Tulsa City Hall: January 2012 Archives

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr is pushing for a policy change to Tulsa's local government cable channel that would hinder public transparency and accountability in city government.

Today, Monday, January 23, 2012, at 2 p.m., in City Hall room 411, the TGOV Coordinating Committee will meet to discuss:

Whether or not to continue broadcasting meetings of Authorities, Boards, and Committees, including recommending entities, such as Tulsa Metropolitan Planning Commission, Transportation Advisory Board, HUD grant committees. etc. 11.451-14

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From KTUL's story, "TGOV Content Up For Debate":

The mayor's administration told News Channel 8, they're all for transparency but that concern arose when the Transportation Advisory Committee suddenly appeared on TGOV without going through the process of appearing before the TGOV committee, and that the administration wants to make sure everybody follows the same process.

I asked Council Administrator Drew Rees, via email, who and what prompted this agenda item. His response:

The issue arose when the Mayor's office requested that TGOV not broadcast the Transportation Advisory Board meetings, because they did not believe TGOV should broadcast committees which were purely "recommending bodies." (Other such recommending bodies are the TMAPC, and various CDBG committees.)

To answer your next question, it is my understanding the Mayor does not want these meetings filmed or broadcast in any manner by TGOV. And finally, the TGOV Coordinating Committee approves all policies and all major operating decisions. The Chairman of the TGOV Coordinating Committee makes all day-to-day operating decisions. (see Title 12, Chapter 7, section 703.)

I hope this helps. Monday is a public meeting and you are welcome to attend. If you cannot, you are welcome to send me an email and I will distribute it to the other Committee members at the meeting.

In reply, I wrote:

Much of the substantial discussion about a city decision takes place in the recommending body, with the decision maker (City Council or Mayor or both) often deferring to the recommending body's judgment without comment or discussion. For this reason, video recordings of Tulsa's authorities, boards, and commissions are central to the public understanding of the official actions of city government. TGOV should work to its maximum capacity to record these hearings, should make all of them available online, unedited in the original format, and should broadcast as many of them as the schedule allows. Not to record, post, and broadcast these meetings is a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of Oklahoma's Open Meetings and Open Records laws.

If there is a shortage of budget or personnel to record these meetings, I feel certain that many civic-minded Tulsans with video experience would volunteer to man the cameras.

TGOV exists for the same reason that C-SPAN does -- to let the sunlight of public awareness, which Justice Brandeis called the best disinfectant, illuminate city government's inner workings so that the citizens of Tulsa can intelligently exercise their rights to free speech, to petition the government, and to vote.

There are four members of the coordinating committee: Council Administrator Drew Rees, City Council Communications Director Matt Martin, Mayor Bartlett Jr's designee Lloyd Wright, and Information Technology director Tom Golliver (or his designee). Rees, as committee chairman, makes day-to-day decisions on TGOV content.

TGOV began its life as a dedicated cable channel for city government in 2004, but the local cable company (Tulsa Cable Television, now Cox Cable) had been broadcasting City Commission or City Council meetings for decades before that. Here's the 2004 resolution establishing the rules for TGOV.

A dedicated TGOV channel allows for broadcast of other meetings and events important to the citizens of Tulsa. TGOV regularly broadcasts the City Council's committee meetings, the meetings of the City of Tulsa Board of Adjustment (which handles zoning variances and special exceptions), the meetings of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (which hears changes to the zoning map and the zoning code and approves subdivisions), and occasionally other boards like the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy (TARE, aka the trash board, which isn't in the energy recovery business any more).

TGOV isn't just a cable channel any more. In late 2009, TGOV began offering online streaming at tgovonline.org of the same content that Cox Cable customers see on channel 24 and on-demand access to previous meetings. This development means you don't have to wait for the replay to roll around on TGOV; you can watch when you want, and you can easily point others to key moments in meetings.

That's why it's silly for anyone to be concerned about eating up broadcast time with committee meetings. With the ability to serve video from its website, TGOV isn't limited to 168 hours of content a week.

In July of 2010, the City Council passed an ordinance (22305) codifying the policy for TGOV (now Title 12 Chapter 7 of Tulsa Revised Ordinances); Bartlett Jr vetoed the ordinance, and the Council overrode his veto.

Bartlett Jr wanted to use TGOV as an economic development tool, according to this KOTV story from 2010. Who does he think watches TGOV? You can't get it in Atlanta or Sacramento or Dallas. It's there to give Tulsans insight into the what is being done in their name by city government.

I can't shake the feeling that the mindset from the Mayor's Office is: "If we keep meetings off of TGOV, then people won't know hear about issues that would disturb them, and everyone will think everything is just fine."

If you can't attend the meeting at 2 today, send your comments by email to drees@tulsacouncil.org

Once in a while I come across a phrase that captures in 20 words what I've tried and failed to say in 2,000. It's an aphorism by cartoonist Hugh McLeod (@gapingvoid on Twitter), tweeted by former Louisiana Governor and dark-horse presidential candidate Buddy Roemer:

"Real success comes not from being invited into the yacht, but from being able to paddle one's own canoe." -- Hugh McLeod

I replied to Roemer: "Tulsa has an entire subculture devoted to getting on the yacht and staying there. Boat-rockers aren't welcome."

The members of this subculture would utterly disagree with McLeod's definition of success. Riding on the yacht is far more comfortable than paddling your own canoe, and all you have to do is to stay in the good graces of the yacht's owners.

