Tulsa Election 2011: AGAINST all propositions

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/disapproveOnly seven districts have Tulsa City Council races but voters in every district of the City of Tulsa can vote Tuesday, November 8, 2011, on the four charter amendment propositions on the general election ballot.

On the left of the ballot (under a city council race, if you have one) is the City Council's proposal to convert Tulsa to a City Manager - City Council form of government. On the right are three propositions resulting from the initiative petitions of Save Our Tulsa (for Our Kind Dahling), a group of rich old midtown Money Belt types, all of which are designed to make money and powerful connections more important than grassroots support.

(Click here to see a sample ballot with the charter amendment propositions in PDF format.)

I urge BatesLine readers to vote AGAINST all four propositions. For each proposition, here's why I oppose it and what I believe would be a better solution:

City Manager - City Council: AGAINST

It's important for the executive power in the City of Tulsa to be accountable directly to the voters. In a city manager form of government that accountability is indirect. We have had enough trouble already with powerful department heads out of reach of public accountability. In my experience, a city manager becomes either the uncrowned king of the city (do a web search for "Francis McGrath"), using his power over the bureaucracy to help city councilors who back him and punish city councilors who buck him, or he becomes the scapegoat, taking the blame and getting the sack every time something goes wrong. I'm sure there are rare cases where the position works as advertised, and Oklahoma City may well fall into that category.

I'm sympathetic to the proponents of this measure. It seems that Tulsa's social and economic structure is such that our mayor will always be a denizen and product of the Money Belt, uninterested and unwilling to treat grassroots-elected councilors with respect as a co-equal branch of government and ignorant of the needs and priorities of Tulsans who don't live in the Money Belt. I believe that some adjustment to the charter is needed to help the council be an effective check and balance on the mayor. The City Council should have its own attorney, independent of the City Attorney. The mayor should have the authority to appoint and remove department heads, but only with the advice and consent of the council. Officially, our department heads are supposed to be civil service appointees, but mayors have always found a way around that, using one of their charter-authorized at-will positions to hire a police chief or city attorney.

An idea to bring the mayor closer to the grassroots: Require the nominating process to pass through the council districts. A candidate would have to win a nominating election in his own district in order to qualify for the citywide election. We could also decide the election based on number of council districts won, rather than total popular vote. (An explanation for Save Our Tulsa members: Match play rather than stroke play.) A mayoral candidate would need to campaign across the city, rather than racking up big numbers in the Money Belt.

Initiative Petition Proposition 1 (At-Large Councilors): AGAINST

Adding three at-large councilors, plus the mayor as chairman of the City Council (with the power to set the Council's agenda), would violate checks and balances, dilute geographical grassroots representation in favor of well-financed, Money Belt-backed candidates, and set up new rivals to the mayor -- super-councilors, like the mayor, elected with a city-wide mandate. The result promises to be just as contentious as the current arrangement with the added problem of opening Tulsa up to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit. The Tulsa County Republican and Democratic parties both oppose this measure, as do the Tulsa Metro Chamber, the Tulsa World, the Tulsa Beacon, the Oklahoma Eagle, the League of Women Voters, Mayor Junior Bartlett, and myself.

Tulsans Defending Democracy has a brief statement about the current proposal. TDD has been steadfast in opposition to at-large councilors since the idea was first floated. (Click these links to read TDD's 2006 position statement opposing at-large councilors and the conclusion of the Citizens' Commission for City Government to oppose at-large.)

Only the SOTs seem to think this is a good idea, and their claim that ward politics is the source of City Hall bickering is full of baloney. They won't and can't name a concrete example of ward politics. The disputes at City Hall have involved significant city-wide issues -- e.g., using Tulsa tax dollars to promote development in Tulsa rather than development in the suburbs, protecting neighborhoods and administering zoning laws fairly and consistently, defending taxpayers against attempts to garnish their money to pay back (illegally) the Great Plains Airlines loan, holding the Tulsa Metro Chamber accountable for how they spend our hotel/motel tax dollars.

The solution to the problem of bickering is to elect a mayor who will respect and work with the council, rather than pitch a fit and isolate himself, as Mayor Junior has done. The current council gets along very well with one another and has been as unified as I've ever seen a council. The idea that the council bickers has been promoted by self-interested special interest groups who want a council full of puppets and submissive milquetoasts. (Ever heard of national media bias, where news reports are distorted to make conservatives look bad and liberals look good? The same sort of thing happens in Tulsa, propping up the Money Belt's favorites and knocking down grassroots leaders.)

Initiative Petition Proposition 2 (Even-year elections): AGAINST

This SOT proposition would hold city of Tulsa elections simultaneously with federal and state elections in the fall of even-numbered years, moving the mayor's election to coincide with the presidential election and the council elections back to a two-year term fallling on federal and state election dates.

The result would be scant attention paid to city issues. While this proposition would increase the number of voters in city elections, it wouldn't increase the number of informed voters. If the elections remain partisan (if ballot item three fails), voters will likely follow a straight ticket when they get to the municipal races at the distant bottom of the ballot. If the elections go non-partisan, voters who are interested in federal issues but pay no attention to city matters will either skip the city races or vote for the most famous name.

