When District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum presented an idea to his fellow councilors several weeks ago seeking their approval for the formation of a joint city/county committee to explore ways in which the two entities might work together and save taxpayer money, he certainly didn't expect it to turn into the political firestorm of the new year.
But that's what he unwittingly unleashed. Bynum's proposal, benign as he believed it was, was shot down by a 5-4 vote of the council because of a dispute between the city and the county over storm water drainage fees at Expo Square.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. responded to the defeat of the initiative by issuing an executive order on April 13 creating a city-county advisory committee, one that would hold meetings that would not be open to the public.
That drew an immediate and angry backlash from most council members, even those who supported the creation of a committee. They classified it as a sign of disrespect and an attempt by Bartlett to execute an end-run around them. A few even went so far as to label the creation of the committee as the first step toward a county takeover of city government, firing up an old rivalry between the two entities that has simmered for years.
On the sidelines sat the members of the Tulsa County Commission, watching the idea of city-county cooperation seemingly fall apart before their eyes, even before they could vote on whether to go along with the creation of the committee. A dismayed Bynum expressed some concerns of his own.
"I'm floored by it," he said last month as the squabble between the council, the mayor's office and the County Commission dragged on with no end in sight. "It's been the most surprising experience I've had in 10 years of public service. And that includes the years I spent as an aide on (Capitol) Hill (in Washington, D.C.).
"When I brought this up, I hardly even expected a discussion," he said. "We're talking about a powerless committee."
Not everyone on the council sees it that way. The strongest opposition to the idea seems to be concentrated among councilors Jack Henderson, Roscoe Turner and Jim Mautino, who seem to view it as an unnecessary additional layer of bureaucracy at best and a threat to the city's sovereignty at worst.
Henderson, of District 1, was the most outspoken foe of the committee, citing the county's unwillingness to pay the disputed storm water drainage fees at the fairgrounds as the biggest obstacle.
"That should be settled before we sit down and talk about anything else," he said.
Henderson believes the formation of the committee was premature as long as the dispute over the fees remained unresolved.
"At some point, it would be a good idea to talk to the county, but not when these very people owe you money," he said.
Assuming that dispute is resolved, Henderson said, there are other hurdles to get over before the city and county can make any headway on possible collaboration.
"There's a lot of untrust with the city and the county on both sides," he said. "I can't blame it on any one group. There's a lot on both sides."
District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott, who voted for Bynum's proposal, addressed many of those issues in his evaluation of the situation.
"Two or three things have to happen before we can move forward with those discussions (with the county)," he said. "We have to reach a resolution on the unpaid storm water fees, whatever that resolution is, and there has to be greater understanding and communication between the mayor's office and the City Council regarding the concept of collaboration. In my view, the mayor's creation of the committee is premature. The creation of the committee immediately after the council voted it down created a hurdle we have to cross that we shouldn't have.
"The third thing is, some councilors have to put old hurts behind them and let bygones be bygones, and move forward for the benefit of the city," he said.
Representatives of both sides quietly have been trying to plan a city-county summit sometime in the next two months to establish a starting point from which cooperative efforts might develop, though the lack of resolution on the storm water drainage fees issue has kept those plans from being solidified. Bynum said he also planned to seek the creation of a public committee similar to the one he proposed before, though it would hold open meetings in an attempt to make its proceedings as transparent as possible.
"That's where a lot of the fire came from, the idea that there would be these secret meetings with secret plans," he said. "I think this will draw a lot of the heat out of this issue."
They've Done It Before
The city of Tulsa and Tulsa County have worked together in the past, of course, and continue to work together today. One need look no further than the Tulsa City-County Health Department or the Tulsa City-County Library as two examples of how that cooperation has benefited both entities.
The city and county have joined forces in other ways, as well, including their participation in the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and the Tulsa jail. Most recently, the two entities worked together to secure the passage of Vision 2025 in 2003, a countywide sales tax increase for regional economic development and capital improvements.
