Tulsa City Hall: October 2010 Archives

It appears that the rich old SOTs, who seek to take Tulsa back from, well, Tulsans, are attempting to marshal the resources for gathering the necessary signatures to put their aristocratic propositions on the ballot. Word is that they aren't getting the kind of support and traction they may have expected, not even from their usual allies in Tulsa's Money Belt. But behind-the-scenes disapproval is not enough. Those who are informed enough to know that the Save Our Tulsa charter change proposal is bad for Tulsa need to speak out publicly and now, so that this mess can be quickly nipped in the bud.

Nick-Nolte-Mugshot.jpgTuesday was the first reported sighting of a petition circulator for the three Tulsa City Charter amendments proposed by Save Our Tulsa, Dahlink. The sighting occurred at Central Library, and according to my correspondent, the circulator bore a striking resemblance to Nick Nolte's infamous 2002 DUI mugshot, including the Hawaiian shirt.

On Wednesday, my wife spotted one in the supermarket parking lot. As the circulator approached a prospective signer, my wife intervened, giving a brief explanation of the key problem with the proposals -- you'd need to be a millionaire, or beloved by millionaires, to win a seat on the City Council. The circulator didn't get the voter's signature.

I would predict that a horde of circulators will be illegally roaming the parking lots of Tulsa polling places on November 2 in search of signatures. It would be wonderful if every petition-taker was shadowed by someone who could make the case against the SOT proposal. That might get ugly -- they usually get paid by the signature -- so the better course will be to call the sheriff's office if you spot a petition circulator near a polling place. I seem to recall that in November 2004 the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office shooed paid circulators away from polling places. The petition was for a gas tax increase, a proposal that was defeated 7-1 in a 2005 special election. Back during the 2004 election, at one northside polling place, a display promoting the tax was set up in the lobby of the school that hosted the precinct.

SOT leader John Brock has made a few public appearances to speak on behalf of at-large councilors (with the mayor serving as council chairman) and non-partisan city elections on the same day as statewide general elections, a set of propositions that would make the general election ballot longer and more confusing for voters and would make it more difficult to win a seat on the council with grassroots support. From his interviews with KOTV's Emory Bryan and KWGS's Rich Fisher, it seems that Brock has no idea that Tulsans from outside his social circle would find his proposals offensive. He certainly didn't take the time to run his idea past those who opposed his 2005 council-packing scheme.

I've heard from multiple sources that Tulsa Metro Chamber leadership thinks the push for the proposed charter amendments is bad for Tulsa. I've heard that those concerns are shared by other prominent Tulsans, every bit as wealthy and connected as the public members of the SOT steering committee. A few polite but firm denunciations of the proposals from the right people could quickly kill the petition effort, deter a divisive election, and allow Tulsa's leaders to focus on, e.g., applying KPMG's recommendations to the city's difficult budget situation.

So why haven't we heard anything negative about the SOT proposals out of, say, Chamber CEO Mike Neal? It's as if there's an unwritten code of silence among Tulsa's wealthiest and the individuals and organizations who depend upon their patronage. Mustn't quarrel in front of the help. Mustn't humiliate the folks who could make a few calls and get you fired from your cushy gig as head of the non-profit.

In my years of civic involvement in Tulsa, I've seen it time and time again: Those who belong to the Money Belt culture are unwilling to say publicly what they say privately about a bad idea supported by their peers. They leave it to outsiders to make the case against the bad idea, and then they stand aside when those who speak out are marginalized.

Way back in 2003, I wrote a long email, later published on this blog, to a number of people, some of whom had privately qualms about Vision 2025 privately -- the process that developed the final product, the structuring of the ballot, the lack of strategic thinking -- but were unwilling to express those reservations publicly.

To use the terms of the Pogo cartoon I sent earlier, let's speak our criticisms openly and plainly, not into a bag and disguised as praise. We don't live in the old USSR. We shouldn't be afraid to utter mild criticisms of Tulsa's politburo and nomenklatura. And yet fear is precisely what I detect beneath the surface: Fear of ostracism, fear of exclusion, fear of economic consequences.

This may be a bit impolite to say, but it's there beneath the surface and ought to be dealt with openly. Some of our group work for organizations which are funded by supporters of this package. Others aren't personally dependent, but are involved with organizations that need the funds that the package supporters can offer. Others need the goodwill of city government to conduct business and make a living. Some of us have even been paid to facilitate and promote the vision process and to work for the "vote yes" campaign. Beyond the financial considerations, many members of our group move within a narrow circle of social and organizational connections -- a virtual "small town" within the city, focused on the arts and other non-profit organizations, centered around Utica Square and chronicled by Tulsa People and Danna Sue Walker. As in any small town, some opinions are acceptable and some are not, and speaking your mind risks ostracism.

