Tulsa City Hall: August 2005 Archives

Charter amendment status

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I attended Thursday night's Tulsa City Council meeting, when they once again went through the list of proposed charter amendments, and the public had the opportunity to comment. Here are some points I made and some I intended to make, but cut for the sake of time:

Councilor Bill Martinson had complained at Tuesday's committee meeting that the list of amendments needed to be "whittled down". He particularly wanted to get rid of the requirement for a councilor to resign if he ceased to reside in his district. (It's worth remembering that the backers of absentee Councilor Randy Sullivan, who would be affected by the amendment, also backed Martinson.) Recall that in 2004, Oklahoma voters had nine state questions plus as many as six offices on the ballot. One might disagree with the outcome, but Oklahomans were able to handle the complexity just fine. As in 2004, if all the remaining charter amendments are put to a vote, some, like the residency requirement, will be no-brainers, others will be controversial, but we can trust the voters.

Many of the amendments are not new, but have been proposed before. It's just that previous councils have declined to send them along for the voters' consideration, and so there's a significant backlog. Next March it will have been 10 years since any charter amendments have been sent to the voters. (Here is the list of all amendments since the adoption of the 1989 charter.)

Here's the list they were working with on Thursday (PDF file), with the longer, earlier list following. I'll use the numbering from that first page in my comments below.

Three items have to do with residency: 1a, 1b, 6.

The charter frequently uses the term "qualified elector" as a qualification for office, and in Article XII that term is defined as "a registered voter of the City of Tulsa, registered to vote as provided by the laws of Oklahoma." Unfortunately, this doesn't mean you actually live in Tulsa. As long as you live in a place when you register to vote, it's OK, under Oklahoma election laws, to keep your registration there, even if you move away. Item 1a would add the requirement to be a resident to the definition of "qualified elector."

Item 1b would require appointees to authorities, boards, and commissions (ABCs) to be qualified electors residing in Tulsa for a period of 90 days. Item 6 would require a councilor to live in his district and to resign if he moves out. If you're an elected or appointed city official, you ought to forfeit that office if you don't live in the city. If you're elected or appointed to serve a specific district, you ought to forfeit that office if you no longer live in the district. Here in America, we value geographical representation.

Items 1a and 1b were previously sent to the City Attorney for an initial draft. Thursday night, the Council voted 7-1 to send on item 6. The lone dissenter was Bill Martinson.

Item 4 would establish a time frame of 60 days for the Mayor to make appointments to ABCs. The Mayor can ask for an additional 60 days with Council approval. If the appointment still hasn't been made after the extension, the Council would be allowed to fill the position. This is necessary because under state law, the current appointee continues to serve after his term expires, until a replacement is approved. As things are today, if a Mayor wants an ABC member to remain, but doesn't think he can get Council approval to reappoint him, he can simply delay bringing the member up for reappointment, allowing the member to continue to serve and effectively bypassing the wishes of the Council. Terms expire periodically so that the Council and Mayor can decide whether an ABC member is representing the best interests of the City of Tulsa. This amendment would ensure that members of ABCs have a mandate from the people we elect to represent us. Item 4 was approved for an initial draft on August 18.

Item 5 would authorize the City Council to hire its own attorney independent from the oversight of the City Attorney. This is an item that I proposed at least five years ago. If checks and balances are to be effective, the legislative branch needs independent advice from an attorney whose sole responsibility is to serve the interests of the City Council. This is especially important when the Council and Mayor are at odds. Item 5 was approved for an initial draft on August 18.

Item 7 has to do with city election dates. There are only five or, rarely, six weeks between the city primary and the city general election. A state law passed this year (HB 1378) requires that there must be at least 35 days between the primary and the general election. We will meet that requirement in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 using our current election dates, so I'm not sure why the City Attorney is saying we may be forced to move the primary to an earlier date. If we do move election dates, moving the primary closer to New Year's would be the wrong approach. Move the general later in the year, or, my favorite option, move the whole election cycle to the fall of odd numbered years. It would be better for grass-roots campaigns if the elections could be conducted when there are more hours of sunshine and warmer weather for knocking on doors. It would be better for all campaigns if the month of December didn't fall in the midst of prime campaign season. Item 7 was approved for initial draft on August 18.

Items 3 and 10 require supermajorities for zoning changes in certain circumstances. Item 3 is the same proposition that was supposed to be on the April ballot (but the dog ate someone's homework), requiring a 3/4 supermajority to approve a zoning change if affected property owners or neighboring property owners got sufficient signatures a protest petition. Passing this would bring Tulsa back in line with state law and with our ordinance, which the City Attorney ruled a violation of the Charter. The only outstanding issue was whether to enshrine the minimum percentages for a protest petition in the Charter, and the consensus seemed to be to do so. Item 10 would impose a supermajority for any zoning change to property under Historic Preservation zoning. I'm concerned about unintended consequences with this one, and I'm not sure about enshrining a particular zoning overlay district in the Charter. Item 10 was approved on August 18 for initial draft. Item 3 we still have from when it was approved for the ballot this spring.

That leaves us with the two recall items, items 2 and 9. I refer you to my thoughts on reforming recall from a couple of days ago. Councilor Tom Baker brought forward a proposed amendment for the recall process, which was presented only after the public comments were over, so we neither saw it nor were able to comment on it. In any event, it was approved by a 7-to-Martinson vote for an initial draft by the City Attorney.

