Tulsa County: November 2009 Archives

County Commissioner Karen Keith's attempt to oust Elizabeth Wright from the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) failed for lack of a second at this morning's Tulsa County Commission meeting. Barring another ouster attempt, Wright will continue to serve on the TMAPC until her term expires on January 18, 2011.

In the course of the ongoing effort by Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith to remove Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) member Elizabeth Wright, I've heard and read the TMAPC described as a "quasi-judicial body." Accordingly, these same sources claim that TMAPC members are like "referees," that they are to remain impartial throughout the process, and that they should only inquire about and consider very narrow criteria in deciding zoning applications.

In the specific case of Liz Wright, this perspective says that she is wrong to ask questions about issues like stormwater runoff (technical matters beyond the TMAPC's purview, it's said), was wrong to "counsel" the Holland Lakes homeowners about arguing their case to the City Council (regarding a zoning application that the TMAPC had already heard; Wright says she presented standard TMAPC material on how to be effective presenting your case), and was wrong to vote on a zoning application involving a parcel adjoining the neighborhood where she served as neighborhood association president (even though the neighborhood association didn't support or oppose the application and thus had no interest in its approval or rejection).

Apart from the specifics of Liz Wright's situation, I'm concerned that a false understanding of the TMAPC's function and nature hamstrings its ability to engage in actual planning and reduces the TMAPC to little more than scorekeepers for the zoning process. This idea of the TMAPC as quasi-judicial referees in all respects doesn't square with state statutes and city ordinances that define the TMAPC's composition and roles, nor does it fit what I've heard and observed in the eighteen years I've observed the TMAPC's proceedings.

Let's look at the law. The TMAPC is one of at least eight types of planning commissions enabled by Oklahoma statute (that I've found so far), each with its own section of either Title 11 (Cities and Towns) or Title 19 (Counties):

(1) Municipal planning commissions (Title 11, Article XLV)

(2) Regional planning commissions (Title 11, Article XLVI) -- covering three miles around the city limits

(3) City planning commissions for cities over 200,000 (Title 11, Article XLVII)

(4) County planning commissions (Title 19, Section 865.1 et seq.)

(5) Joint city-county metropolitan area planning commissions for counties over 180,000 (Title 19, Section 863.1 et seq.)

(6) Joint city-county planning commissions for smaller counties (Title 19, Section 866.1 et seq.)

(7) County planning commissions for counties over 500,000 (Title 19, Section 868.1 et seq.)

(8) Lake area planning commissions (Title 19, Section 869.1 et seq.)

The TMAPC is the only planning commission in Oklahoma of type (5). You can read the enabling legislation beginning here at 19 O. S. 863.1, and clicking "Next Section" to read through the whole thing. Or you can click this link to see an index of the subsections of 19 O. S. 863. Most of the statute has to do with the planning commission's role regarding county zoning.

The planning commission's role regarding City of Tulsa zoning is defined by Title 42 of Tulsa Revised Ordinances. Also known as the City of Tulsa Zoning Code, Title 42 requires that amendments to the zoning map and zoning code be submitted to the TMAPC for a report and recommendation. You can search through the document yourself for references to "Planning Commission."

Since the Wright controversy regards applications for zoning map amendments in the City of Tulsa, specifically planned unit developments (PUDs) and a straight rezoning, let me highlight the applicable paragraphs:

Section 1107: TMAPC reviews PUD applications. The TMAPC is to determine:

1. Whether the PUD is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan; 2. Whether the PUD harmonized with the existing and expected development of surrounding areas; 3. Whether the PUD is a unified treatment of the development possibilities of the project site; and 4. Whether the PUD is consistent with the stated purposes and standards of this chapter. The Planning Commission shall forward its recommendation, the application, and the development plan to the City Council for further hearing as provided in Subsection 1107.E.

That's a pretty broad set of criteria, and it doesn't seem to preclude a TMAPC member from asking about a particular technical subject. The City Council has the final say.

Section 1700 requires TMAPC input on zoning code amendments:

The regulations, restrictions, prohibitions and limitations imposed, and the districts created may from time to time be amended, supplemented, changed, modified or repealed by ordinance, but no change shall be made until the Planning Commission, after notice and public hearing, files with the City a report and recommendation on the proposed change. In addition to the procedural provisions hereinafter set out, the Planning Commission shall adopt procedural rules for the conduct of zoning public hearings.

