It's nice to know that public officials are paying attention to what I write here, even if it's only to disagree, as County Commissioner Fred Perry did in last week's UTW, responding to my October 25-31 column titled "Realistic River Development."
Disagreement notwithstanding, I appreciate Perry's willingness to engage the issues directly and publicly in these pages.
I had commended the Tulsa City Council for its unanimous resolution, shortly after the October 9 defeat of the county sales tax increase for river projects (endorsed by Perry), to use available resources and tools to encourage commercial development on the west bank of the Arkansas River in Tulsa. I also outlined five steps--two for the city, two for the county, and one for INCOG--that local officials should take to move river development down the road.
Perry skimmed right past the two recommendations I made to him and his colleagues and homed in on my concluding paragraph: "There is a positive, constructive path for making our river happen without raising taxes. Here's hoping the Mayor and County Commissioners follow the City Council down that path."
Perry's response went on at length about all the meetings where he and other County Commissioners discussed a "Branson Landing" type development on the west bank. But his response shows he overlooked the most important phrase in that last paragraph--"without raising taxes."
As a Republican, I'm surprised that a Republican County Commissioner would gloss over the phrase "without raising taxes" as if it were written in Klingon or with invisible ink.
Ever since his colleague Randi Miller jumped in the river for a photo op, every proposal coming from the county commissioners regarding river development has involved increasing the burden on Tulsa County taxpayers.
In fact, Cross Timbers developer and former City Auditor Ron Howell brought the Branson Landing developers to Tulsa in October 2006 in order to halt Miller's headlong rush to put on the ballot a $600 million county sales tax increase for "The Channels" concept.
Howell wanted to demonstrate to local officials that there was a private developer who was interested and able to create a high-quality mixed-use riverfront development for Tulsa, using Zink Lake as is. A massive tax to move dirt from the west bank to the middle of the river wouldn't be necessary. A city TIF district could fund the small amount of assistance needed without raising taxes or diverting funds from basic city services.
Sensing a Theme
Following the October 9 defeat of the county sales tax increase, Miller and Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor both proclaimed river improvements dead for a decade or more. Perry and fellow rookie commissioner John Smaligo said nothing to contradict them.
But city councilors correctly discerned that the opposition was not to river projects but to raising taxes to pay for them. With their unanimous and bipartisan resolution, the City Council was the first public body to commit to moving forward on river development without raising taxes.
In that regard, the City Council's action reflected the creative approach of Senator and former Mayor Jim Inhofe, whose endorsement was crucial to Perry's election to the State House in 1994.
In 1979, voters rejected the first attempt to pass a third-penny city sales tax for capital improvements, a package which included a low-water dam. In response, Inhofe and the City Commission pulled the dam from the package, strengthened controls on how the new tax money would be spent, and won voters' approval on a streamlined third-penny tax.
Meanwhile Inhofe worked a deal involving land swaps and private donations, and the Zink Lake low-water dam was built without raising taxes. That approach ought to be a model for local officials, particularly those with an "R" after their names.
Perry's support for west bank commercial development is appreciated, but it is a matter for city officials, not simply because, as Perry notes, the land is within the city's boundaries, but more importantly because most of the west bank land is city-owned.
The County Commission can best advance river improvements by affirming that engineering and permitting on the dams will move forward, and then by getting an understanding of the financial state of Vision 2025, independent of past and present county contractors.
I'm told by independent sources with direct knowledge that John Piercey, the bond dealer who had a near-monopoly on county bond business during the reign of his close friend, former County Commissioner Bob Dick, is now saying privately that $40 to $80 million in surplus Vision 2025 funds will be available in the next couple of years, soon enough to be available to do the promised Vision 2025 low-water dam projects when the required engineering and permitting is complete.
This is a much different picture than he painted for county officials and the public during the run-up to the river tax vote.
At the moment Piercey isn't even under contract to the county, and however valuable Piercey's advice in the past, the County Commissioners shouldn't substitute his say-so for doing their own due diligence.