I left before item 9 -- complete removal of the recall provision from the charter -- was voted on. It failed to advance by a 4-4 vote, with Christiansen, Henderson, Mautino, and Turner voting yes, Baker, Martinson, Medlock, and Neal voting no. Medlock's vote was a bit of a surprise, but he expressed concern about voter confusion if two separate recall propositions -- mending it and ending it -- are on the ballot. Personally, I think the voters can handle it, and I'd like to see it move forward.

By the way, my nine-year-old son was with me for the whole two hour meeting. His GameBoy didn't work, but he sat there very quietly and patiently. I'm very proud of him.

Tonight at the Tulsa City Council meeting at 6 p.m. you'll have the opportunity to voice your thoughts on the list of proposed amendments to the Tulsa City Charter. The initial working list is here (PDF format). From that list, items 3, 4, 8, 12, 14, and 17 are off the table -- that covers nonpartisan city elections, adding councilors at-large, making the City Attorney's office either elected by the public or jointly appointed by Mayor and Council, term limits, removing department heads from civil service protection, and changing to a council/city manager form of government.

Good news: One item that didn't make the cut at last week's meeting was reinstated for discussion this week -- requiring a councilor to live in the district he represents. This ought to be a no-brainer, and I think voters will be shocked to learn that this requirement isn't already in the Charter.

I was at Tuesday's committee meeting at which the proposed amendments were discussed. Regarding reform of the recall process, the council seemed to divide into three groups: (1) those who wanted the recall process completely removed, with the possibility of bringing it back at a later date after it had been thoroughly studied and reformed; (2) those who want to leave the recall provision in place, but reform it now; and (3) those who want to do nothing now.

I had the opportunity to speak and proposed a compromise between positions (1) and (2), for which Councilors Medlock and Christiansen expressed support. The Council could put two questions before the voters -- an outright repeal and an amendment of the existing process. If voters approved both questions, the repeal would supercede the amendment, which would be moot. Even if voters defeated the repeal, they might still approve the amendment, which would be preferable to leaving the current system in place, with all the ambiguities and problems unaddressed.

Reform of recall should address three aspects of the process:

(1) The number of signatures should be standard across all districts. Under the current process, the number of signatures is based on turnout in the last general election, which means it will be different depending on whether the previous general was a high turnout mayoral election or a lower turnout, council-only election. Under the current system, it isn't clear how many signatures are required if an official was elected without facing a general election opponent. We should standardize either on a percentage of registered voters or on a percentage of the number of votes cast in the previous regular mayoral general election.

(2) How the signatures are verified needs to be clarified, so we avoid the semantic games that were played in the recall of Councilors Mautino and Medlock. Make it clear that the signatures are to be compared to the signatures in the official voter registration records, regardless of whether the signatures are contained in books or on cards. The charter amendment could specify a particular standard for signature verification or could direct the Council to adopt a standard.

(3) If an official is removed from office by recall, there ought to be an election to replace him, regardless of the time remaining until the next election. Under the current system, the replacement would have been chosen by election or appointment, depending on when the vote was certified and the vacancy officially existed. Another approach to this problem would be to make one year before the next general election the last permissible date to hold a recall election.

More later on the other proposals.

At last Thursday's Tulsa City Council meeting, a list of charter changes was on the agenda and about half of them were dropped off the list. The Council is deciding which proposed charter amendments will be presented to the voters at next March's general election. Further discussion of the list is on the agenda for tomorrow's Urban and Economic Development Committee meeting, 10 a.m., in the Council committee room on the second floor of the City Hall tower. If there are items on the list that you want the chance to vote on, or items that were dropped that you'd like brought back for further consideration, be there tomorrow if you can, and plan to be there Thursday night when the list is back before the full Council.

Here's the list of proposed charter amendments that emerged from last Tuesday's Council committee meeting and was discussed at last Thursday's regular Council meeting.

I was disappointed at the decision to drop the residency requirement (item 9). That ought to go without saying in a representative form of government, but since we have a councilor (Randy Sullivan) who lives outside the district he purports to represent, apparently we need to spell it out, and provide a process for determining that a member no longer resides in his district and declaring the seat vacant. (In fact, there is already such a provision in state law, but since it requires the Council to act against one of its own members, and there is room for interpretation in any conflict between state law and city charter, it's best to spell out the process in the charter.

I was also disappointed at the decision against the idea of removing city department heads from civil service protection. If government is to be accountable to the voters, the mayor has to have the ability to bring in a department head who will cooperate with his proposed reforms. It's pathetic that in a so-called "strong mayor" form of government, the Mayor can tell the voters, "Sorry, I wish I could make the changes in Department XYZ that I promised in the election, but the department head doesn't see things my way, and there's nothing I can do about it." The President gets to choose the heads of Federal departments with Senate approval; why not let the Mayor choose the heads of city departments with Council approval?

That's all the time I have to write about this tonight, but I hope you Tulsans will take an interest in this, attend the meetings if you can, watch it on TGOV 24 if you can't be there in person, and make your opinions known. The issues up for debate are there for a reason. The right amendments will help us have a city that is run for the benefit of all Tulsans, not just a favored few.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa City Hall category from August 2005.

Tulsa City Hall: July 2005 is the previous archive.

Tulsa City Hall: September 2005 is the next archive.

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