UTW Column Archive Category

UTW Michael Bates cover storyNot long after the demise of Urban Tulsa Weekly, its online archive went dark. Because of the structure of the urbantulsa.com website, many of its stories were never crawled by the Internet Archive. My attempt a couple of years ago to raise the $1200 needed to put the archive back online failed by a wide margin. (Gyrosite still has the archive and, last I checked, could still resurrect it, if anyone has the money and interest to do so.)

As a freelancer, I retained copyright to the columns and feature stories I submitted to UTW. In fact, it was my refusal to sign a new freelancers' agreement with the paper, in which anything a freelancer submitted would be work-for-hire -- owned by the paper, with no rights retained by the creator -- that led to the end of my column after 3 years and 9 months. As I wrote at the time, "What if UTW is sold to a chain of weeklies or goes out of business? (God forbid on both hypotheticals.) Those possibilities seem very remote today, but a lot can happen in 10 or 20 years, and if they happened, who would own the rights to my work under the agreement? Would I be able to get permission to use my own work? Who knows? At the very least, I would want to continue to retain enough rights for anything I write to be able to keep it accessible on the web." As it happened, it only took a little over four years for one of those hypotheticals to come to pass.

I made sure to keep the pre-edited versions of all my stories, as I submitted them. As I have occasion and time, I am posting my columns, as submitted, in this UTW Column Archive category here on BatesLine. As of September 10, 2017, I have about 20% of what I wrote posted. At some point, perhaps, I'll get the rest of them online, along with an index.

An edited version of this column appeared in the April 1, 2009, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted online June 15, 2016.

Election Day 2009 is a mere seven months away, and a credible opponent to Mayor Kathy Taylor's bid for re-election has yet to emerge.

It is usual to set out one's reasons for seeking office in some form. In the U. S. we call such a document a platform; in the U.K. it's known as an election manifesto.
In that spirit, here then, on the 1st day of April, 2009, is my mayoral manifesto.

Transparency and accountability

We begin by acknowledging the financial constraints our city is under. The ideas listed below represent my priorities for spending the funds that we have. We will not propose or promote any measure that would increase the tax burden on the citizens of Tulsa, particularly in this time of financial uncertainty.

We will make the best use of the money that has already been entrusted to city government to provide basic services - police and fire protection, streets, water, sewer, trash, and stormwater. We will find the funds to conduct a thorough performance and financial audit of city government. We will insist on implementation of the recommendations and replace any department head that drags his feet.

We must increase the size and budget of our underfunded City Auditor's department. A properly-funded fiscal watchdog should be able to find more than enough savings to offset the additional cost.

To encourage transparency and accountability, a Bates administration will make as much city government information available on the internet as the law allows. A TGOV website will offer access to both live and archived video of public meetings.

A geographical information system (GIS) will make it easy for city workers and citizens alike to find information on zoning, crime, and construction in an area of interest. Accessible information will make it easier for citizens and media (both old and new) to keep an eye on city government and to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse.

Partnerships for progress

I pledge to build a collaborative relationship with the City Council, to respect their standing as the elected representatives of the citizens of Tulsa, and to treat them as partners, not adversaries.

If a councilor wants my ear, he won't have to go through three layers of underlings to get to me. If I'm attending a meeting or planning a project in a councilor's district, the councilor will hear about it ahead of time from me. Instead of sending out a flak-catcher, you'll see me at council committee meetings and delivering the weekly mayor's report. I won't agree to expensive legal settlements without the knowledge and consent of the Council.

Surveys have revealed a disconnect between City Hall and the citizens, particularly citizens in our less affluent neighborhoods in north, west, and east Tulsa. We need a sound civic infrastructure to keep citizens informed and to help citizens make their voices heard by city leaders.

One possibility is the district council plan used in St. Paul, Minn. My administration will survey best practices across the country and will work with the Council and neighborhood leaders to identify the model best suited to Tulsa's circumstances.

Membership of the city's authorities, boards, and commissions has been dominated by Tulsa's most affluent neighborhoods in midtown and south Tulsa. I will broaden the pool of mayoral appointees, starting by reaching out to the thousands of PLANiTULSA workshop participants.

I will collaborate with my suburban counterparts whenever appropriate, but I will never lose sight of the fact that I was hired to serve the citizens of Tulsa.

Planning and zoning

The PLANiTULSA process has been a great success to date, with thousands of Tulsans participating in citywide and small-area planning workshops. We should see the adoption of a new comprehensive plan prior to the city general election.

But the plan's adoption is only the beginning. Full implementation will almost certainly require modifications to Tulsa's zoning code. It will also require the political will to stick to the plan as individual zoning and planning decisions are made.

Tulsa's land-use planning system should be characterized by transparency, inclusiveness, consistency, clarity, and adaptability. Our land-use laws should allow as much freedom as possible while protecting against genuine threats to safety, quality of life, and property values.

We must get away from a one-size-fits-all zoning code. Development suitable for 71st and Memorial may not be right for 15th and Utica. Tulsa should establish special districts - some cities call them conservation districts - where rules can be customized to the neighborhood's circumstances. Form-based rules should be available for neighborhoods that want them.

Tulsa should do what every other city in the metro area has already done and establish our own city planning commission, one with a balanced membership that is geographically representative and not dominated by the development industry. All Tulsans have a stake in how our city grows, not just those who stand to make a buck on new construction.

We'll bring land-planning services in house as well, ending our contract with INCOG. (We will continue to collaborate with INCOG on regional transportation planning.)

Economic development

The city's approach to economic development would change in a Bates administration. Some of Tulsa's biggest employers and biggest draws for new dollars started small and grew.

Instead of spending all our economic development funds luring large companies to relocate to Tulsa, we should emphasize removing any barriers to small business formation and expansion.

One of those barriers is the cost of a place to do business. We'll revisit rules that hinder operating a business out of your own home. While many neighborhoods will prefer to remain purely residential, others would welcome the live-work option, with a broader range of permitted home occupations. Here again, Tulsa can customize rules to fit the diversity of our neighborhoods.

We cannot afford to leave behind those Tulsans who are at the bottom of the economic ladder. We will partner with non-profits to help Tulsans develop basic financial life skills - the habits that enable someone to find and keep a job, spend his earnings wisely, and build assets over time.

Tulsa should become known as a city of educational choice from pre-K to college for families of all income levels, not just the well-to-do. I will work with the Oklahoma legislature to expand access to charter and private schools for Tulsans. My administration will seek a cooperative relationship with private schools, homeschooling families and support organizations, and all seven public school districts that overlap our city boundaries.

Under my administration, the city will hold a full and open competition to choose a contractor to promote our convention and tourism industry. The Tulsa Metro Chamber will be welcome to compete, but no longer will it enjoy sole-source status. Tulsa is home to many innovative marketing firms that could do a better job of communicating Tulsa's unique appeal.

The city center

There's been a great deal of focus and hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment in downtown over the last decade. The aim of that investment was to bring downtown back to life, not to turn more buildings into surface parking lots. I will push for adoption of the Tulsa Preservation Commission's "CORE Proposals," including an inventory of downtown buildings, a demolition review process, and standards for new development that reinforce downtown's walkable, urban character.

But Tulsa's urban core doesn't stop at the Inner Dispersal Loop. Downtown's long-term prosperity and revitalization depends on the vitality of the nearby neighborhoods.

Tulsa offers many choices for those who prefer a suburban lifestyle, but we also need to provide a viable urban living option for individuals, couples, and families who want to live close to work, shopping, school, church, healthcare, and entertainment.

There should be at least one part of our city where you can go everywhere you need to go without needing a car. Central Tulsa was built with the pedestrian in mind. New development should reinforce its walkable character.

The city's role would be to protect stable and historic single-family neighborhoods, improve regulations and raise awareness of tax incentives to encourage adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and encourage higher-density, urban infill development in neighborhoods that desire it.

Getting around town

In the future, it may make financial sense to build a light rail system. Right now, we can make better use of the transit system we already have by focusing on frequent, dependable bus service from early morning to late night within this pedestrian-friendly central zone.

Where it's impractical to provide frequent bus service, entrepreneurs should be allowed to fill in the gaps. It ought to be possible in Tulsa for someone with time and a vehicle to make money helping their neighbors get around town. We'll study what other cities have done to encourage privately-owned, publicly-accessible transportation like jitneys, taxis, and shuttles.

Preparing for the future

A Bates administration will not only focus on the near term but will plan for the future as well. Disaster preparedness is a part of that job. One area that deserves attention is the security of Tulsa's food supply. A food crisis could be triggered by financial collapse, soaring energy prices, or a terrorist attack on America's food supply system.
City Hall should study ways to help connect local farmers and growers with local consumers so that our region can attain a degree of self-sufficiency and insulation from an external crisis. We'll make sure that city regulations don't get in the way of community gardens and farmers' markets.

If elected, I will govern with the expectation that I will only serve a single term. I will reckon myself a political dead man, having stepped on so many toes that millions will be raised to prevent my re-election as mayor or my election to any other office.

Finally, my fellow Tulsans, as you find yourself elated or, more likely, outraged at the thought of a Michael Bates mayoral run, remember the old Roman motto: Caveat lector kalendas Apriles.

An edited version of this column appeared in the May 28, 2008, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted online November 18, 2014.

Philip Larkin wrote, in a poem with an unforgettable and unprintable first line, that parents "fill you up with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you," and advised, "don't have any kids yourself."

As a father of three, the fear that Philip Larkin was right (Google his poem, "This Be the Verse," if you wonder what I'm on about) has me constantly second-guessing my parenting decisions.

Am I being too strict? Too lenient? Am I overprotective? Am I teaching them to choose what is good, beautiful, and just? Am I a good role model?

But halfway between Mother's Day and Father's Day, as I think about my parents, I see all the good they built into my life, not only by precept but by example.

My parents sacrificed financially so that I could attend a private school, back in the day when that was rare for a middle class family, sacrificed to help me through MIT.

They brought me up "in the fear and admonition of the Lord," instilling a genuine faith in Christ and modeling the importance of being part of a community of believers.

They continue to show their love to me and my sister by showering their love on our children - their grandchildren. The desire to have them a constant part of my children's lives is a big reason why I've never seriously considered moving away.

They also demonstrated by their example the importance of community involvement and activism.

If you like the fact that I'm not afraid to step on toes, not afraid to speak passionately in a public forum, willing to put my name on a ballot and my opinions and reputation on the line again and again, you have my dad and mom to thank. Or to blame, if you'd just as soon I sat down and shut up.

David and Sandy Bates grew up in small towns north of Tulsa - Dad in Nowata, Mom in Dewey.

For Dad, civic involvement was an extracurricular activity; his days were spent in accounting and, later, in data processing for Cities Service for 20 years, followed by another 15 in data processing with St. Francis. Mom's activism was part and parcel of, but not limited to, the hundreds of Catoosa kindergarten students she taught over the course of 28 years.

They were and are frequent voters, going to the polls every election day and taking us along with them.

Soon after Cities Service brought our family from Bartlesville to Tulsa, we joined the little Southern Baptist church down the street.

Within a few years, Dad was asked to serve as a deacon. Both Mom and Dad at various times taught Sunday School and sang in the choir. Mom worked in the nursery and later helped with the bus ministry.

Our Baptist church provided my earliest lessons in participatory democracy and parliamentary procedure. We had monthly business meetings, and everything had to be brought before the membership for a vote. We reviewed finances, voted on appointments to committees, hired pastors and staff members, and debated over whether to move the church to a more visible location. Every baptized member, even me at age 8, had the right to speak and vote.

As chairman of the deacons, Dad served as moderator for these meetings, and was often asked to fill that role even when he wasn't chairman. He chaired the meeting in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order, keeping the meetings moving while giving everyone a chance to be heard.

Leadership meant dealing with unpleasantness, too, like the time he had to tell the pastor, on behalf of the deacon board, that it was time to look for a new job.

Dad also served several years as director of Church Training. For the non-Baptists, that was the name of the classes that preceded the Sunday evening worship service.

When I was about 13, Dad insisted on naming me as his assistant director, which meant collecting and tabulating the attendance records for all the classes (Baptists love statistics) and then delivering the attendance report at the beginning of the evening service.

As a spotty and self-conscious teen, I hated speaking in front of the congregation, but in time, I got used to it, which was Dad's intention.

Dad was involved outside the church, too. I remember being with him in the Port of Catoosa Jaycees' concession stand when President Nixon came to dedicate the port in 1971. It was a small group, but it was about all Catoosa had in the way of civic organizations, and they sponsored basketball tournaments and other special events.

In 1976, I was with him at the Republican 1st District Convention, where he was the lone Wagoner County delegate and convention secretary, a Ford man in a Reagan year. He took me along to county and state party conventions that year and in 1980, and to forums held by Cities Service's employee PAC.

Nowadays, he volunteers in the video booth at First Baptist Church and in the St. Francis Hospital gift shop. He let his beard grow out when he retired, and he spends his Christmas seasons as a Real Bearded Santa. (See santatulsa.com for details.)

Dad exemplified servant leadership - long-term commitment to an organization, sometimes to a fault - doing jobs that no one else wanted to do, and staying with the job until it was done.

A year after we came to Tulsa, Mom went back into teaching, taking a job at Catoosa Elementary School.

The elementary school was housed in the district's oldest facilities, built by the WPA in the '30s. The high school had just moved into a new, air conditioned campus at the south end of town.

The school board was all about athletics; bond issues focused on building and improving the high school's sports facilities, while the elementary campus was left to rot. Young children sweltered through August school days - they didn't even have window units to cool off the rooms.

Teachers' pay was appalling, and there was no budget for anything more than basic materials. Mom spent her own funds to decorate the room and purchase educational toys and books.

Mom's fellow elementary teachers were not inclined to rock the boat. Their place, as they saw it, was to keep their noses to the grindstone and to submit unquestioningly to the leadership of the administration and school board.

Mom was willing to take a stand. She found some like-minded colleagues and organized a classroom teachers' association. She brought the administration to the negotiating table and won better conditions for students and teachers. When the board was uncooperative, she helped elect new board members who shared the goal of a better education for Catoosa's children.

For her efforts she was tagged as a troublemaker and a naysayer. One administrator referred to her as a battleaxe, a label she wore with pride.

Mom was willing to challenge those in power because of the powerless little ones she taught.

She retired about 10 years ago, but she hasn't slowed down. She teaches English as a second language, helps immigrants prepare for their citizenship tests, helps in First Baptist Church's clothing room, and has gone on church mission trips to Mexico and Peru. But she spends much of her time as a doting grandma to her five grandchildren.

My kids don't get their heritage of community initiative from just one side of the family. My mother-in-law, Marjorie Marugg-Wolfe, was honored in 2002 with a President's Community Volunteer Award for the single parent scholarship program she founded in Benton County, Ark.

To you Tulsa moms and dads reading this, you have a golden opportunity this year to model civic involvement and to lay the groundwork for a better Tulsa for your children's future.

Our city is updating its comprehensive plan for the first time in a generation, and we've hired a planning firm, Fregonese Associates, that will try to build a vision for Tulsa's future from our individual dreams and desires.

We'll have a chance to provide our input through citywide workshops this fall and community workshops after the first of the year, and the chance to monitor and comment upon the work in progress online through the planitulsa.com website. Plan now to be as involved as you can.

(To be notified of upcoming opportunities for public input, sign up at planitulsa.com.)

You can lecture all you like about good citizenship, but nothing substitutes for being a model. The way my parents used their time and passion demonstrated for me the importance of caring for the community.

From Dad and Mom, I learned to step forward and lead, when others would rather sit and watch from the sidelines. They never pushed themselves forward, but when duty called they answered. When no one else would take the lead, they stepped forward. When others got bored or discouraged or disgusted and quit, they remained faithful. They persisted.

Happy belated Mother's Day, Mom. Happy early Father's Day, Dad. I love you, I'm proud of you, and I can't thank you enough for all you've done for me, particularly for the wonderful example you set of persistent and passionate community involvement.

An edited version of this column appeared in the December 26, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer online. Posted on September 10, 2017.

Pray Tell
by Michael D. Bates

Recently it was reported that area ministers are being excluded from offering a prayer at the opening of Tulsa City Council meetings if their prayers fail to conform to the form and content prescribed by a local religious group.

Rev. Danny Lynchard, Chief Chaplain of the Tulsa Police and Fire Chaplaincy Corps and the pastor of Fisher Baptist Church west of Sand Springs, schedules a rotation of local religious leaders to offer a prayer at the opening of each Tulsa City Council meeting. In the absence of someone to voice a prayer, the meeting begins with a moment of silence.

(Lynchard, like everyone on the Chaplaincy Corps, is an unpaid volunteer.)

According to news reports, it's Lynchard who is imposing this doctrinal standard. Any minister whose prayer fails to conform is "removed from the rotation."

The ironic thing is that this religious conformity is being imposed in the name of religious tolerance and diversity. And it has been done without the knowledge or approval of the City Council.

The "unpardonable sin," as it were, is to pray in the name of Jesus.

It is not clear whether the banished clergymen were made aware of the connection between their offensive words and their exclusion from the prayer rotation.

This policy was put in place at the urging of Karl Sniderman, described by the daily paper as a board member of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance and a member of the Humanist Association of Tulsa.

Sniderman's goal seems to be to have religious leaders from a wide variety of religious beliefs come before the council to offer one homogenous, bland, generic sort of prayer.

Humanists with a capital H deny the supernatural. The HAT website says, "We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside of nature for salvation."

It's hard to figure how someone with no faith in the supernatural becomes a board member of an "interfaith alliance." Or how someone who doesn't believe in prayer wields such influence over how public prayer is conducted at City Council meetings - more influence than the city councilors, evidently.

This is not the first time this issue has come up. On December 17, on 1170 KFAQ, attorney Bill Kumpe recalled a similar controversy in 2000, when he "represented a police chaplain who was in hot water for praying in Jesus' name before the council."

Rev. Ken Farnham, filling in for a few weeks that June, offered the opening prayer in Jesus' name his first two weeks before the council. He said at the time that he had been given a city brochure with guidelines on what phrases were generic and therefore acceptable for public prayer.

Kumpe points out that such a policy amounts to government specifying the content of prayers. "We have a thing called the establishment clause in our constitution which says that the government cannot tell us how to worship our God or how to pray to him." He cited the Supreme Court's ruling in Engel v. Vitale (1962), in which the court struck down a generic school prayer specified by the New York state legislature. "The bottom line is you cannot have government composing prayers and telling people how to pray them."

Even without a brochure, Lynchard's practice of dropping ministers whose prayers don't conform from the prayer rotation seems to amount to the same kind of unconstitutional government control over religious expression.

Constitutional issues aside, generic prayer in the name of inclusion and diversity actually excludes and suppresses diversity. Real diversity would be served by allowing a variety of clergyfolk to offer up prayers each according to the dictates of his or her conscience.

Each person listening could choose to agree and pray along with the prayer, to offer a silent prayer according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, or to maintain a respectful silence for the brief duration of the invocation. How hard is that?

If a prayer is going to be offered for the sake of our city and its leaders, I'd rather have the one praying do so as fervently and sincerely as he would offer a prayer for his own family, in the way that he believes valid and acceptable to the one to whom he prays, even if his way of prayer is not mine.

If a Pastafarian prelate were to offer an invocation, I would expect him to implore the Flying Spaghetti Monster to stretch forth his Noodly Appendage of Blessing upon our fair city. (And all the people said, "RAmen.")

Prayer is not merely an exercise in mumbling lofty words. Although the word is rarely used in this way any more, "to pray" can mean to make a request of anyone in a position to help you.

In the religious sense of the word, prayer is beseeching a powerful supernatural being - in monotheistic religions, the All-Powerful Supernatural Being - for help, for mercy, for the necessities of life, for protection, for wisdom.

When you're making a request to a powerful leader or official, you follow a certain protocol to ensure that your petition is not rejected out of hand. Most religions teach their adherents to approach the deity in a certain way in order to receive a hearing and to earn the deity's favor.

Muslims are taught to perform certain washings before prayer, to face the Kaaba in Mecca, and to surround their personal petitions within a certain form of words.

A polytheistic pagan may have a different method for every deity he must petition and propitiate - incense for one, sprinkling of blood for another, an offering of fruits and vegetables for yet another, with certain verbiage to invoke each god or goddess.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes advises care and deliberation when approaching God in prayer:

"Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few."

Christians, whether Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant, pray in the name of Jesus because He told us to. We believe that Jesus is the mediator between sinful humans and a holy God. It is through Him and Him alone that we can approach God's throne with confidence, "that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Jesus promised His followers, "Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you."

In place of the ablutions and oblations of other faiths, Christians believe that we can approach a holy God because of the purity of Jesus and His sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus' name is central to the notion of Christian prayer.

A policy that genericizes prayer is not religiously neutral. It advances a system of belief that finds adherents in many different Christian denominations - particularly in the mainline Protestant churches - and in other religious traditions. This system of belief posits that God, if He exists, isn't actively involved in human affairs. Prayer may serve some psychological or social need, but it isn't real communication with a power beyond ourselves. It is this religion that a policy of generic prayer acknowledges as our official faith.

We've seen the same homogenization in the mashing together of winter-time holidays with very different purposes and meanings into a vanilla something someone has labeled Hanuramakwanzamas.

Wouldn't it be more exciting to have everyone celebrating their own holiday and their own traditions to the fullest extent, rather than dumbing everything down into generic Winter Holidays?

Now that they're aware of this policy that has been adopted and enforced without their input, I would hope that the City Council will pass some sort of resolution affirming the freedom of each person who offers an invocation at Council sessions to do so as he or she sees fit. Based on some of their public comments, I expect that will happen.

An edited version of this column appeared in the December 19, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly, in the wake of a severe ice storm that knocked out power for many Tulsa residents for a week or more. The published version is no longer available online. I expanded on an idea in this column in a 2011 blog entry: Bates's Law of Creeping Techno-Slavery. Also relevant: A 2009 item on how the Amish decide which technologies are acceptable. Posted online September 9, 2017.

The Amish are laughing at us
By Michael D. Bates

As winter power emergencies go, this one could have been a lot worse. The temperature broke freezing within a day of the ice storm and stayed above freezing (or not far below it) until Saturday night, by which time most PSO customers had had their electrical service restored.

The roads were drivable. Trucks continued to bring food and other supplies to Tulsa, including generators and chainsaws. Except for the rain on Tuesday (which helped to melt the ice from the trees and avoid further damage), the weather was no impediment to PSO and the many out-of-state power company employees who came to town to assist in the cleanup.

Tulsa's Mohawk water plant lost power for a time, but the A. B. Jewell plant stayed online, with plenty of capacity to meet the city's needs.

Even with power out at home, it was possible to spend most of one's time where there was power. Our two big malls stayed open. Plenty of restaurants were open for business. QuikTrip had all of their stores up and running on generator power, so people could buy gasoline to make their way to the restaurants. Downtown never lost electricity, thanks to underground power lines.

Imagine if after the ice storm temperatures had dropped and remained below freezing. Or if the ground had been cold enough that the ice had stayed on the roads, preventing travel and preventing help from reaching us. Or if the outage had covered the entire region.

As I drove through Amish country west of Chouteau last week on a cold and grey Thursday, I caught sight of a line of clothes flapping in the cold wind - bib overalls and simple dresses. The clothesline was behind an unremarkable white two-story house, identifiable as Amish only by the lack of any wires leading to it.

I laughed out loud at the thought of anyone having to dry laundry in the cold winter wind, instead of using a toasty gas dryer.

Less than a mile later, I realized that the joke was on me. I had a gas dryer but for three days had had no electricity to make it work. Like a lot of midtowners, I have a couple of clothesline poles in the backyard, but the wires have long since been taken down.

The Amish, unlike us "English," know how to eat and stay warm, how to wash and dry clothes, how to preserve food, how to live comfortably in all seasons without any connection to the power grid.

It wasn't that long ago that our ancestors lived like the Amish do today. A hundred years ago at statehood, few Oklahomans had electricity, telephones, or automobiles. They depended on local sources of food. They depended on horses and mules and their own two feet to get around. The railroad and the telegraph connected them to the outside world.

Building design was adapted to work with, not against, the local climate. In the north, you'd want a roof steep enough to shed heavy snows. Shutters - real shutters big enough to cover the window - would be important to keep out bitter winter winds, but you'd also want window placement that would allow breezes to cool the house in summer.

In the south, a big porch gave you a shady, breezy place to cool off in the summer.
Trees were an important part of regulating a home's temperature - with leaves, the tree would provide cooling shade in the summer; without leaves, sunlight could pass through to warm the home in winter.

Building interiors were designed to allow the home to be heated with fireplaces, floor furnaces, gas space heaters, or radiators.

If you look at the footprint some of our older office buildings, you'll notice that, rather than a solid rectangle, many were T or U shaped so that every office had a window to let in light and air. Transoms over each door could be opened to allow airflow across the building.
Since the advent of central heat and air, many of those buildings have been squared off to maximize enclosed space. Modern office buildings don't even have windows that can be opened, and those buildings quickly become uninhabitable when the power goes out.

When electricity was first widely available, we used it to supplement natural lighting on cloudy days and in place of oil lamps and candles after dark. Later we used it to run ceiling fans and window unit air conditioners. In place of small ice boxes that used a real block of ice to keep food fresh, we installed electric refrigerators. Electric washers and dryers replaced washboards, wringers, and clotheslines.

New electrical appliances made possible other technological developments. Can you imagine wall-to-wall carpeting in a world without electric vacuum cleaners?

I've noticed that new technologies pass through three stages. At first, a new technology is a luxury, then it becomes a convenience, and eventually it becomes a necessity.

For example, in the early days of automobiles, few people had them, and most folks went about their business as if automobiles didn't exist. When automobiles first became affordable to the general public, most families got by with a single car, still able to accomplish many everyday tasks without it.

Eventually, it became possible for businesses and homebuilders to assume that everyone always had a car at their disposal. With the help of zoning laws that segregated homes from shops from industries from offices, our cities reorganized themselves to make a normal life nearly impossible without two or more cars in the family.

When a technology is in the convenience phase, there's still a backup, and the sudden loss of the technology is a mere inconvenience.

Once the technology becomes a necessity, its sudden absence is a disaster. The older technology that used to fill the same need has largely disappeared. The outdated devices can't be found, and the skills and knowledge to make them work begin to die off with the last generation that had to rely on them. Tried to buy a clothes wringer lately?

We have evolved a way of life which is unsustainable without the ready availability of ever-increasing amounts of electricity. We have no emergency backup.

Last week only three things in my house worked without electricity: The gas log in the fireplace, the gas water heater, and the plumbing system. And even those systems are ultimately dependent on electricity: the treatment plants, pump stations, and lift stations for the water and sewer systems, and the control system for natural gas delivery.

The phone system worked, but as in many homes, all of our phones are cordless and dependent on AC power to work.

My gas furnace was useless without an electric blower to push the warm air around the house.

Some people believe that a lengthy power outage like the one Oklahoma just endured is a preview of things to come. They say we've passed the peak of global oil production and domestic natural gas production, and the economic growth of China and India mean more competition for those declining resources.

In his recent book, The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler predicts that we are in for a period of painful readjustment, made more difficult by the way we designed our homes and our cities during this period of cheap, plentiful energy. Kunstler debunks as wishful thinking the idea that biofuels or hydrogen fuel cells or increased energy efficiency will allow us to continue to live as we do today indefinitely.

I'd like to believe that isn't true. I'm not a survivalist, and I don't want to become one. When massive disruptions were predicted for the turn of the millennium because of the Year 2000 software bug, the only precaution I took was to get back from a business trip before midnight GMT on January 1, 2000. It's far more comfortable to assume that life will go on forever as it does today.

Each of us ought to start thinking about how we would feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves and our families in a world without plentiful electricity. When we build houses and buildings, we ought to consider whether the design would be livable when the power is out. As our city revisits its comprehensive plan, we ought to consider how well our development policies would work in a world where energy is far more expensive.

If last week's power outage was a wakeup call, maybe we shouldn't just reach out from under the electric blanket and hit the snooze button.

An edited version of this column appeared in the December 12, 2007, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted online on September 10, 2017.

Make the School Year Better, Not Longer
By Michael D. Bates

Last month a task force urged Oklahoma's State Board of Education to require all school districts to extend the school year. If the legislature approves the recommendation, the minimum number of school days would increase from 175 to 190. The national average is 180 days.

The idea is being pushed by longtime State Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who also wants to increase the length of the school day from six to seven hours.

The idea is that more time is necessarily better, and it's just not possible to fit in all the required instruction in the time available.

The push for more time in school is not limited to Oklahoma. A longer school year is just the latest public school reform idea to spread across the country.

Proponents point to the success of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a nationwide network of charter schools. Students in KIPP schools are at school for at least nine hours a day, for four hours on alternate Saturdays, and for three extra weeks in the summer. Tulsa has a KIPP middle school, which began operating two years ago in the former Woods Elementary Building near Washington High School.

According to the website of KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory Middle School, KIPP students spend 62% more hours in school each year than students at neighboring public schools. In 2006 the school outscored all but three Tulsa middle schools (Carver, Edison, and Thoreau) on the state's Academic Performance Index (API).

But is it just a matter of more hours at school? Deborah Brown Community School, a K-5 charter school located downtown and primarily serving the north Tulsa community, follows a traditional school schedule and calendar. In 2006 DBCS scored a perfect 1500 API, with every student performing satisfactorily in math and reading.

Despite the difference in hours, KIPP and DBCS have several things in common: High standards for teachers, parents, and students, a structured learning environment, and a focus on mastering basic skills and knowledge. As charter schools, KIPP and DBCS are not allowed to screen students based on intelligence or academic record, so they are achieving these results with children with a wide range of abilities.

While some students may benefit from longer hours and more school days, there won't be any benefit if that time is squandered on everything but academic achievement.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents went to school fewer days per year, for fewer hours, without the benefits of computers and DVD players as learning tools, and were often beset by poverty and disease, and yet they were better educated and better prepared for a lifetime of learning after eight years in school than most of today's high school graduates are after 13 or more years.

Their schools succeeded in part because they focused on imparting basic skills and a fundamental body of knowledge - phonics, grammar, spelling, arithmetic, historical names and dates.

Rather than focus on achieving a simple mission, today's public schools are expected to meet every need in a student's life. Federal and state legislators add more and more topics to the list of "essentials" that need to be included in the curriculum. Too frequently, special programs and special speakers disrupt the daily routine.

And the education industry itself seems to prefer spending time on anything but drilling students in the basics.

