UTW Column Archive: June 2006 Archives

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. Posted on the web August 2, 2009.

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.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the UTW Column Archive category from June 2006.

UTW Column Archive: May 2006 is the previous archive.

UTW Column Archive: August 2006 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Contact

Feeds

Subscribe to feed Subscribe to this blog's feed:
Atom
RSS
[What is this?]