Tulsa City Hall: April 2006 Archives

Scary bypass

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An edited version of this piece was published on April 26, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web on August 18, 2010.

It appears that Tulsa's development lobby, discouraged by the results of the Tulsa City Council elections, has decided to take its fight to the next level. Three Tulsa legislators have sponsored a bill that would interfere with local control of Board of Adjustment (BoA) appeals.

The bill, HB 2559, would require all appeals of Board of Adjustment decisions, whether variances or special exceptions, to go to District Court, with the attendant expenses of attorneys and court costs. The BoA can grant a variance to zoning ordinances if a hardship exists. The BoA can grant a special exception to allow certain uses that aren't allowed by right by the zoning of a piece of property.

In the past, Councilor Roscoe Turner and then-Councilor Jim Mautino have argued that certain BoA decisions should be first appealed to the City Council. While the BoA acts as a quasi-judicial body in many cases, in special exception cases it has the discretion to consider subjective matters like neighborhood compatibility. A special exception can have the impact of a zoning change, and neighborhood advocates argue that the City Council should have the opportunity to review such decisions before the courts are involved.

Under current law, Tulsa's City Council could modify our ordinances to tailor the BoA appeals process to balance the concerns of developers and neighboring property owners. HB 2559, sponsored by State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel and Sen. Brian Crain, would take away this local discretion over the process and would dictate a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire state.

HB 2559 passed the House on March 8 and passed the Senate on April 19. Because the House "struck the title," the bill must go back to the House for one more vote before it can go to the Governor's desk. All of Tulsa's state representatives and all but two of our state senators supported the measure. (Republican Senators Randy Brogdon and Scott Pruitt voted against.)

An amendment to the bill that would have interfered with local control over historic preservation (HP) overlay zoning was also considered by the State Senate on April 19, but it failed by a 21-24 vote. Of Tulsa's senators, only Judy Eason-McEntyre voted yes.

Five historic Tulsa neighborhoods (and the park around the Council Oak) have special protection under Tulsa's zoning code. Exterior modifications and new construction within an HP zoning district need a certificate of appropriateness from the Tulsa Preservation Commission (TPC) before proceeding, to ensure that the historic character of the neighborhood is maintained. Demolition permits can be delayed for up to 60 days.

HP protection serves the same value-protecting purpose that deed restrictions serve in newer subdivisions. If you buy a home in an HP neighborhood, you can invest in maintaining your home to historic standards with the assurance that your neighbors are subject to the same rules.

But the protection is undermined if someone can easily buy a property in an HP-zoned neighborhood and have it removed from the district. The failed amendment to HB 2559 would have cut the TPC and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) completely out of the process of removing lots from an HP district.

In contrast, the process of creating an HP district or expanding its boundaries requires a great deal of time, historical research, and public input. As a rule of thumb, HP districts need the support of 80% of property owners in the district to move forward through three separate levels of review. Removing a property from the district ought to require a similar high standard of review.

Tulsa's development lobby is used to getting its way 100%. Rather than sitting down with other Tulsans to develop a land-use system that will serve the needs of everyone, they have tried and failed to recall two councilors from office, tried and failed to dismember three City Council districts and replace them with citywide supercouncilor seats, and tried and failed to pack the Council with people they can control. In a move akin to plugging your ears with your fingers and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," they excluded then-Councilor Chris Medlock from their mayoral candidate forum.

I was hopeful when I learned of the departure earlier this year of Josh Fowler from his post as the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa's executive director. I was hopeful that the development lobby had finally recognized that the pit bull tactics he epitomized were no longer working. I was hopeful that the developers were ready to take a more conciliatory approach to public policy. This legislative end-around shows that my hopes weren't well-founded.

Frustrated by the fact that ordinary Tulsans are paying attention to City Hall, Tulsa's development lobby is now trying to dictate local land-use policy from Oklahoma City. Whatever the merits of BoA appeals or of moving parcels in and out of HP districts, those are local matters that should be settled locally.

We need to let our state legislators know that HB 2559 is unacceptable. Homeowners and other property owners should object to local decisions being made a hundred miles away, where it's harder to keep an eye on things. Our City Council and municipal officials across the state ought to object loudly to this infringement on their prerogatives.

In his 2000 campaign book, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush wrote that he is a conservative because he believes that government closest to the people governs best. I expect to see my fellow Republicans at the State Capitol uphold this fundamental Republican principle, and I expect them to defeat HB 2559 when it comes back to the State House of Representatives for a final vote.