It's time for the big shots who think the SOT proposals are a bad idea -- unnecessarily divisive, a "solution" that fixes nothing -- to speak out. Nip the SOT plan in the bud, before yet another underfunded opposition group has to beat it -- and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will back it -- at the polls.

FOOTNOTE: Not all who live in the Money Belt are part of the Money Belt culture. One such courageous dissident is attorney Greg Bledsoe, a leader of Tulsans Defending Democracy, which opposes diluting geographical representation with at-large councilors. The group formed in 2005 to oppose an earlier charter amendment petition seeking at-large councilors. Bledsoe was on the Thursday, October 21, 2010, edition of KWGS Studio Tulsa.

Who is backing the latest effort to dilute grassroots influence over City Hall?

I took the list of 23 names in the list of Save Our Tulsa steering committee members in John Brock's email and did some research.

According to recent voter registration records, the median age is of Save Our Tulsa is 75. According to the county assessor's records, the median property value of the residences of the named steering committee members is $586,350. Here's a map showing where they live, based on voter registration and county assessor records:

View Save Our Tulsa (SOT) in a larger map

You'll notice a dense cluster of SOTs live in the wealthy section of midtown, aka the Money Belt. The map correlates well with the PLANiTULSA / Collective Strength survey from 2008 that showed Midtowners feeling more understood by city leaders and more included in the city planning process than north, west, and east Tulsans. It would seem that the SOTs don't know very many Tulsans from other parts of the city.

Many of these same people supported Tulsans for Better Government, the earlier push for at-large councilors, and Coalition for Responsible Government, the group that unsuccessfully attempted to recall Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock.

There are a few outliers. That dot in far east Tulsa is Shane Fernandez, a former chairman of TYpros, the Tulsa Metro Chamber young professionals' organization that ran the grassroots ypTulsa out of business. But according to assessor's records he and his wife (also a former TYpros chair) are also the owners of a home near 29th and Cincinnati.

Way up north, you find a dot for Pleas Thompson in Gilcrease Hills. Thompson was (or is?) head of the local chapter of the NAACP. Given the NAACP's role in moving Tulsa to district representation, it's strange that Thompson would lend his name to an effort that would dilute geographical representation with at-large council members.

Two (possibly three) SOTs are not Tulsa residents.

The dot in far south Broken Arrow (not even close to Tulsa) is former Whirled editorial page editor Ken Neal. Having spent decades espousing bad ideas for Tulsa, most of which were enthusiastically adopted (e.g. urban renewal), he has retired to a city that was fortunate to escape his influence.

Way up north in Owasso, in one of the Bailey Ranch subdivisions, that's Bishop Donald O. Tyler, pastor of Greater Grace Apostolic Church. The bishop moves around: In 2008, Tyler and his wife Marcia were registered to vote at an address in the Greens at Cedar Ridge in Broken Arrow; assessor records show the Tylers sold the house in 2008. Through most of 2009, Donald O'Neil Tyler Sr. was registered to vote in precinct 182 in south Tulsa; his wife Marcia was still registered at that address as of August 2010.

The Tylers do at least own a piece of Tulsa: Assessor records indicate that they bought about 12 acres of undeveloped land just southwest of Mohawk Park in December 2008. (He seems to have been registered to vote for the first half of this year at an address intended to correspond to this piece of property. There's nothing on it except a mailbox with his name and the house number, but the Postal Service and the city say the address doesn't exist. The mystery of a seemingly bogus address in the voter record, corresponding to the city water treatment plant, and the confusion of two roads with similar names, took some effort to unravel; it deserves an entry of its own.)

There is a James Alfred Light registered to vote on W. College St in Broken Arrow, but there's also a James Light that claims homestead on a house in Florence Park. I placed his dot at the latter location. My guess is that he lives in Florence Park but hasn't yet changed his registration. Then again, they could be two different Lights.


On Monday, October 11, 2010, KWGS aired a Studio Tulsa interview with John Brock. Again, he never cites a specific example of ward politics. Brock says that the Council should set policy and pass ordinances but not try to run the city. He also hopes that the elimination of party primaries will mean that more moderate candidates will be elected; primaries encourage extreme candidates to be nominated, according to Brock. Brock claims that having separate city elections puts the council under the control of "special interests," although he never says what those special interests are.