Tatoosh Yacht

Paul Allen's yacht at Venice, by Anton Porsche, on Flickr (Creative Commons attribution)

McLeod's metaphor of the yacht guest fills a gap in my description of Tulsa's power structures. I've written extensively about Tulsa's "Money Belt" -- a geographic pattern in voting that correlates strongly with wealth as measured by home value. I've written about the Cockroach Caucus, a coalition of various interests with a great deal of control over Tulsa, a group that has been working particularly hard to recapture lost power and hang on to it. But the very wealthy can't control Tulsa's city government and civic institutions on their own.

That's where the Yacht Guests come in. They staff the non-profits and the quangos, they run small service-oriented businesses that cater to the yacht owners, they're professionals who have the yacht owners as clients, they work as managers for the yacht owners' businesses. They may not be wealthy, but they're comfortable, and they have access to opportunities and perks that are out of financial reach for the folks who aren't on the yacht. Their main job is not to rock the boat, but from time to time, they're called upon to defend the yacht and its owners against perceived threats.

Imagine you're the executive director of a small non-profit. You have a big office with windows, an administrative assistant, and you oversee a staff of a dozen or so. A couple of times a year you represent your organization at a national conference in Las Vegas or New York or Orlando -- all expenses paid by your organization. The organization has season tickets for the Drillers and club seats at the BOK Center, purchased in the name of entertaining clients, donors, and business partners, but most of the time, you can use them for yourself. During the work day, you come and go as you please, taking long lunches, playing golf, and volunteering and serving on the boards of other non-profits, all of which you can justify as building goodwill for your organization. When 5 p.m. rolls around you're done for the day. You're not paying private school tuition -- your kids got into their first-choice public magnet school. You're invited to great parties and outings and get some great freebies.

Occasionally, like the undertaker in The Godfather, you will be asked to do a service -- serve as chairman of a charter change or recall committee, sign a petition, attack anyone seen as a threat to the yacht and its owners. Your job is to be a proxy when the yacht owners don't want their fingerprints on something. You may even have to be the scapegoat, but never fear -- you will be provided for; if you're sacked from one job, they'll find you another. You can even go through a training program to learn how to behave yourself politely on board the yacht.

Back in September, I was invited to the grand opening of Tulsa's Fab Lab. It's a very neat idea and has its origins at MIT. It's a place where anyone with an idea can come and use computerized design and fabrication equipment to make a prototype, rather than paying a fabricator or buying the equipment for yourself. The hope is to facilitate the efforts of Tulsa entrepreneurs and to inspire young people to pursue engineering, design, and manufacturing. It's a great place for the guy who's trying to paddle his own canoe to turn a dream into something tangible.

The grand opening was at 3 in the afternoon on a weekday. For me, that meant notifying my boss that I'd be out and using up a few hours from my accrued paid leave. When I got there, I saw many familiar faces -- each of whom could reasonably justify his or her presence at this event during the work day, drinking wine, eating hors d'oeuvres, and schmoozing, as a part of his or her job description. Nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, you're going to do all you can to hold onto it.

(I should add that only two or three of the guests that afternoon showed any interest in the fascinating machines available for use at the Fab Lab.)

It might have been that day that the friend who had invited me to the Fab Lab opening mentioned the organization needed to hire an executive director. Perhaps it was a hint that I should apply, but a glance at the list of major donors told me all I needed to know about my chances of being hired.

And if by some fluke I were hired? The thought had some appeal -- working out in the community, interacting with a variety of people every day, promoting a great new institution, being the boss, having my own office, and enjoying some of the other perks I mentioned above. But then it hit me: My livelihood, my family's daily bread, would be dependent on me maintaining the goodwill of the board of directors. The organization's well being would be dependent on me maintaining the goodwill of all current and potential donors. If I took such a job, for the sake of my family and the sake of the organization, I'd have to shut up completely about local politics.

I periodically hear from friends who are guests aboard the yacht. They complain, strictly off-the-record, about the bad decisions being made by the yacht owners, but they wouldn't dare speak publicly. I wrote about the phenomenon back in 2003, in a note to fellow TulsaNow board members about our stance on Vision 2025:

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.

Walt Kelly wrote about it back in 1955:

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I can think of a few other occasions when I may have been subtly invited to come aboard the yacht. I think I've made it abundantly clear that I wouldn't be interested. One of my friends, a founder of several successful small businesses, was recently given a very explicit invitation aboard: If he would lend his name in support of the Save Our Tulsa at-large council proposal, he would never have to worry about financing for his businesses. My friend declined the offer. He prefers to paddle his own canoe.

It's possible to be tossed off the yacht even if you never realized you were aboard. Another friend found himself unexpectedly out of a engineering job, some time after he led a successful effort to stop a sales tax increase. Turns out that the company's owner had some real estate interests that stood to benefit if the tax had passed.

The guests aboard the yacht are not bad people. For many, being on the yacht gives them a chance to spend their days working for causes about which they are passionate. Surrendering their personal political opinions is a small price to pay for that opportunity. As the saying goes, don't hate the player, hate the game.

And the game should be hated. Yacht-guest culture rewards sycophancy and penalizes innovation. It drives creative people away. It hurts our economy.

I write all this not to heap scorn on those who are sailing happily aboard the yacht, but rather to alert you to the reality of this subculture, so you understand the forces at work in Tulsa politics. The apparent unity of the great and the good on a certain issue may be nothing more than the yacht guests keeping their hosts happy.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa City Hall category from January 2012.

Tulsa City Hall: December 2011 is the previous archive.

Tulsa City Hall: February 2012 is the next archive.

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