Tulsa City Hall: April 2010 Archives

Back in January, Tulsa City Councilor John Eagleton sent a 12-page letter to Mayor Dewey F. Bartlett Jr. expressing his concerns about City Attorney Deirdre Dexter's competence to continue serve in that capacity. Dexter, a former associate district judge, was appointed as interim city attorney in December 2006, as one of then-Mayor Kathy Taylor's at-will employees. Dexter became the permanent city attorney a year later.

Eagleton's letter to Bartlett included detailed, footnoted discussions of eight cases where Eagleton believes Dexter has failed to serve the best interests of her client, the City of Tulsa.

1. Failing to alert the Council to a conflict between state law and the election date specified by the charter amendment, adopted last fall, which calls for three-year staggered terms;
2. Issuing conflicting opinions, reversing years of precedent, on the extent to which and manner in which city employees could participate in partisan city elections;
3. Incorrectly identifying a low-turnout citywide special election as the basis for the number of signatures needed for the non-partisan election petition;
4. Failing to provide timely advice concerning an ordinance that would compel city employees to cooperate with a City Auditor investigation;
5. Failing to providing an accurate summary of (and apparently failing to research) the case law affecting a proposal to require permitted LED billboards to display public safety information during emergencies;
6. Allowing a collective bargaining agreement to include terms that violated the 2007 ordinance limiting take-home vehicles to city employees;
7. Failing to give timely and accurate advice to the City Council concerning the Owen vs. City of Tulsa settlement conference as to whether the case would be covered by the newly passed charter amendment requiring Council approval of settlements exceeding $1 million;
8. Failing to properly advise or defend the City of Tulsa regarding the Great Plains Airlines lawsuit and the settlement of the case for over $7 million.

Last week, there was a story about Eagleton's letter in the daily paper. Subsequently, Eagleton has released the text of the letter on his website with this introduction:

Recently the Tulsa World ran an article regarding a letter that I sent to Mayor Bartlett in January, detailing my concerns about City Attorney Deirdre Dexter's ability to adequately fulfill her role for the City. I would like to share that letter here so that you can read firsthand my reasons for thinking Ms. Dexter is unfit to serve in her current position. This was a letter I shared with the City Council and the Mayor. If you should read it and find within it something you believe to be a factual inaccuracy, I would appreciate it if you would share it with me.

To his credit, Eagleton sought to handle this quietly back in January. As a recently elected mayor, Bartlett could have replaced Dexter without surprising anyone, as she was an at-will employee of the previous mayor.

Eagleton's case against Dexter is a strong one. Here's his summary of the last case he cited, the settlement of the Great Plains Airlines lawsuit:

This issue arises out of Mrs. Dexter's failure to properly advise or defend her client regarding the legal defenses and issues surrounding a lawsuit. Due to lack of competent counsel, the City of Tulsa settled a lawsuit against it for over seven million dollars ($7,000,000.00).

Defenses for the City of Tulsa included statute of limitations, governmental tort claims act, and common law. These defenses were either not explained with sufficient clarity for the City to make a proper decision, not pursued with due diligence, or if explained to the Mayor (a recent board member of the de facto Plaintiff), Mrs Dexter was under an obligation to notify other elected officials of the Mayor's specific intent to pay the plaintiff regardless of the law on the issue.

Since Mayor LaFortune refused to agree to the same settlement, presumably because he believed it was an unlawful and completely defensible, Mrs. Dexter was under a duty to notify the Council of the Mayor's conflict of interest and receive their input as well, before settling a 7,000,000.00 case without a fight.

As a result, the day the plaintiff filed an amended petition naming the City of Tulsa as a defendant, the City submitted its Answer. The next day a joint motion for approval of settlement was submitted, parties appeared before the judge, and it was approved.

Mrs. Dexter's inability to properly advise the Mayor or the Council of the legal defenses and the weight to be given to each, caused the taxpayers of the City of Tulsa to pay a judgment they had little or no legal responsibility for. There is currently a qui tam action pending as an attempt by some taxpayers to recover the monies paid to the plaintiff.