Rich Fisher seemed a bit confused about election dates under the current provisions of the charter, which is understandable. Currently, a city election cannot happen a week out of sync with a state election. That happened a few times in the past, usually when a spring city election was a week off from a school board election or presidential primary. But when we approved moving elections to the fall of odd-numbered years, we specified that the elections would be held on the dates authorized by state statute (26 O.S. 3-101) in September and November. In 2009, when voters approved the ill-conceived staggered council terms, a conflict was created -- no election date is authorized in September of even-numbered years. A further change on this year's ballot will fix that problem by moving the primary in even years to August.

I certainly hope that KWGS will allow an opponent of SOT's proposals to appear on Studio Tulsa. Tulsa voters should hear the downside of these amendments before they're asked to sign petitions; perhaps we can avoid an expensive and acrimonious election battle.

Also on Monday, KOTV's Emory Bryan spoke to John Brock, head of SOT. One aim seems pretty clear -- keep debate on public matters out of the public eye. (Video after the jump.)

Now the Council has been complaining, justifiably, that the Mayor will not talk to them. When he's on the Council as the Chairman, he will have to talk with them, and we believe that will create an environment where they will all hash things out before they get to the newspapers.

There they go again.

Many of the same people involved in the attempt to recall Tulsa City Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock, many of the same people involved in Tulsans for Better Government (the group promoting at-large councilors) -- they're on the list of named members of a group called Save Our Tulsa, which has filed three initiative petitions for city charter changes. Someone forwarded to me an email that he had apparently received from John Brock, head of SOT, in which he outlines the proposals, explains his misdiagnosis (in my opinion) of Tulsa's ills, and lists the members of the steering committee. Here's the whole thing:

Dear Concerned Tulsa Citizen,

This is a letter to people who love Tulsa and want it to remain the best place in the world to live. It is obvious that our city government has become ineffective. We believe that our form of government is basically flawed and must be changed to have our Tulsa Government work again.

As a result of this situation, several of us have joined together to present you with an option that we believe will improve our city government structure. We have no political agenda; in fact, our group represents all sides of the political spectrum; Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. The group includes the following steering committee members: former Tulsa Mayors Robert J. LaFortune and James Hewgley, Former City Councilor Robert Gardner, David Blankenship, John Brock, Leonard Eaton, Tom Hughes, Robert Poe, C.T. Thompson, Walt Helmerich, Pat Woodrum, Joe McGraw, Jim Light, Joe Cappy, Chester Cadieux, Pete Meinig, Nancy Meinig, Paula Marshall, Shane Fernandez, Darton Zink, Ken Neal, Pleas Thompson and Bishop Donald Tyler.

We plan to make the following charter changes:

1. Add three at-large members and the Mayor to the City Council and make the Mayor the Chairman. The four will represent the broad interest of the City and not just a council district. The three at large councilors will be elected by all the voters in Tulsa but to maintain geographic diversity they must be a resident of a super district. For example at-large councilor #1 will reside in districts 1, 3 or 4, #2 will reside in district 2, 8 or 9 and #3 will reside in district 5, 6 or 7. The nine council districts will remain unchanged. With the addition of the four at-large seats, the council will then be made up of 13 members (nine district representatives and four at-large). The Mayor will not vote except in case of a tie. The Mayor will appoint the Vice Chairman from the Council. This will improve the Mayor-Council communications and create Team Tulsa.

2. Have all City elections on the same day as State and Federal elections and return all district elections to a two year cycle. This will raise interest and turnout. Currently, Council members are elected with about 10% and sometimes less of the registered voters. Also, it will permit the voters to express their opinion on how the council is doing as a whole. The current system prevents the voters from changing the policies of the City in one election. It costs twice as much money to have an election every year. The money saved will more than pay for the four new at-large councilors.

3. Make City elections non-partisan. The candidates will be able to identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans or any other way but will run against all other candidates in a non-partisan primary. The top two in the primary will meet in the general election guaranteeing the best two candidates for the general election irrespective of party affiliation. This will again increase interest and turn out.

We have created, Save Our Tulsa Inc., a 501c4 corporation. Its sole purpose is to change the City Charter to make our city government more effective. Save Our Tulsa Inc. will not promote or oppose any candidate for public office.

The three initiative petitions will minimize the problems of "ward politics" and will make the transition of the council to a more workable legislative body. The successful accomplishment of the enactment of these petitions will cost an estimated $300,000. A 501c4 corporation is permitted to accept unlimited corporate, foundation, or individual contributions.

If you are interested in making Tulsa a better city, we need your support now. Respond to this e-mail and indicate: 1. if you will permit the use of your name in a similar newspaper ad to show the voters the extent of the support for our Charter amendments, 2. whether you will volunteer to circulate the petitions and 3. Send generous financial contributions to: Save Our Tulsa, 2021 S. Lewis Ave., Suite 415, Tulsa, OK 74104.