In other City Hall news:

Last Friday the latest round of bids on subcontracts for the construction of the BOk Center were opened.

This was after a two-week delay to give bidders "more preparation time," according a report to the Tulsa World. Despite reassurances that all was well, there was good reason to assume that the delay was because of concerns that bids were coming in way over budget.

As it turned out, the lowest bids on each item exceeded budget by $32 million, about a 50% overage. The total of all five bid packages, plus the cost of land acquisition, plus the amount paid for architectural, project management, and other professional services comes to just shy of $150 million. The remaining bid packages are budgeted at around $30 million, which would bring the total for the arena alone to $180 million.

Remember that the Vision 2025 package allocated $183 million of that sales tax to pay for both the construction of an arena and improvements to the Convention Center, including the conversion of the existing arena into ballroom space. It looks like we won't have anything left to fix the facility that, we have been told again and again, is crucial to bringing outside dollars into the local economy.

When Councilor Chris Medlock raised concerns last fall about money being shifted from the Convention Center to the arena, he was shouted down by the monopoly daily paper and even by members of the overview committee who are supposedly keeping an eye on project finances on behalf of us taxpayers.

Back during the mayoral campaign, Democratic candidate Don McCorkell said he would stop work on the arena in order to get a handle on how much the facility would cost to complete and how much it would cost to operate and maintain. If the cost is going to exceed the budget by a wide margin, Tulsa's voters ought to decide whether or not it's worth proceeding. McCorkell's idea looks better all the time.

The fact that we've already put tens of millions into the arena doesn't mean it makes sense to throw good money after bad. (See "sunk costs, fallacy of.")

Meanwhile, County Commissioner Randi Miller, who had been mum about potential overages, not wanting to jeopardize renewal of the County's 4-to-Fix-Tax, now seems to be trying to recast herself as a taxpayer watchdog.

Some of us can remember when she was asked by Republican leaders, back in 2003, to make the arena a separate item on the Vision 2025 ballot, to give the voters a clear opportunity to vote against the arena without having to vote against the higher education improvements that were tied with it.

Miller stood by and did nothing at the time. She continued to go along to get along, voting with the other commissioners to sole-source the Vision 2025 financial contracts to favored vendors. After Vision 2025 was approved, when Medlock raised concerns about oversight and governance, Miller was silent.

On the other hand, Miller was more than happy, back on March 20, to grant a Murphy Brothers a 10-year exclusive contract to operate the Tulsa State Fair midway, despite complaints about rising prices and declining quality of the Murphy Brothers operation. The midway contract was not put out for competitive bids. Miller's support for the sweetheart deal with Murphy Brothers came after her mayoral campaign received a $5,000 contribution from Loretta Murphy, wife of Murphy Brothers owner Jerry Murphy.

Medlock, a genuine taxpayer watchdog, is continuing to keep an eye on arena expenditures at his blog, medblogged.blogspot.com.

Inauguration day photos


Monday afternoon, I pulled my nine-year-old out of school early and we met my wife and the other two kids at Gilcrease Museum for the inauguration of the Mayor, City Auditor, and City Council of Tulsa. We were happy to be there to honor our friends on the Council who were newly elected and newly re-elected.

Everyone was running a little late. Parking was a complete mess. I saw Alison Eagleton, the wife of one of the new councilors, and Councilor-elect Cason Carter pulling their cars out of a full parking lot and into an overflow lot just as the festivities were set to begin. Gilcrease hosted the event two years ago, but that wasn't a mayoral inauguration, so the crowd was a good deal smaller then. The last mayoral inauguration was held outdoors on the Williams Center Green.

The room was packed to capacity. We said hello to Councilors Roscoe Turner and Jack Henderson and their wives as we walked past the VIP section. Jim East offered my wife his seat and my daughter took the empty seat next to it, while I took the baby and his big brother and found a place to stand near the back of the room. My holding a very cute baby meant that there were some smiles in my direction from people who normally wouldn't smile at me.

We wound up standing just behind Ginger Shepherd, UTW's new city reporter, and just in front of Becky Darrow, from South Tulsa Citizens Coalition and Tulsans Defending Democracy. I noticed that the baby was much happier if I held him on my left shoulder where he could flirt with Becky.