V2025 funds have been used to fund a variety of projects, including the construction of the BOK Center, the renovation of the Tulsa Convention Center, the creation of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, improvements to Expo Square, the creation of a Route 66 flag plaza and dozens of other projects around the county. Other V2025 funds will be used to construct low-water dams on the Arkansas River, creating a series of lakes that are designed to attract new development.
Former Tulsa Mayor Roger Randle views the passage of Vision 2025 as perhaps the high point in modern city-county relations. He believes that episode is perhaps more significant than most Tulsans realize.
"A big shift that hasn't been properly noted came under the administration of (Mayor) Bill LaFortune when Vision 2025 was passed," he said. "That became a county initiative, with the county in the lead and the county in charge of overseeing all the spending.
"That event set us in a different direction and brought us closer together," he said. "In the case of Vision 2025, it put the county above the city in terms of its responsibilities."
Randle -- a former state Senate pro tem who now serves as the director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture in Tulsa -- said that arrangement was a departure from most initiatives the two had worked on in the past when the city typically took the lead.
"Vision 2025 turned that around," he said.
Randle regarded that as a positive development, a sign that the city of Tulsa was starting to think of itself as part of the greater metropolitan community. He said he was pleased to see that line of thinking has continued with plans for development of the Arkansas River corridor, an area most local leaders agree has been vastly underutilized.
"We're starting to think in those kinds of terms, whereas in the past, it would have been Tulsa alone," Randle said.
Henderson acknowledges the cooperative efforts the city and county have made in the past, but he isn't the greatest fan of the results. While there's no denying that the Health Department and library have been successfully operated as joint city-county entities, he said, the city's decision to house its prisoners at the county jail several years ago was a bad one.
"That was a great idea until (the original contract) ran out," said Henderson, who maintains the city essentially was left with no choice but to pay the county a higher rate after the initial agreement expired. "That was not a good deal because it only works for one side. We kind of got stuck."
Nevertheless, Henderson said he's not opposed to listening to ideas about how the city and county can work together to save money. In fact, he said, he's already met with Commissioner Keith to talk about that.
"We don't need a resolution or executive order to do it in the first place," Henderson said of working with the county. "That's not how we did it in the past ... The city and the county have worked together, but we've never needed to do things the way they're trying to right now, putting it in writing."
Henderson favors a less formal approach, one that would leave the city plenty of room to retreat from any arrangements that might prove detrimental to its interests in the future.
"At any point, anyone can just back out and say, 'No hard feelings, but at least we gave a try,'" he said. "There's some room for saying, 'We can do this.' We don't need to speed it up. We can take our time and whatever is necessary to make it work. That's where the benefits come from because we didn't rush into it. Too many times, you hear councilors say, 'We were rushed into this, and we didn't have enough time to look it over.'"
Mautino's opposition to the formation of a committee stems from another perspective.
"Why do we need an advisory committee?" he asked. "It's just another layer of pointing the finger and saying, 'They did it, we didn't.' That's what they're doing in Washington. We need to be accessible to the citizens that elected us. We need to listen to them and be accessible to them."
If city officials realize there's a way to save money by working with the county in some area, there's nothing preventing them from simply doing it, he said.
"Why do we need someone to come in and tell us what to do?" he asked.
Mautino doesn't care for the way the city has farmed out many of its functions in the past, particularly its decision to turn over its economic development efforts to the Tulsa Metro Chamber and its planning functions to the Indian Nations Council of Governments. A city-county advisory committee would only compound those mistakes, he said.
"All ... that does is it just makes it so that the citizens have less contact with their government," Mautino said. "You've got to break this down."
Turner is the harshest council critic of the idea.
"I'm not interested in tying in with the county," he said flatly. "The county owes us money and wants to take over the city."
He echoed claims by Henderson and Mautino that the committee isn't necessary. In fact, Turner makes no bones about believing such a move would open a Pandora's box.
"It's not the idea of saving money," Turner said, testily. "That's not where the trouble comes in. There's no need to sign these resolutions. We can save all the money we want to. The city is a government entity just like the county is, and we were designed separately."
The District 3 councilor wants to see that separation remain in place, dismissing the idea that there have been instances in the past when that line has been blurred to the benefit of the city and county.
