Last week, City Council chairman Bill Martinson gave his colleagues a presentation on "Municipal Revenues and Fiscal Constraints" affecting the City of Tulsa's budget.
In 77 concise slides (you can download the presentation from HYPERLINK "http://www.tulsacouncil.org/pdfs/website%20embedded/COT_Fiscal_Constraints.pdf"; http://www.tulsacouncil.org/pdfs/website%20embedded/COT_Fiscal_Constraints.pdf), Martinson depicted the budgetary box in which city government finds itself trapped, largely because of demographic changes and policy decisions made at other levels of government. Every Tulsan needs to study this information, particularly our federal, state, and local elected officials.
With the city trapped in a box not of its own making, we need visionary leadership capable of thinking outside the box, but we're not likely to get it.
Vergil wrote two millennia ago that fortune favors the bold, but the political process more often bestows its blessing on the timid pragmatists who uphold the status quo. Espousing a new, radical, revolutionary solution qualifies you for the political equivalent of the Darwin Awards, as you and your ideas are eliminated from the public policy gene pool.
As a presidential candidate in 1988, former Delaware governor Pete DuPont, one of my political heroes, presented the country with a way to avert the coming Social Security crisis, when funding the retirement of the Baby Boom generation would require obscene tax rates to be levied on young, entry-level workers. Not for nothing do they call Social Security the third rail of American politics -- you touch, you die.
DuPont's bravery was rewarded with a quick exit from the primaries, and almost 20 years later, America's politicians are still managing to ignore this imminent fiscal disaster.
Few politicians are willing to expend their political capital. The voters entrust a politician with an elective office, often with a margin of victory that signals a mandate for leading with boldness and vision.
And yet reform, boldness, and vision must always wait until just beyond the next election. "Let's get ourselves established, get a couple of re-elections under our belts, and then we'll really be able to do some good." And there's always a next election to get beyond.
It's an iron-clad rule of politics that even if a policy change may benefit far more people than it harms, the smaller number that will suffer from the change will feel the effect more deeply and will be more motivated to punish the politician behind the change than the benefiting masses will be to support and reward that politician.
Proposing a bold change is a sure way to alienate the contributors you need to win re-election or to move up a rung on the political ladder. This is especially true at City Hall, where your brilliant idea for the benefit of the many may jeopardize one developer's sure-fire plan to make millions.
The politicians who get things done are those like Sen. Tom Coburn who have already jettisoned any ambition for a lengthy political career, who have concluded that this term is the only one that matters and that now is the only opportunity they may have to accomplish something positive for the public.
At City Hall, we've seen that kind of bravery from former councilors (emphasis on former) like Anna Falling, Chris Medlock, and Jim Mautino. There are signs of boldness among the new crop of councilors, and Jack Henderson and Roscoe Turner remain stalwart as always.
But it's been a long time since that kind of fortitude has been evident on the 11th Floor of City Hall. Susan Savage helped bring in a host of farsighted speakers on the subject of urban design and zoning, and she convened an infill development task force to try to resolve the conflicts arising from the redevelopment of Tulsa's core neighborhoods.
But when Savage's supporters in the development industry took exception to the report's recommendations, she had them watered down. Only now, eight years later with the upcoming review of the Comprehensive Plan, are we grappling with these issues.
On the 100th day of his term of office, Bill LaFortune convened his promised summit to develop a shared regional vision.
One of the speakers at that summit, Glen Hiemstra, defined vision as a "compelling description of your preferred future," but there was nothing compelling or visionary about the outcome: a cobbled-together collection of projects from the me-too wish list, merged with a massive subsidy to an industry in decline.
LaFortune also sought the advice of Stephen Goldsmith, who had completed a very successful term as mayor of Indianapolis, and asked a group of local businessmen to take a critical look at city operations. Not much of that advice was followed. Rather than risk any of the goodwill from his election (he won with 60% of the vote), LaFortune worried more about pleasing the people who would fund his re-election and his hoped-for rise to statewide and federal office. Like the risk-averse servant in Jesus' parable who buried his talent in the ground, what little political capital LaFortune had was taken from him.