Since no one (maybe not even Kathy Taylor) really knows what a Kathy Taylor administration is going to look like, we are all like a bunch of Sovietologists trying to discern the inner workings of the Kremlin based on who is standing next to whom atop Lenin's Tomb during the May Day parade.

The first clue of the day wasn't an encouraging one: Former KRMG morning host John Erling was the Master of Ceremonies. Erling was the radio mouthpiece of the Good Ol' Boy network, finally driven from his microphone last year by declining ratings.

Taylor's speech? Nothing much specific. She talked about her administration representing the diversity of Tulsa. If she really means geographical and ideological diversity, that's great. If she means there's a place at the table for supporters of Chris Medlock and Don McCorkell and Bill LaFortune and even Ben Faulk, that's wonderful. If she plans to look beyond the Midtown Money Belt for appointments to authorities, boards, and commissions, I applaud her. I hope she didn't mean that she'll surround herself with people who think just like she does and justify it because they have a diversity of ethnic backgrounds or political party affiliations.

My five-year-old daughter, who is on the petite side herself, complained after the ceremony that she still hadn't seen the new Mayor's face in person; she could only see the top of Taylor's head over the heads of the people in front of her.

We stayed around for a long time after the ceremony, shaking hands and chatting. I took a few pictures of dignitaries, and I had my son take a few of me with some of the councilors, but I missed a few shots I wanted because my son was busy taking pictures out the Vista Room window of the Osage Hills in bloom. (If you're on the home page, click the "Continue reading" link to see the photos.)

It's no surprise that the Tulsa Whirled continues to spin its revisionist web about the last two years at City Hall as a way to vindicate itself and to try to intimidate the incoming Council. With a little more free time on his hands, recently former City Councilor Chris Medlock does an able job of rebutting the Whirled's assertions with reality.

Unable and unwilling to debate the Council reformers on issues, the Whirled and the entrenched special interests painted a portrait of lies, and through frequent repetition they got their readers to believe it. It's the same phenomenon I described in my Thursday, November 24, 2005, column:

That sort of accusation by implication happens a lot at City Council meetings, but with reform-minded City Councilors as the target. The accusers are city officials who find themselves being asked polite, reasonable questions that they’d rather not answer. To deflect attention from the substantive issue at hand, they complain that they’re being bullied or browbeaten. The daily paper duly reports the baseless complaints, which gives their editorial board a chance to wheeze out a few paragraphs deploring the behavior that didn’t happen.

I challenge anyone to point to one example of rudeness from those two men -- name the date and the occasion. I never saw it or anything approaching it.

The Whirled editorial that Medlock rebuts is about Tulsa's water policy. It was the belief of a majority of the City Council that the City of Tulsa should reexamine its policy concerning water sales to the suburbs. Instead, the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority and Mayor Bill LaFortune rushed to commit the city to 40-year sweetheart deals that were not necessarily to Tulsa's advantage. At the same time, suburban developers financed a campaign to break the Council majority through the recall of the two councilors their polling told them were most vulnerable.

Oklahoma City charges outside-the-city customers from 25% to 75% more than inside-the-city customers. Meanwhile, Tulsa sells water wholesale to outside customers at the same price city residents pay -- $1.98 per thousand gallons. Medlock and Mautino and the other councilors thought Tulsa ought to be smarter about how it handles water sales.

Owasso is certainly smart -- they buy water from Tulsa at the same price Tulsans pay, then they mark it up and pocket the profits to pay for municipal services. Owasso's city manager, Rodney Ray, raised a ruckus because some wise Tulsa councilors were talking about doing something for Tulsa's benefit that might cut into his profits.

Someone over on the TulsaNow Forum (currently broken due to Microsoft web server issues) wondered recently about using water revenues to make up Tulsa's likely budget shortfall. Chris Medlock and Jim Mautino wondered about that, too. For their trouble their reputations were trashed, and they and their families were put through a recall ordeal that lasted nearly a year. They've been falsely accused of being rude, mean, impolite -- all adjectives that better fit their accusers. To the TulsaNow forum poster who wondered about that, where the heck were you when these two forward-thinking councilors needed your support? And are you going to be there for the new city councilors when they get flack for thinking outside the box?