At a salary of around $90,000 a year, each commissioner ought to be able to answer the following questions from personal knowledge of the relevant documents:
1. How many bank accounts hold sales tax proceeds or bond proceeds from Vision 2025? Where are the accounts held, and how much money is in each account?
2. What is the schedule for repayment for each Vision 2025 bond issue?
3. How much Vision 2025 money has been committed but has yet to be paid out? For each obligation, how much is due and when?
The County Commissioners have an obligation to the voters to follow through on their commitment to build two new low water dams and to improve the Zink Lake dam as party of Vision 2025. They need to know how much Vision 2025 money might be available for the promised Vision 2025 river improvements in order to cooperate effectively with city officials and Sen. Inhofe in making our river happen--all together now--without raising taxes.
Don't Believe Everything You Read in the World
On Sunday, November 11, David Averill, the daily paper's editorial page editor, devoted his first substantive column in nearly a month to an uninformed swipe at Councilor John Eagleton's proposal for multi-partisan city elections. (See my April 6-12, 2006, column for a detailed explanation of the concept.) Eagleton's proposal would increase both the number of choices and the amount of information available to the voter.
The current party primary system results in the effective disenfranchisement of Democrats in south Tulsa and Republicans in north Tulsa. Even when there is token opposition from the minority party, the real contest between conflicting approaches to city government has already been settled in the primary.
Eagleton's proposal fixes this problem by putting all candidates on one primary ballot open to all voters. Every voter, regardless of party, will have an equal opportunity to participate in the choice of his or her city councilor.
What riles Averill is the idea of allowing each candidate a short self-chosen label on the ballot.
The idea is not novel. Minneapolis has had this system for decades. (The city improved it last year by replacing a separate primary and runoff with instant runoff voting.) All candidates appear on the primary ballot, each with a self-selected description of three words or less stating "the name of their political party or political principle." The description is submitted at the beginning of the campaign when the candidate files for office.
While most Minneapolis candidates listed themselves by party as Democrat, Green or Republican, others described themselves with slogans like "Independent Fiscal Conservative," "Social Justice," and "Affordable Housing Preservation."
To avoid abuse of ballot descriptions, Tulsa could require all candidates to file a nominating petition, as independent candidates are already required to do. At least 300 of a candidate's prospective constituents would have to endorse his candidacy and self-description before it could appear on the ballot.
And if some character should garner enough signatures to get on the ballot as the Monster Raving Loony candidate, where's the harm? Frivolous and semi-serious candidates have been a fixture of British parliamentary elections since the 1960s, adding a bit of color to the proceedings. And yet the United Kingdom survives to this day.
There are genuine and reasonable divisions in this city over fiscal priorities, over philosophies of crime prevention and economic development, over how to handle infill development and historic preservation, over the best way to encourage development downtown and along the river.
Averill and his cronies want voters to believe that the only divisions over local issues are between the Sensible Party--those candidates who will rubber-stamp the diktats issued from daily's totalitarian-style bunker on Main Street--and the Silly Party--the unreasonable, fractious bumpkins who disagree with them.
Not only does he want all labels off the ballot, Averill actually wants to criminalize political speech by imposing fines on candidates who dare to identify a partisan affiliation in their campaign material.
Averill's real problem is that Eagleton's proposal could further erode his paper's waning influence over local politics.
A description on the ballot gives candidates a media bypass. Without depending on the favor of the monopoly daily newspaper, without needing a pile of campaign cash, every candidate would be able to communicate something about himself, albeit very briefly, to every voter, in words of his own choosing.
Under Averill's form of non-partisanship, a city election ballot would comprise lists of bare names, with no other identifying information. As the still-dominant media outlet in Tulsa for the older demographic, the daily would define for many voters what emotions and opinions they should hold about each of those names.
Averill doesn't want candidates to be able to label themselves. His monopoly daily paper wants a monopoly on the ability to stick a label on a candidate. No wonder he doesn't care for Eagleton's proposal.
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