Timing is everything
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, July 17, 2011
7/17/11 at 3:58 AM
We're many months into the discussion over whether and how to change Tulsa's form of city government.
Yet there's still no grass roots groundswell, no clamoring from Tulsa's masses, no hue and cry from the citizenry on the subject.
Do Tulsans really want to change their form of government at this time? If they do, they're not singing it from their rooftops.
Maybe it's because they're so confused by the multiple proposals floating around that they can't sort out which plan would accomplish what. Maybe they're not paying much attention because they're tired of the din from City Hall. Maybe the question of whether Tulsa should have a city manager or not just isn't a burning one for most of them.
Heck, even city councilors aren't in agreement about what, if anything, should be done to make Tulsa government more effective.
So maybe now is not the time to be making major changes.
It would be no surprise if Tulsans are confused by the three proposals for restructuring local government that have been floated in recent months. One has failed to gain any traction, but two others likely will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The City Council's proposal would reduce the mayor's power by bringing a city manager on board. The council would have the authority to hire and fire the city manager.
The other proposal, crafted without public input by a group of Tulsans known as Save Our Tulsa, would retain the strong-mayor form and add three at-large councilors. The mayor would be council chairman and would vote only in cases of a tie.
This proposal also calls for making council positions two-year terms, rather than the three-year staggered terms about to go into effect. And, Save Our Tulsa wants the local races to be nonpartisan.
Pros and cons
The fact that the City Council, and only the City Council, has been pushing the city-manager option makes it suspect. Even if councilors aren't seeking more power - at the expense of the mayor - this proposal sure makes it look like they are.
To be fair, the city-manager form does have its advantages. An experienced and highly trained city manager can bring a level of professionalism to city operations that frankly has been in short supply in Tulsa at times.
But a city manager also can bring new problems to City Hall. Needless to say, he or she has to try to keep the City Council happy in order to keep the job. It's likely city managers would have to be recruited from elsewhere, which would mean they would be unfamiliar with Tulsa and our ways. And it's also likely they'd always be keeping an ear to the ground for other job openings, since their professional lifespans can be short.
Just as the city manager form has its advantages and disadvantages, so too does the strong-mayor form. Every four years Tulsans elect a mayor who may or may not have strong leadership and management abilities. He or she is catapulted into an unfamiliar job that has many difficult demands. It's no wonder there is always some degree of turmoil when a new mayor takes office.
But if someone has what it takes to get elected, we can expect - or at least hope - that he or she also has the know-how to find and hire talented, skilled people to help carry out the duties of the office. In general, the mayors who have held office since Tulsa switched to the strong-mayor form two decades ago have had pretty decent leadership teams.
But perhaps the most important feature of the strong mayor form is the checks-and-balances function it ensures. Like it or not - and much of the time most of us don't - this discord we keep hearing from City Hall reflects the fact that the councilors and the mayor are not in a lockstep. (How's that for an understatement? )
It would be nice if they could agree a little more often, but the fact is the essential business of the city is getting done. A satisfactory budget was arrived at several weeks ago, with little conflict, and is now in effect. The mayor is moving forward with some reorganization efforts, and may or may not succeed, depending on whether councilors ultimately agree to go along with them. If they do, then some perhaps-worthwhile changes will be made. If they don't, then our little democracy has functioned as it should.
An essential point in this debate over changing government is the fact we likely wouldn't even be having this debate if it weren't for the constant bickering between Mayor Dewey Bartlett and city councilors. Some councilors have tried to make the case that Tulsans are hungry for a change in government, but the fact their forums on the proposed city-manager option have been sparsely attended suggests there's not all that much interest in change.
In fact, after forums were held in all nine council districts, councilors managed to come up with only 85 surveys reflecting the thoughts of some who attended. A whopping 28 responses supported switching to the city-manager form, while another 19 wanted no change at all. The rest were undecided or had other ideas.
Councilor G. T. Bynum probably summed things up accurately after the forums: "There's not a big outcry for a change in government. What people are saying is that they are sick of the personal issues that are being introduced by elected officials into the governance of the city. It's not the system - it's the people."
City Councilor Rick Westcott also had some salient observations after the forums concluded. He thinks the city manager form could be a more efficient system, but wonders if now is the time to seek such a big change. "I'm questioning whether or not the citizens would give this proposal a fair hearing right now," he said. "It may be wiser to delay this for a couple of years."
If councilors are divided over whether to change the form of government, it should come as no surprise that the rest of us have mixed feelings about it too. To date, five of the nine councilors have expressed support for putting the city-manager plan on the Nov. 8 ballot. The other four have expressed some concerns or are undecided.
Tulsa's form of government was changed from the city commission form in 1989 and the new strong mayor form went into effect in 1990. So we've only had a little over two decades' worth of experience with this system. Prior to adoption of the mayor-council form, the city had been governed since 1909 by a mayor and four commissioners: police and fire, streets and public property, waterworks and sewerage, and finance and revenue. (Some observers still feel the old commission form of government is the most efficient around, but that's another column.)
Efforts to change to the form we have now went on for decades. Proposals to switch to the strong mayor form failed in 1959, 1969 and 1973. An earlier proposal to switch to the city-manager form failed in 1954.
Tulsans, clearly, don't rush headlong into major changes such as these. They apparently like to take their time and make changes if and when the time is right, after long and thorough debate. And the time sure doesn't seem right now.
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
Mayor Dewey Bartlett presents his budget to city councilors. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World