"The trust just isn't there," Turner said. "I feel that way because we haven't had any collaboration on anything. They just do whatever they darn well want to do."
That kind of criticism from the city doesn't sit well with County Commissioner Fred Perry, who has his doubts that the city and county can find enough common ground to make this proposed exercise in collaboration worthwhile.
"I get discouraged sometimes by all this suspicion on the other side," he said. "I don't understand all this suspicion. I don't know anybody in the county who is interested in taking over whole departments in the city of Tulsa.
"For one thing, we have to be concerned about the other outlying communities (in the county)," he said. "I'm not optimistic we're going to come up with any great savings. And we've got to be careful not to dilute the services we provide to the rest of the county. I'm kind of discouraged, but I'm willing to pursue this for the time being."
Perry takes particular exception to the notion that the city hasn't benefited from the county's help in the past.
"I don't think a lot of people realize we already help the city of Tulsa on road and street projects," he said. "You could never tell by talking to some of the councilors. When one of the councilors says the county is no friend to the city of Tulsa, that bothers me."
The commissioner said the county and city recently partnered on two intersection-widening projects in south Tulsa. The city provided the materials, and the county supplied the crews and equipment, he said.
"We could have used those elsewhere," he said. "The councilors don't seem to appreciate that."
Even so, Perry said he likes each of the councilors personally and wants to see a good, positive relationship between the city and county rebuilt.
Keith, another member of the County Commission, isn't quite as pessimistic about things as Perry.
"I am not discouraged," she said. "Just call me an eternal optimist, but I really think we can work through these issues."
Ill will between the two entities may even be overstated, she said.
"I don't think our relationship is that poor," she said. "As for the jail dispute, please tell me we're not even close to that. There are several councilors I can call and talk to. I just think we've got to build some trust back."
Westcott acknowledged the relationship between some members of the council and the County Commission is the worst he's ever seen. But he pointed out that other councilors, including himself, have a good relationship with their counterparts at Tulsa County.
"I've known Karen since she worked in TV, and I worked in radio," he said. "We're able to discuss issues all the time. We're friends, and we can talk through things ... but I also think there are some councilors who are harboring grudges, and that's unfortunate."
Keith is hopeful that lingering distrust could be eliminated by bringing everyone to the table for a discussion of their common goals.
"We've just got to get everybody on the same page," she said. "I know our councilors care about the county."
Keith said she regularly meets with city managers from other communities in the county under the auspices of INCOG, and those various entities have been able to find a great deal of common ground. She sees no reason why the same approach can't work with the city of Tulsa.
"Far from being discouraged, I'm excited about the opportunity we have to work together," she said.
Rather than being any sort of veiled power grab, Keith said, the idea of city-county collaboration is a good example of officials from both entities trying to maximize their resources in a difficult time, she said.
"I just think as elected officials, we have an obligation to look for these efficiencies," she said. "There is one pot that is taxpayer dollars in Tulsa County, and we have to look for better ways to use that money or we're not doing our jobs. I don't understand why anyone would be threatened by that."
Bynum feels the same way -- or he did, anyway, before his proposal fell victim to the storm water drainage fees disagreement. The idea of exploring greater collaboration with the county is something he and Keith have pursued informally for quite some time, he said.
"I've been working on this for a year now with the County Commission, trying to put this together in the right way and get everybody on board," Bynum said. "I don't support the mayor's decision to issue an executive order. It's not an attempt to get council buy-in; it's full-speed ahead."
Bynum believes the mayor acted rashly, ultimately making it more difficult to bring all the parties together.
"This does not involve just the city (council) and the county (commission) -- it's the mayor's office, too," he said. "If just two of those entities are at the table, it's not going to be effective. We've got to have all three."
And that's not where things stand at this point, Bynum believes.
"Right now, we' don't have the mayor or the council on board for an organized approach," he said.
District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen voted against Bynum's proposal to create the joint committee, but he insisted that decision was based only on the storm water drainage fees dispute. And he didn't take exception to the mayor's action.