Section 1701 sets out criteria for zoning map amendments:

It is the policy of the City of Tulsa that in the consideration of proposed amendments to this code that:

Amendments will be adopted to recognize changes in the Comprehensive Plan, to correct error, or to recognize changed or changing conditions in a particular area or in the jurisdictional area generally.

Sections 1702 and 1703 deal with zoning text and zoning map amendments respectively. In both cases, the TMAPC is to report to the City Council, which has the final decision.

Nothing in these sections limits the kind of information the TMAPC can gather or consider in making its recommendation.

Nothing in the Oklahoma statutes or the City of Tulsa ordinances describes the TMAPC as a quasi-judicial body. The only explicit use of the term quasi-judicial with respect to the TMAPC is in the TMAPC Rules of Procedure and Code of Ethics. These rules are adopted by the TMAPC, and the TMAPC has the freedom to modify them within the scope of the enabling state and city legislation.

Section II. C. of the most recent version of the TMAPC rules says:

Although not forbidden, per se, ex parte communication has the potential to influence a Planning Commissioner's decision on quasi-judicial matters before the Commission. The Planning Commissioner who receives ex parte communication may, if he or she feels that it is appropriate, disclose this prior to public discussion of the subject matter.

The wording here suggests that there are matters before the Commission that are not quasi-judicial.

A section of the state statutes applicable to the TMAPC, 19 O. S. 863.23, provides a clue as to what matters would and would not be considered quasi-judicial:

Any person claiming to be aggrieved by any act of the [planning] commission in administering this act, or any regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, may as to any matter concerning plats, subdivisions and lot-splits, both as to land situated in the corporate limits of the municipality and as to land situated in the unincorporated area of the county, appeal directly to the district court of the county and the district courts of said counties are hereby expressly vested with jurisdiction to hear and determine said appeals....

There shall be no right of appeal from any act of the commission in its advisory capacity to the [city] council and board [of county commissioners] or from any of its acts which are subject to review, repeal or modification by said governing bodies.

So the TMAPC has the final say regarding lot splits, subdivisions, and plats, and those matters can only be appealed to district court. But that isn't the case when the TMAPC acts in an advisory capacity to the legislative body, as with zoning map amendments.

All the issues raised against Liz Wright have to do with applications for city zoning map amendments, which are not quasi-judicial, but legislative. The zoning map is a part of the city ordinances, and changing involves adopting an ordinance. A zoning change is a change of the rules.

The complaints against Wright disappear if they're considered in a legislative context. We don't expect members of a legislative committee to be dispassionate, to have no prior opinion, to avoid contact with interested parties, or to limit the questions they ask about a proposed change in the law. We don't expect a unanimous vote from a legislative committee, and it's normal for a legislator on the losing side of a committee vote to debate against the committee's recommendation when it reaches the final stage of approval.

So how has the impression spread that the TMAPC is a quasi-judicial body? It may be a misunderstanding based on the reality of a few TMAPC functions (approval of lot splits, subdivisions, plats) that are quasi-judicial. But I suspect that there are those interests who want planning commissioners to believe that their discretion on zoning changes is extremely limited, which would make it easier to drive them as a body to the preferred conclusion.

Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith has yet to supply Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) member Elizabeth Wright with a list of specific allegations justifying Keith's call to remove Wright from the TMAPC over a year before her three-year term is due to end, according to an email from Wright earlier today. The County Commission, which appointed Wright in 2008, is slated to vote on her removal tomorrow, November 30, 2009.

Removing a TMAPC member before the end of the term can only be done for cause. Keith's November 2, 2009, petition to remove Wright named two provisions of the TMAPC code of ethics and a general complaint ("conduct which materially and adversely affects the orderly or efficient operation of the TMAPC") which Wright is alleged to have violated but did not provide specifics -- which actions of Wright's on which dates are supposed to have been violations warranting premature removal.

The public hearing on Keith's petition was held at the Tulsa County Commission meeting last Monday, November 23, 2009, but the final vote was delayed a week to allow Keith to present those specifics and to allow Wright time to respond. Even if Wright receives the list today, she will have less than 24 hours to prepare a defense. The public will not have time to provide input to their County Commissioners.