Dexter may have been doing exactly what Mayor Taylor wanted, but she had a responsibility to serve the interests of the entire city, not just Taylor and her cronies.

(Here's my take on the Great Plains Airlines settlement from my July 2, 2008, column.)

The City Attorney is entrusted by charter to act as the chief legal authority for the City of Tulsa. Structurally, however, the City Attorney is accountable only to the Mayor. I have long advocated for a charter change to give the City Council the right to hire its own attorney independent of the City Attorney's office. (The City Council has been blessed with very good attorneys -- the latest being Drew Rees -- but they officially work for the City Attorney.) I also believe that mayors should be able to hire and fire department heads, just as the president can hire and fire cabinet members, but only with the advice and consent of the City Council.

In several of the cases cited by Eagleton, the errors and failures had the effect of serving the political interests of Mayor Taylor and her allies. Whatever ultimately happens to Deirdre Dexter, Tulsans need to address the bigger, structural problem with the way the City Attorney is appointed and with the office's powers and responsibilities.

It's opening day for the Tulsa Drillers at Oneok Field, and some of the downtown property owners who are forced to pay for its construction filed a petition today for summary judgment in their lawsuit to overturn the assessment for the Tulsa Stadium Improvement District.

The case against the ballpark assessment seems pretty solid. State law requires that an assessment be used to pay for improvements that provide a direct benefit to those subject to the assessment. In Oklahoma City, assessments for maintenance of Bricktown, the Bricktown Canal, and the Conncourse (the underground tunnel system connecting downtown buildings), pay assessments based on a formula. The more you benefit from the improvements and their maintenance, the more you pay. The same thing was true for the previous downtown assessment, which was in part proportional to proximity to the Main Mall. The current assessment is a flat rate per sq. ft. of land and sq. ft. of building, applied equally to properties across the street from the new ballpark to properties over a mile away.

More excerpts after the jump, but the point of law that jumped out on me was part III of the petition:

Oklahoma Const. Article 10 §26 protects the citizens from government run amuck. It protects the citizens from long term financial obligation without a vote of the people. A stadium is exactly the sort of municipal building project that should be paid for by all of the property owners in the city after approval by a three-fifths majority of the voters. The City of Tulsa cannot avoid this constitutional requirement by the legal legerdemain of labeling the project a local improvement, and decreeing that it shall be paid by assessment by a relatively small group of arbitrarily selected property owners. A ninety million dollar assessment, almost sixty million of which is to service debt incurred to build new ballpark and for which the people forced to pay receive nothing in return,--not even box seats or season tickets-- is a coercive use of government authority so unfair and oppressive as to shock the conscience, and in violation of clearly stated statutory and constitutional protections.

The point and purpose of the constitutional provision cited above is to protect the citizens from exactly what has happened here. Admittedly, the City itself theoretically escaped obligation through the artifice of creating a public trust, but the constitutional provision is there for the protection of the citizens who would ultimately be forced to pay the financial obligation. The fact that the City has essential laundered the obligation through a trust does not alter the essential constitutional principle at issue. Furthermore, the fact that rather than the cost of a new stadium being born evenly by the entire city, this 60 million dollar burden has been thrust upon the shoulders of a very few makes it all the more egregious, the damage more significant and all the more deserving of constitutional limitation. For the reason that the City of Tulsa may not evade the restrictions of Article 10 § 26 by engaging in the fiction that this is a local improvement, this assessment district is unconstitutional and should be declared unconstitutional, and null and void by the court.

That same constitutional provision should have protected Tulsans from getting stuck with the tab for Great Plains Airlines, should have prevented the pledging of a municipal trust's asset as collateral without a vote of the people.

A lot of my friends hail Kathy Taylor as a visionary mayor. However good her intentions may have been, her decision-making approach and her disregard for the constitutional and statutory limits on local government led her to choices that ultimately will prove very expensive for the citizens of Tulsa to clean up. Oneok Field is one example, the new City Hall purchase is another.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa City Hall category from April 2010.

Tulsa City Hall: February 2010 is the previous archive.

Tulsa City Hall: May 2010 is the next archive.

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