"I do not fault him," Christiansen said of Bartlett. I actually support the concept of merging some of the same functions in the idea of saving money for taxpayers. I'm not against that."
The mayor defended his decision to issue the executive order, insisting the time is ripe to pursue money-saving options with the county.
"In my view, we had to have a beginning," he said. "I did not mean to be disrespectful, but I think we needed to start the bargaining process. I'm not trying to shove it in anybody's face."
Bartlett's executive order -- which remains merely a proposal, since the County Commission deferred action on it until the storm water drainage fees issue is resolved -- would create a nine-member committee. Three members would come from the county, three from the City Council and three from the mayor's office. He said in the middle of April he hoped to have the committee operating within 30 days, but that didn't happen.
"I really do hope the City Council will decide to be involved in the committee," Bartlett said. "We have two or three spots available for them. Once I get an answer back from the commission, if they're agreeable to my executive order, I will ask the council if they'll be willing to work with the committee. Hopefully, that will happen."
Bartlett tried to nudge the issue forward on May 18 by proposing that a mediator be brought in to resolve the issue of the storm water drainage fees. Both city and county officials were still considering that possibility this week.
Will it work?
While the issue of city-county collaboration has gotten plenty of attention in recent weeks, one element that has been notably absent from the discussion is how much merit the idea has. Even the most ardent supporters of the creation of an advisory committee admit they're not sure how much can be gained.
"Honestly, I don't know," Keith said. "We have to look, but there could be some."
Bartlett was somewhat more optimistic.
"That's hard to say, but it could be pretty substantial," he said.
Most officials agree the city and county could save money by purchasing items such as sand and salt for winter storms in greater volume, and Bartlett and Keith already have begun to explore the idea of using jail inmates to help mow city property. Others have expressed interest in the two entities collaborating on parks maintenance, while Bynum cited fleet maintenance and public works as two more areas worth examining.
The mayor wants the advisory committee to investigate whether the city and county can "trade" functions, with the city performing one service county wide, while the county takes another.
Bartlett also touted a recent move proposed by County Commissioner John Smaligo to dissolve the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, with its staff and responsibilities taken over by the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office.
"We had been splitting the costs of that, but we were able to make a deal (with the county)," he said. "Now, we'll supply the facilities at no cost if they take over paying the employees."
Bartlett estimated the move would save the city $100,000 a year.
"That was a pretty good trade," he said.
Even so, the shift raised concerns among some councilors.
"I don't like that because I have to be responsive to my constituents," Christiansen said. "I fear there'll be some control given away that we as elected officials need to have to best serve the citizens we represent."
Christiansen likened the move to the frustration he feels every time he hears from a constituent about a decision the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission makes.
"We are powerless," he said. "The TMAPC works for INCOG. We (councilors) have all the responsibility, and yet we have no control over what goes on."
But Perry said he had difficulty seeing that perspective.
"It's puzzling to me when Commissioner Smaligo recommends a way to save the city money in their budget with the EMA, and then some of (the councilors) accuse us of that," he said.
Perry thinks it may be difficult for an advisory committee to identify any areas where the city and county can work together to save money.
"To tell you the truth, the low-hanging fruit was picked a long time ago when they formed the City-County Health Department, the City-County Library, the Planning Commission and the county jail," he said. "Those who have gone before us basically did the major areas that needed to be combined."
Randle has his doubts, as well.
"My first reaction is, probably not, but you only know if you really look," he said. "So I don't know. I suspect there are ways to do some things better and make savings, but I wouldn't go so far as to say there are going to be big savings because you wouldn't be doing big services that would be jointly carried out. You'd need to do smaller things first, building up confidence and building up experience."
Randle said measuring the potential success of any collaborative endeavor is not a simple matter, given the "hidden" nature of many costs.
"Using the exact same standards in a combined way, probably initially, you don't see that," he said of the savings to be realized from a combined mowing program, for instance. "What's difficult to evaluate when you talk about saving money is how much (you) save administratively. Maybe you don't save a lot on the mowing as a function, but you save a lot administratively, administering one contract instead of multiple ones. You save more at an administrative level than you do at the function level."