Because public hearings cannot be continued from one meeting to the next, the public hearing on Wright has already concluded, and the public will not be allowed to address the County Commission about Keith's specific accusations.

The third charge was dropped, and the County Commission agreed to use the 2004 ethics rules as the basis for judgment, not the rules adopted on April 22, 2009, after the violations are supposed to have occurred.

The just thing to do would be to kill Keith's campaign to oust Wright because of Keith's failure to present a specific indictment. In fact, the hearing should never have been scheduled without those specifics. Let Keith come back and try again, from scratch, when she is better prepared.

At the very least, Liz Wright and the public deserve at least a week after those specifics are released before a full public hearing is held and a vote is taken.

Via NewsFifty's Oklahoma news page: State Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie) is considering proposing legislation to reform the structure of county government in Oklahoma. In an Edmond Sun op-ed, Murphey sets forth his concerns. At the heart, the lack of adequate separation of powers when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars:

In the past, I have expressed that I feel it is important for a governing board which approves a budget to not have the ability to specifically direct where that money goes. The chances for politicians to engage in corruption and self-serving political pork appropriations are greatly enhanced when the board's ability to set policy and to specifically direct that spending are combined. In past updates, I have written about how Oklahoma legislators are becoming experts at getting around the constitutional prohibition of this type of conduct.

During the course of my years as a public official, I have observed that county government is a significant area in Oklahoma governance where these two responsibilities are not sufficiently separated. This blurring of the policy and expenditure power results in county governments that are extremely susceptible to "good old boy" politics where county officials can exert strong political influence over employees and vendors in order to create a small political empire funded by taxpayer dollars.

His solution:

County government should operate much like the governance model used in city government. A largely uncompensated board of elected citizen county commissioners should have oversight over a professional county manager who has the same education and qualifications as a city manager. This person would be responsible for hiring the county department heads, thus providing for employees a level of protection from political pressure. Much like a city council, the Board of Commissioners would set policy and budget, but have no ability to direct specific expenditure of funds outside of a competitive bid process.

I approve the idea of limiting the ability of public officials to handpick contractors, but I'll need to be convinced that Murphey's proposal is appropriate for every one of Oklahoma's 77 counties. In fact, the one-size-fits-all structure of Oklahoma county government is a problem that reform should address. In some counties, most of the territory is unincorporated and the few municipalities are small and not in a position to offer a complete slate of basic municipal services. In such places, county government may be the only effective way to deliver those services to residents. In Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties, only a few small areas are unincorporated, and many of those are within the fenceline of a municipality.

During the debates over county home rule in the late '80s and early '90s, there were calls for consolidation of less populous counties. But the relative stability of Oklahoma's county boundaries -- only two new counties since statehood and a handful of boundary adjustments -- is a boon to record keeping and comparisons over time. By contrast, Britain has been tinkering with its local government boundaries for over a century with two major overhauls over the last 35 years. Now there are historic counties and ceremonial counties and administrative counties, which may or may not coincide.

Any county activity that has to do with land records and court records -- county clerk, county assessor, county treasurer, court clerk -- should remain with the 77 counties. But we may want to consider another, more flexible approach to providing municipal services.

One possibility: Create a special class of municipalities incorporating the remaining unincorporated territory in each county. These new entities would be responsible for law enforcement, roads, parks, and other municipal services. They would be governed by some adaptation of the existing "statutory charter" -- the default form of government established by state statute for cities and towns that have yet to adopt a charter of their own. For some services, they may wish to enter into compacts with incorporated cities and towns. Some thought would need to be given to unincorporated areas within an existing municipality's fenceline. i suspect we would want to make it easy for areas within these special county-municipalities to attach themselves to a city or town or to form a new town.

Oklahoma's laws makes it difficult to create new municipalities, particularly anywhere near an existing city or town. Perhaps we should make it easier, so that rural residents could incorporate to protect themselves against annexation, so they can protect their ability to raise livestock, shoot off fireworks, and generally live without the constraints of city ordinances. Berryhill residents might jump at the opportunity.

Whatever the solution, the discussion is worth having, and Rep. Murphey is to be commended afor raising the issue.

I can't attend Monday morning's Tulsa County Commission meeting, so I sent the following letter to County Commissioners John Smaligo and Fred Perry urging them to vote against removing Liz Wright from the TMAPC. (I didn't figure there was any point in sending it to Commissioner Karen Keith, the lead prosecutor and persecutor.)


