Tulsa County voters are about to witness a rare event -- the replacement of a majority of the members of a legislative body in one instant. Sure, we've seen control of Congress shift back and forth from one party to the other over the course on election or two, but the turnover rate for individual members is still pretty low.
Imagine if the U. S. House started up one January with 218 new members! For good or for ill, a 50 percent turnover in membership is going to change the culture of an institution.
As 2007 dawns, the Tulsa County Commission will experience a 67 percent turnover, as Commissioners Wilbert Collins and Bob Dick are replaced by former State Representatives John Smaligo and Fred Perry.
The impact of the change is even greater than that number suggests, because Dick has long dominated the County Commission and was the driving force behind county government's rise in riches and prominence.
Bob Dick was first elected to the Commission in 1990, succeeding Mel Rice. He never faced a tough election in his overwhelmingly Republican district and twice (1994 and 2002) was given a free ticket to re-election.
This year, Dick announced for re-election right before the filing period, then backed off three days later after it was apparent that he would face at least one serious challenger for renomination.
Wilbert Collins made it through a tough primary and runoff in 1998 to score a slim majority in the general election, but he was nearly defeated by Republican Greg Robinson in 2002, despite a much heftier campaign fund and the advantages of incumbency. Collins won re-election by less than a thousand votes, with only 47%. Collins probably would have lost had it not been for the presence of Milton Goodwin in the race, the 1998 Republican nominee who ran in 2002 as an independent.
That close shave revealed how vulnerable Collins was, and this year an unusual number of serious candidates lined up to challenge the incumbent, including two former City Councilors, Anna Falling and Sam Roop. John Smaligo, who represented the booming Owasso area in the legislature, was able to win with support from Republicans throughout the district and north Tulsa County suburbanites of all parties.
Smaligo's defeat of Collins was the first unseating of an incumbent Tulsa County Commissioner since Lewis Harris upset David Atkinson for the same seat in 1970.
What kind of legacy do Dick and Collins leave behind? They do deserve credit for dramatic improvements to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds and county parks. The original (2001-2006) "Four to Fix the County" was a redirection of existing revenues to deal with county facilities that were in disrepair. There was already a proven demand for Expo Square's trade and livestock show facilities. A modest investment would keep Expo Square competitive in that market.
The problem is that they didn't stop once the county was fixed.
Taking advantage of a leadership vacuum at Tulsa City Hall, Bob Dick, with Wilbert Collins as his right-hand man, took control of what began as a city-centered vision process. Rather than individual municipalities raising and spending money on their own projects, the county would control the hundreds of millions of dollars to be generated by the Vision 2025 sales tax.
Just the projected surplus, over and above the money committed to specific projects, gives the commissioners a great deal of leverage in their dealings with city governments. Six of the seven members of the authority that oversees the surplus money are either appointed by the County Commissioners or are the County Commissioners.
Some might welcome the County Commission's rise, hoping to see it evolve into some sort of consolidated metropolitan government, supplanting squabbling city governments. But the structure of county government, identical throughout Oklahoma's 77 counties, with three people serving as both executive and legislature, does not have the checks and balances or the degree of representation needed to be a fair, open, and effective municipal government for a super-city of more than half-a-million people.
The reign of Bob Dick was not only marked by a dramatic increase in the financial resources of the Tulsa County Commission, with a corresponding increase in power and prestige, but also by a continuation of the cozy insider deals that seem to be a standard feature of county government in Oklahoma.
Little more than a year ago in this column, I ran down a long list of deals that county commissioners made without seeking competitive bids--from granting the exclusive right to build a fairgrounds hotel (to the manager of Bob Dick's 1994 campaign for Mayor of Tulsa) to the granting a half-million dollar lobbying contract to Bill LaFortune's public affairs partnership.
County commissioners also granted millions of dollars in Vision 2025 revenue bond underwriting fees to two companies, one of which was led by John Piercey, a man Bob Dick has called a "dear friend." And, okayed a 75-year half-billion dollar bridge franchise to a County-connected company, Infrastructure Ventures Inc., besides offering to use the County's power of eminent domain to enable IVI to build its profit-making enterprise.
All of these deals were done without so much as trying to learn whether some other company could provide better value for the taxpayers' investment in County property.
In 1993, the aforementioned Mr. Piercey was loaned $15 million in tax-exempt financing by the County Commissioners, acting as the Tulsa County Industrial Authority, so that he could purchase and rehabilitate nine apartment complexes. In 1998, the TCIA loaned $30 million to a non-profit foundation to purchase and rehabilitate the same nine properties. Heck of a deal.
This level of insider dealing may be barely tolerable in the context of a small county operation responsible only for the ever-shrinking unincorporated areas of Tulsa County; it's unacceptable in an organization with control over hundreds of millions of public dollars.
Tulsa County government has simply gotten too big for its britches.
There have been improvements in budgetary practices, the jail is back in the hands of our elected sheriff, and major fairgrounds contracts are now subject to competitive bidding, but these modest gains have been driven by Randi Miller, the one commissioner staying on. Never one to be comfortable standing alone on an issue, she's been limited by the lack of support from her colleagues.
I'm hopeful that incoming Commissioners Smaligo and Perry will put an end to county empire-building and will redirect county government's focus on its original, limited role. Although the two aren't political novices, neither one is tied into local political and business networks, and both have lived under the stricter ethical standards of the state legislature. They're also accustomed to a greater degree of openness and public scrutiny than has been typical in the County Commission.
Still, we shouldn't expect a sudden change in direction from the new commissioners. Institutions have momentum that continues to carry them in the same direction, even when new forces begin to exert pressure in other directions.
And the "us vs. them" mentality can be contagious. Perry and Smaligo will have to keep reminding themselves that the best interests of the citizens of Tulsa County are not necessarily the same as the best interests of Tulsa County government. Sometimes, serving Tulsa County citizens will mean that Tulsa County government needs to take a back seat to the county's cities and towns.
That kind of institutional humility wouldn't even be possible without a two-thirds turnover at the County Commission.
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