Bynum takes the most positive approach, saying he has no doubt an advisory committee could find worthwhile savings between the two entities.
"No doubt," he said. "I wouldn't have gone to all this trouble if I didn't think there were significant savings to be had. This is the basis of good government. All we're trying to do is save people money. If you think city government has the money to do all it wants to do, you've been living in a cave for the last year and a half."
Not in the cards
Supporters of city-county collaboration are spending a great deal of their time rebutting assertions by Henderson and Turner that the formation of the committee is only the beginning of a movement that could result in the county swallowing up the city, resulting in a metropolitan form of government. The mayor flatly denied any move in that direction is in the works.
"Certainly, the merging of city and county governments is off the table," Bartlett said. "I've never heard anybody say they want to do that. Also, the merger of the city and county police is off the table. That's a non-starter. Somebody, unfortunately, is using scare tactics that aren't there ... I'm not going to be making any kind of recommendations that would put us in a bad position. That's not going to happen."
Keith dismissed the notion, as well.
"I think we're a long, long way away from anything like that," she said, indicating her preference is to see the two entities begin by combining their purchasing power and examining minor functions. "I'm not even saying that's on the table. We need to shape the areas where we can work together."
Bynum described it as a bogus issue.
"That is Chicken Little, sky-is-falling talk," he said. "I would be the first to step forward and say no to city-county consolidation. Local government ought to be local."
He emphasized that, under his proposal, the city-county committee would exist in an advisory capacity only.
"It would have no legislative authority whatsoever," he said. "We're not creating some super-legislative body. We're just trying to create a fundamental framework between two entities to be more effective."
Westcott and Christiansen both expressed opposition to the possible combination of the Tulsa Police Department and the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department into a metropolitan police force.
"We have a great police department, and we need to maintain that," Christiansen said. "I think that would be off the table for me."
Westcott feels largely the same way, though he didn't close the door on the idea.
"That would be a different conversation, although I can't say I would refuse to discuss it," he said. "If someone could show me it made sense and we could maintain our effectiveness, it might be worth discussing. But I think it would certainly be difficult."
Henderson believes that idea could come up for consideration, though, contending it was an idea Bartlett floated during his campaign for the mayor's office last summer. And he points to the strong influence Bartlett's chief of staff, Terry Simonson, has on city policy.
"Terry Simonson worked for the county for a long time," Henderson said. "So (a city-county form of government) would be a naturally good fit for Terry."
Not so, Westcott said. He doesn't buy into the idea that a county takeover of city government could result from the process.
"Absolutely not, in no way, shape or form," he said. "We don't have anybody in the city or county who has that intention. Even if they did, that kind of takeover would be far too difficult to accomplish ... I also think it would be unwise. I believe in smaller geographic representation. A group of three county commissioners cannot effectively oversee the governance of a community the size of Tulsa County."
Henderson said he would be willing to sit down with county commissioners immediately and begin talking about ways to save money if those opportunities were considered on a case-by-case basis. But he remains resistant to the idea of formalizing any arrangement between the two, as Bynum has proposed.
"I don't fault (Bynum) for doing that, because in a perfect world, that's where we'd want to be," Henderson said. "But there are some problems (between the city and county) that were there before he came on board (the council)."
Henderson said there's more at stake than an unpaid utility bill, and he said he's as eager as anyone to see the bad blood between the city and county resolved.
Perry is hopeful that a city-county committee could have a more profound impact, as well.
"Well, personally, I think it would be good if it was ongoing," he said. "We need some ways to discuss our differences, something other than what we have right now. Regardless of what we come up with in the short term, it would be good to keep it going, if it ever gets organized, as a way to discuss the differences between the city and the county because too much of that seems to take place in the media. It would be good for all of us to sit down at the table and discuss whatever differences we have."
Bynum still believes a positive outcome for his proposal is in store, even if he finds himself shaking his head at how much steam it has generated.
"No, I'm not discouraged," he said. "I'm only 32 years old, but I've been around the legislative process for a third of my life, and this is what you go through on issues people care about."
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