Activity-based learning is one of the culprits. Gilbert T. Sewall, writing in the Summer 2000 issue of American Educator, reported a growing preference for using skits and special projects to fill up the school day, justified on the grounds that some children aren't naturally geared toward verbal learning.

The problem is that learning activities are a very inefficient way to impart knowledge. Building a papier-mache volcano to learn about the eruption of Vesuvius is fun, but too much time, energy, and attention must be devoted to the mechanics of the activity. You may be spending hours on an activity to teach a fact or idea that could be explained verbally in a few minutes.

Sewall writes, "No one contests some legitimate place for projects and activities in classrooms. But lost in the whirlwind, this doing and doing, is a sense of where the real action should be - in the minds of students. Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind."

While it's important to try to accommodate children with differing learning styles, there's no substitute for memorizing facts and using repetition to teach the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and arithmetic. There are creative and fun ways to drill and memorize, but learning is hard work.

So is teaching. Growing up with a teacher in the house, I saw the long hours of lesson preparation at home over and above the long hours spent at school. Teachers and students alike are already flirting with burnout by the end of the current school year. Adding three weeks to the school year won't help.

A state mandate to lengthen the school year and the school day would be missing the point. School districts have the right to lengthen the school year if they feel it would be beneficial and if their patrons are willing to fund the extra days.

There's already plenty of time to accomplish the task of learning what's needful. Before we add more time to the school year, let's make better use of the time we have.

An edited version of this column appeared in the December 5, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted September 9, 2017.

Simulation: It's the real thing
by Michael D. Bates

How often do the stars line up this auspiciously for Tulsa?

Congress has identified a certain industry as a national critical technology.

The federal government is already spending hundreds of millions a year on this industry, with plans to spend much, much more. A pending bill in Congress would fund creation and expansion of college degree programs in this industry.

Although the industry isn't well known locally, the Tulsa metro area already has a critical mass of companies and skilled employees working in this industry and winning international recognition for technological innovation.

This industry involves cutting-edge computer technology - not boring, under-the-hood stuff, but technology that engages sight, sound, and motion with spectacular realism.

We're talking about modeling and simulation, and, with a little bit of initiative on the part of local leaders, Tulsa is well-positioned to see dramatic growth in an industry that is already well established and thriving locally, providing hundreds of high-tech engineering and skilled manufacturing jobs.

Modeling and simulation involves creating a computerized representation of the real world (that's the modeling part) for the purpose of testing real-world scenarios (that's the simulation part). With a simulation you can train someone to handle a hazardous situation, but without putting anyone in harm's way. With simulation you can test preparedness for emergency conditions that, God willing, will never occur in real life. You can learn lessons that would be too dangerous and too expensive to learn any other way.

If you've ever played Microsoft Flight Simulator, you've had a taste of what simulation can do. The PC game lets you fly over a variety of cities, experiencing a range of wind and weather conditions. You can fly a Lear 45 luxury jet, a Piper Cub, a Bell 206B helicopter, or a Boeing 747 and experience the different handling characteristics of each aircraft.

Flight simulation on a much grander scale is used to train pilots for military and civil aircraft. Instead of a keyboard and a computer screen, student pilots sit in a perfect replica of the cockpit. Out the window is a high-resolution visual scene projected onto a wraparound screen. The cockpit sits atop a platform supported by six extensible legs which allow the cockpit to rear back, shudder, and bounce in response to the movement of the simulated aircraft. High-fidelity sound systems reproduce engine and wind noises and radio communications.

Sitting behind the copilot, an instructor uses a touchscreen to subject the student pilot to a variety of challenging conditions - a hydraulic system malfunction, jammed landing gear, an engine fire, sudden windshear. Rather than just reading about emergency procedures in a book or experiencing them for the first time in real life, the simulator-trained pilot has the correct responses ingrained in his reflexes, and those reflexes are tested in an immersive environment of white-knuckled, sweaty-palmed, heart-racing realism.

There's more to simulation than pilot training. Modeling and simulation are used in petroleum geology, civil engineering, and transportation and urban planning, and it's becoming increasingly important for homeland security. Computer models of the nation's food supply system, for example, can be tested against a variety of attacks and accidents to see if adequate safeguards are in place to protect American consumers.

In 2007, a homeland security exercise called Noble Reserve was conducted using modeling and simulation. It involved 140 personnel and cost $2 million to develop over five months. A comparable live exercise in 2002 cost $250 million and involved 14,000 personnel over five years. With simulation, joint exercises can happen more frequently and more economically.

For nearly seven decades, Tulsa has been a center for the flight simulation industry, starting in 1939 with a company called Technical Training Aids, Inc., renamed Burtek after acquisition in 1955 by Cincinnati-based Burton-Rodgers. Burtek's presence spawned other locally-owned companies in the training and simulation industry, which attracted the interest of international firms.

Today, metro Tulsa's simulation industry is headlined by FlightSafety Simulation Systems, with nearly 800 employees locally. The Broken Arrow facility designs, programs, and manufactures high-fidelity flight simulators and other flight training devices for use in FlightSafety's 43 learning centers around the world. The plant has produced simulators for everything from a twin-engine Beech Bonanza to a Boeing 777. They also build training devices for aircraft maintenance technicians and flight simulators for military aircraft.

In September, FlightSafety was recognized by the National Training and Simulation Association for their technical achievement in the development of the first successful heavy all electromechanical motion system for flight simulators. The system, developed here under the leadership of control systems expert Dr. Nidal Sammur, who earned his master's at TU and his doctorate at OSU, eliminates the need for noisy, power-thirsty, high-maintenance hydraulics to provide the sensations of flight to the simulator cockpit. The new technology was a key factor in FlightSafety's successful bid to build 34 helicopter simulators for the U. S. Army's Flight School XXI program.

FlightSafety isn't the only area company building simulators and flight training devices.
Safety Training Systems, incorporated in 1979, has a workforce of about 100 and 100,000 sq. ft. of factory space with plans to expand both by 20 to 30% this year. The company builds major hardware components for military flight simulators. For commercial airlines, STS builds cabin simulators, used by airlines to train flight attendants to efficiently evacuate an aircraft amidst the smoke, darkness, and confusion of an emergency.

CymSTAR is a fast-growing small business, founded in 2003, that modifies existing military aircraft simulators and maintenance training devices to meet new training needs. Earlier this year, CymSTAR landed an $8 million contract for modifications to simulators for the U. S. Air Force's KC-10 aerial refueling tanker. CymSTAR also builds a device called the Badger, used to accustom Marines to the sounds of live fire on the battlefield.

These companies in turn buy components and services from a number of local suppliers, such as AMI Instruments, Aeroweld, Aviation Training Devices, Newton Design and Fabrication, Bennett Engineering, and Shen Te Enterprises, to name a few.

Oklahoma's four major military installations - Altus AFB, Tinker AFB in Midwest City, Vance AFB in Enid, and Fort Sill - make heavy use of simulators for training tanker and transport pilots, artillery, and AWACS crewmembers. Altus is the main "schoolhouse" for C-17 cargo plane crew and KC-135 tanker pilots and boom operators. Vance provides initial pilot training for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

These businesses bring in tens of millions of dollars in new money into the Tulsa-area economy every year. Nevertheless, the simulation industry isn't well known to Tulsans, probably because these companies are selling to customers everywhere but here. The executives of these companies are focused on growing their own businesses and haven't been players in chamber of commerce politics.

Tulsa's simulation industry could be even bigger than it already is. There's plenty of work to be done. Rising fuel costs, a wave of pilot retirements in the airline industry, and the need to train pilots for military service overseas all mean more demand for simulators.

Networked simulation is the next big thing, allowing our armed forces to rehearse complete missions and to practice crucial battlefield coordination and communication.

At a recent industry convention in Orlando, an airman stood in a quarter-dome looking out
over a projected image of an airfield in the Arizona desert, training for his role directing close air support from the ground. A simulated mortar attack on the airfield, perpetrated by computer-generated forces, was underway. Using his radio, the airman called in an air strike from two real F-15s flying over that Arizona airfield. As the real F-15s flew in to target the simulated mortar sites, the soldier could see images of the fighters flying into his simulated field of view.

Enabling this kind of training experience will involve a massive effort to build new training devices and modify existing simulators.

The biggest challenge is finding enough people who are capable of getting the job done. Local simulation companies are looking for mechanical, electrical, aerospace, avionics and computer software engineers, as well as technicians, welders, fabricators, and machinists.

Six years ago, U. S. Rep. Ric Keller (R.-Fla.) convened a summit of Florida simulation firms, which identified the need for education focused on preparing professionals for the industry. That led to the creation of a Modeling and Simulation Department at Orlando's University of Central Florida. (You know, the guys that beat TU last Saturday.)

The Congressional Modeling and Simulation Caucus actively promotes the industry on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, the U. S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 487, designating modeling and simulation as a National Critical Technology. H. R. 4165, now in the Education and Labor Committee, would authorize $40 million in the first year of a five-year program to fund the creation and expansion of modeling and simulation degree programs, matching every local dollar with three federal dollars.

In other hubs of the simulation industry - central Florida (Tampa, Orlando, and the Space Coast), the Tidewater region of Virginia, Huntsville, Ala., the DFW metroplex - modeling and simulation businesses have banded together with elected officials and educators to raise the industry's local profile and to address common concerns, particularly the need for more engineers.

The same sort of collaboration needs to happen here in Tulsa. We ought to be shouting from the rooftops about an industry that provides hundreds of high-quality jobs and has an enormous economic impact. OSU-Tulsa would be a natural home for a modeling and simulation program; the school's leadership should lay the groundwork to pursue any federal funding that materializes.

For both companies and individuals, there are plenty of fascinating technical challenges to solve and a lot of real money to be made in simulating reality.

An edited version of this column appeared in the November 7, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is available online courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Here is my blog entry linking to the original column. Posted online September 9, 2017.


TIF 201: Advanced concepts and case studies
By Michael D. Bates

You might consider the topic of Tax Increment Financing a dry topic, and you might have used my column last week as a sleep aid (habit-forming, I hope), but the townspeople of Jenks are quite exercised about that city's latest proposed TIF district, which would reimburse developers for $220 million of the cost of building the billion-dollar mixed use River District.

As Tulsa leaders ponder establishing a TIF district to encourage west bank development near 21st St., we need to pay close attention to the debate in Jenks.

As faithful readers will no doubt recall, TIF is a tool that local governments can use to lay the groundwork for economic development in a small area without raising tax rates. A city establishes a TIF district, and for a set number of years some or all of the extra (incremental) sales and property tax revenue generated by new development in the district is captured to pay for public improvements in the district, making development possible where it might not otherwise occur.

The appeal of a TIF district is that the money for assisting new development doesn't increase the property or sales tax rate for anyone - the taxpayers feel no impact - and it doesn't reduce the amount of tax dollars being received by any government entity - so the tax recipients feel no impact. The tax revenues captured within the TIF are revenues that wouldn't exist without the development that is made possible by the existence of the TIF.

The administration and board members of Jenks schools take issue with that theory. Superintendent Kirby Lehman compared TIF districts to crack cocaine for municipalities, "an addictive way to get development into the community on the backs of the state's school districts."

The public education lobby - the Oklahoma Education Association and the Oklahoma School Boards Association - has been the most consistent and persistent critic of TIF at the State Capitol, working to restrict further how long a TIF district can exist and how TIF money can be used, and to increase penalties for cities that violate the restrictions.

School districts and other governmental bodies that receive property tax play an advisory role in the establishment of a TIF. Each such entity (e.g. City-County Health Department, Tulsa Community College, Tulsa Technology Center) has a seat on the Local Development Act Review Committee (LDARC). The LDARC is established by state law as part of the process for setting up a TIF district, and it must make a recommendation to the city council.

But the decision ultimately belongs to the city council. A supermajority of the council can approve a TIF district despite a recommendation to deny from the LDARC. The public education lobby has sought, so far unsuccessfully, to limit a city council's ability to override the wishes of the affected school district.

Are TIF districts really "on the backs" of public school districts? TIF proponents argue that the only revenue the school district is missing out on is revenue that wouldn't exist except for the TIF.

In Jenks, the school district is arguing that even if the 18-year TIF district isn't established and the River District weren't built, that land would develop and increase in value to some extent between now and 2025, bringing in more revenue to the school district. Freezing property tax revenues to the school based on the land's current value is unfair, they say.

Jenks city officials have responded by offering to pass through some TIF property tax revenue. The schools would receive $500,000 a year and the other entities a proportional amount, equivalent to an increase in the land's market value from about $100,000 to roughly $6.8 million. That's double the city's initial offer, but the school district says that's still not enough.

Development has bypassed the land in question. It has remained a hay field, despite high-end residential development to the south and the presence of the aquarium and the Creek Turnpike to the north. The area is in the Polecat Creek flood plain, and a great deal of earth work will be needed so that any buildings would be above the 1986 flood level.

A more troubling objection is that the TIF would create a publicly-subsidized competitor to Riverwalk Crossing, a mile to the north, which was built and is being expanded without any financial help from the city.

Despite the TIF tiff, Tulsa could learn a few things from the way Jenks does business.

Jenks has moved forward swiftly. The River District concept emerged about a year ago, but it wasn't until this summer that developers had a concrete proposal to take to the city. Within a couple of months, in September, the city council launched the state-mandated TIF evaluation process, and it's likely that the TIF district will be created by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the administration of Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor has been dilatory, to say the least, in responding to interest from HCW, the developer of Branson Landing seeking to build a similar half-billion dollar development on the west bank.

Don Himelfarb, Taylor's economic development director, has tacked on an internal review by a "Qualifications Committee" as a prelude to the state-mandated TIF-creation process. The committee, made up of himself, mayoral aide Susan Neal, and city finance director Mike Kier, is firmly in the mayor's control.

HCW first made overtures to the city a year ago, but so far Taylor has not moved forward in any substantive way. Instead, Taylor seems intent on pushing any west bank development even farther into the future.

Taylor is commissioning a Chicago-based real estate consulting firm to develop a plan for developing the west bank and a number of city-owned parcels around downtown, including the soon-to-be-vacated City Hall. This would delay the start of west bank development for another year, at least. There's a real danger of studying this thing to death.

Happily, the City Council isn't legally bound to wait on Taylor and can bypass the extra hurdles set up by Himelfarb. They could set up their own committee to work with the developer on a west bank plan, then vote to start the TIF process by setting up an LDARC.

There are risks associated with a TIF district. If a city borrows money against future TIF revenues to pay for infrastructure, the city would be on the hook if increased revenues don't materialize.

Jenks once again provides Tulsa with an example to follow: The developer will pay for the infrastructure up front and will seek reimbursement for eligible costs once the project starts generating incremental revenue. If the project doesn't bring in new money, the developer doesn't get reimbursed, and the city is out nothing on the deal.

There are some significant differences between the situation in Jenks and Tulsa. Jenks's River District land is already owned by the developer. Most of the land for Tulsa's west bank development is owned by the city, but the key parcel is owned by a concrete company.

Since most of the west bank land is currently tax-exempt, Tulsa Public Schools and other property tax recipients shouldn't object to a TIF district. Without the TIF district, there's almost no chance that the area's taxable value would increase.

Because city land is involved, the city has an obligation to its taxpayers to have a fair competition for the right to develop it. That means issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP), setting out the criteria for evaluating the proposals submitted by developers. A good RFP, modeled after the many other RFPs issued by the Tulsa Development Authority and after similar developments elsewhere, could be pulled together in a month or so, if the political will is there.

How the key parcel - the concrete plant - is acquired would be a matter for competing developers to address in their proposals. Would developers ask the city to borrow against future TIF revenues to buy the land and lease it long-term, or would they propose to acquire the land themselves? State law does allow TIF money to be used for land acquisition.

As part of the proposal competition, each developer would also have to specify the amount of TIF money he would need for site preparation and infrastructure, and whether the developer proposes to front the money himself, as the River District Development Group is doing in Jenks, or whether the developer expects the city to take that risk.

We have a great deal of public interest in west bank development, we have an interested developer, and the dispute in Jenks may give Tulsa a window of opportunity to beat our suburban neighbor to the punch. We just need city officials willing to move forward.

I hope that Mayor Taylor will make a public commitment to expedite west bank development. It would help to hear her say that her real estate consultant will provide a recommendation on the west bank site within a month or two, rather than stretching it out for the full year. The Staubach Group was able to move quickly enough on her pet project, the acquisition of One Technology Center as a new City Hall.

If Taylor doesn't make a move, the City Council should forge forward without her.

An edited version of this column appeared in the October 31, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is available online courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Posted online September 9, 2017.

Infrequently Asked Questions about Tax Increment Financing: The Basics

By Michael D. Bates

What's all this I hear about using tiffs to finance land acquisition and site preparation for river development?

Does this involve capturing and selling the heat generated by snippy arguments over nothing of significance, some kind of tiff-to-energy plant? (It would have to be heat only; tiffs shed no light.) Should we also tap into spats, quibbles, quarrels, and rhubarbs?

Can grudges be profitably mined? Is it possible to harness safely the awesome power of the blood feud, and if so, how many family joules could be generated by turning Darla Hall and her kinfolk loose in that cemetery again?

This gives a whole new meaning to "Tulsa: A New Kind of Energy."

Beyond the practical considerations, is it ethical to stir up strife and bickering just to generate revenue for entertainment and recreational amenities?

What's that you say? It's an acronym? T-I-F? Something to do with tack implements?

To quote Emily Litella: Never mind.

The discussion is not, in fact, about tiffs, but about tax increment financing (TIF), a tool available to local governments in Oklahoma to assist economic development within a small area known as a TIF district. A TIF district captures increased local tax revenues within the district to pay for improvements within the district, and it does this without diverting the revenues that the district is already generating for local government and without raising tax rates.

The cities of Jenks and Bixby are both using TIF districts to facilitate private riverfront development. Branson, Missouri, used a TIF district to acquire land, stabilize the shore, and build public infrastructure for the Branson Landing mixed-use development on Lake Taneycomo, just down hill to the east of Branson's old Main Street.

When HCW, the developers who built Branson Landing, first approached the City of Tulsa in 2006 about building a similar development on the west bank of the Arkansas River near the 23rd Street bridge, a TIF district was the obvious choice for facilitating the development.

But the TIF district idea was put on hold. Some speculate it was because Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor would prefer to see an upscale lifestyle center and entertainment district in east downtown rather than along the river.

Others wonder if the delay was to allow the Tulsa County Commissioners to use west bank development as a selling point for their proposed county sales tax increase for river projects.

Now that the sales tax increase has been defeated, tax increment financing is back on the table, with added momentum thanks to the Tulsa City Council's unanimous passage of a resolution urging vigorous pursuit of the opportunity.

Tax increment financing can be a complex thing, and even some public officials seem to be confused about where the money in a TIF district comes from. At a Tulsa City Council committee meeting a week after the sales tax election, Councilor Cason Carter worried that using a TIF district to finance the public part of a west bank development "would potentially come at the expense of much-needed road improvements and additional police officers."

While TIF is not a magic wand, it is a valuable tool that a city can use to bootstrap a strategic new development, overcoming the obstacles that might prevent it from going forward.

In the interest of informing the public and their elected officials, here are some answers to infrequently-asked questions about the basics of tax increment financing:

What's the legal basis for TIF?

Municipalities and counties were authorized to create tax increment financing by the Local Development Act of 1992, which has been codified as Sections 850 through 869 of Title 62 of the Oklahoma Statutes. Section 861 specifically addresses tax increment financing.
The Local Development Act was enabled by the passage of State Question 641 in 1990, which created Article X, Section 6C, of the Oklahoma Constitution. SQ 707, passed in 2004, amended Article X, Section 6C, to make it possible to borrow against future TIF revenues.

Does a TIF district reduce the amount of property tax paid by property owners or the amount of sales tax paid by consumers in the district?

No. The county assessor appraises the property and the county treasurer collects taxes using the same rates as if the TIF district didn't exist. The usual sales tax rate applies as well. The difference in a TIF district is in what happens to the money once it's collected.

Does a TIF district reduce the amount of property taxes and sales taxes that currently go to the schools, the city, the libraries, and other government entities dependent on those funds?

No. The taxes being generated by the property value and retail activity already present in the district when the district is established will continue to go the same government entities. It's only the new, incremental revenues generated by increased retail activity and property values that can be captured for use within a TIF district.

How many TIF districts does Tulsa have?

Tulsa has six TIF districts:

  1. Brady Village: Denver to Elgin, I-244 to the Frisco tracks. Established 1993, expires 2008.
  2. Central Park: Approximately Elgin Ave. to Peoria Ave., 5th Pl. to 11th Pl. Established 1994, expires 2009. This district includes the downtown Home Depot, Centennial Park, and the Village at Central Park.
  3. Technology: Denver Ave. to Detroit Ave., Frisco tracks to 3rd St., plus the block south of 3rd between Boulder and Cheyenne, and the half block south of 3rd between Boston and Cincinnati. Established 1999, expires 2014.
  4. North Peoria Ave.: Approximately Midland Valley right-of-way to Utica Ave., Pine St. to Apache St, plus the old Brainerd Chemical site just south of US 75 and Peoria. Established 2002, expires 2017. This district includes the shopping center surrounding the now-closed Albertson's on the northeast corner of Pine and Peoria.
  5. Blue Dome: Detroit Ave. to Greenwood Ave., Frisco tracks to 3rd St. Established 2003, expires 2018.
  6. Tulsa Hills: East of US 75 between 71st St. and 81st St. Established 2006. Unlike the other Tulsa TIF districts, this district will expire as soon as it generates sufficient revenue to pay off the $16.5 million in revenue bonds used to fund infrastructure for the development. That could happen in four to five years after the shopping center opens.

Although state law allows for a 25-year maximum term, all of Tulsa's districts were set up with a 15-year term. All of Tulsa's TIF districts capture incremental property tax and two pennies of the city's three-cent sales tax on incremental retail sales. In some districts, there's a cap on the amount of incremental revenue - anything above the cap is treated like normal sales and property tax revenue.

What generates the money in a TIF district?

The key is the "I" in TIF, which stands for "increment." TIF districts can capture incremental revenues from property tax, local sales tax, and other local government fees.

When a TIF district is established, the county assessor determines the base assessed value for taxable property in the district, and city government determines the base level of taxable sales already occurring in the district. The sales taxes and property taxes generated by this baseline will continue to go to the government entities that are receiving them now. But some or all of the tax revenues over and above the baseline - the incremental revenue - can be "captured" for use within the TIF district.

What can be done with TIF revenues?

The Local Development Act has a long list of qualified purposes for TIF revenues. They include acquiring land, clearing land, building public facilities or improvements such as roads, sidewalks, water lines, sewer lines, and drainage facilities.

In Tulsa, TIF revenues have been used for streetscaping and lighting, parking garages, and improvements to on-street parking. In the Central Park TIF district, the money helped to set the stage for the Village at Central Park townhouse development and helped to fund the beautiful new Central Community Center and Centennial Park lake, the first step in the plan to reduce flooding risks in the Elm Creek basin.

TIF funds from the North Peoria district have been used for improvements to Booker T. Washington High School and Lacy Park. In the Brady Village and Blue Dome districts, TIF money encourages adaptive reuse of historic buildings through the Fire Suppression Vault Installation assistance program.

The Tulsa Hills TIF district is funding sewer, street, and storm drainage work in the hilly 146-acre tract.

How much money could a TIF district generate?

Branson Landing was a $306 million project projected to generate $116 million in local TIF funds. (It also qualified to capture incremental state sales tax, because the project, which includes a convention center, was expected to bring new dollars into the State of Missouri.)

Jenks' proposed River District is a $1 billion project, and the TIF district is expected to capture $220 million.

Tulsa's TIF districts have been much more modest in scope. Tulsa Hills is the biggest by far, a $130 million development projected to generate $5 million annually in new city sales taxes and $1.1 million in property taxes.

That's TIF Districts 101. The advanced course will cover the process of setting up a TIF district, how one might be used to encourage river development in Tulsa, obstacles, and objections.

If you have questions or concerns about tax increment financing, drop me a line at mbates at urbantulsa dot com, and I'll try to respond in a future column.

An edited version of this column appeared in the October 17, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is not available online. Posted online October 6, 2017.

Why no

By Michael D. Bates

Every aeronautical engineering student is taught that given enough thrust, you can make a brick fly. You need a lot less thrust, of course, to power an airframe that's tapered and streamlined, designed for moving efficiently through the air, designed to make the best use of the forces acting upon it.

The proponents of the Tulsa County sales tax for river projects had an opportunity this summer to develop an approach to Arkansas River development, using existing revenues and resources, that could have glided easily on the prevailing winds of public opinion.

Instead, they engineered a brick and tried to shove it aloft with a $1.3 million campaign budget and plenty of free exposure in the daily paper and on local television. As much financial thrust as they had at their disposal, it wasn't enough to put this clunker of a plan in the air and keep it there.

With a 6,286-vote, five-percentage-point margin, it would be tempting for the vote yes folks to second-guess all their decisions and imagine that they could have won a narrow victory if only they had handled some aspect of the media campaign differently.

$1.3 million is record-setting for a local sales tax vote, and the Our River Yes campaign out-raised No River Tax by better than 100 to one.

And who can put a value on page after page of news stories and editorials touting the tax increase in the daily paper?

The yes campaign used the financial advantage exactly the way they should have. They took polls and convened focus groups to shape their message in the most appealing way possible. The information gleaned from voter research went into slickly produced TV ads featuring cute kids and senior citizens and countless four-color postcards and magazines mailed out to Tulsa County voters. They used phone surveys to identify their supporters and made sure their supporters got to the polls.

To prevent the opposition from getting an earned-media boost, the Our River Yes people successfully avoided having even one televised debate. Public meetings were referred to as "informational meetings" at which rebuttals were not permitted.

For all the money they spent trying to manipulate our emotions, the Our River Yes campaign did almost nothing to explain to voters exactly what we were voting on. They have only themselves to blame if some voters believed the plan included high-rises on islands in the river.

Here's what $1.3 million bought:

Before the campaign began, a poll showed that 52.2% opposed a sales tax increase for river projects.

On election day, 52.5% voted against the tax increase.

Evidently, a lot of voters made their decision as soon as they heard the words "sales tax increase for river projects." The same July poll shows river development as a low priority - desirable, sure, but not worth a tax increase, not when crime and streets need so much attention.

Not to say I told you so, but back in the August 2-9 issue, I wrote,

"The commissioners will almost certainly vote Thursday to schedule an October 9 election. Supporters of the new tax will pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into a slick PR campaign, confident that they can get the majority of votes they need, even at the cost of feeding public cynicism by brazenly asking citizens to tax themselves twice for the same projects. Those who prefer an alternative funding approach for river improvements will be dismissed as anti-river, anti-progress, anti-Tulsa.

"The same old playbook may work again, but the antagonism of officials and residents in the county's second largest city and the booming northern suburbs changes the political calculus. We will go through a contentious 60 days, tax promoters will spend a fortune, political capital will be squandered, and in the end the county commissioners may find themselves back at square one, finding a way to finance river projects without a new sales tax."

In saying that this tax proposal was fatally flawed, I don't want to minimize the importance of the formal opposition. The presence of credible opposition voices provided affirmation to voters that their gut instincts against the tax were reasonable.

We should particularly acknowledge the courage of the elected officials who stood against the tax increase, aware that their opposition could draw well-financed retribution at their next re-election bid.

Four years ago, only two elected officials in the entire county were willing to identify themselves publicly as opponents of Vision 2025 - State Sen. Randy Brogdon and Glenpool Councilor Keith Robinson. A combination of political pressure and pork barrel promises kept everyone else in line.

This time around Brogdon was joined by Tulsa city councilors Jack Henderson, Roscoe Turner, and John Eagleton, and the entire political establishment of Broken Arrow - the mayor, city council, chamber of commerce, and school board - standing up for the basic needs of their constituents. County Assessor Ken Yazel showed true grit, braving the disapproval of his county courthouse colleagues by speaking his mind against a new county sales tax.

New to politics, Ted and Andrea Darr provided an internet home base for the opposition, shattering the myth of young professional unanimity in support of the tax.

Even the oft-derided yard signs mattered, assuring skeptical voters that many of their neighbors shared their doubts.

The vote yes campaign handed the opposition several gifts.

The first was the stubborn refusal of County Commissioner Randi Miller and other officials to acknowledge two indisputable facts, obvious to anyone who bothered to look up the relevant documents: That the two new low-water dams and modifications to Zink Dam were included in Vision 2025, and that most of the project money in this package was going to projects not included in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan.

What if, instead, proponents had said up front, "We guessed wrong about how much new dams would cost, we were wrong about the prospects for federal funds, no one was minding the store when the cost of the arena spiraled out of control and we spent the overage money we had planned to use on the dams on the arena instead, and it's easier to ask you for more tax money than it is to reorganize our priorities to get the dams built as promised"? What if they'd admitted that the proposal included several major items that hadn't been vetted through the master plan review process?

Such an admission would have raised other uncomfortable issues, but it might have reduced the impact of the trust issue. At least it would have been honest.

It didn't help the vote yes campaign that Tulsa County voters had a dramatic reminder of poor judgment on the part of Miller and other county officials: Despite beautiful weather nearly every day, the Tulsa State Fair dropped in attendance and midway receipts, due in large part to Miller's push to evict Bell's Amusement Park the previous fall.

With Bell's gone, those who came to the fair had less reason to stick around and spend money, and less reason to come back for a second visit. If fairgoers hadn't planned to boycott the Murphy Bros. midway already, several injuries on Murphy rides persuaded many to stay away.

(Why would Miller et al. grant a 10 year midway lease to a company that has all its rides on wheels, while putting a family-owned local business with millions invested in permanent structures, a 51-year-tenant of the fairgrounds, on the equivalent of a month-to-month lease?)

The vote yes campaign got caught in a couple of other fibs. There was the TV ad featuring the old fellow with the Walter Cronkite mustache, who told us, "Streets to the river will be improved, the first step in a street improvement program." That assertion was easy pickings for a Fox 23 News "Truth Test" feature that aired two nights before the election, labeling the claim false.

Perhaps the biggest gift the over-funded proponents gave to the opposition was the misleading postcard sent to Broken Arrow voters, featuring an artist's conception labeled "Broken Arrow Riverfront," a project for which no funds were included in the package on the October 9 ballot. Broken Arrow leaders held a press conference the day before the election denouncing the deception. KOTV viewers heard Randi Miller say that the picture wasn't misleading "because it not once says that this is what is going to happen."

OK... next tax election, expect to see flying cars in the campaign sketches.