As I mentioned earlier, the Whirled's aim with this editorial is partly vindication, partly to warn the incoming councilors not to cross them. This editorial was published for the same reason that King Edward Longshanks had William Wallace's head displayed on a pike on London Bridge -- pour encourager les autres. supplicedusieurfoulon.jpg

There's a mythology surrounding councilors of the past who were savaged (and Savaged) by the political and media establishment. The myth says that those councilors somewhat deserved the trashing and bashing they received -- they pushed things too far or too fast, they didn't choose their battles carefully, they were inflexible, they were unwilling to compromise.

A new councilor will be tempted to think, "If I'm just smart -- like they weren't -- I'll get positive things done for the City, I'll emerge without a scratch, and everybody will like me." Lady and gentlemen, if you do the job you were elected to do, if you faithfully seek the best interests of the citizens of Tulsa, you will get trashed. You will get trashed by powerful and entrenched interests who don't care if a policy is good for Tulsa as long as it's good for them and their cronies.

As for the temptation to distance yourself from the legacy of Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock -- just remember that six of the nine of you were elected because you were more like Chris and Jim than your opponents were. Your opponents got money from the same people who tried to give Medlock and Mautino the boot, and you beat them. Your opponents complained about bickering at City Hall, and you beat them. If you aren't getting any pushback at all from the Whirled, the Chamber, the Public Works Department, or the development lobby, we're going to assume you aren't doing the job we sent you to do.

Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock have a proud record of achievement during their too-short time at City Hall. West Tulsa is getting a new superregional shopping center which will bring in sales-tax revenues from residents of Tulsa's rapidly growing south and west suburbs. For the first time in nearly 20 years of the City's contract with the Chamber, there's real oversight of how that $2 million a year gets spent. We have a city-specific economic development plan. We're going to get a new comprehensive land use plan. We have an ethics ordinance in place, so that conflicts of interest are properly disclosed and handled.

District 6 and District 2 are getting long-overdue infrastructure improvements. Charter changes are now in place to protect homeowners from arbitrary rezonings, to avert another wasted year on a frivolous recall effort, and to ensure that appointees to authorities, boards, and commissions face regular review by our elected representatives.

All of that happened because Chris Medlock and Jim Mautino and their allies were willing to push those issues and to take some heat as a result, but also to compromise enough to get majority support and a mayoral signature. What more might they have accomplished without the distraction of a recall election?

By all means, learn from their mistakes, but don't ignore their many successes. Build on those successes.

Remember your roots

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I'm off in a few minutes to attend the 2:00 p.m. inauguration of the new Mayor and City Council of Tulsa at Gilcrease Museum, in the Vista Room. The event is of course open to the public, but I was honored to receive personal invitations to attend from three members of the incoming Council.

As an inauguration gift to the incoming councilors, particularly the Republicans, I'd like to present this January 2002 article by grassroots organizer Morton C. Blackwell: Advice to a Just-Elected Conservative Friend. Some key excerpts that contain echoes of the campaign just ended:

If significant political forces which supported your election decide you can no longer be the object of their affection, they will make you the object of their pressure. And when you run into a few troubles, as every elected official does, they won't instinctively jump to support you. They will ask themselves, "Why bother?"

Keep the faith. You can't make friends of your enemies by making enemies of your friends. Learn to live with the reality that some people won't like you if you do what you were elected to do.

No matter what you do, some people will be your enemies. They will never love you, so don't worry about trying to make them love you. You can make most of them respect you, though. If you work at it, you can learn better the art of how to say unpleasant things pleasantly. If you keep your word, you can keep your friends and win at least respect from most of your enemies....

The local, state and national political landscapes are littered with the moldering wrecks of the careers of politicians who won conservative support by giving their word on conservative principles and then broke their pledges....

In a system of separation of powers and checks and balances, most people realize you can't accomplish everything you'd like to. But you must say and do things which prove you are doing the best you can to live up to your supporters' reasonable expectations.

Complete victories are delightful but rare. You should prove yourself willing sometimes to win only incremental victories and sometimes to fight losing battles for good causes.

Curious as it may seem, a politician rarely hurts himself when he fights in a principled way for a cause which loses or against a cause which wins.

It's not exactly the Federalist Papers, but here's a fascinating glimpse of the intent behind Tulsa's form of government, from the debates that preceded the adoption of the 1989 City Charter.

From the January 11, 1989, Tulsa Whirled, then Police and Fire Commissioner Bob Dick speaks in support of the proposed mayor-council charter which was up for a vote that February 14:

Dick said some people are worried city councilors would argue among themselves.

