Proposal would give council power to approve city attorney
BY ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
1/22/13 at 7:17 AM
Future city attorney candidates would be subject to City Council approval under the latest proposal to curtail the authority of mayors to fill the position.
Two years after a failed effort by the council to make the attorney an elected position, Councilor G.T. Bynum said he will request a city charter amendment giving the council authority to approve or disapprove mayors' appointees for the position.
Bynum said he opposed the previous effort but agreed with proponents who argued that allowing mayors to hire city attorneys unilaterally, as they have since 1990, fails to ensure that the attorneys are impartial.
"I disagreed with the proposal because I don't think politicizing the city attorney's job is in the best interest of the city," he said. "But at the same time, I agree with the sentiment behind it; you want to have a city attorney that represents the whole city."
The charter amendment would be "a practical step" in ensuring that both the council and mayor have confidence in the city attorney, he said.
Changes in the city charter require a citywide election and must be approved by the mayor and City Council. Bynum said he hopes to have the proposal on the ballot in November.
The council's previous effort was halted in 2010 when Mayor Dewey Bartlett vetoed a charter amendment that would have made the city attorney an elected position.
Bartlett told the Tulsa World that he has no opinion of the latest proposal and would be willing to consider it, but added that he disagrees with its central argument. City attorneys have shown no bias towards mayors, he said.
"I don't think that has been the case - with this city attorney, either," he said. "I have no problem at all with how the current system works."
Bynum said his proposal is not a reaction to the performance of current City Attorney David O'Meilia, whose job would not be threatened by the charter amendment.
Instead, the intent is to return to the hiring process of before 1990, when Tulsa switched from a city commission-style government to the current mayor-council system, he said. Mayors in that era appointed city attorneys, who were later vetted by the City Commission.
"Because of that, you had a city commission that felt like the city attorney worked for all of them and represented all of them," Bynum said.
City attorneys tend to act as referees between the two branches of city government, he said, so the current system is "like having a football game where one side gets to pick the referee."
He said that has been a source of frequent conflict, with councilors often questioning whether city attorney opinions favor the mayor.
"When you talk to people about the heyday of city government in Tulsa, they talk about the city commission," Bynum said. "I think that's because there was less drama and the city commission focused on the business of Tulsa."
City councilors sought to override Bartlett's veto of the 2010 charter amendment, seeking a February 2011 public vote, but were halted by a legal challenge to the proposed ballot language.
Several councilors had suggested that David Pauling, the interim city attorney at the time, was hired to support Bartlett's position that the council had no legal authority to hire its own attorney.
Council Attorney Drew Rees was later reassigned as council administrator.
"Since I've been on the council, there have always been conflicts and the city attorney has wound up in the middle of them," Bynum said.
"I think it's only fair when you hire someone as city attorney that they come into that job knowing that they've got the full support of both branches of government."
Recent city attorneys
David O'Meilia: Since Jan. 2012
David Pauling: 2011*
Deirdre Dexter: 2008-2010**
Alan Jackere: 2005-2006
*Interim city attorney, officially considered "mayor's assistant"
**Initially hired as a "mayor's assistant" in 2007
Original Print Headline: Charter change sought
Zack Stoycoff 918-581-8486