The next day motivated Broken Arrow voters turned out in droves to vote down the tax by a two-to-one margin.

We're told that that mail piece was the work of AH Strategies, run by Republican consultants Fount Holland and Karl Ahlgren. (Remember those names. You'll likely hear them again as the state ethics commission probes Republican campaign fund transfers.) AH Strategies was responsible for the misleading mail pieces smearing District Attorney Tim Harris in his contentious 2006 Republican primary race against attorney Brett Swab.

There was collateral damage: INCOG burned a good deal of the credibility the regional planning agency had earned from the careful way it developed the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan and the thorough approach it took last year to reviewing "The Channels" proposal for inclusion in the ARCMP. Instead of remaining an honest broker, its leaders were coopted to blur the distinction between the ARCMP and the proposal on the ballot.

TYpros, the Astroturf young professionals organization controlled by the Tulsa Metro Chamber, threw itself under the vote yes bus, alienating many of its members and projecting an image of young professionals as whiny, bored children demanding that daddy and mommy give them a pretty new plaything. (We've met enough entrepreneurial YPs who are busy "making their own cool" - to borrow a phrase from Jamie Pierson - that we know the TYpros' attitude isn't typical of the demographic.)

Bruce Plante, the daily paper's brand new editorial cartoonist, must be wondering what the heck he's gotten himself into. In two of his first four cartoons he was directed to depict no voters as brainless troglodytes, insulting what turns out to be a majority of his potential readers.

I was hopeful that new leadership at the Chamber plus George Kaiser's involvement would mean a different tone to this campaign, but that hope was disappointed.

The most damaging effect of this campaign is that, in the process of trying to persuade voters that the county's sales tax increase was the only way to make something good happen on our riverfront, many of our elected leaders drank deeply of their own Kool-Aid.

Miller said after the election, "There is no plan B. River development is over." Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor said that Tulsans didn't want river development, and she was moving on to other priorities.

Happily, after a few days of cooling off, there seems to be some willingness by the tax proponents to work with tax opponents to do what could have been done two months and $1.3 million ago: Move ahead with a City of Tulsa TIF to acquire land for west bank development and with engineering and permitting on the low-water dams and Zink Dam improvements approved in Vision 2025.

I'm hoping that the City Council will act either this week or next to pass a resolution requesting that the Taylor administration start the process for establishing a west bank TIF district, giving Tulsa the same tool that Jenks and Bixby are using to assist riverfront development.

Next week, a look at what went right during the river tax campaign, and how we move forward from here.

Say no to plutocracy

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An edited version of this column appeared in the October 3, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. My contemporaneous blog entry linking the column is here. Posted online October 6, 2017.

Say no to plutocracy

By Michael D. Bates

"Does that disturb you?"

My lunch companion asked the question after a lengthy lull in an otherwise lively conversation. I can only guess at what my countenance must have conveyed.

He had just been explaining to me how we wouldn't need to worry about elected officials acting imprudently with the new river tax money. The $100 million or so in private donations would give the donors leverage over the elected officials, and the donors intended to use it.

I thought back to a Step-Up Tulsa meeting I had attended last year. This group also talked about using the billions that Tulsa's large charitable foundations have accumulated, not simply to spend it directly for useful projects, but as a lever to shift government priorities, to reorient the spending of taxpayer dollars to fit the priorities of the private foundations.

Even if I assume that the foundations' goals are laudable, there's something deeply wrong with that approach.

I struggled to explain why the notion troubled me to the point of speechlessness. Finally I said, "Instead of using this money leverage to get elected officials to do what you think they should, why not help intelligent, creative, and discerning critical thinkers get elected to office?"

In the realm of politics, it's still possible for the will of the majority to trump the will of the wealthy. Sure, more money means their message gets more exposure, means they can hire focus groups to craft their image and message to resonate with the voters, means they can identify their supporters and badger them with phone calls on election day until they go vote.

But for all that money, they can still lose. If you don't believe me, ask President John Connally, California Sen. Michael Huffington, and Oklahoma Governor Gary Richardson.

You can knock on enough doors, marshal passionate supporters, give expression to the voters' deep-seated concerns, and, when the votes are counted, you can beat someone even if the other side has millions to spend and you have only thousands.

There ought to be at least one realm of society which is not subject to the rule of the marketplace. Politics and governance shouldn't be up for sale to the highest bidder.

(By the same token, not every realm of society should be subject to the tyranny of the majority, either.)

To millionaires and billionaires seeking to use their wealth as leverage to mould public policy to their will, the most valued qualities in a public official would not be intelligence, critical thinking skills, or curiosity, but pliability and credulity.

They'd be best served by the kind of elected official who will nod his head vigorously and salivate when presented with wildly optimistic economic impact numbers. An official who asks for the rationale and basis for the numbers would be seen as an obstacle, not a public asset.

I don't often describe myself as horrified, appalled, nauseated, or outraged by some political development. Those words ought to be reserved for a truly visceral reaction - something that really makes one's hair stand on end, face go pale, stomach turn, or blood pressure rise, respectively.

The idea of the wealthy using their private charitable contributions as leverage to shift public priorities gives me the creeps.

As of September 24, the vote yes campaign has raised $1.1 million and spent nearly $700,000. That doesn't count money spent on charitable donations, campaign contributions, or threats of campaign contributions to a potential opponent in order to leverage key endorsements.

Even if they weren't persuaded by the problems with the specifics of the river sales tax proposal, I'd hope that Tulsa County residents would rebel against the sheer amount of money being expended to get this thing passed. Public priorities shouldn't be for sale to the highest bidder.

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Here's a thought experiment regarding priorities:

You own a small café that has seen better days. The carpet is stained and torn, the booth seats are ripped, and the chairs wobble. The lights in the parking lot are broken, and customers occasionally get mugged. The food is good, but your sign (hidden by high weeds) advertises the least popular dish on the menu.

You have $2,000 available to try to rebuild your customer base. Should you:

(A) Use the $2,000 to fix the carpet, booths, chairs, and lights, pull the weeds, and improve your advertising?

(B) Use the $2,000 to build a beautiful koi pond in the lobby in hopes that it will attract enough new customers to bring in as much as $400 that you can then afford to fix the carpet, booths, chairs, and lights, pull the weeds, and improve your advertising?

Which answer do you think you'd get from the company that sells koi pond supplies?

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So what should we do after next Tuesday, after we've voted down (I hope) the proposed county sales tax increase?

Use the Vision 2025 dollars that are already allocated for two new low water dams and the modifications for the existing Zink Lake dam at 31st Street to finish the engineering work for those projects. Develop and submit the application to the Corps of Engineers for a construction permit, a process likely to take at least two years.

In the meantime, county officials should lay out a clear month-by-month spending plan for Vision 2025 - what money is already committed for debt service and for remaining projects - and see if there's any room to move the funding of the promised construction of the dams higher up the priority list.

At the same time, county officials should keep an eye on sales tax receipts; if growth continues at its current pace, another $16 million could be available over and above the county's revenue estimates by the time the permits are granted.

Once the Corps has given its blessing, combine available Vision 2025 funds and Federal dollars. If there's still not enough to do the dam work, then and only then county officials should go to the voters for just enough extra tax dollars to finish those promised Vision 2025 projects. Any other river projects should go on a separate ballot item.

As for west bank land acquisition, Oklahoma's Local Development Act, specifically 68 O. S. 854, authorizes local governments to use revenues from a Tax Increment Finance district to acquire land. The City of The Village, an inner suburb of Oklahoma City, is using such an approach to redevelop its town center. Given that the TIF for Jenks' River District is projected to raise $220 million for that project, it's not hard to imagine that a City of Tulsa west bank development TIF could bring in enough money to acquire the concrete plant north of 23rd Street, which was valued last year at $37 million.

We can make our river happen without raising taxes.

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The composition of the proposed Tulsa County sales tax package is a perfect example of the use of private leverage to override the plans and priorities of public officials.

Instead of allocating the full $282 million to implement projects in the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, more than half of the project money ($135 million) and all of the private donations will be used to implement a plan for the river developed by Canadian architect Bing Thom under commission from the George Kaiser Family Foundation. You'll remember Bing Thom as the guy behind last fall's proposal called "The Channels."

The Kaiser/Thom plan is not The Channels, but like The Channels, the projects in the Kaiser/Thom plan are not part of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan (ARCMP). But a glance back through last fall's news coverage reveals that the two outside plans have been treated very differently.

Last fall when The Channels were proposed, officials set up a three-month-long process to study the proposal and consider whether it should be incorporated into the ARCMP. It was described as "an expeditious but rigid technical review."

There were several technical committees examining the impact of The Channels proposal on the ecosystem, including stormwater drainage and endangered species. In the course of the process, many new concerns came to light, issues that might have been lost in a rush to the ballot.

A fifty-member advisory committee would have decided whether to recommend The Channels for incorporation into the ARCMP. Then the matter would have been considered by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, the Tulsa County Commission, and the Tulsa City Council, as an amendment to the ARCMP and the Comprehensive Plan.

All of these steps had to be completed before the County Commission would submit a tax package for The Channels for voter approval.

A year later, barely a month passed between the public announcement of the Kaiser/Thom proposal until the County Commission scheduled a vote. None of the process that was used for The Channels has been followed this year. The Kaiser/Thom proposal hasn't been brought forward as an amendment to the ARCMP and the Comprehensive Plan. Instead, the vote yes campaign is using sleight of hand to make voters believe that the proposed sales tax package is consistent with the ARCMP and the Comprehensive Plan.

A precedent was set with the process used to evaluate The Channels as an amendment to the ARCMP. That precedent wasn't followed with the Kaiser/Thom proposal currently before us. Why not?

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As I file this story, there are rumblings that Sen. Jim Inhofe will announce his support for the tax increase. If tax backers expect this to sway conservative Republicans to vote yes, they're likely to be disappointed.

Tulsa County's grassroots conservatives aren't the sort to jump on bandwagons. Their loyalty to a politician is tied to his loyalty to the principles and issues that motivate their involvement in politics. When a Republican official deviates from those principles - for example, President Bush's support for amnesty for illegal immigrants - he alienates himself from his base of supporters and his approval ratings plummet.

The grassroots sentiment of the Tulsa County Republican Party was made plain in the platform that was adopted at February's county convention: "We oppose increasing taxes to fund river development projects. We support the use of TIF districts to facilitate river development. We urge Tulsa County Commissioners not to propose any increase in county sales tax."

Republican candidates and officials are free to deviate from the platform, but that deviation can come at a political cost.

If Inhofe backs the tax increase, will local conservatives still vote for his re-election to the Senate in 2008? Most likely. Will they volunteer, donate, and urge their friends to support him? That remains to be seen, but it will further damage the bond of trust with the grassroots that has carried Inhofe to one victory after another.

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This is my last column before the October 9th election. Keep an eye on my blog, batesline.com, for in-depth analysis of last-minute developments.

An edited version of this piece was published in the July 25, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online, but badly formatted. Posted on the web November 3, 2012.

Out of Whole Terry Cloth
Simonson says, but it ain't necessarily so

What would you think of a merchant who sold you something, then told you you'd have to pay for it again to get what you've already paid for?

When Tulsa County voters approved Proposition No. 4 of the Vision 2025 sales tax, they approved $9.5 million to pay for the following items, spelled out very specifically in the ballot resolution passed by the Tulsa County Commission:

Construct two low water dams on Arkansas River the locations of which will be determined in the Arkansas River Corridor Plan -- $5.6 million

Zink Lake Shoreline Beautification -- $1.8 million

Design and construct Zink Lake Upstream Catch Basin and silt removal -- $2.1 million

Now Terry Simonson, the chief deputy and mouthpiece for Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller, is trying to convince Tulsans that we need to raise our taxes again to get what we thought we had already paid for. County Commissioners are likely to vote August 2 to put a $282 million sales tax increase on an October special election ballot.

Last week in UTW, Simonson tried to persuade readers that the line items you see above (and which you can see for yourself by following the Proposition #4 link at http://www.vision2025.info/newsletters.php) weren't really there.

Simonson wrote, "Though some may believe that Vision 2025 included funding to build a series of low water dams on the Arkansas River, this is not the case."

Simonson went on to claim that the $5.6 million was spent on "the study and environmental analysis by the Corp [sic] of Engineers." He correctly notes the amounts for the two improvements to Zink Lake, and claims that, "All of these are completed or, substantially engaged."

Simonson repeated these assertions last Wednesday morning, July 18, on 1170 KFAQ. Morning co-host Chris Medlock, who was on the City Council when Vision 2025 was put to a vote, called Simonson on his erroneous information, pointing to the official ballot resolution and promotional articles published in the daily paper at the time.

For example, on August 24, 2003, the daily paper published a column by editorial writer Julie DelCour, intended to deflect criticism that Vision 2025 neglected the public's interest in Arkansas River development. Taking up most of the front page of the Sunday opinion section, DelCour's piece was accompanied by full color illustrations showing a river full of water and mixed-use development on its banks. The caption on one drawing read, "Passage of Proposition 4 would provide funds to 'prep' the river for future, expanded uses."

Official campaign literature and other stories at the time hammered home the idea that a "yes" vote on Vision 2025 would put water in the river and make it suitable for the riverfront development that Tulsans were demanding.

Kirby Crowe, the project manager whose job is to track Vision 2025 funds and to make sure they are spent as promised, called KFAQ during Simonson's interview and told listeners that of the $9.5 million designated for dams and lake improvements, only $275,000 has been spent. That's a far cry from Simonson's claim that the projects were "completed or substantially engaged."

According to Crowe, none of the money for shoreline beautification and silt removal has been spent, in part because the master plan came up with a better approach to silt removal involving modifications to the Zink Lake Dam.

Crowe said that Phase 1 and 2 of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan was funded by municipalities and private contributions, not by the Vision 2025 sales tax. The $275,000 was to fund the Phase 3 work on environmental paperwork for the low-water dams, a necessary prerequisite for construction.

The remaining $9,225,000 for those three line items, Crowe said, is "unspent and protected."

Simonson claims that Hurricane Katrina siphoned off the hoped-for federal matching funds that would have paid for the dams. But Katrina didn't hit until September 2005, almost two full years after the Vision 2025 vote.

The real reason we didn't get the matching funds was reported by KOTV before the Vision 2025 vote even took place. The cleanup of the environmental disaster at Tar Creek, in the Tri-State mining area north of Miami, Okla., was using all Corps of Engineers funds available for Oklahoma.

Had our congressmen put river improvements ahead of Tar Creek remediation, it would have been like buying yourself a boob job and a tummy tuck when your kid needs chemotherapy.

Matching funds or not, County officials made a commitment to complete the projects that were promised. In a July 23, 2003, story in the daily paper about the potential for revenues to exceed expected project costs, County Commissioner Bob Dick said that the Vision 2025 package was structured to be sure that no project would be left incomplete.
Commissioner Dick was quoted as saying, "I think the worst thing you could do is promise you are going to build something and then not have enough money to build it."

So any surplus was intended first to be used to finish the promised projects. Already, the Tulsa County Vision Authority, a seven-member body made up of the three County Commissioners, the Mayor of Tulsa, and three suburban mayors, has authorized $45.5 million in additional funds for the BOk Center and improvements to the Maxwell Convention Center.

Vision 2025 revenues are running well ahead of projections. If you were to take the roughly $54 million in actual revenue over the last 12 months, project it out over the remaining nine-and-a-half years, assuming a modest 2.5% annual growth rate, and add it to what has already been collected, the Vision 2025 tax would raise a total of $768 million, a surplus of $233 million.

Subtract out the extra money for the arena and convention center, and there is still a surplus of nearly $188 million, far more than we need to fund the two low water dams and the improvements to Zink Lake that were promised to Tulsa County residents if they approved the Vision 2025 tax.

While I'd like to see the Vision 2025 tax ended as soon as possible, the Tulsa County Commissioners have a moral obligation to complete promised projects. It would be far preferable to use an existing tax to complete those projects than to force voters to approve a new tax increase - one likely to be renewed ad infinitum - in order to get what they thought they had already paid for.

The rest of the projects in the proposed $282 million tax package, such as the downtown-to-river connection and the pedestrian bridges at 41st and 61st, are city-specific. Each city along the river could choose to fund those improvements - or not - based on their priorities. Tulsa's city leaders might decide that our appalling violent crime rate or the atrocious condition of our streets deserve more direct attention.

It's essential that the land acquisition for riverfront development be left to the cities. There is a real danger that City of Tulsa residents could vote for this package expecting that money to be spent toward riverside commercial development in Tulsa, only to have it designated instead for a suburban project.

Between the items already promised in Vision 2025 and the items that are specific to individual cities, there's nothing left that needs to be funded through the County. The only reason for the County Commissioners to put a tax on the ballot this fall is if they are intent on expanding their burgeoning empire.

I shouldn't be too hard on Terry. He's just saying what he's been paid to say. During his appearance on KFAQ he frequently reminded us that he wasn't around when the decisions regarding Vision 2025 were made, and he urged us to let go of the past and look to the future instead.

But Commissioner Randi Miller, whose water he is carrying, was around then, voted to send Vision 2025 to the voters, and campaigned for its passage. She of all people has a personal obligation to ensure that the projects that she and her colleagues promised, the projects that were approved by the voters, are delivered without burdening her constituents with higher taxes.

And Miller needs to make sure her spokesman has his facts straight before sending him out to flack for her tax hike.

This is the originally submitted version of my column in the June 13, 2007, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is available at the Internet Archive. The image below accompanied the article. It is from a 1951 aerial photo, labeled to indicate streets and landmarks and to show the present-day location of I-244.

Deep Greenwood, Tulsa, 1951 aerial photo

The Greenwood Gap Theory: The remaking and unmaking of the Black Wall Street of America

By Michael D. Bates

There's a widespread myth about the history of our city, and it persists even among those who are otherwise well educated about Tulsa's past.

It's a myth that stands in the way of learning some valuable lessons about urban development, urban renewal, and the essential elements of a thriving community.

Let's call this myth the Greenwood Gap Theory. That's not a reference to the GAP Band, although the R&B group did take its name from Greenwood Avenue, Archer Street, and Pine Street. Those three streets were the main artery and the north and south boundaries of what was once the commercial heart of Tulsa's African-American community, and Greenwood Avenue lent its name to the entire district.

The Greenwood Gap Theory resurfaces from time to time. It popped up again a few weeks ago, when ground was broken for a campus for Langston University-Tulsa.

Langston President Jo Ann Haysbert said, "Although the campus will not re-create the more than 600 businesses that once operated on Black Wall Street in Greenwood before the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, it will produce graduates who will go out into the world with Greenwood's similar spirit of entrepreneurship and empowerment."

The assumption buried in Ms. Haysbert's statement, one shared by many Tulsans, is that in the 66 years from the Tulsa Race Riot until construction began on the University Center at Tulsa (now OSU-Tulsa) campus, nothing happened in Greenwood; the smoldering ruins were bulldozed, and the land lay fallow.

It's not hard to understand how the Greenwood Gap Theory gained currency. I first heard about the riot and the "Black Wall Street" of America in the '70s, and when I was old enough to drive I went to see what Greenwood Ave. looked like.

What I saw was a few churches, a few vacant commercial buildings, but mostly vacant lots. It was not hard to imagine that that had been the state of things since 1921.

Over time more of the commercial buildings went away and what was left was a vast undeveloped tract.

I learned I had been missing a big part of the story came on a 1997 walking tour led by Eddie Faye Gates, who had just published a book of reminiscences by Tulsa's African-American pioneers: They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa (Eakin Press, 1997).

As we walked south on Greenwood from the UCAT campus, a black woman who looked to be in her 40s pointed toward the pond and fountain near the Greenwood Cultural Center and said, "That's where my aunt's dress shop was!" and she reminisced about spending time in the store as a child. She wasn't old enough to have been around in 1921; she had to have been speaking about the late '50s or early '60s.

Thanks to aerial photos, street directories, and books like Gates's, we have facts to fill in the Greenwood Gap.

For the first roughly six decades of the 20th century, Tulsa's African-American community was segregated to a couple of square miles north-northeast of downtown - roughly east of Detroit Ave., west of the Santa Fe tracks, north of the Frisco tracks and south of Apache.
The prosperity Tulsa enjoyed as Oil Capitol of the World flowed into Greenwood as well. But on the night of May 31, 1921, a mob of whites descended on Greenwood and looted and then burned businesses, homes, and churches. Over a thousand homes were destroyed, at least 300 people were killed, and Greenwood lay in ruins.

The real history of the Greenwood District after 1921, set out by Hannibal Johnson in his book Black Wall Street (Eakin Press, 1998), is at once more inspiring and sadder than the myth. Where a hostile, racist mob failed to destroy the heart and break the spirit of the African-American community, fifty years later well-intentioned government officials succeeded.

After the riot, there was an attempt by the city's white leaders to keep Greenwood from being rebuilt. The City Commission passed an ordinance extending the fire limits to include Greenwood, prohibiting frame houses from being rebuilt. The idea was to designate the district for industrial use and resettle blacks to a new place further away from downtown, outside the city limits.

African-American attorneys won an injunction against the new fire ordinance; the court decreed that it constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment, a taking of property without due process. The injunction opened the door for Greenwood residents to rebuild.

They did it themselves, without insurance funds (most policies had a riot exclusion) or any other significant outside aid. In They Came Searching, Eunice Jackson said, "They just were not going to be kept down. They were determined not to give up. So they rebuilt Greenwood and it was just wonderful. It became known as The Black Wall Street of America."

Juanita Alexander Lewis Hopkins said, "The North Tulsa after the riot was even more impressive than before the riot. That is when Greenwood became known as 'The Black Wall Street of America.'"

The Greenwood district flourished well into the 1950s. In 1938, businessmen formed the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. A 1942 directory lists 242 businesses, including over 50 eateries, 38 grocers, a half dozen clothing stores, plus florists, physicians, attorneys, furriers, bakeries, theaters, and jewelers - more than before the riot 21 years earlier. The 1957 city directory reveals a similar level of commercial activity in Greenwood.

The district had three distinct commercial centers: Deep Greenwood, starting at Archer; a neighborhood commercial cluster running along Greenwood from King north to Oklahoma; and a shopping area along Lansing Ave. south of Pine Street. Maybe the best way for modern Tulsans to imagine these areas is to think of shopping streets like Cherry Street and Brookside, but with more two and three story buildings.

Deep Greenwood hosted a variety of businesses, but it was also home to nightclubs and pool halls, and it had a wild reputation. When he moved to Tulsa from Hugo, barber Hugh Hollins was advised by a friend to set up shop further north.

The reminiscences recorded in They Came Searching recall Greenwood as a kind of small town. If a young person got up to some mischief, his parents would know about it before he got home. Everyone knew everyone else, because people lived, shopped, went to church, and went to school all in a small self-contained area.

Of course they didn't have much choice. Official segregation and private discrimination limited where blacks could live, learn, worship, and spend money.

The lifting of those restrictions helped start the decline of Greenwood as a commercial center, as blacks exercised their wider options and began spending more money outside the community. At the same time, changing retail patterns and the rise of the chain store put all mom-and-pop stores at risk, no matter the ethnicity of the proprietors.

"Slum clearance" as a cure for Greenwood's ills had been discussed for years, but in 1967, Tulsa was accepted into the Federal Model Cities program.

Model Cities was not just an ordinary urban renewal program. It was intended to be an improvement over the old method of bulldozing depressed neighborhoods. The Federal government provided four dollars for every dollar of local funding, and the plan involved advisory councils of local residents and attempted to address education, economic development, and health care as well as dilapidated buildings.

For all the frills, Model Cities was still primarily an urban removal program: Save the neighborhood by destroying it. Homes and businesses were cleared for the construction of I-244 and US 75 and for assemblage into larger tracts that might attract developers. Displaced blacks moved north, into neighborhoods that had been built in the '50s for working class whites.

Only the determination of a few community leaders saved a cluster of buildings in Deep Greenwood - but these buildings are isolated from any residential area, cut off from community.

Jobie Holderness said, "Urban renewal not only took away our property, but something else more important - our black unity, our pride, our sense of achievement and history. We need to regain that. Our youth missed that and that is why they are lost today, that is why they are in 'limbo' now."

New Urbanists speak a lot about the importance of densely settled, walkable communities, with jobs in proximity to homes, with a mixture of uses - residential, retail, offices, schools, churches - within easy walking distance. By making it possible for residents to walk places, there are more chance encounters between neighbors. People keep an eye on the street, deterring crime. And each chance encounter on the street builds valuable social capital - neighbors know each other well enough to be able to help when there's a crisis.
Greenwood was a neighborhood like that, but the urban diagnosticians of the 1960s mistook the symptoms for the disease and killed the patient. The notion was that the insalubrious environment created social dysfunction - remove the environment, and you fix the problem.

In place of a dense, walkable, urban community, the planners created a slice of suburbia. The OSU-Tulsa campus is surrounded by an ocean of parking, completely cutoff from old Deep Greenwood and from nearby neighborhoods. The retail buildings at the north end of Greenwood have been replaced by modern (vintage 1980s) homes which turn their backs to the street. The Lansing commercial district and its surrounding neighborhood have been converted to a suburban-style light industrial park. What was once a cohesive neighborhood is now an assortment of isolated uses.

How might things have worked out differently?

Given time, the commercial buildings along Greenwood would have been rediscovered by entrepreneurs with an idea and a need for a cheap place to get started. The greatest thing government did for Cherry Street and Brookside was to leave them alone. Greenwood might have become gentrified, or it, instead of 21st and Garnett, might have become the home base for the Hispanic or Asian communities. Dallas's Deep Ellum was once like Greenwood and has become an entertainment district.

Instead of the shopping-mall-style campus that was actually built for OSU-Tulsa, Greenwood's old commercial buildings might have even become home for the new university, following the example of Savannah College of Art and Design, which restored buildings all over the city's historic district for its campus, mixed in with retail and office and residential uses.

The next time you drive to OSU-Tulsa or drive past on I-244, remember the bustling district that was once there. Remember those entrepreneurs who rebuilt it after its 1921 destruction. And remember that it was well-intentioned government action that destroyed it again.

This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on January 31, 2007 as the cover story of the February 1-7, 2007, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly, under the headline "The River Review: Planning Tulsa's Riverfront: A Brief History." The story as published can be found on the Internet Archive. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.

Planning Tulsa's Riverfront: A Brief History
By Michael D. Bates

The 12-year-old boy with a map fixation was entranced by the two-page-spread in the January 1976, edition of Tulsa magazine.

A stretched oval of water, held back by something called a "low water sill" was fringed top and bottom by belts of green. There were bicycle paths, ferry docks, an amphitheatre, a museum, restaurants. Best of all, there was a planetarium.

The article began with an imaginary conversation between a dad and his son, talking about their family's plans for a day on the river: Fishing, canoeing, archery, shopping, dinner at the floating restaurant - a fun-filled day capped by a concert at the amphitheatre, with a 150-foot-high lighted fountain providing a picture-perfect backdrop.

"If things go as planned," the article promised, "similar conversations will take place in and about Tulsa beginning as early as 1978.

The boy (the real one, not the imaginary one in the magazine story) flipped through the pages of the article. He scanned over words like "silt," "planning workshop," "contaminants," and "Urban Renewal funds" to get to the rest of the illustrations. There was the plan for the 21st Street Bridge, with nearby overlook and ferry landing. There were sailboats moored at a marina, down the bank from a gallery of shops. There was a cross-section of the museum and planetarium building:

"Portraying the natural and economic history of Tulsa, a museum will highlight the petroleum and transportation industries. A moderately priced restaurant will be incorporated in the upper floor to take maximum advantage of the river view. The planetarium will offer programs of the astronomical sciences, with emphasis on the aerospace industry."

It was already fun to ride bikes on the trails that were especially for bikes - he had thought that was a cool idea ever since he cajoled his parents into taking him to the Gilcrease Hills grand opening six or seven years before. Already you could even ride your bike halfway over the river on an old railroad bridge. But this plan - the "River Parks plan" - was going to be amazing when it was all finished in just a few years.

31 years later, that boy has a boy of his own, about the same age, and the 1976 River Parks plan, focusing on a two-mile long lake, has been superseded by an Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan, taking in the entire 42-mile length of the river through Tulsa County. And for a brief time last year, it seemed that a good third of that brand new plan would be wiped away by an even newer plan - The Channels - for a 12-mile-long lake and three high-rise-encrusted islands in the middle of the river.

The River Parks plan wasn't the first plan, and The Channels certainly won't be the last. For almost as long as there has been some sort of settlement near this bend of the Arkansas, there have been dreams of making the river more than the shallow, salty stream that it naturally is.

In 1962, Tulsa World Sunday editor Russell Gideon wrote, "The plus-and-minus values of the Arkansas River, so far as Tulsans are concerned, probably have added up to a whacking big minus figure over the 80 years of the town's existence."

Gideon enumerated the minuses of the river in the early days of Tulsa: It was an obstacle to travel, its water was unfit for drinking or even bathing, it flooded, it smelled from being used as a sewer, it attracted "shanty-boat dwellers" (Tent City on the water, evidently), it was "a source of worry to mothers of venturesome boys." Even when dry it was a nuisance: "During the dust bowl days the river bed contributed its share to the 'black blizzards' of the era."

Accordingly, Tulsa turned its back on the river, aligning itself instead with the railroad that was its lifeline to the outside world. Tulsa abandoned it as a source of water, built bridges across it, and piped sewage into it, but otherwise left it to its own devices.

Factories and refineries found it useful as a source of water for cooling equipment and a handy place to dump industrial waste. Views of the river were desirable, but not close-up views or the accompanying close-up smells. Oil barons like Josh Cosden and Harry Sinclair built mansions well up the hill from the river's bank.

Early hopes for improving the river were all about transportation, not recreation.
There had been a few successful attempts to navigate the river by steamboat in the 19th century . In 1834, the steamboat William Parsons made it all the way to the mouth of the Cimarron River (now in Keystone Lake) with supplies for Camp Arbuckle, a new Army post. In June 1878, the steamer Aunt Sally made her way from Little Rock to Arkansas City, Kansas. In July 1886 the Kansas Millers towed two barges of flour from Arkansas City to Fort Smith, Ark., but the pilot house had to be removed from the boat in order to clear the Frisco railroad bridge at Tulsa.

In 1909 , the Tulsa Democrat reported a plan to make the Arkansas River navigable from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Cimarron River (now part of Keystone Lake). It would have required a dam, a lock, and a harbor for loading at four points on the river: Little Rock, Fort Smith, Muskogee, and Tulsa. Each dam and lock was projected to cost $300,000.