"What's wrong with that?" Dick asked. "Why shouldn't we hear differing views on the issues that will arise?

"Our form of government tends to chill a little bit of the public debate over some issues," he said. "There is a tendency that if I need something I may not want to attack the street commissioner or the water commissioner because I may need his or her vote.

"I'm not saying that happens all the time. But it can happen," Dick said.

From a debate with Tom Quinn, in the February 2, 1989,

Quinn said the mayor, the chief administrator who would serve a four-year term, would erect a political empire through doling contracts without competitive bidding and through appointments on commissions, trusts and authorities.

"It all boils down to how benevolent the dictator is," Quinn said.

Dick countered that council approval of the mayor's proposed budget is required, as is approval for all appointments, including division heads.

Dick also said the auditor "would be the 'anti-mayor,'" counterbalancing through whistle blowing any abuses of power by the mayor or council.

I'd say Tom Quinn was prescient. His is an apt description of city government during the Savage years, and I suspect we can expect the same under a Kathy Taylor administration. It wasn't until the City Council had members who were assertive enough to "argue among themselves" that the Mayor began to be held in check. We finally have a critical mass of councilors who are assertive enough to buck the Mayor on appointments and other issues. It has helped to have a mayor who hasn't used the office's leverage to keep the Council on a leash.

The Council could be even more effective as a check on the Mayor's power with the passage of Propostition 1, which would give the Council the right to employ an attorney independent of the City Attorney's management.

What we haven't had to date is an Auditor that has acted as an anti-mayor. Phil Wood has done a competent and thorough job for the last 18 years, but he has taken a quiet behind-the-scenes approach to the job, rather than acting as a whistleblower. His focus has been on ensuring that the city follows sound financial practices and controls. I applaud Wood's pioneering work to make city government information available on his personal website, which preceded the official city website by a few years.

Michael Willis, the Republican challenger to Wood, has suggested that the City Auditor could be more proactive in working with the Council to conduct performance audits of city departments -- going beyond asking whether money is being spent as authorized to ask whether money is being spent wisely. That's worth considering.

I was inclined to vote for Wood, because what he has done, he has done well, even if he hasn't fulfilled the potential of the office, and he has a reputation of being above the fray of partisan politics.

What pried me loose from that position was a $2,000 contribution from Wood's campaign to the campaign of Dennis Troyer, the Good Ol' Boy candidate trying to unseat District 6 Councilor Jim Mautino. Mr. Wood has picked a side in the struggle to make Tulsa's government work for all Tulsans, and he picked the wrong one.

(UPDATE 4/3/2006: From Phil Wood I learn that his campaign gave only $200 to the Troyer campaign, not $2,000 as reported in the Tuesday, March 28, 2006, Tulsa Whirled. While the Tulsa Whirled printed a correction in the next day's edition, they didn't note the correction in their online story, nor did they link the correction in their special election section of their website, which is available without charge to non-subscribers. Here is Wood's explanation of the contribution and the discrepancy in amounts:

The Tulsa World published that my campaign contributed $2,000 to Troyer's campaign. I sent them a copy of his report clearly showing $200 (not 2,000) and they published a correction the following day.

I contributed the $200 to encourage distribution of my signs since the 'sign crew' is primarily my wife Emily and me.

I called Councilor Mautino the morining of the publication to assure him I had not given $2,000 to his opponent.

Thanks to Phil Wood for the clarification. I was also told by someone who spoke to Wood that he said he had given $200 to each of the Democratic candidates to encourage them to place his yard signs in their districts. $200 gifts are not required to be reported, and presumably wouldn't appear to be an endorsement. In this case, the Troyer campaign chose to report the gift, which was misread by the newspaper as a $2,000 gift.)

The fact that Willis until recently worked for LaFortune is a concern, but if we wind up with Taylor as Mayor, Willis could be a good counterbalance. He doesn't have Phil Wood's decades of experience, but the actual audit work is done by a team of internal auditors, under the management of the City Auditor. And he would inherit the procedures and policies established by Wood.

On the other hand, Willis endorsed City Council District 9 Good Ol' Boy candidate Jeff Stava and last year co-founded a PAC with Stava. (The PAC hasn't spent any money.)

My inclination is to vote for a move toward a more active, visible role for the City Auditor.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa City Hall category from April 2006.

Tulsa City Hall: March 2006 is the previous archive.

Tulsa City Hall: May 2006 is the next archive.

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