Karen Keith's ex post facto crusade for unfair zoning
Karen Keith trying to bully neighborhood leader off planning commission

Dear Commissioners Smaligo and Perry,

I regret that, due to business meetings, I won't be able to attend Monday's hearing regarding TMAPC member Elizabeth Wright. In lieu of speaking at the meeting, I'm writing to urge you to vote against Commissioner Keith's attempt to have Wright removed from the TMAPC. Removing any board or commission member before his or her term has expired is a drastic action, only justified in cases of corruption or gross negligence. Whatever Commissioner Keith's motivation -- and her stated reasons keep changing -- her prosecution of Liz Wright is completely unjustified.

The "causes" for removal specified by Commissioner Keith involve violations of ethics code provisions that didn't exist when the "violations" reportedly occurred. Retroactive enforcement of laws is not only unfair, it's specifically banned by the U. S. Constitution in Article I, Section 10, one of the few explicit limits placed by the Federal Constitution on state government. It's unconstitutional to be punished for doing something that wasn't against the rules when you did it.

Here's an illustration: Imagine if your former colleagues in the legislature, in this upcoming 2010 session, cut the maximum campaign contribution from $5000 to $500. Then imagine that the State Ethics Commission started proceedings against you because, back in 2006 or 2007, you each accepted $750 contributions from Kirby Crowe, in excess of the new limit but well within the limit that existed at the time. I think you'll agree that this would be unfair to you, but this is exactly what Commissioner Keith is attempting to do to Liz Wright.

As you can see from the TMAPC minutes, the two ethics code provisions cited by Commissioner Keith in her petition against Commissioner Wright were only added to the code on April 22, 2009. (Click the link to view those minutes.)

The subparagraphs of II. E. which Wright is said to have violated did not exist prior to that date. And yet Keith's petition says that Wright should be removed because her appearance at an August 2008 City Council committee meeting violated this April 2009 ethics rule.

II.B.1.b did not exist at all prior to April 2009. Keith's petition doesn't specify when Wright's alleged violation of II.B.1.b. occurred. There are hints that it has to do with a 2008 zoning case on property bordering the neighborhood association which Wright served as president. Here again, the alleged offense occurred before the specified rule existed.

There is one other charge -- "Conduct which materially and adversely affects the orderly or efficient operation of the TMAPC." Commissioner Keith does not specify what this conduct was or when it occurred. I have reviewed the minutes over Commissioner Wright's tenure, and I see no evidence that she was ever disruptive to the proceedings.

Ordinarily, the accused is presented in advance with specific charges -- on what the offense was committed and what actions constituted the offense -- and has the opportunity to prepare a point-by-point rebuttal. In this case however, Commissioner Wright may not even learn about the specifics of the charges until after the public hearing has ended and the County Commissioners discussion commences, too late to prepare a defense.

Commissioner Keith's petition states that the cause is "includes, but is not limited to," the three points discussed above. This opens the door to more charges that may be sprung at the last minute, depriving Wright and the public of the opportunity to prepare a response to the new charges.

It would have been best if you had refused to approve a public hearing until Commissioner Keith provided a complete and specific indictment. In all fairness, you owe the public and Commissioner Wright the time to study and prepare a response to whatever charges Commissioner Keith presents; you should continue the hearing and delay the vote until a later meeting.

Liz Wright's intelligence and her perspective as a small businesswoman and former neighborhood leader are assets to Tulsa and to the TMAPC. I hope the County Commission will see fit to appoint her to a new term in January 2011. But even if you disagree with my evaluation of her performance, I hope you will emphatically reject Commissioner Keith's imprudent and unjust attempt to end her term prematurely.

When I endorsed each of you in the 2006 elections, I had high hopes that you would bring a new spirit to county government, a spirit of openness and fairness that did not previously exist. There have been positive steps in that regard, but how this public hearing is conducted and the decision you make about Commissioner Wright will put those hopes to the test and will weigh heavily as the public evaluates your first term.


Michael Bates

Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith's bizarre and unprecedented campaign to remove Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission member Elizabeth Wright (for bogus reasons, a year before her term expires) reaches its climax on Monday, November 23, 2009, at 9:30 a.m., at a public hearing to be held as part of the weekly County Commission meeting. The venue is Room 119 of the County Courthouse, near the 6th Street entrance west of Denver Ave.