Kathy Taylor has made some changes at City Hall, but in an almost apologetic way. The promised press conferences haven't materialized. Rather than telling the public, for example, that the City Attorney's office is incompetent so she's cleaning house, she's covered over the issue as a "personnel matter," unfit for public discussion.
In raising the issue of establishing special design regulations for Tulsa's riverfront--long overdue--Taylor didn't say, "Tulsa needs this, I'm behind it 100%, and I'll do everything I can to make it happen." Instead, she's mentioned it in a passive sort of way, gingerly putting the idea on table and slowly backing away from it, just in case the development industry takes offense.
Bold, visionary leadership is possible at the local level. Here are just a few recent examples of mayors who have transformed their cities.
When everyone said New York City was ungovernable, a lost cause, in an endless cycle of decline, Rudy Giuliani said otherwise. He directed the NYPD to enforce laws against panhandling, public urination, and other crimes against public order, the sorts of offenses that most New Yorkers had learned to shrug off as an unfortunate fact of life in the big city. In the process, more serious crimes became less frequent, as predicted by the "broken windows" theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
Giuliani empowered precinct commanders to adapt their tactics to the local situation and gave them the tools, in the form of computerized crime analysis, to have an accurate picture of that situation.
Giuliani shook up complacent city bureaucracies, and he made plenty of enemies, but his leadership made New York a proud, livable, and prosperous city once again.
As mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith eliminated nonsensical regulations and found ways to bring free-market efficiencies to bear on government functions. He was able to lower tax rates, increase city services, and cement Indianapolis' reputation as a great place to live, visit, and do business. His privatization efforts didn't win him friends in the public-sector unions, and the taxi companies didn't appreciate the way he broke up their cartel.
John Norquist, a speaker at one of Savage's conferences on city design, literally changed the face of Milwaukee. A populist Democrat, he nevertheless supported privatization of some city services, and he enraged the powerful teachers' unions by endorsing vouchers for private education. He lowered property taxes every year and kept the city budget from growing faster than the rate of inflation.
Norquist also called for the removal of an expressway spur that walled off downtown from the Milwaukee River and nearby neighborhoods. The state government and the highway engineers resisted and said the idea was crazy. He persisted and the expressway came down. The old street grid has been stitched back together, and 64 acres of prime real estate are being redeveloped in a mixed-use, urban fashion.
Jersey City was long a butt of jokes, a dumpy stepsister to New York, New York. Bret Schundler was an improbable choice for its mayor--a pro-life, conservative Republican running in a city long dominated by an iron-fisted Democratic political machine, but he won three elections, the second two by landslides.
Schundler offered employees a medical savings account option to improve coverage while bringing down City Hall health costs. He shepherded a new city land use code widely admired for its clarity. He privatized the city's water system, improving quality and reducing costs without cutting jobs. He encouraged the development of charter schools to provide educational choice to Jersey City parents.
Today Jersey City is regarded as a sixth borough of New York City, luring businesses to relocate from lower Manhattan and attracting residents as a more affordable living alternative that still provides easy access to all that New York has to offer. It became one of the top cities in job growth and appreciation of property.
The bold vision and determination of these mayors did great things for their cities, but for their political careers -- not so much. With the exception of Giuliani, these men have kissed public office goodbye. The same intellectual energy, creativity, and breadth of interest that made them successful mayors made it hard for them to run a sound-bite-driven, TV-friendly statewide campaign.
Ultimately, the election of bold and visionary leaders depends on our willingness as voters, contributors, and volunteers to support them, to encourage them even as entrenched interests try to knock them down.
When we back away because a politician has been labeled "controversial" and "contentious," we teach the lesson that boldness is bad, and we ensure timid, tepid leadership.
If our elected officials seem frightened of their own shadows, we have only ourselves to blame.
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