The plan died a quiet death, but the idea lived on. In the 1920s , civic leaders from Oklahoma and Arkansas began to talk up the idea of Arkansas River navigation. It wasn't until 1946 that the Federal government authorized the project. Even then the two states' congressional delegations had to fight for funding a year at a time, one lock-and-dam at a time, fending off those, like Life magazine and President Eisenhower, who attacked the plan as a massive pork barrel scheme.

At long last, in 1971, the first barges arrived at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. President Nixon arrived a few months later to formally dedicate the Kerr-McClellan Navigation System (and to mispronounce a few Indian place names - oo-LOG-uh? - in the process).

But the new barge canal bypassed the City of Tulsa, and while the port is certainly an important contributor to the local economy, there hasn't been the kind of development along its shores - New port towns! Industrial development to rival the Ohio Valley! Population growth in the millions! - that its boosters expected.

For the navigation system to work, they had to be able to control the flow of the river from upstream. That also meant the ability to prevent a catastrophic flood on the Arkansas River in Tulsa. In 1945, levees were built to protect industries and refineries in Sand Springs, west Tulsa, and along the Sand Springs Line. In 1950 Congress authorized the construction of Keystone Dam, which, it was hoped, would make the levees redundant.

Also in the late '40s, Tulsa's leaders began making plans for a US 66 bypass that would cross the Arkansas at 51st Street. Someone had the idea to build the bridge strong enough to buttress a dam big enough to create a five-mile-long lake which would reach all the way to the bend in the river near downtown. Perhaps the idea was inspired by Lake Austin in Texas, but wherever it came from, it seems to be the first appearance of the notion of using Tulsa's stretch of the Arkansas River for recreational purposes.
But the Federal government wasn't keen on providing the extra funds needed to make the bridge that sturdy, and the idea was dropped. (In 1964, the idea would re-emerge, this time using the Red Fork Expressway bridge as the buttress of a dam that would back the water up to Sand Springs.)

According to Tulsa architect Rex Ball, a mid-'60s feasibility study, prepared by his firm, retrospectively revealed some major flaws in the single-lake concept. A dam big enough to create that kind of lake would have endangered neighborhoods along Crow Creek (the brook for which Brookside is named, which enters the river near 32nd Street) and would have interfered with PSO's use of river water for their generating plant on the west bank at 36th Street. The larger dam might have raised the water table, something that wasn't found to be a problem for a series of smaller, low-water dams.

Meanwhile, the idea of a riverfront park began to take hold. In 1951, the city acquired land for a Riverside Park extending from 11th south to 51st Street, and the following year, city prisoners were working to clear underbrush, trash, and driftwood.

But the river was still not seen as an attraction or an amenity. In 1957, the chamber of commerce published Tulsa, I.T., a glossy 44-page tourism magazine aimed at visitors to Oklahoma's 1957, semi-centennial celebration. It included a driving tour ("The Tulsa Tour") of the city, and lengthy descriptions of the city's recreational attractions. The Arkansas River doesn't rate a mention. Water gets a page to itself, but only to make the point that Tulsa had plenty of it for residents and industry and had plans to get more.

If anything, the river was still a threat to life and property. The Arkansas flooded over three dozen times between 1907 and 1951. In May 1957, after a six-year respite, heavy rains upstream caused a near-record flood and forced the evacuation of part of Brookside. A flood of similar magnitude hit the city in October 1959.

Nevertheless, the idea of the river as a place for recreation continued to simmer. A September 1957 study by the Mayor's Committee on Recreation urged development of the east bank from Newblock Park to 51st Street for park use, recommending that the anticipated Riverside Expressway be built to preserve views and access to parking areas and picnic spots along the river.

The near-downtown riverfront was included in the 1959 A Plan for Central Tulsa, a document written by California architects and packed with daring new concepts in urban design. (Tulsa implemented those concepts decades later, waiting until other cities had had a chance to discover that they didn't work. How did downtown get so bollixed up? Read this book and you will understand.)

A page of that study was devoted to "The Marina," a concept for the river between 11th and 21st Streets. The accompanying illustration showed an artificial lagoon for boats near 15th and Riverside, a floating restaurant and boat club just to the south, a "picnic island" accessible by pedestrian bridge just to the north, and a larger island, accessible only by boat, where the west bank used to be.

Yes, used to be. The drawing showed the river almost twice as wide as its existing width at the 21st Street bridge, backed up by a dam at some unspecified location downstream, with the new shoreline just below the west bank levee. The resemblance to last year's "The Channels" plan is uncanny.

The plan evidently had some research behind it. Excluding the dam, construction costs were estimated at $117,300, and they projected annual revenues of $24,700, which could cover operating expenses ($8,000) and debt service ($9,300) with $7,400 left over.

The lake would accommodate boating, fishing, and water skiing. "The Marina would make living in central Tulsa the envy of every western city dweller."

In 1961, the City of Tulsa's engineering department began looking into the idea of low-water dams. Core drilling was done to test possible dam sites. A trip was made to Pennsylvania to see an inflatable "fabridam" in operation. Soon thereafter civic leaders began pitching the idea of "riverfront beautification" at meetings all over Tulsa.

By the end of 1963, a Chamber of Commerce subcommittee had designated low-water dams on the river as a priority project and set out to find funding for a detailed plan and to whip up public support for the idea.

In May 1964, things began to happen. The County and City jointly hired Hudgins, Thompson, Ball and Associates (HTB) to do a feasibility study and master plan for low-water dams. The Chamber sent a nine-member Tulsa delegation, including Street Commissioner (and future Mayor) Bob LaFortune and County Attorney (and future Governor) David Hall, to tour the Riverwalk in San Antonio, the world's largest inflatable dam in Bay City, Texas, and Town Lake in Austin, completed just four years earlier.

Austin's seven-mile lake, with its dam built into a road bridge, was described by news stories at the time as close to what Tulsa's leaders were wanting. The Tulsa Tribune recommended following Austin's lead in another important respect - establishing a plan for the kind of development desired for the waterfront and putting a commission in place to evaluate all construction permits for compliance with the plan.

The May 19, 1964, lead editorial in the Tribune enthused that the proposal would mean "a whole new pattern of commercial and civic stimulus for the very heart of Tulsa. If the pollution and planning studies make the concept feasible, there is no doubt that our turgid, smelly, desert-like waste of a river will become one of the beauty spots of the nation. And we shall find, as Texas has found, that beautification is very good business."

The "if" was a big one. A 1964 study identified 14 major sources of pollution upstream of Tulsa, including animal wastes from a packing plant, chemical effluents from refineries, oil storage facilities, and a fertilizer plant, sewage from Sand Springs. Completion of the Keystone Dam ended the heavy river flows which diluted the filth and washed it down the river. Low-water dams would only make matters worse. An April 2, 1967, Tulsa World, story on river pollution carried the subhead "Park Plans Moot."

But the planners pressed on. On April 11, 1968, the development plan for "River Lakes Park" was presented to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC), and in August it was officially added to the region's master plan.

The HTB plan called for three low-water dams to be built - near Newblock Park, just upstream from the 11th Street bridge; near 36th Street; and at the mouth of Joe Creek north of 81st Street.

(A fourth dam, to be built by the Corps of Engineers upstream of the Sand Springs bridge, was mentioned in the plan. Its purpose was re-regulation, ensuring a consistent flow of water to carry pollutants downstream, regardless of the operating schedule of Keystone Dam. This dam was actually built in 1968, but was removed in the mid '80s as a hazard and no longer needed for pollution control.)

Shadow Bluff Lake would stretch upstream from near downtown Tulsa to the Sand Springs bridge. Adams Road would be transformed into the South River Parkway, tying together an expanded Chandler Park and the south shore, which would have baseball and football fields, tennis courts, a marina and boat ramps. The shore opposite, across the levee from downtown Sand Springs, would cater to hunters, with ranges for field archery, skeet and trap shooting, and "stalking."

Further east, across the river from Chandler Park, a "Marina Market" would be located on the natural harbor formed by a creek inlet, along with a community center and tennis courts. A large sandbar near 49th West Avenue, would be transformed into an island park with an amphitheatre - and even more tennis courts. An access road would run the full six-mile length of the north shore.

Four-mile long Southside Lake would have bike trails on both shores. On the east bank, near present-day Helmerich Park, there would be an amphitheatre and tennis courts, and a small community building. Peoria would be extended north from Jenks along the west bank to a new 71st Street bridge, providing access to campsites near the dam. Turkey Mountain would be incorporated into the park system, with hiking and horse trails and a trailer campground atop the hill, with a road along the east side of the hill providing easier access to the park from north and south.

Because the planned Riverside Expressway would run right up to the edge of the river bank, the east side facilities would sit on islands built out of sand banks - mainly open space with a few small buildings for community use.

Just north of the I-44 on the west bank, the plan showed an amusement park, and an inland marina along Cherry Creek west of Elwood Ave.

The centerpiece of the plan was Tulcenter Lake. (The name originated in the aforementioned Plan for Central Tulsa.) The lake would be dammed near 36th Street. Crow Creek's outlet to the Arkansas would be the site of a canoe center and an expressway underpass linking the riverfront to Brookside. An 18-hole golf course would straddle 23rd Street on the west side, stretching from 17th Street south to the Texaco Refinery.

The east bank between 11th and 21st would include a lagoon, an oil museum and museum of natural history, more tennis courts and playgrounds, and frequent pedestrian overpasses spanning Riverside Drive.

In comparison to our most recent river plan, the 1968 plan is remarkable for its lack of commercial development. River Lakes Park was all about open space and outdoor recreation, with one notable exception.

Linking the two shores would be Pier 15, a pedestrian bridge lined with specialty shops, sidewalk cafes, theatres, and restaurants, with a view of a spectacular water display in the middle of the river. Pier 15 would connect 15th & Houston to the west bank at 17th, near the west Tulsa urban renewal area, which was originally planned for high-density residential and commercial redevelopment.

The development plan predicted that "Pier 15 could become for Tulsa what the Farmers' Market in Los Angeles or the Vieux Carre District in New Orleans have become for those cities; nationally known areas which not only serve local residents but are major features that continue to attract tourists and provide the cities with distinctive identifications."
It's a commonplace claim nowadays - "This development plan is what we need to put Tulsa on the map" - but this seems to be the first time that river development was promoted as a potential tourist magnet, not just a local amenity.

The cost estimate for full implementation of the plan, including all the amenities, was $65 million. The basic cost to get started included $8 million for dam construction, and $7.5 million for land acquisition along the lakefront.

Once the plan was presented, it was heavily promoted with speeches to civic groups, models on display at banks and libraries, and a 30-minute TV special. $16.3 million for construction of the lakes, to be funded by a property tax increase, was included in a set of 15 city bond issues on the September 9, 1969, ballot. A record turnout - described as a taxpayer's revolt - defeated 13 of the 15 propositions; the River Lakes Park bond received only 29% of the vote.

River promoters began looking for ways to get federal grants to pay for part of the plan. Some minor improvements were begun - a bike trail was started on the east shore between 31st and 51st. But for the next few years, major river development was on hold.


In September 1969, Tulsa's voters forcefully rebuffed an ambitious set of bond issues for civic improvements. They said no to the controversial plan for a Riverside Expressway and its destructive path through the Brookside and Maple Ridge neighborhoods. They said no to a new municipal auditorium at the Civic Center.

And, by a 30% to 70% margin, they said no to $16.3 million to fund the beginning of a dramatic plan for three lakes on the Arkansas River - River Lakes Park - lined with marinas, amphitheatres, tennis courts, ball fields, a golf course, campgrounds, trails, and open space. Its centerpiece would have been a 100-foot-wide shopping and entertainment center spanning the river which would become a nationally-known icon, putting Tulsa on the map.

But the idea of riverfront recreation wasn't dead. There was an ongoing effort to find federal funds to implement part of the plan. And as the city's 1973 diamond jubilee approached, there was a renewed push by Mayor Bob LaFortune to make a river project the focus of the celebration.

1973 came and went, but in April 1974, the City Commission and County Commission created the River Parks Authority (RPA), tasked in its trust indenture with "development, redevelopment, preservation and/or renewal of the ... natural resources and community resources known... as the Arkansas River Lakes Park."

At the same time, the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority (TURA) expanded its west-bank urban renewal area to include both banks of the river between the 11th Street and the Midland Valley railroad bridges, allowing it to supply $2.8 million from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the RPA for riverfront park development. Work began to extend the east bank bike trail north to 11th Street.

In July 1974, the city received title to the Midland Valley bridge and began plans to convert it to bicycle and pedestrian use. The same month, Jackie Bubenik, a city planner from Lubbock, Texas, was hired as the RPA's director, and the RPA began sifting through development proposals.

Unlike the 1968 plan, this development effort would be narrowly focused on the two-mile stretch between 11th and 31st Streets. Working quickly, in August 1974 RPA selected a group headed by Memphis architect Roy Harrover, whose firm planned the development of that city's Mud Island. The hope was to have a plan in place and construction underway in a year's time. Late that year the design team hosted public workshops to find out what Tulsans wanted along the river.

The resulting plan, unveiled in the fall of 1975, called for a low-water dam south of the new pedestrian bridge to create water depth of about 6', enough to support boating and a six-stop route for passenger ferries. Near Houston Avenue, there would be a lighted mid-river fountain, shooting water 150 feet in the air. The east bank would largely remain green space, with bike paths and playgrounds. A restaurant would extend out over the river, beneath the east end of the 21st Street bridge. A wide pedestrian overpass spanning Riverside between Houston and Indian Avenues would serve as the gateway to the park, connecting to a landscaped path to downtown.

Commercial and entertainment facilities would be located on the west bank between the 11th Street bridge and the McMichael Concrete plant, anchored at the south end by an amphitheatre. (In the original plan the stage was onshore, not floating.) North of the amphitheatre along the shore would be a small marina. Above the shore would be a row of specialty shops, and a three-story museum building with a planetarium and a restaurant on the top floor. The northern end of the development area, next to the 11th Street bridge, would be reserved for a hotel.

$30.3 million was the total estimated cost for park development and all the proposed amenities. The low-water dam, thought to be the key to the whole project, would cost $3.1 million. The initial $2.8 million in federal money would be used for west bank improvements, completion of the Midland Valley pedestrian bridge all the way to the west bank of the river, and, at Denver and Riverside on the east bank, a "model park" to give Tulsans a taste of what to expect when the plan was fully implemented.

While the plans were still being planned, Tulsans actually began recreating on the river, jogging and biking on the trails and attending festivals and special events. KRMG held the first Great Raft Race on Labor Day 1973, starting a tradition that would last 19 years. The Tulsa parks department started an annual sandcastle competition. The first Oktoberfest was held on the east bank in 1979 and moved to the west side in 1981.
Before the new plan ever got off the drawing board, it began to change.

In 1979, a parks survey of county residents revealed a lack of interest in large-scale commercial and entertainment development on the river:

"Tulsans view River Parks as a place to enjoy outdoor or somewhat unstructured facilities and atmosphere, and the possibility of formal entertainment or facilities through an Amphitheater or museum is not consistent with what they view for the River Parks area."

The low-water dam was still on the table. Funding for it was included in a 1979 one-cent city sales tax for capital improvements which went down to defeat. The following year, the sales tax was re-presented to the voters, with a five-year time limit, an ordinance that firmly committed the city to spending the money on a specific set of projects, and an oversight committee. It became the first in Tulsa's long-running series of "third-penny" packages, but it was stripped down to essentials and didn't include any funds for the river.

As soon as the 1979 proposal was defeated, Mayor Jim Inhofe began looking for another way to fund the dam. He found enough city money to pay for the engineering work, which kept the environmental permit active.

In November 1980, Lincoln Property Company proposed to purchase land from the city on the west bank - the planned site for the unwanted museum and retail development - and at 61st and Riverside to develop as mid-range apartment complexes. The city would use the $3.5 million raised by the land sale, plus private donations, to pay for construction of the dam.

By the mid '80s, the dam was completed, along with the adjacent Blair Fountain, the west bank festival park, and the amphitheater. At that point, the mid-'70s plan was as complete as it would ever be.

The River Parks Authority (RPA) continued to acquire more land, including Turkey Mountain, added playgrounds along the river, and improved and extended the trails, which became the starting point for a network of trails encompassing the entire metro area. But there was no grand plan in place and little interest in creating one.

Two developments in the mid '90s changed that attitude.

In December 1993, Oklahoma City passed a one-cent sales tax for MAPS - Metropolitan Area Projects - which included funding for a canal through the Bricktown entertainment district as well as money for low-water dams and shoreline improvements on the North Canadian River.

Oklahoma City's low-intensity riverfront plans didn't grab the imagination of Tulsans, but the Bricktown Canal did. We already had a river, but Oklahoma City built river and made it the centerpiece of a lively entertainment district. Dreams of replicating the success of San Antonio's Riverwalk seemed to be coming true just 100 miles down the turnpike.

The success of Baltimore's Inner Harbor development was in the national spotlight at about the same time with the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the first neo-traditional major league ballpark. The public notion of riverfront development began to shift away from passive recreation and toward intense mixed-use development. The Bricktown plan contained strong echoes of Baltimore.

The second wake-up call for Tulsa was the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.
In September 1984 , a group led by Doug Kemper, former director of the Seattle Aquarium, approached RPA with a concept for an aquarium and an adjoining wharf-like retail development, modeled after the Seattle facility. They only asked for the opportunity to lease land from the city for the development.

After six years of discussions and hearings, slowed by influential zoo supporters who wanted any aquarium to be built at Mohawk Park, in February 1990 the City of Tulsa gave the Tulsa Aquarium Foundation an option on 11 acres north of 71st Street and gave the group three years to raise the funds to build the aquarium. Wrangling over the aquarium's business plan, a lack of support (or, some say, outright hostility) from Mayor Susan Savage, fundraising difficulties, and concerns about the impact on the endangered least tern went on for four years. RPA finally rejected the plan, by a 4-3 vote, in November 1994.

Three months later, the City of Jenks reached an agreement with the aquarium group to provide land along the river between 96th Street and the Creek Turnpike and to have the city's industrial authority float revenue bonds to finance construction. Ground was finally broken in 2000.

In July 2002, just as the aquarium was nearing completion and talk of nearby riverfront commercial development began, Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune convened a regional "Vision Summit." 1100 Tulsans attended and contributed their ideas toward a Tulsa vision, defined by keynote speaker Glenn Heimstra as "a compelling description of your preferred future."

River development was a frequently recurring theme in the long list of ideas supplied by the summiteers, and while there was still support for the river as a greenbelt and a place for passive recreation, it was San Antonio Riverwalk-style, Oklahoma City Bricktown Canal-style retail and entertainment that received the most interest and support.

In September 2002, the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG), the planning agency for the Tulsa area, kicked off the development of a master plan for the entire length of the Arkansas River in Tulsa County. But selection of a planning consultant was delayed for a full year, yielding to the promotion and passage of Vision 2025, a downtown-centric tax package containing a token amount of funding for river development infrastructure. The selection of Texas firm Carter Burgess was announced two days after the passage of Vision 2025.

Phase I centered around a massive effort to gather public input. INCOG and Carter Burgess held a series of open house meetings, conducted a public survey, and held a design workshop with nightly opportunities for public review. For their work, Carter Burgess received an award from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The resulting plan, released in August 2004, reflected the desire of Tulsans for a balance between new commercial development and new on-the-water recreation opportunities on the one hand and retaining the environmental protection and outdoor recreation purposes that River Parks had been serving for over a quarter of a century. The plan also included, for the first time, concepts for riverfront developments in Broken Arrow and Bixby.

Another distinctive of the new plan: Rather than focusing on public developments, the plan designated some type of use for every inch of the river. And rather than planning a narrow belt along the river banks, this plan covered a swath extending in places as much as a mile from the banks, in order to plan for connections with surrounding neighborhoods and centers of activity.

That desire for better connections to the river is a kind of rebuff to the cherished dream of the Tulsa World, south Tulsa developers, and some city officials to turn Riverside Drive and Houston Avenue into a 100-foot wide high-speed parkway. That plan, added to the Comprehensive Plan in 1993, generated a huge public outcry from those who opposed encroachment on neighborhoods and park land. An ordinance sponsored by Councilor Dewey Bartlett, Jr., and named in his honor, stymied implementation by requiring a standalone vote on public funding for widening Riverside.

With the approval of the new master plan, it could be argued that the plan for a wide Riverside has been officially superseded.

Phase II of the INCOG plan got into the nitty-gritty of engineering, environmental impact, and funding sources, with detailed plans for major development areas along the river.

The Phase II plan was officially adopted as part of the Comprehensive Plan last year, not long before a challenger, The Channels, emerged in the fall of '06.

Phase III kicked off last September. According to the Corps of Engineers' website, this phase involves gathering data on animal habitat in and along the river, creating an inventory of existing cultural resources, and modeling different low-water dam designs.

The Corps says, "The objective of this effort is to achieve optimum water quality, fish passage, and other environmental parameters while optimizing public safety" - particularly by preventing the "drowning machine" effect that can capsize boaters and trap them at the base of a low-water dam.

As we wait for the study's completion, ideas for the river keep coming. In Jenks, Riverwalk Crossing developer Jerry Gordon showed that you didn't need to wait on massive public investment to create riverside development that attracts the crowds.

So far, Tulsa's side of the river has only attracted a convenience store, a strip shopping center, and a few restaurants, all of which turn their back on the river, which ought to be a clue that Tulsa needs an Austin-like ordinance setting development guidelines for our limited miles of shoreline.

The developers of Branson Landing in Missouri have proposed building a similar open-air retail and mixed-use center on the west bank of the river between 11th and 21st, suggesting creation of a tax-increment finance (TIF) district as a funding source.

The Channels, the $788 million big-dam-and-island plan which made a huge splash last fall, appears to have run aground - too expensive and too much doubt about the wisdom and feasibility of the idea.

But don't be surprised to find, in whatever is ultimately built along the river, elements of The Channels, alongside bits and pieces of the 1975 plan, the 1968 design, the 1959 concept, and every other river-related plan that's been proposed over the last century.

The Arkansas River could not be reached for comment on this story. It must know something, but doesn't say anything. It just keeps rolling along.


A postscript, added on March 23, 2016: In the online comments for the article, Steve Smith, known on online forums as "Waterboy" and "Aquaman" was aggrieved by my failure to mention him in my history of the river:

What does a man have to do to be included in a history of the river? I enjoyed your history. It paralleled the research I did before starting my boat business on the river in 2002. I spent 3 years of my life, over $100,000 investment and bankrupted myself in the effort. I carried over a 1000 riders upstream to the Keystone Dam and hundreds of locals on my ferry. I helped to renew an interest in developing the river through many interviews, and even merited a segment on Discover Oklahoma. Yet, no mention of my effort in your history? Who did I anger over there?

Smith ran airboat tours for several years. I regret overlooking his contribution and am happy to note it here for the record. I did devote an entire column, published in Urban Tulsa Weekly on September 20, 2006, to Steve Smith and his ideas about improving the river using wing dams to modify the flow without blocking the river entirely.

This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on October 4, 2006, in the October 5-11, 2006, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The story as published can be found at the Internet Archive. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.

A promenade on the river
By Michael D. Bates

Last week we asked the question, "What are Tulsans really after when they say they want river development?" The answer is a lively public place, the sort of thing we've seen along the river in San Antonio or along the canal in Oklahoma City's Bricktown. We can see it closer to home, at Riverwalk Crossing in Jenks, where the chance to be in a place bustling with people is a draw regardless of the amount of water in the river.

We want a place where a short stroll takes you past a variety of activities and a variety of people. This kind of place has a name: A promenade.

The book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, provides this description:

"The promenade, 'paseo,' 'passegiata,' evening stroll, is common in the small towns of Italy, Spain, Mexico, Greece, Yugoslavia, Sicily, and South America. People go there to walk up and down, to meet their friends, to stare at strangers, and to let strangers stare at them.

"Throughout history there have been places in the city where people who shared a set of values could go to get in touch with each other. These places have always been like street theaters: They invite people to watch others, to stroll and browse, and to loiter...."

The human impulse still manifests itself, even in Oklahoma's car-dependent culture. Small-town teens cruise Main Street on a Friday night, while suburban teens gather at the mall not just to shop, but to connect with friends. Elements of the promenade pattern can be found in Tulsa's older neighborhood commercial areas, places like Cherry Street and Brookside and 18th and Boston, where it's possible to walk from your house to a neighborhood coffee shop or pub or restaurant.

I believe we can create this sort of place along the banks of the river. We can do it in accordance with the existing Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan. We can do it without sacrificing the natural qualities of the river. We can do it without raising taxes by $600 million.

The east bank between the 11th and 21st Street bridges may provide the best opportunity for creating that kind of place along Tulsa's stretch of the river.

One of the elements of a successful promenade is a concentration of people within a 10 or 15 minute walk -- close enough to be a realistic destination for an evening stroll. The neighboring area is one of the more densely settled parts of Tulsa: a historic neighborhood of single-family homes, several high-rise apartment and condominium buildings, and a number of low-rise apartment and condo complexes. It's within walking distance of the convention center and could be an amenity for out-of-town visitors as well.

It's also a convenient drive-to destination. The major commuter route along Riverside and Denver passes right by, making it an easy place to stop before heading home to south Tulsa. It's close to the hub of Tulsa's expressway network. At the same time, the two-lane continuation of Riverside north of Denver means that the park isn't cut off from the neighborhood.

(It also isn't cut off from the rest of the city by a 300-foot-wide moat, which means that people won't feel compelled to drive to get there.)

But convenience isn't sufficient to make a place work as a promenade. A Pattern Language observes that it must provide people with some sort of destination, "for example, clusters of eating places and small shops," and the centers of activity must be close enough together - they reckon no more than 150 feet apart - to prevent desolate and dead spots on the path. There needs to be a series of interesting places, each close enough to the next one to entice you a little further down the path. Finally, a promenade needs significant points of attraction at both ends to act as anchors.

The Arkansas River Master Corridor Plan calls for building a "promenade" - a kind of boardwalk - along the east bank between 11th and 21st. An expanded café near Riverside and Denver would act as the south anchor and the planned Route 66 museum and restaurant will provide an anchor for the north end of the site. There's already public money committed for improvements in this area - $5.25 million in the 2006 third-penny sales tax plan for the park, plus Vision 2025 money for the Route 66 facility.

What's missing is the in-between stuff. The space needs to be more commercial than it is, but not so developed that the natural beauty of the river is obscured or that joggers, dog walkers, and cyclists feel unwelcome.

Bryant Park in Manhattan is a good example of balancing the natural and the man-made in an outdoor public space. Although the context is different, many of the same amenities would work well here.

Like Bryant Park, this park should have free WiFi (to allow some people to do their work in the park), several food kiosks (at least one serving good coffee), and well-maintained restrooms. There ought to be chairs you can move, so you can choose to sit in the sun or the shade. It ought to be a place you could comfortably spend the whole day.

In Bryant Park, the public library has a small reading "room" - really an outdoor area - with novels and magazines and newspapers available to read. Another part of the park has tables for playing games - you can rent chess and backgammon sets. We could do something similar here.

There ought to be a couple of places to rent bicycles and rollerblades, and some place where you can buy sunscreen and bug spray in case you forgot yours at home. A carousel would be a summer-evening attraction, perhaps along with one or two other small, relatively quiet kiddie rides.

The actual mix of activities and amenities could change over time as we observe what attracts people and what doesn't. The kiosks and other permanent facilities should be flexible in their design. But they should be spread along the length of the park, with a major cluster of activity about halfway along, perhaps near Riverside and Galveston.

The area would be further enhanced by neighborhood-friendly mixed-use redevelopment along the east side of Riverside Drive between Galveston and Denver.

We shouldn't force it, but we should allow those aging apartment complexes, built in the '60s and '70s, to be replaced with well-built three- and four-story buildings which front the sidewalk with retail space on the ground floor, office space and apartments above, and maybe restaurants with roof gardens on the top floor, to take advantage of the view.

In the process of redeveloping that stretch, we should improve the connections between the neighborhood and the park, adding public stairways from Riverside up to streets like Elwood and Frisco that dead-end on top of the hill. Perhaps there could be a grand staircase connecting the Sophian Plaza building, done in the same majestic style as that landmark structure, leading to a major focal point of the park, like a sculpture fountain or the carousel.

This park isn't going to be the blockbuster destination that makes the world stand up and notice Tulsa. Indeed, no single project in one place, no matter how extravagant, will fix what ails our city.

Instead, we need to repair and enhance the urban fabric and the quality of life throughout the city. This park would be a model as we create pleasant and safe gathering places throughout the city, even the farthest reaches of north, east, south, and west Tulsa. At the same time, we need to take care of the basics - preventing crime, maintaining our streets, providing good schools.

That kind of steady and comprehensive strategy, not a desperate billion-dollar gamble, will make our city more beautiful and more attractive as a place to live, work, and visit.

If you'd like to talk more about this approach to river development, I invite you to visit thevoiceoftulsa.com, my favorite online discussion forum about local issues.

Wanted: A Promenade

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This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on September 27, 2006, in the September 28 - October 4, 2006, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The story is not available in the Internet Archive but was previously online at http://archives.urbantulsa.com/article.asp?id=3657. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.

Wanted: A Promenade
By Michael D. Bates

For years, Tulsans have been saying that they want "river development." That exact phrase occurred dozens of times in the responses collected at the 2002 City of Tulsa Vision Summit. There's a widespread sense that this "river development" thing is something that Tulsa sorely lacks.

A smart aleck would point out that we already have development along Tulsa's stretch of the river. We have two aging oil refineries, a vintage mid-'80s apartment complex at 11th Street, a vintage mid-'90s complex south of 71st, a concrete batch plant, a power station and a sewage treatment plant. And a windowless casino. And a couple of chain restaurants that turn their backs to the river.

That, of course, is not at all what Tulsans mean by river development. They visit waterfronts in other cities and come back with tales of lively places bustling with locals and tourists, enjoying shopping, restaurants, and nightclubs. San Antonio's Riverwalk is frequently mentioned, as is Oklahoma City's Bricktown Canal. OKC had to build a waterway, but we already have one, and yet we can't seem to do anything interesting with it.

Adding to the frustration, we can look across the river and see that a private developer has used private dollars to create a place, Jenks' Riverwalk Crossing, that draws huge crowds on weekend evenings.

Tulsa has a need for a great public space, a thriving place where you would be almost always guaranteed to find a crowd.