As a candidate for County Commission in 2008, Keith received significant campaign contributions from a number of donors connected to the development industry, including a $1,000 contribution from John Bumgarner. The Bumgarner contribution was received one day after the pre-election reporting deadline, so that it didn't have to be made public, via the State Ethics Commission, until after the election. (Here is Karen Keith's post-general-election contribution report.)

Bumgarner is the developer of the now vacant site southwest of Utica and the Broken Arrow Expressway. His extraordinary deal with the TMAPC -- a straight zoning change plus a deed covenant, rather than the usual planned unit development (PUD) with development standards -- prompted Wright's September 16, 2008, appearance before the City Council's committee discussion of the rezoning. She did not speak in opposition but spoke to advise the Council of the unusual nature of the proposal. While PUD development standards are enforceable administratively, through the city's building permits, certificates of occupancy, and code enforcement, a deed covenant is only enforceable by means of litigation. Here is the summary of Wright's statement in the committee meeting's minutes:

Ms. Wright stated there was no input by public. No terms of covenant were given to citizens. The vote may have turned out differently had there been. The procedure, not the development that is in question.

(Here are the TMAPC minutes on the 14th and Utica zoning case, Z-7102. The contrast is striking between, on the one hand, the concerns expressed by Wright and Commissioner Michelle Cantrell about the precedent being set and, on the other hand, the callous disregard of precedent and the Comprehensive Plan by INCOG development staff and the other TMAPC members. The rezoning was approved with only Wright and Cantrell in opposition.)

LizWright.jpgSeven months after Wright's appearance at the Council committee meeting, the TMAPC amended its code of ethics to require any commissioner wishing to speak to the Council to notify the other commissioners 24 hours in advance. In fact, the two specific ethics code provisions cited in Keith's complaint against Wright were both added by the TMAPC on April 22, 2009, long after her alleged offenses against those provisions were committed.

(UPDATE: Here is archive.org's copy of the December 1, 2004, version of the TMAPC code of ethics. I will continue to look for a more recent version, but in all likelihood, this was the version governing the TMAPC at the time of the alleged offenses. This version was captured by the Internet Archive on September 30, 2006.)

The time of day for the hearing to remove Wright makes it difficult for ordinary homeowners, concerned about fair application of zoning laws and protecting their property values and quality of life, to come downtown to defend one of a tiny number of TMAPC commissioners not tied to the development industry. By contrast, it will be easy for zoning attorneys and development lobbyists to show up en masse to speak in favor of what might be called "viewpoint purity" on the planning commission.

Never mind that Wright's point of view has seldom if ever prevailed in controversial issues; more often she has been the lone vote or one of a few in opposition. Those behind the effort to oust Wright appear to have this goal in mind: The TMAPC must be purged of any member with the intelligence, independence, and courage to contradict the claims of a developer or his attorney. It would seem that winning by a vote of 10-1 or 9-2 isn't enough for the vengeful, scorched-earth branch of the development lobby. Evidently they want to marginalize anyone who might articulate an alternative point of view in the TMAPC's deliberations.

I have been provided with a copy of the petition filed by Karen Keith for the removal of Elizabeth Wright from the TMAPC (1.8 MB PDF). Minus the header and signature, this is the petition in its entirety:

COMES NOW Karen Keith, duly elected Tulsa County Commissioner for District No.2 Tulsa County, Oklahoma and brings this Petition For Removal of Elizabeth Wright as a member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission ( TMAPC ).

The specific and general cause and basis for this removal includes, but is not limited to, the following:

1. Violation of the Policies and Procedures and Code of Ethics of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, as Amended April 22, 2009, specifically section II: Code of Ethics -8. Conflict of Interest 1. b.

2. Conduct which materially and adversely affects the orderly or efficient operation of the TMAPC

3. Violation of the Policies and Procedures and Code of Ethics of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, specifically section II: Code of Ethics - E. Appearance at City Council in August of 2008.

Believing that these grounds constitute "cause" for removal, Petitioner respectfully request that the Tulsa Board of County Commissioners set a public hearing to consider this Petition For Removal.