Holding city elections at the same time as dozens of other races will spread available volunteer time, contributions, and voter attention even thinner than it already is, once again hurting grassroots candidates dependent on volunteers and small contributions. Because the voting universe will be larger, candidates will need more money to reach the voters with their message, and even more money to cut through the clutter of all the other races.

To refresh your memory, here's a link to all the sample ballots for the 2010 general election in Tulsa County. In all the precincts, voters had eight statewide races, two federal races, six judicial retention questions, three non-partisan district judge races, a county assessor's race, 11 state questions, and possibly county commission, state senate, and state house races, in addition to two city questions on a separate bedsheet ballot. One set of precincts had 34 separate races and issues to consider. We don't need to make those ballots any longer!

(Links to PDFs of 2010 Tulsa County ballot style 1 front side, state question ballot, and Tulsa city proposition ballot.)

I agree that moving to three-year staggered terms was a bad idea. My better alternative is to go back to the system that we adopted in 2008 and are only this year departing -- elections in the fall of odd-numbered years. Some adjustments could be made -- a primary in August instead of September, right after Labor Day -- but it was a good idea, one endorsed by the Citizens' Commission, and we didn't give it a chance.

Separate city elections allow voters to focus on city issues and make it easier for candidates to raise money and recruit volunteers without competition from federal, state, and county campaigns.

Ideally, I'd like to see all local elections -- city, county, and school board -- in the fall of odd years and state and federal elections in the fall of even years, with special votes like bond issues and state questions limited to the appropriate general election date.

Initiative Petition Proposition 3 (Non-partisan elections): AGAINST

Non-partisan elections would remove a useful if imperfect piece of information about the candidates from the ballot -- their national party affiliation -- and leave nothing but their name on the ballot. Non-partisan elections put a premium on name recognition -- an advantage to incumbents and candidates with high financial backing and newspaper endorsements. It's yet another SOT obstacle to trip up grassroots candidates for city office.

My alternative proposal is multi-partisan elections with preferential instant runoff voting. Candidates can run under their national party or a party label of their own devising, giving voters help in finding the name of their preferred candidate on the ballot. All candidates would run on the same ballot, allowing all voters to choose from all candidates. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference, which would avoid vote splitting among similar candidates, ensuring that the winner is supported by a majority of voters.

I dealt with the non-partisan proposition in detail in an earlier entry. See also Ray Pearcey's excellent takedown of non-partisan elections in UTW and my detailed description of multi-partisan voting.

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Today is the final day of the filing period for the 2014 City of Tulsa elections. For the first time since 2011, all nine council seats are on the ballot at the same time, along with the City Auditor's seat. You may find this news puzzling. Yes, there ... Read More

4 Comments

I agree on all points.
I'm wavering quite a bit on the City Manager position, though. I've watched this form of government most of my life in Sand Springs, and I like the way it operates. Every council meeting I've been to there has had the City Manager present to answer questions and give his/her report.

While it may seem to add a layer of bureaucracy (don't disagree with you there), it brings a certain stability to city operations and functions. I understand that there are always politics at a level of management this high, but removing the "elected" feature of the CEO paves the way to hire a real professional with real experience and who is not as prone to political agendas and can focus purely on the work at hand.

I don't think Bartlett fits that description and yet it is his current job.

Annonymous said:

I will vote against all of the SOT proposals. The mayor needs less, not more power (that goes for whomever is in the office). I'm voting in favor of the City Manager proposal, while I do not like the 4-year staggered terms and other "goodies" added to the proposal, I do like having a professional city manager overseeing the day-to-day operations of the city.
Running a municipality should be an unglamorous job. What's sexy about paving roads, zoning and infrastructure? Yet, with the system currently in place, Tulsa will always have a son/daughter of a "family" with a "name" pining for the "Good ol' Days" of Tulsa which can only be accomplished by building the latest, greatest "amusement park for the elite" while historic neighborhoods are leveled and streets crumble. I think forcing a mayor to be a member of the governing body, requiring a consensus among 10 representatives (9 councilors + the mayor) to devise a unified goal of good government is highly desirable over what we have now. I think it's more akin to the "Westminster" style of Parliamentary democracy, which I think will work really well in Tulsa. All one has to do is look at either end of the Turnpikes (Oklahoma City and Springfield, MO) to see that it works. Strong mayor cities are corrupt cities (look at Chicago). Growing cities are City Manager cities.
I will vote for the City Manager form of government and as a District 4 resident, I will vote for Blake Ewing in the hopes that there will be at least one councilor with real vision and backbone in the next council.

mark said:

It takes only two words to sum up my support for a City Manager: "Dewey" & "Bartlett"!

Mark, I certainly understand and respect that position.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 7, 2011 2:21 AM.

Karl Ahlgren, "Working Tulsans" back Brune over Ewing was the previous entry in this blog.

Tulsa Election 2011: The City Council candidates and the trash contract is the next entry in this blog.

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