Tulsa Stakeholders Inc, the group promoting The Channels - the $788 million notion to dam the Arkansas at 21st Street and build a sixteenth of a square mile worth of islands in it - have made it clear that a great public space is what they are seeking. They say that we need a place where a newcomer to Tulsa can get a great first impression of the city, a place where there's guaranteed to be something fun going on, no matter what the weather. Given six months, anyone would fall in love with Tulsa, but, they say, when competing with other cities for a skilled professional, Tulsa may only have day or two to make a good impression.

Tulsa has tried to create this kind of public space before -- Oakley Plaza (aka the Civic Center Plaza), the Main Mall and Bartlett Square (RIP), the Williams Center Forum, the Williams Center Green. In each case, there were the requisite conceptual sketches showing throngs of people happily milling about. The problem is that those sketches don't come with a money-back guarantee when the people don't throng as expected.
Humans are finicky about the places they choose to frequent, and if the right qualities aren't present in a place, it won't attract people. There's an organization called the Project for Public Spaces which studies what factors make for a successful public space and how to turn an underperforming place into something exciting. Their website (pps.org) shows dozens of examples of great public places - like Bryant Park in New York and the squares of Savannah, Georgia - and explains what makes them tick.
Tulsans have the sense that, like many other cities, we could create a great public place along the banks of the river, but that it won't happen without allowing a certain amount of commercial development.

If you're not a cyclist or a runner, River Parks can be a boring place. For several miles, the view of the river is obscured by trees - great for wildlife habitat, not so great for people.

We want to be near natural beauty, but we want to have civilization close at hand. If you're at the park and get hungry or thirsty, you'd better hope that you're close to the little café in the park at Denver and Riverside and hope that it's open. Otherwise, you'll have to cross a busy parkway and walk at least half a mile to find any sort of restaurant or convenience store.

There are occasional festivals and concerts on the west bank, an occasional music act plays the café on the east bank, but for the most part River Parks is BYOE - Bring Your Own Entertainment.

I lived on the east side of Riverside Drive for five years, and during that time my wife and I often went for evening walks, but we almost never crossed Riverside to use the park.

We were far more likely to walk a half-mile east and stroll along Peoria, enjoying the variety of homes and businesses that Brookside had to offer. If we wanted to get a bite to eat, we had many choices along Peoria. We could even walk to the grocery store or the hardware store and back. We might even run into someone we knew who was out enjoying the same kind of walk.

If, on the other hand, we dodged the cars to get across Riverside to the park, there were no points of interest within practical walking distance. We'd just pick some arbitrary park bench as a place to turn around and walk home.

And there are plenty of benches in River Parks, but without a place that acts as a magnet for park visitors, the individual bench is a lonely place, and one feels odd and exposed sitting there for any length of time. It is not a place where one feels comfortable lingering.

What kind of public place along the river would invite us to linger, would be attractive enough to pull us away from the TV and out of our houses?

We want a place where we know we can find other people, a place where we can have lunch or dinner, where we can buy a cup of coffee or something stronger, or a place where we can bring our own picnic and not spend a dime. We want a place where we can read, write, and people-watch, a place where we might bump into someone we know, a place where we can be alone in a crowd or where we could make a new acquaintance.

The kind of place we have in mind is linear, a place that connects two or more hubs of activity, a place that provides different levels of activity along its length, but with no dead spots anywhere along the path. It invites you to walk the full length of the path, or to sample a few blocks, or just to sit in one place and watch the passing parade.

Back in the '70s, architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the University of California identified this sort of place as a recurring pattern found in healthy urban places. They cataloged the successful patterns they observed in the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. This pattern they called a promenade, "a place where you can go to see people, and to be seen."

In an ideal city, you should be able to find a promenade within walking distance of every home. You find elements of a promenade in Cherry Street, Brookside, Brady Village, the Blue Dome District, and at 18th & Boston. Even The Promenade (the shopping mall) is something of a promenade, although the effect is blunted by the fact that it's limited to certain hours and is isolated from its surrounding neighborhoods. (Also, national chain mall stores aren't the public draw that they once were.)

The Channels backers assert that their plan is the only way to give Tulsa the kind of great public space we need. They say we can't create it downtown or along the river bank. We need the dam and the islands and the microclimate and the $788 million to make it all happen.

I believe that we can create that kind of place along the banks of the river, and that it can be done in accordance with the existing plan for the Arkansas River. It can be done in a way that doesn't require us to gamble hundreds of millions on one roll of the dice. We can test ideas and make adjustments as we go along, and still have enough money to enhance and repair public places in other parts of the city. Next week I'll give you the details.

This is the originally submitted version of a story that was published on September 20, 2006, as my column in the September 21-27, 2006, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The story as published can be found on the Internet Archive. Posted on BatesLine on March 23, 2016.

River reality
By Michael D. Bates

"We're trying to beat nature on this river, and we're going to lose."

For three years, Steve Smith ran airboat tours up and down the Arkansas River, from the 21st Street bridge to the Keystone Dam - the part of the river that would be most affected if The Channels plan for damming the river gets the green light. I recently spoke with him to get his perspective on the proposal.

To most Tulsans, the river is an abstraction, a half-mile wide strip of water and/or sand dividing West Tulsa from the rest of the city - the details don't matter. Most of us seem to think it would be a better river if it were a simple, homogenous body of water, more like a canal. To many Tulsans a sandbar on the river is as attractive and welcome as a zit on your nose on prom night.

During his three years on the river, Smith came to know every nook and cranny, every island, sandbar, and creek mouth. He discovered the variety of wildlife that makes a home in and near the river. Even when the flow is down to a trickle, the river is a lively place. Few Tulsans ever get close enough to see it.

The river bed provides habitat for the endangered least tern and many other types of waterfowl, along with small mammals, and the fish that make this stretch of the river an attractive wintering area for the bald eagle.

Smith says that the backers of The Channels ought to get in a canoe and see what will be covered up by their plan for a 12-mile-long lake, a lake where the natural banks would be replaced by a kind of seawall. Smith is unaware of any groups or individuals that use the river and know it - the rowing club, for example - that were consulted by Tulsa Stakeholders, Inc., before their big unveiling.

As it flows through Tulsa, the Arkansas is an old river. While young rivers are still cutting rock in the mountains, old rivers have finished their work of shaping the land, but they still have a contribution to make. The salt and silt that make the river murky are there to replenish the farmland along its banks by flooding it from time to time. That's how Bixby came to be such a fertile place for growing vegetables and sod. But our tendency is to hem the river in, to keep it from doing that work, so that the river is no longer a distributor of nutrients, but a receptacle for pollutants.

Smith says that there are ways to improve the river as a recreational resource while working with, not against, the river's natural tendencies. We need to work with the Corps of Engineers to reorient their upstream flow policies so that we see a more constant flow through Tulsa. Recreational use below the dam isn't currently a consideration in the Corps' management of Keystone Reservoir, but that can be changed. Similar accommodations have been made on similar stretches of Corps-regulated rivers elsewhere.

The river's flow can be directed and improved to create recreational opportunities. Wing dams, which extend only part of the way into the river, can be used to direct the flow of the river to scour out a central channel, which is also less prone to sediment build-up because of the faster current. Sand would build up behind the wing dams, which creating areas that could be used like many of our stormwater detention areas - recreation space during normal conditions, but open to carry flood waters when needed.

This kind of dam, used to create a very narrow waterway near the PSO plant at 31st Street on the west bank of the river, is responsible for the existence of the Tulsa Wave, considered to be the best kayaking spot between the Rockies and the Appalachians. A wider gap between wing dams in other parts of the river would provide a tamer current for the rest of us to enjoy.

But supposing The Channels dam is built and a lake created. Smith says there are public safety issues that our public officials don't seem to have considered. In cities along the ocean or the Intercoastal Waterway, they understand that you have to have equipment and trained personnel to deal with crimes, fires, and rescue situations on water. Tulsa's leaders have yet to count the cost.

If a high-rise apartment building on one of the islands catches fire, we'll need specially equipped fire rescue boats to put it out. If there's a problem at the Keystone Dam - think of the 1986 flood, where the dam was nearly overtopped - how quickly can the islands be evacuated?

Once we've got boaters on the river, we'll need law enforcement there, too. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol would have jurisdiction; is the OHP prepared to commit the resources of its Lake Patrol troop to this new lake?

The recent rescue of two teenagers from a sandbar near the Jenks Riverwalk demonstrates how unprepared we are to deal with the interaction between people and the river. As much as Jenks has touted its riverfront, the city doesn't have a boat that can handle rescues on the river. Jenks had to call the Tulsa Fire Department, and the TFD first sent a boat that wouldn't work in that depth of water. An hour later a second boat was able to complete the rescue.

Steve Smith has plenty of ideas for how to make the most of this river while respecting the Arkansas for what it is. Over the years he has taken local leaders on boat rides to try to help them see the possibilities that he sees. But it's hard for one ordinary person to get a hearing.

When he first started his airboat tours, Smith would hear one comment over and over again: "This is a brilliant idea, but who are you, and why are they letting you do this?"

That comment may capture one of Tulsa's besetting weaknesses. The ideas of ordinary Tulsans - homeowners, small business owners, students, young adults - ideas that have been sorted, sifted, filtered, and organized in the form of plans for improving our neighborhoods, our downtown, and our river - these ideas are in danger of being set aside because someone with a lot of money, a famous name, and a PR firm has come along with his own plan.

We're told that these islands will give Tulsa the kind of excitement that will "leapfrog" us past competing cities. But Tulsa will never be a hospitable place for risk-takers and entrepreneurs, and thus won't draw the talented, creative people that will make Tulsa a place of energy and excitement, as long as who you are matters more than what you have to offer.

An edited version of this piece was published in the August 23, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web September 17, 2013.

Property owners owe Tulsans downtown preservation

By Michael D. Bates

A memo from the not-too-distant future

Dear Delegate,

Welcome to Tulsa and the 2008 National Preservation Conference! We want to do everything we can to make your stay a pleasant and memorable one.

Tulsa is a young city, but one with a rich history. As you walk the streets of downtown, we invite you to imagine the bygone days of wildcatters and oil barons and to imagine the bygone buildings where they did their deals, dined, shopped, and were entertained.
For those of you staying at the Westin Adam's Mark Crowne Plaza whatever the heck it's called now, you're sure to enjoy the history of the walk between the Convention Center and your hotel.

Fourth Street was once Tulsa's Great White Way, home to vaudeville and cinematic spectaculars. Close your eyes and you can imagine the Ritz (southeast corner of 4th and Boulder, now a parking garage), the Majestic (southwest corner of 4th and Main, part of the same parking garage), and the Orpheum (east of Main, south of 4th, now part of one of downtown Tulsa's foremost attractions, the Heap Big Hole in the Ground).
Don't miss the site of the Skelly Building on the northeast corner of 4th and Boulder, designed by famed architect Bruce Goff, now an exclusive deluxe gated parking community owned by the Tulsa World.

As you head north on Main Street, you'll be awed by the Totalitarian-Moderne Tulsa World building, a design inspired by the pillbox gun emplacements built by longtime Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.

Main Street dead-ends at 3rd, cut off by your hotel's conference rooms, symbolically celebrating the irreparable division between north and south Tulsa.

We hope you'll take time to get some kicks on old Route 66. 11th Street, also known as the Mother Road, is today a lovely tree-lined boulevard, no longer cluttered with unsightly old motels and diners, which were cleared out to provide an attractive approach to the gateway to the portal to the grand entrance to the University of Tulsa.

We've got an "explosive" event planned for the final night of the conference - or should we say implosive! This town will rock! Promptly at sunset, every downtown building at least 50 years old will be simultaneously demolished in a symphony of light, sound, and debris. "Clean Slate 2008" is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Twenty-First Properties, the Tulsa World, Ark Wrecking, the Tulsa Parking Authority, and Downtown Tulsa Unlamented.

Enjoy your visit!

Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau

A bit farfetched? Perhaps, but the National Preservation Conference is coming to Tulsa in October 2008, and you have to wonder how many historic downtown buildings Tulsa will have left to show the visiting delegates.

The conference is put on each year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, bringing preservation and urban planning professionals and lay people from all over the world for five days to exchange ideas and to tour local preservation success stories. I have no idea why they agreed to come to Tulsa, except perhaps to learn what not to do.

In the last two years we've seen the demolition of the Skelly Building and the 3rd and Main Froug's, two small retail buildings on the east side of Main just south of the Heap Big Hole in the Ground, and the Tulsa Auto Hotel, a parking garage that was demolished for - naturally - a surface parking lot. An aerial view of downtown reveals the effects of fifty years of heedless demolition.

The NTHP's local affiliate, Preservation Oklahoma, has named downtown Tulsa one of Oklahoma's most endangered historic places. While many Tulsans are rightly embarrassed by this and are working on a practical plan for action, the big downtown property owners are whining about the prospect any effective downtown preservation initiative.

Last week, a group called CORE Tulsa issued a set of five modest recommendations to the Tulsa Preservation Commission:

  1. Review all downtown buildings.
  2. Be proactive in meeting parking demand with structured parking, and discourage surface parking.
  3. Make downtown preservation a key component of Tulsa's new comprehensive plan.
  4. Create and promote incentives for redevelopment.
  5. Create a demolition review panel, to be designated by the Preservation Commission, that could halt demolition of a significant building for up to four months.

These measures have been a long time coming. Most cities took similar steps many years ago. Even many of Oklahoma's small cities have been more proactive than Tulsa in protecting their historic business districts.

I would have hoped that downtown property owners would get behind this effort, but instead their loud complaints have pushed these recommendations back to the drawing board, where they will no doubt be watered down.

I would have hoped that Mayor Kathy Taylor, who during the mayoral campaign praised the "Main Street" preservation efforts that she observed as Secretary of Commerce, would show some leadership and bring these recommendations forward. Instead, she seems to be heeding the advice of her aide Susan Neal, a former vice president of Downtown Tulsa Unlamented, who applauded the decision to withhold the recommendations.

(I know - it's really "Unlimited" not "Unlamented" - but the organization deserves the name change for their longstanding lack of resistance to the paving of downtown.)

In her Sunday Tulsa World column, Janet Pearson writes that "developers and building owners saw [the CORE recommendations] as potential project-killers." I'd be more impressed by that concern if it looked like the complaining property owners were actually doing anything with the land they've been sitting on. Other than the slow-but-steady renovation of the Mayo Hotel, there's not much happening in the downtown core.

What was most ironic and outrageous about the response of the development industry was the assertion that these preservation measures trampled on property rights and the free market.

Donovan D. Rypkema, a self-described "crass, unrepentant, real estate capitalist Republican type," gave a speech called "Property Rights and Public Values," in which he makes the case, from the basis of free markets and limited government, for land use regulation.

(You can find Rypkema's speech on the web at http://www.law.georgetown.edu/gelpi/takings/rypkema.htm)

These sentences from the speech are particularly relevant to the topic at hand:
"Most of the value of an individual parcel of real estate comes from beyond the property lines from the investments others - usually taxpayers - have made. And land use controls are an appropriate recompense for having publicly created that value."

Think about public investment in downtown Tulsa. Tulsa County taxpayers are investing over a quarter-billion dollars in downtown through Vision 2025. City of Tulsa taxpayers have invested tens or maybe hundreds of millions through bond issues and the third-penny -- building Main Mall, removing it, providing incentives to downtown residential development, acquiring land for the Williams Center through eminent domain, streetscaping, changing streets from one-way to two-way, etc. Then there's the federal and state investment in the highway network that provides rapid access to downtown from every part of the metropolitan area.

We didn't pay all that money to accelerate the conversion of downtown to an enormous surface parking lot.

The express purpose of much of that public investment is the revitalization of downtown. Many Tulsans want a downtown where historic buildings are protected, a downtown that is an attractive and interesting place to walk around, not a downtown that looks like the Woodland Hills Mall parking lot.

Every time a property owner knocks a building down for surface parking, it devalues that public investment. It is legitimate and reasonable for local government to protect that investment with modest regulations.

Oklahoma City has an Urban Design Commission with the power to block demolition.
That's how they saved the Gold Dome building at 23rd and Classen, now a multicultural center anchoring the city's Asian District.

In 2002, during a bus tour of Oklahoma City's downtown and Bricktown, I asked then-Mayor Kirk Humphreys how they convinced developers to go along with restrictions on what they could do with their property. Humphreys said that the City pointed out how many millions of dollars the City had invested in that area (the canal, the ballpark, the Ford Center, and more), and that it was reasonable for the City to take steps to protect its investment.

It's high time that our elected officials, the stewards of Tulsa's public investment in downtown, made that same case to our downtown property owners.

An edited version of this piece was published in the August 9, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web April 28, 2013.

Condemning TU
By Michael D. Bates

Usually it's the daily paper's editorial page that gets my dander up, but it was an article about the University of Tulsa's campus expansion in last week's edition of this paper that nearly had steam coming out of my ears.

It wasn't the way the story was reported, written or edited - Ginger Shepherd did a fine job - but the arrogance of TU's officials as this private institution uses the threat of government force to property owners to sell their land to TU.

2005's U. S. Supreme Court decision in the Kelo v. City of New London case drew national attention to the government's power of eminent domain - the ability to condemn property, forcing someone to sell their land to the government. But that wrongly-decided case didn't open the door to the abuse of this public power for private benefit. The City of Tulsa has been blighting and then condemning property on TU's behalf for decades.

TU's latest blitzkrieg is to the south, to create a grand entrance on 11th Street. Never mind that TU is already very visible on 11th, thanks to Skelly Stadium and the Reynolds Center. Never mind that TU already has a grand entrance on Delaware at 6th Street, with a grassy mall providing a dramatic view of the tower of McFarlin Library.

TU even had a chance to create a grand entrance on land it already owned. TU VP Kevan Buck told UTW that they kicked around building a main entrance next to the Reynolds Center on Harvard, but they didn't follow up on it at the time. Later, evidently, they changed their mind.

Most organizations would decide that they had their chance and missed it. They would make do with what they had, maybe use some signage and landscaping along Harvard south of Keplinger Hall to lead visitors into the heart of campus.

But if you're TU, you don't have to make do. Like Jezebel telling Ahab that she wanted Naboth's vineyard (see I Kings 21 for the first recorded use of eminent domain in history), TU just has to clear its institutional throat and the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA, the city's urban renewal trust) will step and fetch the land TU wants.

The City's willingness to condemn property for TU has allowed TU to be thoughtless about how they use the property they own. They have a half-mile of arterial frontage along Harvard. They have a quarter-mile of frontage along 11th.

Rather than building up - taller classroom buildings, parking structures - TU has sprawled outward. They don't have to worry about persuading a property owner to sell; the city will make the owner an offer he can't refuse.

Now, this is not a new story. TU and the TDA have been doing this little dance for decades, and this particular expansion has been in progress for a year or more - Starship Records was forced to move last year.

What got to me last week is the realization that the purpose of this grand entrance is purely for the sake of marketing TU. It won't improve the quality of the education, but it will impress the parents of prospective students.

On what planet is marketing a private college a legitimate public purpose justifying the use of eminent domain?

Would we use condemnation to improve a retail store's visibility? If Wal-Mart said to the City, that Macaroni Grill makes it hard for drivers on Memorial to see our new store, should the city force the Macaroni Grill to sell to Wal-Mart?

You say that's an unfair comparison - TU is a non-profit, a private university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA. All right - my church (also Presbyterian, but PCA) is on 51st Street east of Lewis. I'll bet it could attract more congregants if it could be seen by passing traffic on I-44. Should the City condemn land so that our church can acquire and demolish the apartment complex that stands in our way?

Of course not, and city officials would never do such a thing for my church, even if we asked nicely. TU can make it happen because they have some very powerful people on their board of directors, including Robert E. Lorton, chairman of World Publishing Co., and his wife Roxana.

But city officials shouldn't be doing it for TU anyway. It's a violation of the Oklahoma Constitution.

It's too late for Starship Records and Tapes, but I hope the owners of Metro Diner will take note of this May's Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in Board of County Commissioners of Muskogee County v. Lowery. The Oklahoma court noted that the Oklahoma constitution has more stringent and specific requirements for the use of eminent domain than the U. S. Constitution.

According to the Institute for Justice, the Lowery case involved Muskogee County taking "an easement for water pipelines for a private electric generation plant." Surely there is even less constitutional warrant for taking a private business for the sake of an unobstructed view of a private institution.

TU apologists will argue that the university serves an important public role in Tulsa as an institution of higher learning. The City's assistance to TU may have been justified in the 1950s, when it was the only degree-granting institution in town, and many if not most TU students were Tulsa kids still living at home. Today Tulsa has a community college, four public colleges, a second private university, and extensions of a half-dozen other colleges which offer programs for non-traditional students.

And commuter students are no longer TU's target demographic. TU is trying to compete with other regional private colleges for affluent high school grads from other cities; they're not fighting with state schools over local yokels. Helping TU's marketing program isn't a valid use of government force.

No doubt someone will point to blight as a rationale for condemnation. But if anything, neighborhood blight has been created by TU's aggressive acquisitions and other public policies designed to aid TU. In the '60s, the area west of TU was blanket rezoned for multifamily dwellings, which encouraged developers to bulldoze craftsman-style homes and put up crummy little apartment buildings that could fit in a single house lot. Later, the constant threat of condemnation discouraged people from upgrading and maintaining their homes.

I remember, back in '79 or '80, walking to Roughnecks games through the neighborhood east of Skelly Stadium, where the Reynolds Center now stands. The homes there were attractive and well-maintained. The only way they could be considered blighted is under the overly broad definition of "blight" in our state statutes.

Because the Comprehensive Plan designated the area for TU expansion, the homes were "blighted" by virtue of not being in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan. No one's home or business is safe under that loophole, and the legislature needs to close it.

There is another, better way for a private university campus to co-exist with the surrounding city. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has been in existence for just shy of 30 years, but they already have twice the enrollment of TU. (And that's despite charging more for tuition, too.)

Rather than create an enclave, isolated from the city, SCAD has restored and repurposed dozens of buildings throughout the historic district of Savannah - everything from the old 19th century Armory (now the admin building), to a 1960s Quality Inn (a dorm), to a block-long department store (the library), to two historic movie theaters (the drama department and the school auditorium). The integration of school and city has made the school a more attractive place for students and has made the city a livelier place for residents and tourists.

It was an approach born out of the founders' values, but also out of necessity. SCAD didn't have the money for new construction or the political clout for eminent domain, but it did have sweat equity and students and faculty with the skills to make an old building new again.

SCAD's approach is the kind of imaginative win-win solution that never seems to occur to Tulsa's leaders. It's said that creativity loves constraints, and TU hasn't had any constraints on its territorial ambitions, allowing it to take a ham-handed brute force approach. Perhaps a court challenge to the unconstitutional and immoral abuse of eminent domain that has fueled TU's expansion will help the university to take a more creative approach to campus building in the future.

A version of this column was published on August 2, 2006, in the August 3-10, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly under the headline, "Intelligent Design." Below is the column as originally submitted. The as-published version of the story is available on the Internet Archive. Submitted version posted on BatesLine on March 29, 2016.

Making the most of Tulsa's unique places
By Michael D. Bates

So I was changing my baby boy's diaper in the men's room of the Johnny Carino's at 98th and Riverside - they have those nice changing surfaces that pull down from the wall - and I was thinking: "If they just had a window here in the men's room, I'd have a lovely view of the Arkansas River and the Oklahoma Aquarium."

The diners at Johnny Carino's don't have that lovely view. The building is a franchise-standard, cookie-cutter design, oriented toward the street, and what windows there are face the parking lot and Riverside Drive.

For all the talk of development along the river and in light of the standard that has been set by Riverwalk Crossing in Jenks, it's hard to understand why all the development to date on the Tulsa side turns its back to the river. Here we are, poised to spend millions on low-water dams, and for what? So that the Kum-n-Go dumpster and the Red Robin grease pit can have spectacular views of the water?

Even the greatly anticipated Kings Landing is oriented away from the river. Just a couple of the spaces appear to have windows (and small ones at that) facing the Arkansas.

I had hoped that private developers would have the imagination to see and exploit the unique opportunities presented by riverfront property. My guess is that the financing and construction process, with the focus on reducing risk to the investors, is enough to quench anything imaginative.

As much as possible, we ought to leave it to the free market to decide the best use for a piece of land. But there are certain places which, by virtue of some natural feature (e.g., a river) or publicly-funded facility (e.g., a freeway, an arena), offer unique opportunities for a city's growth, quality of life, tourist appeal, and economic development.

Many cities have concluded that the only way to make the most of their unique places is to establish special design requirements and a design review process for nearby developments.

Oklahoma City has done this for its river, establishing a "scenic river overlay" zone that follows the path of the Oklahoma River (nee North Canadian) through the city. New developments are scrutinized for compliance with the city's String of Pearls Master Plan, helping to ensure that OKC taxpayers get what the kind of riverfront experience they hoped for when they approved funding for low-water dams.

The river isn't the only special place that Oklahoma City protects through special regulation. In Bricktown, new construction and exterior modifications must be approved by the Bricktown Urban Design Committee, using guidelines designed to maintain consistency with the historic brick warehouses that give the district its name. The design review process protects both the massive public investment in the area.

They aren't making any more Main Streets, so a similar design review process is in place for Oklahoma City's pedestrian-oriented shopping streets, in recognition of the way places like NW 23rd and Capitol Hill add to the appeal of city living.

Southwest of downtown, Stockyards City is an authentic remnant of Oklahoma City's history as a cowtown, and there are special zoning regulations that apply to the commercial district and its main approaches.

Oklahoma City has also made it a priority to protect one of its front doors. I-44 & I-35 funnel traffic in from Wichita, Kansas City and points north, and Tulsa, St. Louis, Chicago, the Great Lakes region, and the northeastern U. S., heading to Texas or Southern California.

The area just south and west of where the two roads divide has a high concentration of tourist attractions - the Oklahoma City Zoo, the Omniplex, Remington Park, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Softball Hall of Fame, and the National Firefighters Hall of Fame.

In 1981 - 25 years ago - Oklahoma City recognized the importance of this area by designating it the Northeast Gateway Urban Conservation District. The purpose of the district, as designated by ordinance, is "to ensure continued conservation of aesthetic appeal within a unique area; to encourage quality development; and to recognize the unique quality and character of the Northeast Gateway."

In the Northeast Gateway district, building facades must be of stone, masonry, glass or wood. Metal buildings aren't allowed to front onto public streets. There are special requirements for landscaping, screening, street setback, building height, and noise. Heavy equipment repair, truckstops, outdoor swap meets, and sewage treatment plants are prohibited. These extra requirements are designed to help the city make a good first impression.

Tulsa's leaders haven't been as foresighted in protecting our special places.

Here's one example: We've allowed our own northeast gateway, the heavily-traveled stretch where I-44, US 412, and State Highway 66 join together, to develop in an ugly way. Instead being lined with places for tourists to spend money and generate sales tax, this corridor is filling up with industrial uses, auto auctions, and truck storage.

The area has developed in this way partly because, 40 years after Tulsa annexed the area, the city still hasn't provided the infrastructure needed for more profitable uses. The lack of city sewer is a particular hindrance.

To the south of this corridor are some of the largest blocks of undeveloped land remaining within the city limits. Historic Route 66 is just a mile to the south.

Tulsa needs to be smart about how this region develops. And while we can't do anything about what's already there, city officials can make planning decisions that will begin to turn the area around.

Last Thursday the City Council approved a zoning change that is a step in the wrong direction. Some property in this corridor, near 145th East Ave and Admiral, was rezoned industrial. I'm told that the rezoning will make it harder for neighboring property owners to develop their land as anything but industrial.

Some of those nearby parcels were potential sites for residential development. Just within the last month, a sewer line was completed to the area which would make residential development feasible, but it is unlikely to happen if industrial development springs up nearby. The industrial rezoning could also hinder retail development at 129th East Ave and I-44, a site identified as a prime retail location.

Tulsa needs a comprehensive plan that reflects the importance of this and other strategic areas, and we need ordinances that help us put the plan into action.

Oklahoma City's zoning overlays may not be the best approach - they're really an attempt to superimpose the form-based planning approach onto an outdated use-based system - but OKC's example gives Tulsa a place to start.

Tulsa only has so much highway frontage, so much open space, so much riverfront. They aren't making any more of the stuff (to paraphrase Will Rogers), so we need to make the most of what we have.

An edited version of this piece was published in the June 21, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Here is my blog entry linking to the article. Posted on the web August 2, 2009. Links to the Citizens' Commisison final report added October 28, 2017.

At-large barge runs aground

By Michael D. Bates

Over the next four weeks, between now and the state primary election, this column will focus on the statewide, legislative, county, and judicial races that will be on the July 25th ballot.

Before we launch ourselves headlong into state politics, let's get caught up on a city issue that we've been following for over half a year: the Citizen's Commission's recommendations for changing the City Charter.

Back on June 9, the Citizens' Commission on City Government wrapped up its work and issued its final report. This was the panel which was established last December by then-Mayor Bill LaFortune just as an initiative petition seeking to replace three City Council districts with three at-large supercouncilor seats stalled for lack of popular support and was shelved.

It appeared to many opponents of at-large supercouncilors that this commission was another means to push the measure through: Get the idea endorsed by a blue-ribbon panel so as to pressure the Council to put the idea on the ballot.

It didn't turn out that way. The commission's final report makes it clear that most of its members oppose any change to the structure of the City Council. A few supported the idea of adding at-large or super-district seats to the Council, without reducing the existing number of districts. (At the meeting I attended, the only commissioners to express support for the idea were Realtor Joe McGraw and attorney Steve Schuller. Schuller replaced at-large Council advocate Howard Barnett when he stepped aside to begin his run for State Treasurer.)

The report cited three reasons for keeping the Council structure as it is: the numerical reality that at-large seats would dilute district representation; the "racial divides that still afflict" Tulsa (which was a major reason for moving to district representation in 1989); and the sense that the division that provided a rationale for at-large councilors wasn't really a structural problem, but a function of the people in office at the time.

In this Sunday's edition of the monopoly daily paper, Ken Neal, a vocal opponent of any degree of popular sovereignty and a leader in the call for at-large councilors, did his best to spin the report his way, claiming that the commission "put aside the contentious question of district versus at-large councilors," when in fact they dealt with it quite decisively.

You can read the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions - there's a copy posted at tulsansdefendingdemocracy.com.

The commission did recommend three charter changes: non-partisan elections, making the city auditor an appointive office, and moving elections to November in odd-numbered years.

Changing the election date, something proposed in this space last December, seems to be the most broadly supported and simplest change, one that would be worth putting on the ballot at the earliest opportunity, perhaps this November.