No specific charges are attached, nothing to specify the date or substance of any alleged violation. There was, attached to copy of the petition provided to me, a

two-page, undated, unsigned outline of the procedure that may be followed on Monday:


(A) In General

The Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners ("Board") may, upon a majority vote, decide to consider whether to remove an appointed Planning Commissioner from the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission ( TMAPC). Pursuant to Title 19, 0.5. Section 863.5 -Members of Commission Appointment-Term-Vacancy-Removal-Ex Officio Members-Members to Serve Without Compensation, the Board of County Commissioners has the power of appointment to TMAPC. The Board has the additional responsibility and authority to remove a member of TMAPC that has been appointed by the Board. Under this statute, a member of the TMAPC may be removed from office "for cause" after a hearing held before the governing body by which he or she was appointed. "Cause" shall include, but not be limited to, performance, conduct or behavior, whether by acts or omission, or violation of the Policies and Procedures and Code of Ethics as adopted by the TMAPC, which the Board of County Commissioners concludes materially and adversely affects the orderly or efficient operation of the TMAPC.

(B) Procedure

Upon such a vote to consider removal, the Board of County Commissioners shall set a public hearing in accordance with applicable Oklahoma state statutes regarding notice, posting, and setting and provide notice to the Planning Commissioner whose removal is to be considered by certified mail, return receipt requested, or by hand delivery to the Planning Commissioner whose removal is to be considered. The notice shall be in the form of a Notice of Public Hearing from the Board that shall schedule a date and time for such consideration at a public hearing held before the Board of County Commissioners, as well as the reasons for such consideration.

The public hearing before the Board of County Commissioners shall be no less than three (3) weeks after a request for removal has been presented to the County Commission. Said notice of public hearing shall be duly and properly posted.

The Planning Commissioner whose removal is sought may appear at that date and time and shall be given an opportunity to be heard by the Board of County Commissioners as to the reasons why his or her removal is not warranted, and may be represented by counsel at the hearing.

The Board has the inherent authority to determine any necessary rules of conduct in the hearing to maintain decorum and order. Rules of conduct by those in attendance of a hearing before the Board may include the potential of a time limit to the amount of time provided to those who request to speak for or against an item on the Board's agenda, requiring those speaking to stand at the podium and speak loud enough to be audio recorded in order that an accurate recorded [sic] of the proceedings can be accomplished, and others that would fall under the general category of rules of conduct that allow the Board to maintain decorum and order in the meetings.

Upon conclusion of the hearing the Board of County Commissioners shall take a vote to determine whether removal of the Planning Commissioner is warranted. If the decision of the Board is removal of the Planning Commissioner is warranted, the Board shall indicate the effective date of the removal.

As you can see, key elements of the procedure are left vague or undefined. Based on the vagueness of the charges and the description of the process, I am anticipating a kind of kangaroo court: Wright will be allowed to speak in her own defense, followed by members of the public. Only then will Keith present the specifics of the case, followed by discussion among the county commissioners. Neither Wright nor members of the public will have the opportunity for rebuttal. The commissioners' discussion may be quite brief if they have already discussed the matter privately and reached a consensus, by means of the county commission tradition of using a go-between to adhere to the letter, but not the spirit, of the Open Meetings Act.

What should happen is that Keith should be compelled by the other two county commissioners, John Smaligo and Fred Perry, to present the specifics of her charges against Wright, and then they should vote to continue the hearing to a future date to allow Wright and her supporters adequate time to prepare a defense. That would be the fair thing to do.

And something else that should happen: There are developers, real estate brokers, and other members of the development community who understand that all parties deserve a fair hearing in the land use regulation process. They understand the need for collaboration and compromise when it comes to controversial matters like infill development in stable neighborhoods. They need to speak out against the attempt to remove Wright and work to moderate their more volatile colleagues.

After the defeat of the development industry's attempt to recall Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock and the passage of the zoning protest petition charter amendment, it appeared that the development industry was prepared to take a more conciliatory tone. The removal of Liz Wright from the TMAPC would be seen by many neighborhood leaders and members of the City Council as an act of aggression, a power play by a power-hungry industry unwilling to cooperate with other interest groups. But what we need, as we move toward a new comprehensive plan and a new approach to development, is diplomacy and a willingness to cooperate to reach win-win outcomes.

