Introducing the Tulsa Complacent Council

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KRMG ran a story recently contrasting the approach that outgoing and incoming members of the Tulsa City Council take to their jobs. The story features outgoing councilor Jim Mautino and incoming councilor Karen Gilbert.

When asked about controversy over the trash contract, Gilbert demurred:

"I'm not going to talk trash," Karen Gilbert quipped when KRMG began to ask her about ongoing issues.

"That's kind of a touchy subject right now," she added, and she says until the trash board finalizes its presentation to the council, she's not ready to state an opinion.

As for the water issue, Gilbert says she and the council will address that question when the trash question has been put to bed.

So despite the fact that the trash service issue has been under discussion for more than a year, during which time she was a candidate for office and presumably asked about the issue once or twice, despite the fact that radical changes are proposed to a system with which most Tulsans are quite pleased, Gilbert hasn't formed an opinion, at least not one she's willing to share, and won't until, apparently, the untouchable TARE board tells her what to think about the plan they devised.

Meanwhile Jim Mautino was proactively researching issues of concern to his constituents right up until the end of his term:

On the trash issue, he said it's a "done deal" and that the city will award a contract that will force residents to go to once-a-week service, which he says is less efficient and more expensive than the twice-a-week service which 80 percent of the city currently receives.

The other 20 percent of the city in the northwest part of town currently gets service only once a week and that service is provided by the city, Mautino says, not a private company.

And in that area, the city is losing money, he maintains, because the bins get overfilled, the trucks have to make more trips back and forth rather than staying on their routes because they get full so much faster and the workers tire more quickly.

Despite the evidence available right at hand, he maintains the city plans to award its contract to a company that will institute once-a-week service.

As for water treatment, Mautino is among several Tulsans who fear the city's plans to go to a chloramine-based treatment system is also a done deal, despite the fact that the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority has a meeting set for December 14th to hear arguments on the issue.

One of the things that seemed to annoy City Hall bureaucrats about the old council was their habit of raising new issues to be discussed, explored, and acted upon. From the bureaucrats' perspective, this meant more work and their own priorities displaced by the councilors' pet issues.

Nearly all of the outgoing councilors had certain priorities that were inconvenient or outright obnoxious to the administration, the authorities, and special interests. Jim Mautino was concerned about animal control, food truck sanitation, chloramines in water, and encouraging new, high quality development in east Tulsa. John Eagleton pushed for computerization of municipal citations and court records, limiting the growth of the city budget, and integrity in the Mayor's and City Attorney's office. Maria Barnes was particularly interested in protection of midtown neighborhoods from commercial encroachment and inappropriate redevelopment. Roscoe Turner's key issues included the impact of airport noise on nearby neighborhoods and possible pollutants from a burn facility at a cement plant. Fiscal matters, such as the rapid growth of the public safety budget, were a major focus for Rick Westcott. Bill Christiansen led a task force about improving communication between the city and neighborhoods in the zoning process. Chris Trail was concerned about prostitution and human trafficking that might be taking place in Tulsa's massage parlors.

(Trail's noble but ultimately futile attempt to require massage parlor owners to be accountable for criminal activities in their facilities is the topic of a news story by Jennie Lloyd in this week's Urban Tulsa Weekly.)

Although the specific issues varied, in each case these councilors were willing to spend time outside the scheduled meetings to read, to talk to citizens, to commission research from the council staff (and actually read it), and then to keep pushing for action. That's pretty much a recipe for annoying city officials.

It won't be necessary for Burt Holmes or Ben Latham to sit in the front row of the audience and hold up "YES" or "NO" signs to tell their city councilors how to vote. These councilors won't need to attend secret meetings with Chamber lobbyists.

WhatMeDewey.jpgIf Gilbert is representative of the new crop of councilors, they'll be content to be spoon-fed information from the mayor, the department heads, and the members and staffers of authorities, boards, and commissions. The string-pullers need only work behind the scenes to manipulate those who are generating the information that the councilors are consuming. The Complacent Councilors won't seek out alternative perspectives, and they'll be inclined to dismiss any alternative points of view that are brought to them by citizens, because those citizens aren't "experts." They'll vote the "right" way every time, and the department heads, authority members, and mayoral assistants won't have to answer any questions that make them uncomfortable. Never mind that the result may be uncontrollable spending and a decline in our quality of life -- at least those councilors won't be bickering!

And these new Complacent Councilors won't need to devote as many hours as the old Council did. Committee and council meetings will be shorter. There will be no need to read all the backup material, to meet with interested parties, to seek out in-depth research. All they'll need to read is the recommendation at the bottom of the "Request for Action" cover sheet and vote accordingly.

Despite the massive turnover on the City Council, I'm hopeful that the four members who weren't part of the Cockroach Caucus push to take over the Council -- two old, two new -- will continue to ask questions, seek alternative sources of information, look at practices in other cities, and bring new ideas to the table. But proactive councilors should expect to endure the same kind of strident pushback from the mayor, ABC members, bureaucrats, and the Cockroach Caucus that their despised predecessors suffered.

MORE on complacency:

An excellent article on strategies to overcome complacency on the Leadership and Management website identifies nine "forces that reinforce complacency and help maintain the status quo." Here are a few:

  • A lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources.
  • A kill-the-messenger-of-bad-news, low-candor, low-confrontational culture.
  • Human nature, with its capacity for denial, especially if people are already busy or stressed.
  • Too much happy talk from management.
  • Internal measurement systems that focus on the wrong performance indexes, or no systems at all.

Tulsa certainly has a low-candor, low-confrontational culture, and the defenders of the status quo exploited that negative character quality in their campaign to paint the old City Council as a bunch of counterproductive bickerers. The councilors and their allies in the community (including me) did not succeed in countering the "bickering" meme. It was so universally accepted that two different colleagues congratulated me on the day after the city primary, assuming incorrectly that I would be happy with an outcome that fired four incumbents.

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1 Comments

Jennie said:

Very interesting! I'll be interested to see how all this plays out. (And thanks for the mention.)

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 15, 2011 7:20 PM.

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