The move would give new elected officials nearly half a year to find their way around City Hall before the budget cycle begins. Under the current calendar, a draft budget is due within weeks of the inauguration. Had there been a longer lead time this year, it would have given Councilor John Eagleton, who ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism, more time to build support for keeping the growth of the city budget within the rate of inflation. Under the pressure of time, most councilors felt the need to swallow whatever was proposed.

Fall elections would also mean better weather and more daylight hours for face-to-face, door-to-door campaigning, and avoiding the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

The Council that sends this to the voters will have to sacrifice three months of their term, which would likely end in January instead of April. That might be the only thing that might prevent this proposal from moving forward right away.

The matter of non-partisan elections will take longer to sort out. The commission recommended the change, calling party politics a distraction and an impediment to unity, but they couldn't reach a consensus on how to implement the change, and there were even a few dissenters who prefer no change at all.

It was noted that a few members "embraced" my proposal for "multi-partisan" elections, outlined here in the April 5 edition, which would leave party labels in place, encourage the formation of locally-focused political groups, and make a candidate's local affiliations evident to the voter on the ballot. However much we desire unity, there will be factions - it's a function of human nature - and our system should acknowledge and accommodate that reality.

The strongest recommendation was to have the City Auditor appointed by and accountable to an audit committee whose five members would be appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council.
The report claims, "No longer subjecting the auditor to periodic elections, the task force believes, would safeguard the independence and integrity of the audit office." Quite the opposite: An elected auditor is accountable only to the voters, while an appointed auditor would be dependent on the goodwill of people handpicked by the Mayor, the head of the executive branch of government, the principal object of the auditor's investigations.

Overall, the report was thoughtful, deliberate, and didn't overreach. On two issues, civil service reform and city/county consolidation, the commission felt it was "ill-equipped to make major recommendations." Where there were conflicting views on a recommendation, the report makes that plain.

Why did things turn out so well, contrary to the expectations and fears of many? The members of the commission heard and heeded those concerns, and worked diligently to allay them.

While most commissioners didn't come in with years of city government dealings to shape their understanding of the issue, they weren't about to be led by the nose. It was apparent that most of these busy leaders were doing their own study and research, seeking out different perspectives, filling in the gaps in their own knowledge of Tulsa's governmental history and alternative ways to organize City Hall.

They sought out different perspectives for presentation at commission meetings.

It didn't hurt that, under re-election pressure, LaFortune nominated members of Tulsans Defending Democracy, the at-large opposition group, to the commission. One of those commissioners, Jane Malone, gave powerful personal testimony of the impact that diluting district representation would have on racial equality in Tulsa.

There was one significant shortcoming in the process: The commission's meetings were all held during normal working hours, making it difficult for citizens with full-time jobs to attend and participate during opportunities for public comment.

Co-chairmen Ken Levit and Hans Helmerich did a fine job of running the meetings and focusing the issues. Their innate intellectual honesty and appreciation of the gravity of the task deserves a good deal of credit for the positive outcome of the commission's work.

Congratulations to them and the commission members for a job well done.

Elsewhere at City Hall:

Last week we wrote about the controversy over Mayor Taylor's appointment of Jim Beach to the Board of Adjustment. The groundswell of opposition to the appointment from neighborhood leaders expressed itself in a letter to the City Council and the Mayor, calling on the Mayor to withdraw the appointment.

Beach's appointment was scheduled for a vote at last Thursday's City Council meeting, but Mayor Taylor, apparently aware that she lacked the five votes needed for approval, asked the Council for a delay.
The letter, sent by a bipartisan group of neighborhood association leaders and community activists, refers to Beach as an "insider in an insider's game." In addition to the concerns about conflict of interest on specific cases where Beach's employer, Sack and Associates, is a part of the development team, the letter mentions the possibility that Beach may have an inherent conflict of interest under the Oklahoma Constitution on every case, because his employer is a contractor to the City.

The letter urges the Council to research the conflict issues thoroughly before considering Beach's appointment, rather than dealing with them after Beach has been confirmed.

The neighborhood leaders aren't likely to back down. It will be interesting to see whether Taylor insists on pushing ahead, no matter how fierce the opposition.

An edited version of this piece was published in the June 7, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The edited, published version of the piece is online in the Internet Archive. Posted on the web September 17, 2013.

Remembering Jane Jacobs
By Michael D. Bates

"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines.... It is an attack... on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding."

She was labeled a naysayer and an obstructionist, anti-growth and anti-progress. She had no training in city planning or architecture, but she challenged the professionals and the experts. In the mid-'50s, when her neighborhood was threatened with demolition by New York's orgy of expressway construction, she and her neighbors fought back and won. Their victory opened the door for the economic resurgence of the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.

She transcended political boundaries. In the late '60s, she and her family left the United States for Toronto to keep her son out of the Vietnam War draft, and yet two of her books were listed among the hundred best non-fiction works of the 20th century by the conservative fortnightly National Review.

What Jane Jacobs had was a keen eye for detail, a gift for description, and a stubborn determination to see streets, neighborhoods, and cities as they really are, not distorted through the lens of academic theory. It is that quality that makes her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, still fresh and relevant nearly half a century after its publication.

Her death on April 25, at the age of 89, brought to an end Jane Jacobs' long and productive life. She deserves to be remembered, and so do her observations about what makes a city a safe and pleasant place to live and work and, just as important, an incubator for new businesses and new ideas.

Here are just three of the lessons she taught, lessons that many of Tulsa's leaders have yet to learn:

1. Believe your eyes, not your theories:

Jacobs' ideas about cities ran counter to the accepted wisdom of city planning, which she considered a dangerous kind of quackery, as apt to kill the patient as heal it: "As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense."

Planners clung to their dogma, regardless of its real-world effects: "The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."

Jacobs wrote of a friend who was a city planner in Boston, who told her that the North End, the old Italian district with its chaotic tangle of narrow streets and untidy mixture of homes and businesses, was a dreadful, crowded, unhealthy slum that needed to be cleared. And although he concurred with her observation that the neighborhood was a lively, pleasant, and safe place, an observation backed up by low crime and mortality rates, he chose to believe the negative view of the neighborhood dictated by accepted planning theory.

Here in Tulsa there seems to be a reluctance to catalog and acknowledge the planning failures of the last fifty years. Perhaps it is because many of the responsible decision makers of the '60s, '70s, and '80s are still living and still influential. But until we are willing to admit that following the fads of the past - urban renewal, superblocks, pedestrian malls, urban expressway loops - caused more damage than good, we will remain susceptible to ignoring reality and uncritically embracing the next fashionable concept.

2. The safety of a city is a function of its design:

Jacobs saw, in the traditional urban neighborhoods that had escaped dismemberment by urban renewal and expressway construction, a complex organic system that planners tamper with at their peril.

The mixture of residences, jobs, and shopping gives people a reason to be on the sidewalks, coming into or through the neighborhood from early in the morning until late at night. That, combined with buildings that overlook those sidewalks, creates a kind of natural surveillance - a phenomenon she called "eyes on the street." She wrote, "No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down."

Contrast that with a typical 1970s Tulsa subdivision. The neighborhood has sidewalks, but they don't lead anywhere you would need to go. The houses turn a blind eye to the street; living rooms look out on the back yard, with no windows facing the street. It doesn't matter how many street lights you put up; if no one needs to be walking down the street, and no one can easily look out to observe the street, you have only managed to create a well-lit workplace for vandals and car thieves.

3. Old buildings matter:

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings... but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings."

Think about the most lively and interesting places in Tulsa, the kind of places you'd take a visitor for a night on the town: Brookside, the Blue Dome District, Brady Village, Cherry Street, 18th and Boston. Each of those districts had an abundance of old buildings, buildings that are for the most part unremarkable. But those buildings provided an inexpensive place for someone with a dream to start a new business.

You might have seen the same kind of vitality develop in the south part of downtown, with business springing up to serve the tens of thousands who attend classes at TCC's Metro Campus or participate in activities at the downtown churches, but so many of the buildings have been taken for parking by the churches and by TCC that a prospective business owner would be hard-pressed to find a location.

"As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

Time and space allow us only to scratch the surface of Jacobs' wisdom here. You will have to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for yourselves to see what she had to say about why some parks are lively and safe and others are dull and dangerous, why certain areas become magnets for used car lots and other unattractive uses, how to accommodate cars without killing an urban neighborhood, and how to keep a successful district from self-destructing.

The principles Jacobs drew from her observations are timeless because they are grounded in unchanging human nature, although the application of those principles will vary from one place to another. Would that every City Councilor and every planning commissioner would read and ponder Jacobs' works.

As Tulsa revisits its Comprehensive Plan for the first time in 30 years, as we consider moving from use-based to form-based planning, we have the opportunity to align our practices with those timeless principles, so that once again our urban core can become a lively and dynamic engine for the culture and prosperity of our city and our region.
Jane Jacobs showed us the way. Perhaps, a half-century later, Tulsa is ready to follow her path.

An edited version of this piece was published on May 31, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web, with hyperlinks to related articles, on August 18, 2010.

"No man's property is safe while the legislature is in session." So goes the old saying, and it very nearly held true this year, as two bills at the State Capitol, SB 1324 and HB 2559, threatened property values by trying to undermine local control of zoning and historic preservation.

But HB 2559 died in conference committee, and SB 1324 emerged last Tuesday only to be blown out of the water by a humiliating vote of 42 to 3 in the full State Senate.

We've been following these bills for about six weeks, ever since historic preservation groups sounded the alarm. We've learned several lessons in the process.

The first lesson is that if you care about your city, the State Legislature deserves every bit as much scrutiny as City Hall. In Oklahoma, municipalities are creatures of the state, limited to the authority granted them by the Oklahoma Constitution and Statutes. A lot of good work locally could be undone at the state level.

Lesson two: It's very hard to get a clear idea of where a bill stands. Striking the title, shell bills, committee substitutes, riders -- there are so many different ways to derail or completely change a piece of legislation. We've only begun to get an education in the legislative process as it is practiced in Oklahoma City. Don't assume that you get it just because you watch C-SPAN as your daily soap opera; Oklahoma's procedures and traditions are very different from those of Congress.

Lesson three: Legislators are forced to consider an incredible amount of legislation each year - thousands of bills and resolutions are introduced, and hundreds make it to the floor for debate and a vote. They can't possibly give each bill the attention it deserves.

Consequently, they put a lot of trust in their colleagues and in lobbyists to decide whether a bill deserves scrutiny. In the case of HB 2559 and SB 1324, the bill's sponsors - Sen. Brian Crain and Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, all from Tulsa - told their colleagues that the provisions weren't controversial at all.

The same message was carried by lobbyists Karl Ahlgren and Russ Roach, representing the interests of "Utica Partners". Roach used to live in Swan Lake, a zoned historic preservation neighborhood in midtown Tulsa. Nowadays Roach lives south of Southern Hills Country Club, living large and milking his connections to his former colleagues for all their worth. He seems to have forgotten the challenges faced by homeowners in older parts of Tulsa.

Until preservationists got wind of the bill, and word spread to neighborhood associations, city councilors, and others concerned about urban planning and zoning policy, legislators weren't hearing any message to the contrary. SB 1324 passed unanimously the first time through in both houses.

How did ordinary Oklahomans turn a unanimous vote in favor to a nearly unanimous vote against? We became aware of the legislation and understood its implications, and then we expressed our concerns to our representatives. Once we educated the members of the House and Senate about the problems with the bill, that tipped the balance in the right direction.

While I'd hope that our legislators would be inclined to vote against any measure they haven't had time to study, it's our job to keep an eye on the bills that are introduced and to lobby just as hard as hired guns like Russ Roach.

One more lesson to learn: There are elected officials that desperately need to be replaced, but it's likely that most of them will get free rides to re-election when the filing period closes on June 7.

Ron Peters, who represents House District 70 in midtown, is one of those who need to go. Off the record, his Republican colleagues will tell you that he is one of the least cooperative, least trustworthy, least principled members of their caucus. They'd be happy to see him go.

Peters was one of a half-dozen Republicans who broke with the party to support the lottery and the introduction of full-fledged casino gambling, with all their accompanying social ills.

SB 1324 and HB 2559 are not his first assaults on homeowners' rights and local control of land use issues. In 2005, Peters and Crain co-authored HB 1911.

In addition to the Board of Adjustment provisions that made their way into SB 1324, the earlier bill would have removed notice requirements for property owners within a redevelopment (i.e., urban renewal) district. Owners would not have had to be notified about public hearings regarding redevelopment plans affecting their property. It also would have removed a requirement for redevelopment plans to be approved by the City Council.

Peters hasn't had a challenger since he first won the seat in the 2000 Republican primary. A conservative Republican challenger could unseat him, if only one would step forward.

It must have surprised some of her constituents that Jeannie McDaniel, a Democrat who represents House District 78 in the northern part of midtown, would have supported a bill undermining historic preservation zoning. After all, she was head of the Mayor's Office for Neighborhoods under Mayor Susan Savage, and she did a great deal to help neighborhood associations organize and help them deal with City Hall bureaucracy.

But residents of central Maple Ridge will remember how, in 1999 and 2000, McDaniel and the Savage administration worked to undermine their efforts to get historic preservation zoning for their neighborhood, which is arguably Tulsa's most historic neighborhood without that protection.

McDaniel was not only out of step with this land use bill, she was one of only five state reps to oppose SB 1742, the pro-life legislation which makes crucial information available to women in crisis pregnancies. The bill takes concrete actions toward the stated goal of making abortion rare (as in Bill Clinton's phrase "safe, legal, and rare"), by giving women solid alternatives to killing their unborn children.

McDaniel represents quite a turn to the left from her predecessor, pro-life Democrat Mary Easley, who voted for SB 1742 in the State Senate.

McDaniel won by only 24 votes over Republican David Schaffer, and she faces a tough challenger in Tulsa police officer and Republican Jesse Guardiola. Guardiola has been campaigning hard for over six months.
The only other Tulsa state representative to oppose this year's landmark pro-life legislation was Democrat Darrell Gilbert, who represents District 72 in north-central Tulsa. Gilbert, a former Republican, hasn't had a general election opponent since his first race in 1996, and hasn't had a primary election opponent since 1998.

Our list of elected officials who deserve a strong challenge would not be complete without mentioning Tulsa County Commissioners Bob Dick and Wilbert Collins, both up for re-election this year. In previous columns, we've documented their aversion to competitive bidding and their disdain for the concerns of Tulsa homeowners.

Collins has a challenger, Owasso State Rep. John Smaligo. Both of Democrat Collins's previous wins have been very narrow, and his district, which includes north Tulsa County and east Tulsa, is becoming increasingly Republican.

Bob Dick got a free ride four years ago, and so far he has not drawn a challenger. City Councilor Bill Christiansen has been rumored as a candidate, but it hasn't been clear whether he would oppose Dick or whether Dick would retire and anoint him as his successor. Christiansen would be better on the south Tulsa bridge issue, but otherwise he wouldn't be much of an improvement.

Christiansen may be waiting to see how much damage there is from the FAA investigation into allegations of anti-competitive practices at Jones Riverside Airport, practices that are alleged to have helped his Christiansen Aviation at the expense of competing fixed-base operator Roadhouse Aviation. The FAA report was due out at press time.

Whatever Christiansen decides to do, Tulsa County needs someone to run for Commission District 3 who will work to make county government more open and efficient, someone who will give deference to city government, rather than engaging in empire-building at the County Courthouse.

You may be used to waiting until Election Day to pay attention to these races. But if you want a real choice to available to you on the ballot, you need to do some homework between now and June 7.

If you're reading this, you're obviously intelligent and concerned about good government. Take a close look at your elected representatives, and consider whether you should step forward and challenge them. Or perhaps someone you know would be the perfect candidate.

Competition is a good thing. It gives us a chance to replace those officials who need replacing and helps those who survive a challenge to get back on the straight and narrow.

Someone needs to provide that competition. That someone could be you.

MORE ON SB 1324 and HB 2559:

An edited version of this piece was published in the May 24, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web July 3, 2010.

Flunking the Yellow Pages Test

By Michael D. Bates

When he was Mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith had a simple test for whether city government ought to be performing a service or whether it should be left to the private sector:

"Look at the city's yellow pages. If the phone book lists three companies that provide a certain service, the city probably should not be in that business, at least not exclusively."

Using the Yellow Pages Test, Goldsmith cut hundreds of millions in city expenses, money that was then spent on city improvements. City government focused on the tasks that only it could provide. Dozens of functions were completely turned over to the private sector or contracted out. In order to keep a task in-house, a city department had to compete successfully on cost and quality with private providers.

Goldsmith's example is more often applauded than followed. Oklahoma politicians have been all too anxious to get into businesses like entertainment, resorts, and commercial aviation, providing public funds to help private enterprises that are in competition with other private businesses.

These interventions are always justified as essential to the public good, but instead they always seem to drain money away from the basic functions of government.

On Sunday, May 14, the Oklahoman reported that the $27 million in transferable state tax credits used to finance Great Plains Airlines was coming out of fuel taxes, money that would otherwise go to replace

Oklahoma's roads and bridges. Rather than fund the rehabilitation of 90 bridges or the resurfacing of 135 miles of highway, Oklahomans are paying for a failed airline that never got close to its stated purpose of providing air service between Oklahoma and the coasts.

(Don't go looking for that story in the Tulsa World, whose parent company was a major investor in the failed airline.)

With that lesson on the front page of the state's biggest paper, you'd think it would deter the Legislature from making the same mistake again.

Instead, there's a push to approve $30 million in state tax credits for redevelopment of Grand Lake's Shangri-La resort. Earlier this session, a bill containing the credits stalled in the House, but they may be inserted into the massive budget and tax cut bill.

There's no question that Shangri-La is not much of an attraction any more. My wife and I spent our fifth anniversary there 12 years ago and were so bored with the place we left early to visit Buffalo Ranch and the Precious Moments Chapel.

Backers of the plan claim we need a revived Shangri-La to compete with convention centers and resorts in other states. It seems more likely that it would compete for convention business with city-owned convention centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and with tribal and privately-owned facilities like the Cherokee Resort in Catoosa and Tulsa's Renaissance Hotel.

Left to its own devices, the free market would be unlikely to pick the southern end of Monkey Island for a major resort. Shangri-La is nearly as inaccessible as its literary namesake. It's over 80 miles away from the nearest commercial airport, and there's only one two-lane highway leading to it.

By now, GOP leadership in the House should have poured cold water on the plan, but they have remained silent. Perhaps they're concerned about protecting the bill's sponsor, Doug Cox, a freshman representative from Grove serving a traditionally Democratic district.

House Republicans should be more concerned about protecting a reputation for common sense and integrity. That will do more in the long run for maintaining their majority and building popular support for their platform than meddling in an area that should be left to the private sector.

Closer to home, there was much ado last week about the city's meddling in the competition for local entertainment dollars.

Last Thursday night, the City Council authorized payments to the Tulsa Oilers hockey team, the Tulsa Talons arena football team, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).

Former Mayor Bill LaFortune changed the formula for splitting concession revenues with the Oilers and Talons. As a result, each team will receive more money back in concession revenues than they paid in rent, about $20,000 more for the Talons and $50,000 more for the Oilers.

The PRCA and Professional Bull Riders (PBR) are each getting a $50,000 sponsorship payment from the city.

During Thursday's Council meeting, Council Chairman "Landslide" Bill Martinson called the payments corporate welfare and said they were offensive. That's ironic: The same Bill Martinson now fretting about $100,000 was just a few months ago pushing to have the city bail out Bank of Oklahoma to the tune of $7.5 million for the bad loan it made to Great Plains Airlines, a loan for which the city has no liability.

The Tulsa World's Friday front-page graphic painted a distorted picture of the payments to the teams by omitting the money the city received in concession revenues from the events. Between rent and concessions, the city made $187,952 from Oilers' games and $63,409 from Talons' games. That's after paying the teams their share of concession cash.

The real question, one the monopoly daily paper doesn't want to address, is whether the city makes enough money from these events to cover the expense of operating the facility. Conventions and major concerts might bring in a significant number of out-of-town visitors, so that theoretically, the increased sales tax revenue from those visitors would offset any operating loss.

But the Talons and Oilers draw mainly from the local area, so the revenues need to be enough by themselves to cover the expenses. Otherwise, we'd be better off keeping the place closed.

LaFortune was quoted in the World as defending the deals on the grounds of quality of life: "Professional teams in our city are absolutely critical to our city's economic well-being."

Minor league sports are really just one entertainment option among many in this city, competing with night clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for the disposable income of Tulsa residents. There's no more justification for subsidizing them than there would be for a city-funded Western Swing band. (Actually, the latter would be far more likely to bring in outside tourist dollars.)

There's something else ironic about Martinson's fussing about corporate welfare. The amounts in question are three orders of magnitude smaller than what we're spending on the new arena - around 100 grand compared to $200 million. Talk about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Ordinarily, a private business has to pay for a place to conduct business. You might buy or lease an existing building, or you might build something new, but the cost of a place is part of the cost of doing business. If you're leasing, your rent is paying for the landlord's cost of building and maintaining the place.

But in all the financial projections for the new arena, the cost of construction is left out of the picture. If we exceed all reasonable expectations, we may cover the costs of operation, but there's no expectation that taxpayers should recover the funds we spent to build a place for sports teams and musical acts to make money. If anything is corporate welfare, that surely is.

Taxpayers don't build movie theaters or dance halls, and there's no reason we should be funding a location for entertainment options that compete with those private businesses.

An edited version of this column appeared in the May 17, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Here's my blog entry linking to the article. Posted online October 26, 2017.

Charter change commission winding down

The blue-ribbon panel assembled to consider radical changes to Tulsa's form of government is winding down its work and appears ready instead to make a set of more modest but constructive recommendations.

Last Friday, May 12, I spoke at the invitation of the Citizens' Commission on City Government about my idea of multi-partisan elections (described in my April 6 column) and the related concept of instant runoff voting (described in my March 9 column).

I have been skeptical of this commission, which was established by Mayor Bill LaFortune last December after the petition drive in support of at-large councilors failed to gain traction. LaFortune handpicked the commission members and set the ground rules without consulting with his fellow elected officials. It seemed to be another means to advance the notion of at-large councilors.

That notion, you'll be pleased to know, is all but dead. In a straw poll taken at the end of the meeting, only two commissioners, realtor Joe McGraw and zoning attorney Stephen Schuller, supported any form of at-large membership on the Council.

McGraw said that he wants someone on the Council representing all of Tulsa, not just special interests. Reuben Gant, head of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, replied that no one will have the best interests of all Tulsa at heart. Victory Christian Center pastor Sharon Daugherty pointed out that Mayor is there to represent the whole city.

Commission co-chairman Ken Levit said that a move to a mixed district and at-large Council might have been workable when the current City Charter was written, but having gone to a district-only Council, any addition of at-large members would be "wrenching" and would dilute the "representativeness" of the Council.

Nor is there any sentiment for switching to Oklahoma City's form of government, where the Mayor is just an at-large member of the Council and the city would be run by a professional manager. Chris Medlock's view seems to have prevailed: The problem wasn't with the organizational chart, and if we want someone with city manager credentials to oversee city operations, the Mayor has the power to make that happen.

One of the commissioners raised the idea of giving the Mayor a vote on the City Council, so that someone with a whole-city perspective would have a voice in their decisions, but it didn't gain any support. Anyway, doesn't the Mayor have more power to represent the interests of the whole city with a veto over the Council's decisions than with one voice and vote out of 10 as a Council member?

The commission's thinking hasn't gelled on the issue of partisanship in city elections, beyond a general agreement that something needs to change.

Some commissioners seem to like the idea of a blanket primary, with all candidates on the ballot, labeled by party. National party labels may not tell the whole story, but, as Daugherty said, they give some insight to the voter.

Others, like Gant, say there's no room for partisan politics in local government.

Commission member Sandra Alexander spoke of her frustration as a Republican living in heavily Democratic Council District 1. She said that in five of the eight elections under the 1989 City Charter, she has not had a say in who would become her city councilor because the race was decided in the Democratic primary.

Someone proposed that we keep the current system, but if all the candidates who file are from one party, move the contest to the general election and let everyone vote. But that doesn't solve the problem for Alexander. What if, as often happens, all the viable candidates are from one party and someone from the other party files on a whim? In that situation, the real contest would still take place in the primary, and voters from the other party would still be left out.

I presented my multi-partisan solution - all candidates on the same ballot, each bearing a ballot label indicating endorsement by party or local PACs, and using Instant Runoff Voting to ensure that the winner is the candidate backed by the majority of voters - at the beginning of the meeting, long before the commission's discussion took place.

The more I listened to their concerns, the more convinced I was that the multi-partisan, instant-runoff approach solves all the problems they're trying to solve. I hope they'll give it a closer look.

There are three other issues that are likely to appear in the Commission's final report: whether the City Auditor should be appointed, civil service management, and the election calendar.

This last issue, which I raised in this space last week, came up during a meeting between Levit, his fellow co-chairman Hans Helmerich, and Mayor Kathy Taylor. Taylor had less than a month after her swearing-in to submit a budget to the Council. Because the budget cycle can't move, moving the election cycle would be the only way to relieve the pressure on newly-elected officials.

Former Councilor Chris Medlock spoke in support of elections in the fall of odd-numbered years. A fall election would provide better weather and longer daylight hours for door-to-door campaigning and might boost turnout, because the election would come at a time of year when people are accustomed to vote. Levit thought this might offset the drop in turnout likely with non-partisan elections.

The entire commission will meet with Taylor in the near future, then will meet in executive session to draft a final report, with an aim to finish work as planned in June.

SB 1324 in conference committee

An update on the zoning legislation we've been following:

Last Tuesday, May 9, I spoke to State Sen. Brian Crain, the author of SB 1324 (see last issue), the bill that would restrict the freedom of municipal governments with regard to Board of Adjustment appeals and enforcement of design guidelines (the sort found in historic preservation districts and neighborhood conservation districts).

Crain told me that the bill was headed to conference committee. (As of Friday, there was no reference to the bill going to conference or any conferees being named in either the House or Senate journal.) Crain said that the companion bill, HB 2559, was dead.

The Mid-City Advocate, a weekly serving central Oklahoma City, an area with many historic preservation and neighborhood conservation districts, featured the two bills on their front page. The paper gave Crain's rationale for SB 1324:

"What we're concerned about is providing flexibility to cities and towns with zoning codes. What we have now is an inability to redevelop some existing areas because the zoning codes are so inflexible. They don't allow city councils to make any variances. So the first part of the bill allows communities more flexibility in zoning, and the second part just clarifies that if you have to appeal from the board of adjustment, you go to district court."

Crain's explanation is at odds with the actual language of SB 1324, which appears to take enforcement of design guidelines away from design review committees, such as the Tulsa Preservation Commission, whose decisions can be appealed to the City Council, and to give that power to the Board of Adjustment, whose decisions could only be appealed to District Court, under the other provisions of Crain's bill.

Given Crain's rationale, one might think that elected officials from cities across Oklahoma were begging for this bill. I asked Crain if he had sought input from any members of Tulsa's City Council about his bill. He told me that he had not.

If you don't live in a historic preservation district, you may not feel threatened by this bill, but it sets a dangerous precedent. Someday the legislature may decide to nullify a part of the zoning code you depend upon to protect your property value. Do you really want legislators from Bugtussle and Slapout to decide Tulsa's zoning policies, or do you want decisions about local policy to be made locally?

Call the State Capitol and let your state senator and state representative know what you think about this bill.

An edited version of this piece was published on May 10, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web, with hyperlinks to related articles, on August 18, 2010.

We're now a month past the city election, and it's time to follow up on a few stories that we've been watching.

* * *

First, let's look to the State Legislature, where Tulsa's development lobby has taken its battle to regain total control of zoning and land use planning. HB 2559 has been sent to conference committee. The bill, sponsored by three Tulsa legislators (State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, and State Sen. Brian Crain), would interfere with local control of the zoning process, requiring appeals to Board of Adjustment (BoA) decisions to go directly to District Court and making it easier to remove lots from historic preservation districts (and ensuring the eventual erosion of these districts to non-existence).

The companion Senate bill, SB 1324, is awaiting the Senate's consideration of House amendments, but it appears to be on hold while HB 2559 is in conference. SB 1324 includes a section that would give the BoA oversight of design guidelines, which would affect historic preservation districts and Oklahoma City's neighborhood conservation districts. Combined with the BoA appeal requirement, it would make it tougher to enforce these zoning provisions which aim to preserve the character of a neighborhood. It's likely that this provision will be included in the conference negotiations over HB 2559.

Legislators have gotten an earful about these bills from neighborhood association leaders and historic preservation activists over the last two weeks. We'll see if the voice of the people is enough to overcome the loud voice of campaign contributions from builders' PACs and individual developers. One encouraging sign: State Sen. Randy Brogdon, a former Mayor of Owasso, and one of the most principled members of the State Legislature, has come out in opposition to the bill.

The local monopoly daily weighed in with an editorial on the bill, predictably siding against local control of land use decisions. The editorial set forth a false alternative: Do you want zoning decisions made by professionals or by politicians?

In fact, the BoA is not made up of professionals. It consists of five private citizens, nominated to the board by the Mayor for three-year terms and confirmed by the City Council.

And although much of what the Board does is cut-and-dried, there is a strong subjective element to the approval of special exceptions, where the Board's role is more legislative, rather than "quasi-judicial." Neighborhood compatibility is involved in special exceptions, and it would be reasonable to provide a level of review that doesn't require the expense of hiring an attorney.

Whatever the merits of changing the BoA appeals process or changing historic preservation rules, the issue should be debated and decided locally - a point the World's editorial avoids. The bottom line is that the World and the development lobby don't want land-use decisions made by a body that they don't control.
Keep calling the State Capitol. Our legislators need to get the message - keep local issues under local control.

* * *

Mayor Kathy Taylor is being lauded for reaching across partisan lines to hire former City Councilor Susan Neal, a Republican, to serve on her staff as a legislative and education liaison. Neal and former Council colleague Tom Baker were Taylor's first two permanent hires.

The reality is that, when it comes to local political factions, Neal's hiring doesn't cross any ideological boundaries at all. Neal is very much a part of the Midtown Money Belt faction that crosses national party lines and includes Taylor, Baker, and former Mayor Susan Savage. She and Baker were the Tulsa World editorial board's favorite councilors. The pair was nicknamed Bakerneal by their colleagues for voting in lockstep.

Although she worked for a Republican congressman a decade and a half ago, Neal is considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by most local activists. As a councilor, she would show up at the annual Tulsa County Republican Convention just long enough to wave when the elected officials were introduced.