How the commissioners handle this case should be a litmus test issue for every property owner in the City of Tulsa or unincorporated Tulsa County concerned about fair treatment of all parties in the zoning process. If you're concerned about a fair hearing for Tulsa proposed new comprehensive plan, you should be concerned about the outcome of this case. If any county commissioner votes to remove Wright for bogus reasons before her three-year term has expired, the citizens of Tulsa County need to remove that commissioner from office at the next opportunity. For two county commissioners, that opportunity is just a few months away.

MORE: Read Mike Easterling's story on the Karen Keith-Liz Wright controversy in the latest issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. And for more background, see my earlier entry, "Karen Keith trying to bully neighborhood leader off planning commission."

You can read Elizabeth Wright's own comments on the removal effort at TulsaNow's public forum.

UPDATE 11:40 a.m. 2009/11/02: Liz Wright called earlier this morning to tell me that the County Commission voted to approve the November 23 public hearing. Karen Keith based her call for a hearing on the need for geographical balance and her desire to make her own appointment, neither of which is cause for removing a planning commissioner under state law.

I was disappointed to hear that Keith's two Republican colleagues, John Smaligo and Fred Perry, voted to approve Keith's request without comment. I certainly hope they aren't using county employees to conduct private discussions about commission business, as that would violate the spirit of Oklahoma's open meetings law. They should not have approved the public hearing without Keith supplying probable cause for removal.

Smaligo and Perry have enabled Keith to blindside Wright at the November 23 hearing. By giving Keith the hearing without requiring public statement of the real reason, Perry and Smaligo have prevented Wright and her supporters from having the time to prepare a defense. As a commenter suggested, this is the same underhanded approach we saw in the ouster of Bell's Amusement Park. Although the commissioners involved in the Bell's issue are gone, the rotten political culture seems to linger on.

(And what is it about Karen Keith that she manages to wrap male Republican elected officials around her little finger? She wouldn't have had the resume to run for commissioner if Bill LaFortune hadn't given her a job in his mayoral administration.)

Liz Wright also told me that she was never notified by the county that an issue concerning her would be on this morning's agenda.

At Monday's Tulsa County Commission meeting, District 2 Commissioner Karen Keith will seek a public hearing for the November 23, 2009, meeting to remove Elizabeth Wright as a member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission 14 months before her term is due to end. Wright was nominated for the TMAPC by then-Commissioner Randi Miller and approved by the County Commission in April 2008. The Tulsa World's Kevin Canfield had a story on Keith's ouster attempt in the Sunday, November 1, 2009, edition.

Keith's stated reason for removing Wright, according to Canfield's story: "I would like the opportunity to make my own appointment, and I want someone who will be responsive to the needs of the western and southern parts of the county." But under state law, a planning commissioner can only be removed for cause.

So Keith has apparently ginned up some pretext for removal for cause, but she's only hinting at the reasons in menacing tones:

But Keith said Saturday that Wright knows why the county is considering her removal.

"It's unfortunate, but all of the details about her service on the Planning Commission will come out," Keith said. "She knows and she understands why this is happening."

And yet the e-mail traffic between Wright and county mouthpiece Terry Simonson, on Keith's behalf, has focused entirely on the geographical balance issue. Wright has provided me with the e-mail traffic between her and Simonson. After several generic messages attempting to set up a meeting between Keith and Wright, Simonson wrote the following on Tuesday, October 8, 2009:


Karen tells me she has already spoken with you and that the topic was that she wants to replace you as her appointment with a neighborhood representative from a part of her district that has no representation. Apparently most, if not all, of the TMAPC members come from a fairly compact same area of Tulsa, primarily what some would call the midtown area. No representation from West Tulsa, Sand Springs, or Jenks. Since the appointment is designated for the District 2 County Commissioner, she can make a replacement appointment. So, what I need is either a letter or email from you resigning from the board so she can move forward with her appointment. I'm sure you would agree that if it is truly a metropolitan area planning commission that geographic balance on the commission is a good thing.

(Please note that the cities of Jenks and Sand Springs each have their own city planning commissions and are not under the jurisdiction of the TMAPC.)

In her reply, Wright notes that the geographical imbalance is the result of city appointments. She also states that she is the only small business owner on the commission and represents women-owned businesses.

