives against legislative encroachment -- is misguided, he makes some good points. Randle is right that moving city elections to the state/federal dates would put a heavy burden on voters and reduce the scrutiny given to candidates for city office. He is right in saying that partisanship hasn't been a significant factor in City of Tulsa politics:

Since the adoption of the new form of government, on the other hand, we have not seen much mischief at City Hall that appears to have been purely produced by partisanship. Members of the City Council that form alliances seem to do so totally independently of partisan affiliation.

And, as he says, "we should be cautious of making permanent structural changes simply in response to temporary personality issues that may affect current relations between the Mayor and Council."

In general, and at every level of government, we should be cautious of making a structural change because it seems to solve a current political problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the Republicans dominated the White House but couldn't win a majority in Congress, Republicans wanted a more powerful executive branch. In the 1990s, when we had the majority in Congress but the Democrats had the presidency, we wanted to rein in the White House. Political types seem prone to think that today's circumstances will obtain forever.

Randle is also right that it's the mayor's job to lead, to work to gain the councilors' cooperation and support for his initiatives.

But the mayor shouldn't regard the City Council as a smelly flock of sheep in need of herding, but as peers and partners who can complement his strengths and weaknesses. A mayor is one person, with one set of friends and influences and experiences -- and blind spots. City councilors bring nine more sets of friends and influences and experiences to the table, and, if the mayor is wise, he'll make use of those resources to compensate for his weaknesses and blind spots.

(There is an area where the mayor does need more power than he currently has -- in the executive branch of government. The civil service rules make it difficult if not impossible for the mayor to appoint department heads and other key decision-makers in city government. I would support a charter change that would allow the mayor to hire and fire department heads, with new appointees to be approved by the council.)

That said, here are former Tulsa Mayor Rodger Randle's thoughts on the proposed charter amendments:

THE RECENT CHARTER CHANGES

The recent changes to the charter that lengthened and staggered Council terms were not helpful to the cause of good government, in my opinion. I'm surprised that Tulsa civic leadership did not take an active role in opposing these changes, and I'm surprised that the Tulsa World made no effort to try to really educate the public about the significance of these changes. However, I can understand why many members of the Council supported the changes. The rationale in the 1990 charter placing council members up for re-election every even-numbered year was to provide the Mayor, who has a four year term, an opportunity to attempt any necessary housecleaning on the Council on the off-year when all the members of the Council were up but the Mayor was not.

NONPARTISAN ELECTIONS

The idea of changing Tulsa city elections to nonpartisan ones is proposition I have always favored. This provision was not included in the 1990 charter revision, however, simply because we wanted to keep the number of changes to the minimum necessary to go to the new form of government. The more changes we would have added on, the more opponents we would have generated. So leaving the elections partisan, rather than switching to nonpartisan, was simply a matter of political calculation at the time. Since the adoption of the new form of government, on the other hand, we have not seen much mischief at City Hall that appears to have been purely produced by partisanship. Members of the City Council that form alliances seem to do so totally independently of partisan affiliation.

In political science theory, partisan elections should guarantee that each party functions as a watchdog on what the elected officials of the other party are doing. I am not sure that this has been the practical effect of having partisan elections in Tulsa.

INCREASING THE SIZE OF THE CITY COUNCIL

The idea of increasing the size of the Tulsa City Council sounds like it might be a easy solution to some of the current problems at City Hall, at least at first glance. However, from my perspective, the practical effect of an enlarged City Council would be to weaken the the office of Mayor and strengthen the Council.

Nine Council members are a lot for the mayor to try to look after already. Making that number bigger will only increase the amount of time that the Mayor will have to spend lobbying and politicking them. If the number were increased to a total of 13 city counselors, my fear is that this would invite the creation of stronger cliques and blocs among the membership of the City Council. The end result could be a City Council that operates more like Chicago than what we have known in Tulsa.

In addition, the more counselors there are, the more difficult it will be for voters to keep track of who is who and who deserves to be reelected and who does not.

FOUR AT-LARGE COUNCIL MEMBERS

If the council were to have four new at-large members, the net result again would be to strengthen the Council and weaken the Mayor. Under the current charter system, the Mayor is the only elected official in Tulsa city government who is elected at large and who therefore has a mandate to speak on behalf of the entire city. (The City Auditor is elected at large, but this is not a policy making position.)

If four at-large elected council positions were created, these would become independent voices who would share the same mandate to speak on behalf of all the citizens of Tulsa as the Mayor. Currently, Council members can only speak on behalf of their own district. The net result of having four at-large Council members would again be to strengthen the authority of the City Council and weaken the Mayor.

Furthermore, a City Council with a mixture of at-large and district elected members might well result in the development of a two class system within the Council, resulting in additional strife and controversy between Council members.

HOLDING ELECTIONS IN NOVEMBER ON THE SAME BALLOT WITH PRESIDENTIAL AND GUBERNATORIAL ELECTIONS

It is often challenging for voters to become adequately informed about all of the candidates that they find on the ballot. The longer the ballot, the more difficult the challenge. If we add to the length of the November ballots, I would worry that scrutiny of candidates for city office will be further reduced. Here are some final thoughts:

The current charter system was designed to create a strong Mayor capable of providing firm leadership for the city. Tulsa's system is very much like that in most other American cities. It is the Mayor's duty to provide leadership, including effective leadership of the City Council.

Tulsa is better off keeping a strong-mayor form of government and we should be cautious of changes that would weaken the office of Mayor. In addition, we should be cautious of making permanent structural changes simply in response to temporary personality issues that may affect current relations between the Mayor and Council.

When I was Mayor, we had some very difficult members of the City Council. It was my job to bring them along in a constructive way; this was just part of my job, though not always enjoyable. Of course, I benefited greatly from having served many years in the Oklahoma legislature and I was well familiar with how legislative groups (like a City Council) thought and functioned. Consequently, I suspect that sometimes I understood what was going on in the minds of the City Councilors better than they did themselves. This helped me stay ahead of the game in dealing with them.

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4 Comments

Steve Lackmeyer said:

I wonder what would happen if Tulsa were to simply copy Oklahoma City's charter. Is there any discussion among Tulsa residents about how Oklahoma City's council/manager government works and whether it is something worth looking at?

mark said:

I think Steve may be onto something. Doesn't local government just cry out for the efficiency of a city manager?

Keep the mayor as a figurehead and city ambassador (a "ribbon-cutter") and pay him/her less, but let a pro make the trains run on time.

Case in point: I am certain that millions of dollars of economic losses could have been averted if we had a city manager running our recent snow removal effort, rather than an unimaginative politician afraid to take any risks.

Good example to look at: when Oklahoma City got hit with blizzard conditions this year and last, the guy in charge, and his assistant city managers, had years of experience making decisions in regard to this sort of incident. It wasn't new to them. How does that compare to Tulsa's set-up?

G.T. Bynum said:

Mark and Steve: the Tulsa City Council has actually begun the process of developing a proposed charter change which would switch Tulsa to a city manager form of government. The Council is using OKC's charter as a starting point and is collecting research on specific areas of debate (the role of the mayor, how many councilors, who appoints certain personnel, length of terms, etc.). This data will be posted on the Council website as it is collected (beginning next week, I believe), and then public meetings will be held throughout the city to develop a final proposal that will go to voters for consideration.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 15, 2011 10:45 PM.

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