I'm only aware of one occasion where Neal took a discernibly Republican position on an issue: She voted twice against allowing more city employees to unionize. Then again, that's a position many Money Belt Democrats share, including Mayor Taylor and former Mayor Savage.

Her appointment as a legislative liaison is ironic. In choosing a liaison, you want someone who has the respect of those you're going to be lobbying.

Neal's ties to Tulsa's mostly-Republican legislative delegation are rather tenuous. When Republican elected officials gathered in late 2004 to announce their opposition to the recall of two Republican city councilors, Neal was nowhere in sight. Of the local delegation, she's known to have a good rapport with only Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel, both of whom sponsored the aforementioned HB 2559, working to keep a reform-minded City Council from exercising local control over zoning.

Neal isn't Taylor's worst choice for a liaison to the City Council - that would have been Baker - but she comes close. She wasn't highly regarded by the reformers on the Council, a perspective that now holds a solid majority on that body. During Council debates, Neal would try her colleagues' patience with her lengthy soliloquies on the agony of decision-making, complete with sighs and anguished facial expressions. Her wilderness wanderings invariably led her to whatever position the Tulsa World editorial board favored.

I received a good deal of flack for endorsing Bill LaFortune against Taylor in the general, after working for his defeat in the Republican primary. I was accused (ironically, by someone married to a member of Taylor's campaign staff and transition team) of selling out for a chance at an unpaid appointment to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC); others said I was acting out of pure Republican partisanship.

I wrote at the time that a chastened LaFortune was Tulsa's best chance for City Hall reform. The primary result opened LaFortune's eyes. The voices he had dismissed as a fringe group turned out to represent a broad, bipartisan, and geographically diverse coalition that prevailed in most of the contested council seats and, if it hadn't been for Randi Miller's spoiler role, would have taken him out in the primary.

Taylor obviously hasn't had that wake-up call yet. Taylor's choice of Baker and Neal confirms my suspicion that she will do nothing to challenge the City Hall status quo. If you were a Medlock or McCorkell voter, if you're from north, east, or west Tulsa, she won't be listening to you. She appears to be encasing herself in a Money Belt bubble, where she can remain uncontaminated by the concerns and opinions of the rest of Tulsa.

I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Taylor's appointments to expired terms on the TMAPC, the BoA, and Tulsa Airport Authority will be very telling.

* * *

Speaking of partisanship and city government, this Friday I will be speaking about non-partisan municipal elections to the Citizens' Commission on City Government, a body appointed by former Mayor LaFortune to study changing the City Charter. I'll be presenting the alternative of multi-partisan elections, which I described in this space back in April, and advocating for instant runoff voting, which I wrote about in March.

The Commission is meeting at the TCC West Campus (a strange venue - it's not within Tulsa's City Limits) on Friday at 1:30pm.

I've been hearing that the two recommendations most likely to emerge from the commission are non-partisan elections and appointment of the City Auditor. The commission has been told in no uncertain terms that the addition of any number of at-large or supercouncilor seats would provoke a Federal Voting Rights Act case because of the diluting effect such a move would have on minority representation. (Attorney Greg Bledsoe, representing the group opposing at-large councilors, set out the legal issues in great detail. You can read his testimony in detail at tulsansdefendingdemocracy.com.)

Non-partisan elections would deprive voters of useful information in the voting booth. My alternative, spelled out in full in my April 6th column, would put all candidates on a single ballot, giving every voter a choice of every candidate. But rather than concealing the reality of factions and interest groups by stripping the ballot of any partisan labels, my idea would allow both national party labels and the names of locally-based political action committees to appear on the ballot, so that voters would know how the candidates line up on local issues.

Instead of pretending that these divisions don't exist, let's make them apparent.

One issue the commission should examine, but hasn't: Moving city elections to the fall of odd-numbered years. It would give candidates more daylight hours and better campaigning weather, and it would give new officials a full six months to find their way around City Hall before the next budget cycle begins.

The City Auditor's post has worked well for decades as an elected post. If it must be changed to an appointed position, let the Council make the appointment, not the Mayor. Above all, the Auditor should act as a check and a watchdog over the executive branch of government, which the Mayor heads. Many Tulsans were uneasy enough with the idea of a mayoral staffer running for City Auditor this year; imagine if Bill LaFortune had been able to appoint Michael Willis directly to the post.

The commission will wrap up work and issue their recommendations in June. I doubt the new Council will do anything with them right away, given the other issues on their plate. At the earliest, the commission's ideas may be given a hearing as part of the usual charter review cycle which will begin in the summer of 2007.

Scary bypass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other City Hall news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An edited version of this column was published in Urban Tulsa Weekly on April 19, 2006. Posted to BatesLine on March 10, 2010. The archived column is no longer available on the UTW website.

Zoning Czar
By Michael D. Bates

Toward the end of his late campaign for re-election as Mayor of Tulsa, Bill LaFortune was looking for a bold, concrete way to demonstrate that his pledge to change direction in a second term as mayor was in earnest.

One possibility was to withdraw two pending reappointments of longtime members of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC). The idea was that, in their stead, LaFortune would submit nominees who would bring new perspectives to the TMAPC, which is dominated by members who are connected in some way to the development industry. Mine was one of three names that were discussed to fill one of these unpaid positions.

When the monopoly daily newspaper got wind of it, their editorial writers went ballistic. In a March 28 editorial, they wrote, "If [LaFortune] does place Bates on the planning commission, then the city might as well erect billboards at the edges of the city instructing developers to just keep on moving to the suburbs.

Developers already were leery of trying to develop in Tulsa because of the anti-development attitude that has taken root here in recent years -- including in some officials' offices."

It's funny: The last three times I've appeared before the Board of Adjustment (BOA), the TMAPC, or the City Council on a land use matter, it was in support of a development.

For example, last fall I spoke to the City Council in support of the Eastbrook townhouse/office development, going in on 35th Place east of Peoria. The development was opposed by a number of Brookside homeowners. I argued that the Council should strictly apply the Brookside Infill Plan, which had been developed jointly over several years by homeowners, business owners, and the City, and had been incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan. If the plan were set aside in this one case, it would leave both developers and homeowners uncertain about whether it would be honored in the future.

Even if I were named to the TMAPC, I'd only be one vote among eleven, so even assuming I were anti-development, as the World claims, my lone voice shouldn't be enough to deter builders and investors.

But even if I were named Zoning Czar of Tulsa and could redesign Tulsa's land-use planning and regulation policy single-handedly, developers would in time see me as a benevolent zoning despot. The system I'd design would Make Life Better™ for homeowners, developers, real estate investors, building managers, tenants - in short, for everyone who lives or does business in Tulsa, because it would decrease risk and uncertainty while improving quality of life.

What would my ideal land-use system look like?

1. The aim of an ideal system would be to protect the investments of all property owners. That means homeowners as well as investors and developers.

2. My ideal system would be predictable. Before you invest in a piece of property you should be able to know with a high degree of certainty what you can and cannot do with your property and what your neighbors can and cannot do with theirs. If permission is dependent on the whim of city officials or on hiring a sufficiently expensive zoning attorney, the system isn't working as it should.

3. My ideal system would regulate what matters and leave the rest alone. Too often, our zoning code "protects" us against situations that really aren't problems, getting in the way of creative ideas that would enhance a neighborhood, while blithely permitting situations that are harmful to the neighborhood and the city as a whole. A good system allows as much freedom as possible, while not losing sight of the fact that what I do with my property affects the value of my neighbor's property.

4. My ideal system would accommodate a variety of neighborhood and development types in order to meet the variety of needs and interests in a city as big as Tulsa. There needs to be a place in Tulsa for an urban, densely developed downtown, as well as for big-box retail. There needs to be a place for both mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods where car-free living is possible, and for auto-oriented development with big-box stores and residential-only neighborhoods.

5. My ideal system would be clear and straightforward. The fewer and simpler the rules the better. Extra points for expressing those rules visually, to make it apparent to developers and homeowners alike what is allowed and what is not.

The present use-based zoning system fails all those criteria. Our current system is based on the assumption that what goes on inside a building has more of an impact on the neighbors than what's true about the outside of the building -- how big the building is, where it sits on the lot, how big the parking lot is.

Our current system follows the post-World-War-II assumption that homes and shops and offices have to be segregated from each other, despite centuries of experience that in the right sizes and proportions they can work together to make a great neighborhood.

Our current system ignores our thirty-year-old Comprehensive Plan as often as it honors it. More often than not, the Comprehensive Plan is amended after a parcel has been rezoned in a way that is contrary to the plan. It is not a reliable guide to homeowners or developers.

Our current system is one-size-fits-all. The same rules apply to Cherry Street and to 71st and Mingo. There's no recognition that development that would fit an auto-oriented strip of new development would not be appropriate as infill in a pedestrian-oriented traditional neighborhood. Under our current code, commercial is commercial - a Wal-Mart Supercenter is no different than an independent coffee house.

To make the current system work, exception after exception and patch upon patch have been added to the zoning code. In choosing to grant or deny a development, much weight is given to "neighborhood compatibility," but what that phrase means is left to the whim of the TMAPC and the City Council. Infill plans like Brookside's are the first attempt to define what neighborhood compatibility means, but for now those plans are not binding, only advisory.

The first steps have been made toward a new and improved system. The previous mayor and council approved work on a new Comprehensive Plan. Mayor Taylor called on her campaign website for the development of a form-based land-use code, which puts the emphasis on the size, shape, and position of buildings, rather than on what happens inside.

Before the election, Mayor LaFortune did withdraw the reappointments of Mary Hill and Brandon Jackson but didn't name any replacements. Mayor Taylor has the chance to name two new planning commissioners who will be fair in their application of the existing system, but who also have the vision and wisdom to help the city through the transition to a new and better system.

The best choices would bring a homeowner's perspective to the table - developers and associated industries are already well-represented on the TMAPC - but would have significant experience and knowledge about zoning and planning. We need new planning commissioners who are aware of Tulsa's zoning practices, but are also students of best practices elsewhere.

The Tulsa World likes to fearmonger about NIMBYs, but the so-called neighborhood naysayers that I know want nothing more than a fair system consistently applied. The World seems to want a system where the most expensive development attorney always wins.

I don't expect I'll ever be named to the TMAPC, much less be named the Pope of Planning, but if it were to happen, the City of Tulsa should erect billboards at the city limits saying, "Tulsa offers a fair, transparent, and up-to-date land-use system that maximizes freedom while protecting the investments of all property owners and our city's quality of life. Tulsa welcomes developers who will work with us to build a better Tulsa."

Of course, signs that wordy would probably violate some ordinance or another.

An edited version of this piece was published in the April 5, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web August 8, 2009.

For multi-partisan city elections

By Michael D. Bates

Once again, dear reader, you have me at a disadvantage. As you read this, you know who will be the next Mayor of Tulsa. As I write this, the election is still in the future. So let's look together at an issue that will be on the table no matter who wins Tuesday's election: the role of party politics in city elections.

A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from a prominent supporter of Kathy Taylor. He was expressing dismay that Republican leaders were trying to bring the other Republican candidates and their supporters behind Bill LaFortune, the Republican nominee.

I was amused by the tut-tutting about partisanship from the Taylor camp. Shut out as they are from both U. S. Senate seats and all but one congressional district, Democratic strategists are salivating at the prospect of once again having a Democrat as mayor of the state's second-largest city, someone who can attract donations to Democratic candidates for the State Legislature. According to Oologah Lake Leader editor John Wylie, State Rep. Jari Askins said at a recent Democratic fundraiser that "the election of Taylor would be a huge first step in taking back the [State] House and preserving the [State] Senate in 2006" for the Democratic Party.

Even if we strip partisan labels from the city election ballot, politics at all levels are too closely linked to keep the national parties from having an interest and an influence in local elections.

That said, I'm sympathetic to the idea of non-partisan city elections. Twice I proposed a charter amendment that would have eliminated party primaries and replaced them with an all-candidate election, preferably using Instant Runoff Voting (see my March 9th UTW column) or, failing that, a two-round system, with a separate runoff election between the top two if no candidate gets 50% in the first round.

Non-partisan elections are appealing because local political factions don't break neatly along national partisan lines. Chris Medlock says that there are really six "parties" in Tulsa politics, three factions which each have supporters in both national parties.

You have the Midtown old-money elites who are behind the paternalistic plan to replace three of the nine council districts with three citywide supercouncilors; in their view the hayseeds in North, West, and East Tulsa can't be trusted with self-government. Then there are the developers and the Chamber bureaucrats, who look at City government as a way to serve their institutional and business interests and don't want homeowners and small business to have even a seat at the table.

Finally, there are the populist grass-roots - the rest of us - who believe that city government should serve the interests of all Tulsans, not just a favored few, and that Tulsans from all classes and all parts of the city deserve a seat at the table.

There are Democrats and Republicans in all three factions, and they often find more kinship with those who share their outlook on city government than with their fellow Ds or Rs. That's how you wind up with a reform alliance on the city council made up of two Democrats and two Republican, opposed by a status quo caucus consisting of four Republicans and one Democrat.

Because our city primary system follows national party lines, the struggle between the three trans-partisan factions is often settled in the primary, and the general election doesn't offer much of a choice. Also, party labels on a general election ballot can be misleading. You'd think a Republican would oppose higher taxes or that a Democrat would oppose corporate welfare, but that ain't necessarily so. An R or a D doesn't tell the voter with which of the three city factions a candidate is aligned.

Would stripping party labels entirely be helpful to voters? In fact, it gives voters even less information to work with. Labels are helpful aids to memory. You may have trouble remembering the name of the candidates you plan to support, and knowing that you decided to vote with your party in the mayor's race and with the other party in the council race gives you an extra hook to recall your decision.

It's indisputable that non-partisan elections have lower turnout. You see this in judicial and school board elections here in Oklahoma, and it's borne out across the country. The theory is that voters, lacking even the little sliver of information that a party label provides, don't feel they know enough to make a choice and so they stay away.
On the same day that 60,000 Tulsans turned out to vote in our city primaries, only 14,000 Oklahoma City voters participated in their non-partisan mayor's race. That number was inflated above normal levels by the Oklahoma Republican Party chairman urging support for the re-election of Mayor Mick Cornett, a registered Republican. Just shy of 11,000 voted in the 2002 OKC mayor's race.

So how do we change Tulsa's system to expand both choice and information for voters?

Instead of non-partisan city elections, let's have multi-partisan elections. Put all candidates for a city office on the ballot, but instead of stripping away the party labels, let's let candidates apply the label or labels of their choosing. Maybe that would be a major party label, maybe that would be the name of a political action committee (PAC), or even both.

The actual mechanics would go something like this: Candidates would file their petitions for office. (With no primaries to filter candidates, everyone should have to collect 300 signatures in order to run.) Each PAC registered with the City Clerk's office would then have a week to submit to the election board the list of candidates they are endorsing. The county political parties would have the same opportunity if they choose to exercise it. Each candidate would then choose which party and PAC endorsements would appear next to his name on the ballot.

For example, this year the District 6 Council ballot might have looked like this:

  • James Mautino - Republican, Homeowners for Fair Zoning
  • Theresa Buchert - Grow Tulsa PAC, Bank of Oklahoma PAC
  • Dennis Troyer - Democrat, N. E. Oklahoma Labor Council

With at least three candidates likely in every race on the ballot, we'd have to have some form of runoff; Instant Runoff Voting would be the best way to ensure that the winner would be chosen by a majority of voters. (Again, see my March 9th UTW column or www.fairvote.org for details.)

Non-partisan municipal elections would give Tulsans fewer and murkier choices. A multi-partisan ballot with a sound runoff system is the best way to give Tulsa's voters clearer, better, and more plentiful options when we choose our representatives at City Hall.

An edited version of this column appeared in the March 22, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is available online via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. My blog entry linking the column is here. Posted online October 6, 2017.

Council General Election preview

By Michael D. Bates

As disheartened as I was at the results in Tulsa's mayoral primary, I was cheered by the voters' picks in the Council races. Seven out of the 10 Council candidates endorsed by UTW won their primaries. In most cases, this meant the defeat of the best-funded candidate by a candidate dependent on grass-roots support.

The result was also an affirmation of the work of the Reform Alliance. The three returning members of the alliance - Jack Henderson, Roscoe Turner, and Jim Mautino - all won renomination, the latter two turning back well-financed opponents who had the endorsement of the monopoly daily newspaper. The fourth gang member, Chris Medlock, was replaced by attorney Rick Westcott, who led the opposition to the effort to recall Medlock and who endorsed Medlock for mayor.

It was a near-wipeout for the monopoly daily's beloved "Class of 2002" aka the "Cockroach Caucus." Susan Neal, Tom Baker, and Randy Sullivan all chose not to run for re-election. Jack Wing, Baker's handpicked successor, lost by a wide margin to neighborhood leader Maria Barnes. Sullivan was replaced by John Eagleton, whom he twice defeated; Eagleton won election with the biggest vote total of any Council primary candidate. Jeff Stava, backed by former Chamber chairman and Council-basher Bob Poe, lost to Cason Carter.

Bill Christiansen prevailed in a tough race against first-time candidate Cliff Magee. In District 5, Bill Martinson, who aligned himself with that group, had no difficulty winning renomination against two rookie candidates, but faces a tough general election against Jon Kirby, who is reported to be a door-knocking dynamo.

Candidates who centered their campaign around "stopping the bickering" didn't fare well, but the alleged bickerers did, indicating that Tulsans want city issues debated publicly, not behind closed doors.

And the results refute the World's claim that low turnout enabled "unqualified" candidates to sneak into office 2004. The same candidates were successfully renominated in a primary with record turnout.

There appeared to be a coordinated and unsuccessful effort by some prominent Tulsans to fund targeted races and pack the council. Six of the eight candidates Bob Poe supported were defeated. John Brock, a leading activist for at-large councilors, backed one win and four losses. BOk Chairman George Kaiser and the BOk Financial Corp PAC won three and lost five.

Although the primary settled four races, five more will be decided on April 4.

Before I delve into the specifics of the Council general election, I need to tell you about a conflict of interest. I represent Tulsa County on the Oklahoma Republican Party's State Committee. As an elected party official, I'm not allowed to endorse against a Republican candidate. On the other hand, as a columnist for UTW, I owe it to you to endorse the best candidate in each race.

Now theoretically - just maybe - the best candidate in a race might not be a Republican, so to avoid defaulting on either of my obligations, I'm going to recuse myself from endorsements, and just tell you what I know about each candidate.

As in the primary preview, you'll find contact info for each candidate, and you're encouraged to get in touch and get answers to the questions that matter to you. And if you decide you like a candidate, call and volunteer to help in the closing days of the campaign.

We gave each candidate the opportunity to respond to the same questionnaire we used in the primary, with an additional question about the six charter amendments on the April 4 ballot. The full text of their responses can be found on our website at www.urbantulsa.com.

District 3: Roscoe H. Turner, Democrat, incumbent, 74, 3415 E. Haskell St., http://www.roscoeturner.com, 834-7580; Gerald A. Rapson, Republican, 73, 6267 E. Latimer Pl., garapson@hotmail.com, 835-4817.

Turner just won his second straight primary victory over former Councilor David Patrick, and the results show that Turner made inroads in traditional Patrick territory east of Yale. Turner, voted "most believable City Councilor" in UTW's 2005 "Absolute Best of Tulsa" competition, has been a leader for many years in the Sequoyah Area Neighborhood Association.

The Republican nominee in this heavily Democratic district is Gerald Rapson, a retiree from Memorex Telex. Rapson shows up in newspaper archives as a volunteer at the Latter-Day Saints Family History Center and at the Domestic Violence Intervention Services protective order office.

The two candidates' responses to the UTW questionnaire differed significantly on only a few issues. On the use of eminent domain for private economic development, Turner said it should never be used for private purposes. Rapson agreed with respect to owner-occupied properties, but would permit it for the redevelopment of absentee-owned properties.

Regarding adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes in Tulsa's human rights ordinance, Turner responded, "I support everyone's human rights," while Rapson wrote, "I would oppose adding 'sexual orientation' to the list of protected classes."

On the question about CDBG funding for controversial groups like Planned Parenthood, Turner wrote, "I would support providing funds that benefit the health of our children." Rapson wrote, "Although I am not opposed to abortion, which is a woman's choice, I am opposed to public funding for abortions, or funding to any group that advocates government funding for abortions."

Rapson supports all of the charter amendments except propositions 1 and 4 (council attorney and election date changes). Turner voted in favor of putting all six on the ballot.

District 4: Maria Barnes, Democrat, 45, 1319 S. Terrace Dr., http://www.mariabarnes4tulsa.com, 510-5725; Robert C. "Bob" Bartlett, Republican, 76, 2744 S. Braden Ave., 747-6907.

Both of these candidates have been deeply involved with city government, but about three decades apart from each other.

Maria Barnes, a married mother of three children, is president of the Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood Association, vice president of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, and a member of the Vision 2025 Neighborhood Fund Task Force. In 1998, the Mayor's Office for Neighborhood Associations recognized her service with a Picket Fence Award.

Barnes has served for five years on the city's Human Rights Commission. She is a graduate of the Citizens Police Academy and has served on the Police Department's Community Relations Committee and Oversight Committee.

Barnes served on the 1999 Infill Development Task Force and has appeared frequently before the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) and the Board of Adjustment representing the interests of Kendall-Whittier and other midtown neighborhoods.

Robert C. Bartlett won the Republican nomination without actively campaigning. (He is not related to Dewey Bartlett, the late U. S. Senator.) According to his campaign material, he was a zoning administrator and assistant to the director for the TMAPC, and was "twice selected by Tulsa mayors" as a city representative on the commission. In 1970, he was president of the Tulsa Real Estate Board. He retired last year after 45 years as a property manager and real estate appraiser.

Bartlett writes, "If elected, my primary mission will be to work for the preservation and protection of private property rights. I hope to offer constructive dialog and encourage judicious decisions in neighborhood and community planning, zoning, urban renewal, and eminent domain."

Neither candidate submitted a response to the UTW questionnaire.

District 5: Jon Kirby, Democrat, 26, 6703 E. 26th Pl., http://www.kirbyfortulsa.com, 836-3834; William E. "Bill" Martinson, Jr., Republican, incumbent, 50, 743-6848.

District 5 is a swing district which has consistently produced close results. The incumbent, Bill Martinson, was elected in May 2005 with only 29% of the vote in an all-party special election.

Martinson was an avid supporter of having the City of Tulsa pay $7.5 million to the Bank of Oklahoma, money that was owed not by the city, but by the Tulsa Industrial Authority as part of the complicated financing deal for Great Plains Airlines.

Last Thursday, Martinson was the lone vote against a tax-increment finance (TIF) district to pay for infrastructure for the Tulsa Hills retail development at 71st St. and U.S. 75. In his passionate opposition speech, he made frequent reference to better ways to spend the taxpayers' dollars, seemingly unaware that, in a TIF, the dollars involved would only be generated if the project went forward.

Martinson was also the lone vote against sending the zoning protest charter amendment to the voters. The amendment passed on March 7 with 63% of the vote.

Jon Kirby is a customer service representative with AT&T (SBC) and is active in the Communication Workers of America local. He has been active in the Northeastern Oklahoma Labor Council and has endorsements from several union locals. In the primary, Kirby defeated neighborhood leader Al Nichols by a wide margin.

Kirby has lived in Tulsa for seven years. He says that he fell in love with the city when he was 16 while visiting family and determined to settle here. His campaign website emphasizes earmarking sales tax dollars for public safety and spending more of the third penny on river development.

Neither candidate submitted a response to the UTW questionnaire.

District 6: Dennis K. Troyer, Democrat, 65, 12811 E. 13th Pl., http://www.dktroyercc.com, 438-2569; James Savino "Jim" Mautino Sr., Republican, incumbent, 73, http://www.jimmautino.com, 437-2642.

Two years ago, neighborhood activist Jim Mautino beat a well-financed incumbent, Art Justis, to become the first Republican to represent this majority Republican district. He also became the first real representative District 6 has ever had.

Rather than serving, as his predecessors did, as the Mayor's lapdog in exchange for table scraps for the district, Mautino worked assertively for infrastructure improvements to keep businesses in District 6 and to encourage quality new residential, commercial, and industrial development in east Tulsa.

As councilor, Mautino has held numerous town hall meetings, using the presentation skills he developed as a trainer for American Airlines to give residents a picture of the state of the district. (Another town hall is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 22, at Martin East Regional Library.)

If re-elected, Mautino is in line to be the next Council chairman, as the most senior Republican yet to hold that position.

Mautino's opponent, Dennis Troyer, is also an American Airlines retiree. Troyer has the support of a number of labor unions, and his website focuses on his years as a union activist. (Mautino was also an active union member during his years at American, and he broke ranks with Republicans, voting to allow more city workers to unionize.) Troyer has been endorsed by Justis.

Mautino responded to the UTW questionnaire, and his responses are available online. Mautino voted in support of all six charter amendments. Troyer did not submit a response.

District 9: Phil Kates, Democrat, 57, http://www.philkates.com, 749-3356; Cason Carter, Republican, 29, http://www.casoncarter.com, 595-4800.

Attorney Cason Carter defeated Jeff Stava in a primary race that was financed at record levels on both sides. He faces Democrat Phil Kates in a district that has never elected a Democrat.

Kates was a Republican until 2004, when he changed his registration, saying that the Republican Party had moved too far to the right on the issue of separation of church and state.

Both candidates submitted a response to the UTW questionnaire. Kates' response is quite lengthy and nearly impossible to summarize, but it will be posted alongside Carter's response at www.urbantulsa.com. Carter did not respond to the additional question about the six charter amendments. Kates supports only propositions 4 and 6 (election date changes and requiring the mayor to fill board vacancies in a timely manner).

Both Kates and Carter expressed opposition to neighborhood conservation districts and making design guidelines such as those called for in the Brookside Infill Plan a part of the zoning code. Kates' response indicated a lack of familiarity with the plan, incorporated into the city's Comprehensive Plan in 2002, as he called for "a new concentrated plan that the homeowners and planners can come up with."

An edited version of this piece was published in the March 8, 2006, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web July 1, 2010.

The case for Instant Runoff Voting
By Michael D. Bates

The polls haven't even opened as I write this, but by the time you read this, the votes will have been counted.

Let me make this one prediction: Whoever wins the Republican nomination for Mayor will win with less than a 50% of the vote. Whoever the winner will be wasn't the top choice of a majority of Republican voters.

As I write this, I don't know if my favorite candidate won or lost, so this isn't sour grapes. I believe in majority rule, and there's something wrong about a candidate winning when most of the voters preferred someone else. Instead of the office going to the candidate who could put together a majority coalition of voters, it goes to the candidate with the most motivated, cohesive minority bloc of voters.

For state offices, Oklahoma deals with this problem by holding a primary runoff election if the primary doesn't produce a candidate with at least 50% of the vote. Tulsa's city charter doesn't provide for a runoff, and in special elections, Tulsa doesn't even have party primaries.

When a primary has three or more viable candidates, and there is no runoff, the voter is faced with a difficult choice. He may have a favorite candidate, other candidates that might be marginally acceptable, and a candidate he doesn't want to win. Does his favorite have a chance to win? If not, it might be more strategic to vote for a marginally acceptable candidate with a chance of winning in order to defeat the utterly unacceptable candidate.

At that point, the problem is knowing who really has a chance to win. You could look to polls, but if the numbers between second and third place are close, that doesn't help your decision. You could try to measure candidate viability by the number of dollars raised and spent.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a system of voting that allowed you to vote your conscience, a system that didn't require you to guess how your neighbors are likely to vote?

Hold that thought.

Adding a runoff for city elections would be a good start. A single runoff works well when you have two candidates neck-and-neck in the 40% range, and a group of other candidates splitting the rest of the vote. The primary reveals who the two most popular candidates are; the runoff settles the question, for whom would you vote if these were the only candidates in the race.

But a single runoff breaks down when you have three or more candidates who are clustered around 30%, with other candidates splitting the remainder.

The legendary example of this situation was the 1991 Governor's race in Louisiana. Incumbent governor Buddy Roemer, a moderate and respectable political figure, finished a very close third, giving voters a runoff choice between "The Crook" (Edwin Edwards) and "The Klansman" (David Duke). The also-ran candidates had enough votes between them that, had they not been in the race, would have been enough to put Roemer in first or second place and into the runoff.

There are plenty of Oklahoma examples of close three-or-more-way primaries where the single runoff system broke down. In 1990 both parties had gubernatorial primaries with three closely bunched candidates and a lot of also-rans. Burns Hargis might well have placed second in the GOP primary had it been a three man race. For the Democrats, Steve Lewis easily could have finished ahead of David Walters and Wes Watkins, if a couple of minor candidates had not been in the race.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a system of voting where there is no such thing as a spoiler candidate or splitting the vote? Where the winner would have won even in a one-on-one race with each other candidate?

Of course it would.

In the ideal system, you'd have a series of runoffs, and in each round, you'd eliminate the lowest vote-getter and vote on the rest, until someone gets 50% of the vote in a round.

Some civic organizations handle their elections in this way, but that's because they can count their votes in a matter of minutes and hold another round of voting right away. It would be burdensome enough to add a runoff election date to the city election calendar, much less multiple runoffs.

There is a way to get the effect of multiple runoff rounds without having the expense of multiple elections. Historically it's been called the "alternative vote," but recently it's been given the more descriptive name of "instant runoff voting" (IRV).

I first encountered this voting technique in my college fraternity. When voting in an election with multiple candidates, you'd write the candidates' names on the ballot in order of preference. As a voter, you'd ask yourself, if my favorite candidate weren't in the race, for whom would I vote? And if my two favorites were out, who would be my choice? And so on through the list of candidates.

The vote counters would take all the ballots to the table in the chapter room, and for each candidate there'd be a stack of the ballots that had his name marked as first choice. If no candidate had a majority, they would take the smallest stack of ballots - eliminating the candidate with the fewest first choice votes - and sort them into the other stacks based on the second choice listed. The process would repeat until one candidate had a majority of the ballots in his stack.

Xi Chapter of Zeta Beta Tau, I later learned, isn't the only place that instant runoff voting is used. Ireland uses IRV to elect its president. Australia uses it to elect its House of Representatives. London uses it to elect a mayor.

In 2002, the Utah Republican Convention used IRV to pick the top two candidates to compete in their congressional primary election in two districts and to pick a nominee for the third district.

Right here in Tulsa, the 1st District Republican Convention used instant runoff voting to choose delegates and alternates to the 2000 and 2004 Republican National Conventions.