Simonson's October 12, 2009, reply:

Dear Liz

There is a reason why the county commissioners are allowed to make appointments to the TMAPC. Since it's a metropolitan planning commission, all parts of the county should be represented. The city councilors of course can and will only appoint people from within the city which they have historically done. Same with the Mayor. That leaves the commissioners to appoint people either outside of the city of Tulsa or from parts of the city not represented on the commission.

I think there is a difference between a property owner or business owner who resides or owns property in another part of the county and one who doesn't. I think there can be a different perspective from a visitor to the area versus someone who has roots and a history. Certainly Jenks and Sand Springs and Glenpool deserve some form of representation. I think your points of being a women business owner is important and this demographic could likewise be represented from a selection outside of the city of Tulsa.

So, if one were to compose a profile of a well rounded planning commissioner and take into account a diverse set of criteria ( geography, demographic, business experience, neighborhood and planning knowledge, etc ) I believe a commissioner like that can be found outside of the city of Tulsa.


Nothing in the correspondence indicates that there is any cause for Wright's removal, but now Keith is trying to move forward with a hearing that only makes sense if some cause will be presented.

Behind the scenes, word is that developers are upset with Wright for raising questions that they would rather not have to answer, and that's the reason they are working through Karen Keith to push for Wright's removal.

It's true that there are too many planning commissioners and too many members of boards and commissions in general that come from what I've labeled the "Money Belt" -- the wealthiest neighborhoods of Tulsa which are clustered along a line from Maple Ridge to Southern Hills and then fans out into the gated communities of south Tulsa. The Money Belt, particularly the portion between Maple Ridge and Southern Hills, is like a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. My theory is that mayors tend to pick people from this area for boards and commissions because that's where their networks of friends and friends of friends all live.

Florence Park, where Liz Wright lives and where she has served as neighborhood association president, lies outside the Money Belt, even though it is in midtown. And midtown Tulsa is the most populous portion of District 2 that is under the jurisdiction of the TMAPC, which only handles zoning cases for the City of Tulsa and unincorporated portions of Tulsa County. Every other Tulsa County municipality has its own planning commission. (Tulsa should too, with all commissioners appointed by city elected officials, but that's a topic for another day.)

More important than geographic balance on the TMAPC is professional balance. Too many of its members have ties to the real estate and development industry. People in that position would be understandably reluctant to recommend against zoning changes sought by firms that may be their partners or customers in future projects or to recommend against zoning changes that would set a useful precedent for their own projects. Balance will help to ensure that the land use regulation system serves all Tulsans and is administered fairly, even-handedly, and consistently.

Not only do we need neighborhood leaders on the TMAPC for balance, we need those leaders to be intelligent and confident in their own judgment. I've seen it happen in the past that neighborhood and community leaders are appointed to a board or commission, and rather than bringing a new perspective to the body, they are indoctrinated and assimilated into its culture.

Imagine the outcry and editorializing if a county commissioner were trying to force a real estate broker or a homebuilder off of the commission to replace him with a neighborhood association president.

Geographic balance is important, but I would hate to lose a planning commissioner like Liz Wright, who brings a neighborhood perspective to the table, understands zoning, and is able to stand up under pressure. If you believe we need that kind of perspective, particularly as we embark upon adoption and implementation of a new comprehensive plan for Tulsa, please contact your county commissioners and urge them to allow Liz Wright to serve out her full term on the TMAPC.

District 1: John Smaligo, jsmaligo@tulsacounty.org, (918) 596-5020
District 2: Karen Keith, kkeith@tulsacounty.org, (918) 596-5016
District 3: Fred Perry, fperry@tulsacounty.org, (918) 596-5010

Karen Keith received significant campaign contributions from the real estate and development lobby. Keith's campaign consultants included Jim Burdge, who ran the development lobby's ugly recall campaign against neighborhood-friendly city councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock, and Art Justis, who as a city councilor was a reliable vote for whatever a developer wanted to do and who was defeated by neighborhood leader Jim Mautino.

It's a shame that the development lobby is so insecure that they feel it necessary to eliminate someone with a neighborhood association background, just because she is intelligent, articulate, and independent. It's a shame that Karen Keith, who once upon a time was a supporter of neighborhood associations and an opponent of incompatible redevelopment, has apparently decided to carry the development lobby's water on this issue.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa County category from November 2009.

Tulsa County: September 2009 is the previous archive.

Tulsa County: December 2009 is the next archive.

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