Last Thursday night (as UTW's Brian Ervin reports on page 12 in this issue) the City Council voted 5-4 to annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds (aka Expo Square) back into the city limits. The matter is now on Mayor Kathy Taylor's desk.
I say "back into" because at various points in the Fairgrounds history some and even most of the property has been in the city limits.
A 1932 map shows the western two-thirds of the Fairgrounds inside the city limits, including all the developed area -- the Pavilion, the racetrack grandstands, and the International Petroleum Exposition grounds, which back then was a collection of buildings, replaced in the 1960s by the 10-acre IPE Building, now called the Expo Building.
In the early and mid '50s a smaller portion of the western Fairgrounds was still in the city limits, but by the end of the decade, the current boundaries were in place. Re-annexation appears to have been discussed at least once a decade since then. In 1981, the fair board even considered requesting annexation to help with fiscal problems they were experiencing at the time.
At Thursday's hearing, it was interesting to watch how the different councilors interacted with the arguments for and against annexation.
In support of annexation, there was the economic analysis prepared by the City of Tulsa finance department, a legal opinion on the question of who would provide event security, a thorough response to the objections to annexation, prepared by Council staff, and Councilor Bill Martinson's own detailed evaluation of the pros and cons, which he read into the record Thursday night.
In opposition to annexation, there were unfounded concerns that annexation would spell the end to one popular event or another. Mixed in with that, though, were statements that undercut the opposition's own case. Event managers acknowledged that they provide their own security, rather than depending on law enforcement.
One fan of the Wanenmacher Tulsa Arms Show, who was there to speak against annexation, nevertheless said, unprompted, that what makes the show what it is a great big building filled with dealers. It's not lower sales tax that makes the show the best in its field, but 10 climate-controlled acres under one roof. Few venues in the country can match that kind of space, even fewer in gun-friendly parts of the country.
The amount of vocal public opposition was enough in the minds of some councilors to outweigh the clear economic analysis that showed annexation as a benefit to the city.
While councilors do have a responsibility to reflect the wishes of their constituents, they need to distinguish between the expressed opinion (e.g., "I don't want annexation") and the underlying concern that led them to express that opinion (e.g., "I'm afraid we'll lose the gun show," "Kids will get shot at the Fairgrounds just like they do at Crawford Park," or even "My friend at the county asked me to e-mail you and tell you to vote no").
When there's no logical connection between what the constituent is really worried about and what he's telling the councilor to do, or when his expressed fears are unfounded, the councilor should weigh the constituent's sentiments accordingly.
In the end, analysis and facts won over enough votes to prevail over the fug of FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- generated by annexation's opponents. This was best illustrated by the brief clash between attorney Clark Brewster and Councilor John Eagleton, also an attorney.
Brewster, a member of the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA -- the fair board), was speaking against annexation on the fair board's behalf.
To the best of my recollection, Brewster appeared to be seeming to suggest that the much-coveted Arabian Horse Show event would regard annexation and the imposition of city sales tax as a breach of their contract with the fair board.
Eagleton interrupted, said he had the contract in front of him, and asked Brewster to cite the section of the contract to back up his statement.
Eagleton then read a section of the contract in which the Arabian Horse Show agreed to be subject to all applicable laws, expressly including the ordinances of the City of Tulsa.
Eagleton, like Martinson, had done his homework, and put that objection to rest.
The emergency clause received the same 5-4 vote, falling short of the required two-thirds vote for immediate effect. That means that annexation will go into effect about 40 days after the Mayor signs the ordinance (30 days after publication of the ordinance, which must happen within 10 days after approval).
Mayor Kathy Taylor has 15 working days to make her decision -- sign the ordinance, veto it, or let it go into effect without her signature.
It's hard to say what Taylor is likely to do. At first she seemed to regard annexation as a good idea on its own merits. Later it seemed to be nothing more than a bargaining chip that she might be able to use to leverage county cooperation on some of her priorities, such as passage of a state law to let Tulsa collect a fire protection assessment on property.
The pressure will be on to veto the tax in the name of cooperation with Tulsa County officials. Cooperation is a good thing, but it's a dereliction of duty to subordinate the best interests of the City of Tulsa's residents to another governmental agency, one that doesn't share the burden of providing police, fire, and emergency medical protection to the people of this city.
While there were only five votes in favor, those five votes were solid, cast by councilors who were convinced that annexation of the Fairgrounds is the right thing for the city to do, despite the heavy pressure to back off.
Based on their statements in Thursday's debate, the vote would have been at least 7-2 in favor if only the business case for annexation had been considered. Someone who votes "no" is not guaranteed to vote to sustain a veto on the same issue, especially if that "no" wasn't a strong "no."
What are the risks to Taylor if she vetoes annexation? The first is a basic political calculation: If she's unwilling to spend some political capital to back them, the five councilors who voted in favor will be less inclined to risk their own political capital to support one of her initiatives.
If Taylor walks away from a significant amount of money that can be had without a tax increase, she can hardly expect City Council or public support for the new taxes she's after. I'd consider that a positive side effect, but it would work against Taylor's agenda.
And when the next fatality occurs as a result of not enough police officers, too many potholes, or no lights on the freeways, the public will reasonably wonder if the extra revenue from annexation could have averted the tragedy.
Finally, vetoing annexation means that the new Comprehensive Plan for the City of Tulsa, soon to be under development, will have a huge hole right in its heart. Of all the activity taking place under Taylor's watch, the new Comprehensive Plan will have the most significance for decades to come, defining what we want our city to become.
If Taylor vetoes annexation, the city planning process won't be able to address the Fairgrounds, and even if the city included Expo Square in the plan, they'd have no leverage to ensure that new development is compatible with the plan.
This is not a hypothetical issue. There is already one large parcel on the Fairgrounds that is ripe for redevelopment -- the 10 acres that Bell's Amusement Park is vacating, which could be combined with the undeveloped parcel to the west.
There are other potential sites for redevelopment along most of Expo Square's periphery -- the Drillers may leave the Fairgrounds for a downtown site; the City-County Health Department could vacate their former headquarters, now a minor branch office; parking lots along 15th or east of the Expo Building could be developed.
If Taylor vetoes annexation, the fair board would continue to have what is effectively a free hand to allow any kind of development on that site, without regard to the impact on the surrounding city.
While Tulsa County does have a zoning code regulating unincorporated areas like the Fairgrounds, the membership of the bodies that oversee county zoning are controlled by the county commissioners, who also make up a majority of the fair board.
If the fair board wants to allow development that would require a special exception or zoning change, there's no obstacle to any conceivable use, if annexation is vetoed.
But if Mayor Taylor approves annexation, there would be city oversight for any new development that requires a zoning change or exception. The City Board of Adjustment or the City Council, bodies which are completely independent of the County Commission and the fair board, would scrutinize the fair board's development plans to ensure harmony with surrounding residential and commercial development and compatibility with the Comprehensive plan.
Annexation means some city oversight of any new development. Vetoing annexation means the city's interests won't be represented in the decision-making process.
I'm hopeful that Taylor sign the annexation ordinance. It's what is best for the city.
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