San Francisco has adopted IRV. San Diego is looking at it - their last mayor was elected with only 35% of the vote.

Although our fraternity hand-counted our IRV ballots, modern voting machine technology makes it possible to scan preferential ballots optically and then conduct the sorting, elimination, and resorting by computer.

Some sort of runoff will become even more important if Tulsa ever switches to non-partisan elections. As it is now, primaries present general election voters with two candidates with a credible chance to win, and most officials are elected with over 50% of the vote.

We don't have to guess about the dynamics of a non-partisan winner-take-all election, because our city special elections are structured that way.

Last May's District 5 special election had seven candidates, four of whom had a significant base of support. The winner, Bill Martinson, only managed 29% of the vote, just 11 votes ahead of second-place finisher Andy Phillips. Based on the results, you could make the case that Martinson would not have won head-to-head races against any of the other major candidates; the split vote gave him the election.

Without a runoff, non-partisan city elections would give us a set of elected officials who lack the mandate of the majority.

Adopting IRV would require some changes to the City Charter, but since we're already taking another look at the charter and at the role of partisanship in city elections, let's not overlook the voting system we use.

An edited version of this column was published in the December 14, 2005, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is still online, courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Here's my blog entry linking to the article. Posted October 28, 2017.

The at-large councilor petition appears to be dead, but supporters of representative democracy in Tulsa shouldn't rest easy just yet.

On Monday, December 4, the effort to dismember three City Council districts was put on hold. You'll recall that on October 20, a group with the misleading name of Tulsans for Better Government (TBG) began collecting signatures on an initiative petition for a City Charter amendment: Add to the Council three at-large "supercouncilors," elected citywide to four-year terms, and reduce the number of council districts from nine to six.

Just over halfway through the 90 days for gathering signatures, the petition wasn't catching fire with the general public. An opposition group, Tulsans Defending Democracy, quickly emerged, with support from Tulsans of all races, classes, and political views.

Also on Monday, December 4, Mayor Bill LaFortune announced the formation of a "Citizens' Commission on City Government," a group of 17-20 citizens, handpicked by him, to study the structure of Tulsa's government for six months and make recommendations next June.

Most of the petition's backers were residents of Tulsa's "Money Belt," and their motivation was to bring city government firmly and permanently back under the control of the old city establishment. The petition gained some ground thanks to sleight of hand: They hired the same petition circulators who were collecting signatures for the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR) petition and another popular petition which would limit the use of eminent domain condemnation for economic development. Circulators, paid by the signature for all three petitions, would attract signers for the popular TABOR or eminent domain petitions, and then would quickly ask the signer if they'd also sign a petition "for better city government," hoping the voter would sign one more time without looking too closely.

Opinions are divided as to whether the supercouncilor petition was shelved because it wasn't on track to get the necessary signatures, or out of fear that, if it were on the ballot for next spring's city elections, it would create a backlash that would leave the petition's supporters with even less power than they now have.

So the petition is dead, or at least hibernating, and this "Citizens' Commission" has risen in its place, evidently to accomplish the same goal by means of a "blue ribbon" panel.

Here's how a blue ribbon panel usually works: Appoint to the panel prominent people who don't really have time to devote to the effort. These people are accomplished in their fields, but not engaged in the issue to be studied. They come into the process with an open mind, with no predetermined conclusions. To help guide them to the appropriate conclusion, lend the panel your own staff to gather and organize data, helpfully arranged to point in one clear direction. Add to the mix a couple of panel members who are passionately committed to the desired conclusion, but make sure no one passionately committed to another point of view has a seat at the table.

After the requisite number of meetings, the advocates for the desired conclusion and the staffers will make a convincing case for their position, and no one on the blue ribbon panel will be strongly committed enough to an opposing position to make a rebuttal. The panel will make the desired recommendation, which the daily paper's editorial board will hail as tablets from Mt. Sinai. The pressure will then be on the legislative body to adopt the recommendation, even if they disagree with it.

LaFortune seems to be following this recipe. He created this panel without any input from any other public official, and he alone controls who will sit on the panel. Two members, Howard Barnett and C. S. Lewis III, were members of the advisory board for Tulsans for Better Government, so you know they'll be pushing for at-large seats on the Council to be part of the commission's recommendation. So far, no women have been named to the panel. Neither has anyone involved with Tulsans Defending Democracy.

As a bonus (for him), some of LaFortune's choices seem desired to bolster his reelection campaign. One of the co-chairmen is Hans Helmerich. Hans's brother Jono Helmerich is the chairman of LaFortune's reelection committee, but it's rumored that he is shopping around for a better candidate to back. Michael Covey, spokesman for the South Tulsa Citizens' Coalition, represents a group that will wield a lot of influence over next March's Republican mayoral primary; Covey's inclusion may be an attempt by LaFortune to win his support or at least neutralize him.

If LaFortune were serious about creating a broad-based, diverse group of citizens to study this issue, he should have given each of his fellow elected officials the chance to name a committee member. If he were serious about keeping politics out of it, he would have consulted with his fellow elected officials before setting the rules, and he would have delayed doing anything until after the election. The Council asked LaFortune to speak on the issue at their December 8 meeting, but he claimed a prior engagement; he has promised to show up on the 15th. We'll see.

There are some good and thoughtful people on LaFortune's commission, but it will take a lot of determination and time and energy on their part to keep the process honest, if that's even possible.

As we bid good riddance to the at-large councilor petition, while training a wary eye on the Mayor's "Citizens' Commission," let's pause to note two oddities about Tulsans for Better Government:

Oddity 1: TBG insisted that Tulsa needs an elected city official who would advocate effectively for the needs of the entire city, not just a single district. Don't we already have such a position? Known as "Mayor"? Ah, but the key word is "effectively," isn't it? The obvious solution is to have an effective Mayor, but since many of the members of TBG are supporters of LaFortune's re-election effort - Chip McElroy, the chairman of TBG, hosted the Mayor's reelection launch - the obvious solution wouldn't have occurred to them.

Oddity 2: While many long-ago-former elected officials were members of TBG, the only currently-serving official on TBG's board was County Commissioner Randi Miller. This was surprising, since the at-large proposal would have rendered her home base of West Tulsa politically insignificant, too small to influence even a district council race. LaFortune's backers are talking about Miller as a tag-team substitute for the him in the Mayor's race, but her support for this proposal isn't going to endear her to grass-roots Republicans. (Her political future has already been damaged by her admission under oath that she didn't review any supporting information before voting to approve the IVI toll bridge contract.) There are rumors that she didn't intend to support the at-large proposal, but to date her name is still on the TBG website as a board member, and she has yet to issue a public statement withdrawing her support for the plan.

An edited version of this column appeared in the November 2, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is available online via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. My blog entry linking the column is here, responses from other bloggers are linked here and here. Posted online October 6, 2017.

Faith and political courage

by Michael Bates

It's been just over a week since "Tulsans for Better Government" launched their initiative petition to change the Tulsa City Charter to cut the number of City Council districts from nine to six and to add three super-councilors, to be elected citywide for four year terms. Already there's a strong backlash: An opposition group is getting organized, and it's drawing support from across the political spectrum. The Tulsa County Democratic Executive Committee has already issued a formal statement opposing the at-large councilor scheme, and grassroots Republicans are pushing for their party to come out against it as well.

Like so many other local issues, it doesn't divide along party lines. Instead you have certain privileged interest groups pushing for it, and ordinary Tulsans, concerned about fairness and equal representation in government, pushing back. Of the 22 members of the advisory board for Tulsans for Better Government, 18 live in the wealthy sections of Council District 9 or right next to Southern Hills Country Club in District 2. District 9 already has two City Councilors living within its borders -District 7 Councilor Randy Sullivan has lived there for nearly two years, preferring not to live among the people who elected him - but apparently that isn't enough for these people.

Of all the provocative things I wrote in last week's column on this topic ("Seeing the Light on City Charter"), this sentence has provoked the most comment: "Councilors Medlock, Mautino, Turner, and Henderson are all men of devout Christian faith."

The statement was in the middle of a paragraph about how these four reform-minded councilors have withstood relentless pressure from the defenders of the status quo. All four have said publicly and privately that their faith in Christ has sustained them through all the trials they have faced.

Over on my blog, batesline.com, Michael Sanditen commented that my statement was "off base and makes you appear a bigot. I will remind you that without the Jews in Tulsa, this town would be extremely pitiful. They are the quiet givers, the anonymous ones, many more than just the Kaisers, Schustermans, and Zarrows!" I'm amazed that the statement, intended as a compliment to the four councilors, would be read as an insult to adherents of any other faith. I concur that the contribution of the Jewish community to the prosperity and welfare of Tulsa far outweighs its numbers, but that has nothing to do with what I wrote.

Other commenters objected to any mention of religion in this context. One wrote, "Whether these men are Christian is irrelevant. Whether these men can perform their duties as city councilors is much more important." Another said, "Religious persuasion (or a lack thereof), for me, is not a litmus [test] for the qualifications for public service. I don't need to know what faith these Councilors follow to know that they are good men.... I hope you will realize bringing religion into the debate will most likely divide us more than it unites us."

I think I understand the root of their objections. If you think of faith as just professing agreement with certain doctrines, then what I wrote would be irrelevant to the discussion. If you confuse faith with religion, then you might well wonder what a Councilor's position on the propriety of infant baptism, which foot to lead with when genuflecting, or whether musical instruments have a place in worship has to do with his performance in office.

But faith is more than reciting a creed or performing certain rituals. Faith involves confidence and trust. During a worship service you profess certain things to be true about God's nature and character. During the rest of the week, your true faith - what you really believe about God and his dealings with you and the rest of the humanity - becomes apparent in the way you live your life, and particularly in the way you deal with adversity.

For that reason, what an elected official really believes about God's nature and character affects how he conducts himself in office. Someone who has genuine confidence and trust in God as He is revealed in the Bible will have courage and persistence in the face of discouragement, danger, hostility, oppression, and injustice. From the Torah, he knows that God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, made a way of escape through the Red Sea, provided food for them in the wilderness, and settled them in the Promised Land. In the prophets, he reads of God's hatred for injustice, favoritism, and false dealing.

The politician who believes in the God of the Bible knows that he is in office not because of his brilliant campaign strategy, but because God put him there; in Psalm 75, he reads that "promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another." He reads Jesus' parable of the talents and knows that he is accountable first to God for what he does with the office which has been entrusted to him. He reads Mordecai's appeal to Esther and knows that he too is where he is "for such a time as this" - that it is not by accident that he is in office at this particular moment. There is something to be accomplished now, not put off until after the next election.

The usual pressure tactics won't succeed with the politician who reads and believes the Epistle to the Philippians. He turns his anxieties into prayers to his all-sufficient Father. You can threaten his job or his wife's job, but he reads that God will supply all his needs. You can threaten him with removal for office, but he is learning, with Paul, to be content in any situation. You can threaten his reputation and position, but he is a follower and servant of Christ, who forsook his heavenly throne, "made himself of no reputation, and took upon [himself] the form of a servant." You can threaten his life, but he knows that "to die is gain" - the worst you can do is send him on to his heavenly home earlier than he expected. He expects to share in the sufferings of his Lord, but also in his Lord's resurrection.

If you're a Councilor steeped in Scripture you aren't going to be deterred when a big donor threatens to fund your opponent, when someone from the Chamber or the Home Builders corners you to cuss you out over a vote, or when the World does another front-page hatchet job on you.

History is filled with men and women whose faith gave them the courage to persist in the political realm. One example: William Wilberforce, a member of the British parliament in the early 1800s, was driven by his faith to push first for the abolition of the slave trade, then for the abolition of slavery itself. His faith sustained him through the18 years it took to accomplish the first aim and another 15 years to accomplish the second. He spent most of those years as one lonely voice trying to overcome apathy and the opposition of powerful commercial interests.

There are and have been courageous politicians who are not Bible-believing Jews or Christians, and they draw their strength from other wells. But the Scripture is a deep well from which to draw.

Please understand that I am not talking about the sort of politician who wears his religion on his sleeve, who flits about from one megachurch to another, more in search of votes than spiritual nourishment. And I'm not talking about where a politician stands on any particular issue, although a worldview shaped by Scripture is bound to affect one's platform. I am talking about men and women who have learned through hardships, setbacks, and disappointments that the God of the Bible is still present and is worthy of their complete trust.

We say that we are weary of run-of-the-mill politicians. We are tired of compulsive people-pleasers who can't make a decision and stick with it. We are fed up with officials who abandon reform at the first sign of resistance. We have had it with "public servants" who seek only to serve themselves. If we want elected officials who are fearless to do what is right, we ought to look for men and women whose character has been shaped by confidence in a God who is bigger than any adversary they may face.

At-large councilors

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An edited version of this piece was published in the October 26, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web October 27, 2009.

It's been a tough couple of years for Tulsa's traditional political establishment. The bunch that for years has had control over city government - a group I call the Cockroach Caucus, after their aversion to the light of public scrutiny - saw their grip on public opinion beginning to slip.

Despairing of their long-term chances to regain full control of city government under the current rules, they've got a scheme to change the rules so that money will count for more than grass-roots support. The plan is to dilute geographic diversity on the Council and guarantee that big money will control at least a third of the city's legislative body.

Last Thursday, a group calling themselves "Tulsans for Better Government" filed an initiative petition to reduce the number of Tulsa City Council districts to 6 and to create three at-large "supercouncilor" seats.

The group is headed by Arthur H. "Chip" McElroy II, whose company played host to Bill LaFortune's re-election announcement. The three supercouncilors would be elected citywide to four-year terms, beginning in 2008, while the six district councilors would continue to serve two years at a time.

The idea has been pushed enthusiastically by the Tulsa World editorial board, distraught by their fading influence over city politics. (The World routinely waits three weeks before publishing a letter to the editor, so it's telling that the paper fast-tracked a Sunday "Readers' Forum" guest opinion in support of the campaign just two days after it was launched.)

After the 2004 elections, the Council had, for the first time ever, a majority of members that were elected contrary to the endorsements of the Tulsa World and the money of the developers' lobby. In four contested primaries and four contested general elections, reform-minded candidates received 59% of the vote to 41% for the World's endorsees.*

The empire struck back in May of this year, with Bill Martinson replacing Sam Roop in a special election. But Martinson won with only 29% of the vote, aided by the unusual structure of a special election. The result gave the anti-reform bunch an apparent majority in the short term, but they can't have been encouraged about the long-term prospects of maintaining control.

The results of July 12 had to have been a shock to the Cockroach Caucus. Despite a year-long barrage of criticism from the Tulsa World and now-retired radio host John Erling and a well-financed and relentlessly dirty campaign against Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock, the two survived a recall election by overwhelming percentages.

What has become apparent is that, in a district race, feet on the ground - enthusiastic volunteers willing to go door-to-door on behalf of a candidate - can beat money and a monopoly daily newspaper. With passionate grass-roots support, a candidate can get a message out to counter direct mail, robo-calls, and the potshots taken on the news and editorial pages of the World. Tulsa's Council districts each have a population of 43,000, still small enough to be reachable by grass-roots methods.

It really seems to frighten the Cockroach Caucus that there are four councilors who don't feel the need to grovel before them for campaign money. In the past, the occasional maverick would rise up and challenge business as usual at City Hall, but the old guard was always successful in isolating them and either defeating them or wearing them down into submission. Councilors Medlock, Mautino, Turner, and Henderson are all men of devout Christian faith. They are willing to risk their political careers to do what they believe is best for the city, and they are confident that in seeking what is right, they will have the support of their constituents. And they've stood by each other through thick and thin, thwarting the old divide-and-conquer strategy.

By making three of the council seats citywide, money comes back into the picture. TV and radio advertising come into play, and for that you need plenty of campaign cash. Grass-roots campaigns can succeed at that level - Tom Coburn and John Sullivan beat elite-supported candidates at the congressional district and state levels - but are much harder to pull off.

Not only would big money have the best shot at winning the three at-large seats, but the process of consolidating nine districts into six would allow the Cockroach Caucus to eliminate the incumbents they hate the most by throwing them into the same districts as other incumbents.

North Tulsa would go from two councilors to one, putting reform Councilors Roscoe Turner and Jack Henderson into the same district. West Tulsa's concerns would be drowned out under the plan - its population currently makes up half of District 2; under the new plan it would only be a third of a district.

Bigger districts are also easier to gerrymander, and with all the support for this effort coming from the Midtown "Money Belt" - that band of affluence stretching from Utica Square to Southern Hills - don't be surprised to see the new lines drawn so that nearly every district includes a Money Belt precinct. That's a time-honored technique used at the state legislative level to allow the affluent to represent working class citizens without having to actually (ick!) live among them. Diversity of representation, the reason we went to districts with the new charter in 1989, would disappear.

Supporters of at-large councilors make the bogus claim that "ward politics" are damaging the city. They say that district councilors are focused on the parochial concerns of their constituents at the expense of the best interests of the city as a whole. But if you look back at the most controversial issues of the last two years, they've been citywide issues. Great Plains Airlines and airport operations, creation of a city-focused economic development policy, oversight for funding to the Chamber of Commerce, fairness in the zoning process, north Tulsa County annexation, the water line to Owasso and the reappointment of two suburbs-focused members of the city's water board, the IVI toll bridge - in each case the councilors under attack by the World-led establishment have been seeking the City of Tulsa's best interests, in many cases where they conflicted with the interests of the suburbs.

Councilors Henderson, Mautino, Medlock, and Turner are each devoted to the needs of their own constituents, but they've also worked together to ensure that the citizens of the historically neglected east, west, and north sections of our city receive the city services they are owed.

And that seems to be what really bugs the bunch behind the at-large council proposal. It's the Money Belt denizens backing this plan that tend to take a parochial view, seeing Tulsa as a small, close-knit, fabulously wealthy town centered on Utica Square. Neighborhoods like West Highlands and Garden City, Rose Dew and Wagon Wheel, Sequoyah and Suburban Acres may as well be foreign countries to them.

We finally have a critical mass of councilors who believe that city government should serve all Tulsans, not just a favored few, and it is shaking up the cozy worldview of the old elite. The forces behind at-large council seats used their years in power to lead Tulsa to its current state of declining population, rising crime, and an economy still dangerously dependent on a few key industries.

The Cockroach Caucus has run this town for years, but it is out of ideas, out of energy, and very nearly out of power. The "Tulsans for Better Government" is the elite's final desperate attempt to keep city government in their grasp.

I feel certain that the people of Tulsa will tell them, "No thanks, the city belongs to all of us now, and we intend to keep it that way."

* NOTE: I've only counted elections where a Whirled endorsee faced a reformist opponent. The Democrat primary in District 3 and Republican primaries in District 7 and 8 decided the winners of those seats. Jack Henderson won a contested Democrat primary in District 1 and handily defeated token opposition in the general election. Districts 2, 4, 5, and 6 had seriously contested general elections. I've left out District 9 entirely - the general election pitted incumbent Republican Susan Neal against incarcerated Independent Paul Tay.

An edited version of this piece was published in the October 19, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online.

How Good An Ol' Boy Are You?
Tulsa County's aversion to competitive bidding might very well be shortchanging taxpayers
by Michael Bates

Smokey Robinson's mama told him, "You better shop around," and that's good advice, especially when a big commitment is involved. Tulsa County's Commissioners seem to avoid shopping around as much as possible, and their reluctance to put contracts up for competitive bid is one of the central issues in the controversy over the proposed toll bridge in south Tulsa County.

Tulsa County's long-range street and highway master plan shows a bridge crossing the Arkansas River from 121st and Yale in Tulsa south to the undeveloped western fringes of Bixby. Transportation planners say the bridge won't be needed for another 10 years, but a private company, Infrastructure Ventures, Inc. (IVI), has made a deal with Tulsa County to build it as a toll bridge now and give it to Tulsa County.

In return, IVI would receive 100% of tolls for the first 10 years and 85% for the next 65 years. IVI would operate and maintain the bridge, but Tulsa County would handle law enforcement, ice removal, and traffic signals. Although it's been described as a private toll bridge, IVI needs Tulsa County to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the land, and the bridge will be owned by Tulsa County.

That may sound like a good deal, but the Tulsa City Council passed a resolution expressing their opposition, and more than 5,000 citizens--including Mayor Bill LaFortune and every councilor except Tom Baker and Susan Neal--have signed a petition against the bridge deal. Last Thursday, the executive committee of the Tulsa County Republican Party took the unusual step of passing a resolution opposing the bridge deal.

Over the years, far south Tulsa voters have provided a reliable base of support for tax renewals and bond issues, but there are rumblings that they'll oppose the County's attempt to renew its '4 to Fix the County' sales tax in December because of the County/IVI bridge deal. Concern about the traffic impact of the bridge on two-lane Yale Ave. initially mobilized opposition among south Tulsa residents, who proposed realigning the bridge to connect to Riverside Drive--thus the name of the opposition website, movethatbridge.com.

What ought to concern all Tulsa County taxpayers is that the IVI bridge deal is the latest in a long series of high-dollar county contracts that were negotiated with a sole source, rather than put out for competitive bid. Here are just a few examples:

In 1997, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA) made a deal allowing Ralph W. Jones to build a hotel on the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, and giving him exclusive rights there for 25 years. The TCPFA board is made up of the three County Commissioners plus two appointees, Jim Orbison and Bob Parmele. Jones had been campaign manager and a major contributor for County Commissioner Bob Dick's 1994 campaign for Mayor of Tulsa. The opportunity was not put out for competitive bids, and no other proposals were considered.

In August 2000, the TCPFA entered into a three-year, $540,000 contract with Public Affairs Group LLC to lobby for state funding for the Fairgrounds. Public Affairs Group LLC was a partnership between Claudia Tarrington, Bill LaFortune, and John Nicks. The opportunity was not put out for competitive bids, and no other proposals were considered.

From 2002 through 2005, Cinnabar Service Co. was the sole source for appraisals and other services for the County's expansion of O'Brien Park. Cinnabar's owners are Bob Parmele and Bill Bacon, who, along with builder Howard Kelsey, are also the principals in IVI.

In October 2003, following the passage of Vision 2025, the Tulsa County Industrial Authority (TCIA) took steps to borrow money against future Vision 2025 sales tax revenues so that projects could be built faster than a pay-as-you-go approach would allow.

The TCIA, whose board consists of the three County Commissioners, voted to enter into negotiations with Leo Oppenheim and Co. and Wells Nelson and Associates to handle bond underwriting for the half-billion in revenue bonds that would be issued, and with the law firm of Hilborne and Weidman to serve as bond counsel and with Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison, and Lewis to serve as special contracts counsel. Fees for the entire investment team on the initial bond issue of around $250 million were estimated to be between $687,500 and $3.4 million.

Leo Oppenheim and Co. was affiliated with Bank of Oklahoma, and their lead bond advisor was John Piercey, who has been the sole source on many county bond issues over the last 20 years. County Commissioner Dick described Piercey to the Tulsa World as a "dear friend."

Orbison is Jim Orbison, mentioned above as a member of the TCPFA. Wells Nelson and Associates is affiliated with F & M Bank and Trust Co. Although school districts and local governments routinely use competitive bidding for bond underwriting contracts, advertising opportunities nationwide via publications like The Bond Buyer, Tulsa County and its related authorities rarely put bond services up for competitive bids.

The TCPFA is currently in the process of negotiating a five-year extension of their contract with Murphy Brothers for the Tulsa State Fair midway. Murphy Brothers has had the contract since 1971; it has never been competitively bid.

The proposed IVI bridge is the latest example of Tulsa County's aversion to competitive bidding. After 2 1/2 years of private discussions between individual County Commissioners and IVI principals, the Commission discussed the bridge deal for the first time at a public meeting in February 2005. On June 14, the Commission unanimously approved the contract. Two of the commissioners, Randi Miller and Wilbert Collins, have testified that they reviewed no documents other than the executed agreement prior to voting to approve the contract.

Effectively the deal provides that IVI will receive $658 million, according to an independent financial analysis, as compensation for building and operating a publicly-owned bridge over the life of the contract. The same financial analysis, conducted by George K. Baum and Co., shows that the County or the City could build the bridge itself, financing the bridge with revenue bonds. Under that scenario, the toll could be lifted after 30 years or the excess revenue could be used to fund other public infrastructure.

To cite this list of sole-source contracts is not to say that any laws were broken (although that has been alleged in the South Tulsa Citizens Coalition lawsuit against the County Commissioners), or that the people who were awarded the contracts were incapable of doing the work. But sole-source contracts rarely serve the best interests of the public. Competitive bidding opens opportunities up to all businesses, not just to those with political connections. Competitive bidding means the public gets better services, better rates, or a better return on their investment in public facilities.

Take the midway, for example. The Tulsa State Fair attracts nearly a million people each year, and there are dozens of companies in the outdoor amusements business who would be interested in reaching that market. Competitive bidding could mean more rides, a better variety of rides, better reliability, and a lower price per ride, all of which would serve the fair-going public. It could also mean a better share of the revenues for the TCPFA, money that could be used instead of sales tax funds to pay for Expo Square improvements, and that would serve every Tulsa County taxpayer.

In the past, Commissioner Bob Dick has defended sole-source contracts on two grounds. Regarding the Vision 2025 bonds, Dick told the Tulsa World that there was a "great deal of value with having a team that understands the government they are serving." On the exclusive deal for the fairgrounds motel, Dick said that because a businessman came to them with the idea, it would have been unfair to solicit bids from other businesses, "to use entrepreneurs' ideas against them." The same rationale has been used for not soliciting other proposals for a south Tulsa bridge.

If a contractor approached me with a proposal to add a room to my home, would I have a moral obligation to use that contractor? Of course not. Any reasonable person would see if there were other contractors who could provide better value. Even if Commissioner Dick feels obliged to the company who came forward with the idea, he and his fellow commissioners should feel a greater obligation to the taxpayers who elected them, who have entrusted to them hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues and public assets.

The County Commissioners are asking the voters to renew the "4 to Fix the County" sales tax in December to generate $62 million. Why should we, when the County Commissioners have blithely left 10 times that much money on the table in this controversial toll bridge deal?

Retrieved from the Internet Archive.

Walkability and Disability

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An edited version of this piece was published in the September 14, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web April 3, 2012.

Walkability and Disability
by Michael D. Bates

Urban design can be a dry topic, and the details of urban design - scale, setbacks, screening - can make your eyes glaze over, but it's all about the shape of our city and how it shapes our everyday lives.

A few weeks ago, my wife spotted a man making his way down our street, sweeping a white cane in front of him. Like most Tulsa neighborhoods built since the 1920s, when the automobile came into common use, our mid-'50s neighborhood doesn't have sidewalks, so this gentleman was in the street itself, close to the curb.

This blind gentleman told my wife that he was out "having a look" (his words) around the neighborhood where he grew up. He was happy to learn from her that our neighborhood would once again have a supermarket. He had heard that his neighborhood supermarket was closing. In the future, going to the store would mean walking an extra mile and a half - entirely without sidewalks - and making his way across one of the city's busiest intersections.

Urban planners talk about the importance of "walkable" neighborhoods, with homes, shops, and workplaces in close proximity. Walkability is more than sidewalks; the sidewalks have to lead somewhere useful.

Tulsa doesn't have many walkable neighborhoods, and the few that exist were built mainly in the 1910s and 1920s, before most people had their own cars and before Tulsa adopted a zoning code designed to strictly segregate homes from shops and offices from factories. Many walkable neighborhoods were destroyed by urban renewal or dismembered by freeway construction, and our biggest and oldest walkable neighborhood - downtown - has been reduced to little more than a suburban office park.

For tens of thousands of our fellow Tulsans, walkability isn't about rows of trendy cafes and quirky consignment shops, or about sidewalks to nowhere; it's about independence. For them, driving simply isn't an option. I'm not talking just about those who can't afford to operate a car.

There are those who are physically unable to drive. Many senior citizens, troubled by glare at night or uncertain of their reflexes, prefer to drive only during daylight or not at all. Teenagers are old enough to get around on their own, but either can't drive yet or shouldn't. For those who can't drive, urban design makes the difference between freedom and frustrating dependence.

Danny, a friend from church, has cerebral palsy and suffers from seizures. He can't drive, and he can only walk short distances with a cane, but he can get around with his electric scooter. Unfortunately, he lives on South Lewis, and he's been pulled over by the police more than once trying to go to the supermarket on his scooter. There aren't any sidewalks, and the only way to get to the store is on the street. Using Tulsa Transit's LIFT paratransit service requires booking a day in advance, waiting outside up to an hour for a ride, and leaving early enough to pick up and drop off other passengers on the way to his destination. LIFT isn't available on Sundays. If the next errand isn't reachable from the first by foot or scooter, it means another bus ride and another long wait. Because of the shape of our city, Danny doesn't have the freedom to go where he wants to go when he wants to go, and it makes Tulsa a frustrating place to live.

Compare Danny's situation to that of Nick, whom I met earlier this year at a pub trivia night in
New York City. Nick, a walking encyclopedia of pop music who led our team to victory, is blind, but that doesn't seem to limit his ability to get where he wants to go. Nick arrived at the pub on his own and left on his own, aided only by his cane. Was it the shape of New York City that made his independence possible? He told me that the grid of streets and avenues made most of Manhattan easy to navigate; public transit covers most of the city and runs frequently and all night; you can get a cab just about anywhere, anytime; wide sidewalks make it safer to get from the public transit stop to his destination; and there are usually people on the street to give directions and warn of hazards. Notice that last point: Because getting around on foot is convenient for people who could be driving, the streets are that much safer for someone for whom driving is not an option.

Notice, too, that more frequent and longer-running public transit service isn't a solution by itself. It still has to be safe and convenient to get from the transit stop to the store or the doctor's office by foot. In Tulsa, after you get off the bus, you still have to dodge cars and endure the weather on your quarter-mile trek across the parking lot to the store's entrance.

Most of Tulsa is designed for the private automobile, but there ought to be at least a part of our city where those who can't drive, those who'd rather not drive, and those who'd like to get by with just one car can still lead an independent existence. At least one section of our city ought to be truly urban.

Making that happen involves urban design. It means rethinking the way we build neighborhoods, thinking beyond the isolated building or subdivision, and thinking about how the parts come together to create the whole. It involves elected officials, the planning commission, property owners, developers, and neighborhood leaders. It means dealing with scale, setback, density, and a good mixture of uses. It requires learning from other cities, and applying those lessons to the details of Tulsa's land use regulations.

Some of that urban design work is already underway, and in the weeks to come we'll look at how good urban design can make Tulsa a more livable city.

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