Tulsa is a unique City. It is the best place in the World to live and raise children and grandchildren. Let us pledge ourselves, our time and our treasure to keep it that way. Please pass this e-mail on to your friends. Encourage them to join us and to respond as above. Organize your own group for our newspaper ad.

The petitions are effective today. Watch for circulators and sign up. Our website will be coming soon.

Many thanks from all of us,

John Brock

The sight of so many familiar names told me all I needed to know about the group's intentions. Their previous efforts -- recall, at-large councilors, campaign contributions -- have all involved defeating grassroots influence in local politics. These proposals, much like their previous efforts, would make it more difficult for a neighborhood leader or grassroots activist to win a seat on the City Council, more difficult for grassroots candidates to hold a majority on the council.

I get the sense that you should pronounce the group's name with an accent on that second word: Save Our Tulsa. They want to go back to a time when they and their circle of friends decided Tulsa's priorities without any input from the rest of us. I believe it particularly bothers them that most of the councilors owe them nothing and owe everything to the voters in their districts. The SOT plan would make it more expensive to run a winning council campaign, even at the district level, as candidates would be competing for media attention, volunteer time, and small-donor contributions with every other race on the ballot. To win, you'd either need to be personally wealthy or beholden to the SOTs and their pals for sufficient campaign funds.

I don't believe these people are motivated by personal profit. Are they driven by a kind of paternalistic altruism for the rest of Tulsa? Perhaps in a couple of cases, but for the most part, I don't believe they give a thought for the rest of Tulsa. I suspect that they only care about Our Tulsa -- aka the Money Belt.

A follow-up entry will take a look at the list of people cited by John Brock as SOT steering committee members, but here are a few points about the proposals:

We should move back to two-year, uniform council terms, but we should return to the fall of odd-numbered years, as it was before last November's ill-considered charter change to staggered three-year terms. Moving elections to coincide with presidential and gubernatorial elections will deprive Tulsa of the opportunity to focus attention on our city's situation and the best course for its future. With the presidency or a hot U. S. Senate race on the ballot, municipal concerns will get short shrift from the voters. You may have more people voting in city races, but you will have fewer voters who are actually paying attention to city issues. I suspect that, in the minds of the SOTs, that's a feature, not a bug.

At-large is still at-large. In the new proposal, it means that two-thirds of the people picking your representative don't live in your district. The proposed division of districts would make it possible for all three supercouncilors to live in the Money Belt -- the southwest part of District 4, the wealthier sections of 9, 2, and 8, and the southwestern part of 7. Even if you drew a superdistrict with no Money Belt overlap (say 1, 3, and 6), it would still be possible for the SOTs and their allies to find an "acceptable" resident -- parachute them in, if necessary -- in that superdistrict to push in the citywide election.

Having four at-large members of the City Council (the mayor and three supercouncilors) is likely to heighten disagreements, not reduce them. The supercouncilors, having been elected citywide, will be natural rivals for the mayor.

The SOTs are fond of claiming that "ward" politics is the source of our city's problems. I've never seen them give a valid example. The issues that have caused the most strife at City Hall have been issues of citywide importance -- budgets, zoning philosophy, water sales to the suburbs, tax increases, airport shenanigans.

Non-partisan -- no party or descriptive information on the ballot, just a name -- is a bad idea made worse by holding the election with state and federal elections, when people are thinking in terms of Democrat and Republican. Oklahoma voters already have to wrangle both sides of a ballot the size of a bedsheet. Tulsa voters will get one more ballot with five or six races on it, with only names, no helps to remember which candidate was which. A voter so confused may just vote for whoever had the most yard signs or the most TV commercials; again, the SOTs probably consider this a feature, not a bug. A better way is the multi-partisan ballot I've suggested, where candidates could list national party affiliation if the choose, or some locally significant label. A multi-partisan ballot gives voters more information, a non-partisan ballot gives voters less.

The SOTs seem blind to the real source of dysfunction at City Hall: The wrong mayor. The one we have at the moment has alienated all nine members of the City Council, including his own. If the SOTs would help elect a mayor who is:

  • independent -- not likely to be pushed around by the Tulsa Metro Chamber, the homebuilders, or other special interest groups;
  • a collaborative leader -- someone who will work with the council and citizens and seek win-win solutions; not someone who runs roughshod over anyone who stands in her way;
  • someone focused on the priorities of ordinary Tulsans -- public safety, good streets -- not the entertainment needs of the idle rich;

Tulsa city government would be just fine.

About this Archive

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

Tulsa City Hall: September 2010 is the previous archive.

Tulsa City Hall: November 2010 is the next archive.

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