After more than a year of uncertainty, the Tulsa Police Department has a new permanent chief. Last Wednesday, Mayor Kathy Taylor brought former Chief Ron Palmer back from semi-retirement.
Palmer had been appointed in 1992 by Mayor Rodger Randle to replace a controversial predecessor, Drew Diamond. Then as now there was a lengthy interim period. Palmer was one of four finalists--three out-of-towners and a retired Tulsa deputy chief.
After nearly 20 years in the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department, Palmer spent two years as Chief in Portsmouth, Va., before taking the Tulsa job.
It's instructive to look back to the process that Randle followed in 1992. Prior to making an appointment, the City Council was given the chance to interview the three out-of-state candidates in executive session. Randle was in the final days of his term--he resigned to take the presidency of the University Center at Tulsa--but said he wouldn't move forward with the appointment without a consensus among the councilors.
Fast-forward 15 years. The City Council learned about the reappointment of Chief Palmer at the same time as the rest of us: During Kathy Taylor's press conference. Councilors were notified earlier that morning that there would be a press conference and an appointment, but Taylor didn't let the councilors know who would be appointed, much less ask for their blessing on her choice.
Palmer is being appointed as one of the 16 at-will employees the Mayor is permitted by the City Charter. He is outside the civil service system and can be dismissed at the Mayor's whim.
Taylor's push to go outside of the civil service process to select a chief and her appointment of an interim chief from outside that system have generated complaints and legal action from the police union. Deputy Chief Bill Wells turned down Taylor's offer of an at-will appointment to the top job.
It's argued that under Article X, Section 6.1 of the City Charter, if at least three internal candidates for promotion are certified as qualified for a position, the Mayor must appoint one of the internal candidates.
Beyond the Charter, one of the arguments made against an at-will chief is that it puts the operation of the department under the control of a politician. Former Chief Harry Stege said recently, "[S]ometimes the policies of the mayor get in the way of good law enforcement.
Former Chief Dave Been, who was suspended by then-Mayor Bill LaFortune, said, "Police should certainly be way above any political corruption or influence."
Above political corruption? Absolutely. But above political influence? Let's think carefully about that.
Politics gets a bad rap, but it beats every other way of settling disputes about public policy.
In some countries, disagreements are settled by gunfire or dictated by despots behind closed doors.
The person responsible for the deployment of deadly force for the protection of the public ought to be answerable to the public he is sworn to serve. Indeed, everyone serving in an executive position in city government should be accountable to the public.
That accountability, at nearly every other level of government, is accomplished through officials elected by the public. For example, when a new president is elected, he chooses a new cabinet secretary, deputy secretary, under secretaries, assistant secretaries, inspectors general, and agency directors and administrators for each executive department.
The president chooses department officials who line up philosophically with him, who will carry out his platform. The Senate holds hearings for each appointment and can reject the chief executive's nominations. Hundreds of Federal executive branch employees are "political appointees," serving at the pleasure of the President "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate."
Insulating city department heads through the civil service system makes a mockery of our "strong mayor" form of government and, I've noticed, encourages a high-handed attitude on the part of some of these permanent unelected bureaucrats toward elected officials.
Some of my Republican friends have argued that Kathy Taylor can't be trusted with that much power. I'm not inclined to trust her either, and I recommended against her election.
But a majority of Tulsans did entrust her with the oversight of city government, with the expectation that she would be able to pursue the policies she outlined during her campaign. She, and every other Mayor of Tulsa, ought to have the power to appoint department heads who are in agreement with her philosophy of city government and will faithfully carry out her platform, subject to the advice and consent of the City Council.
In the long run, if Taylor were to use that power to pursue policies that are out of step with Tulsa's conservative leanings, the voters would be able to hold her accountable, whether she runs for re-election or for higher office.
The more immediate check against any abuse of the power to hire and fire department heads ought to come from the other elected branch of city government, the City Council.
Two years ago, during the LaFortune administration, a proposed charter change would have removed department heads from civil service protection. Although it failed to get sufficient support from the Council to go to the voters, it's a good idea regardless of which party or faction controls the Mayor's office.
The charter already gives special status to the "heads of each division and department." Those are the only executive branch employees with whom councilors may communicate on matters of city business. The Mayor's power to organize city government into divisions is subject to Council approval.
It's therefore not a big leap to add a charter provision that exempts division and department heads from civil service protection.
The charter amendment should give the Mayor power to hire and fire division and department heads, subject to the approval of the City Council, and limit interim appointments to some reasonable period, say, 90 days. The Council should also have the ability to fire a division or department head, subject to the Mayor's veto.
The amendment should expressly include the City Attorney, City Clerk, City Treasurer, and Fire Chief, four executive offices that are established by name in the charter.
Civil service protection is appropriate for the foot soldiers of city government: the meter reader, the engineer, the computer technician, the file clerk, the cop on the beat. They are following policy decisions, not making them.
Department heads like the police chief aren't merely following orders. They set policy for their departments. They set the tone. They exercise their personal discretion, judgment, and leadership skills. Insulated by civil service protection, they can subtly undermine the policies of the elected officials without suffering any consequences. There needs to be political oversight and accountability at that level of responsibility and power.
Some will object to this idea and point to the 1957 police department scandal involving bootlegging and bribery, which was abetted by the fact that every position in TPD was on an at-will basis. The scandal led to the establishment of a civil service system.
But keep two things in mind: First, we're not advocating an end to the civil service system, just removing decision-making department heads from the classified service.
Second, the 1957 scandal happened under the commission form of government, which combined the executive and legislative branches, without the checks and balances or geographical representation that we have today.
This charter amendment ought to be something that the Mayor and Council can come together on. Sure, the Mayor would prefer to have no oversight at all for her appointments, but this change would allow her to hire the people she thinks best for the job, without the bother of lawsuits.
The Council ought to like the idea of being kept in the loop on appointments and having recourse if a department head gets too big for his britches.
For the sake of public oversight and accountability in city government, let's hope they come together and make give us a chance to vote for this charter change.
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