"Michael, they'd have crucified me!"
That's what rookie District 2 County Commissioner Randi Miller told me on the phone five years ago, shortly after she voted with her colleagues to put the Vision 2025 county sales tax on a September 9, 2003, ballot.
I had been surprised at her support for the new near-billion-dollar county sales tax, but it was the fear in her voice as she justified her yes vote that really took me aback.
That fear--and the pressure that drives it--has often seemed the only explanation for each of Miller's increasingly indefensible decisions and each of her implausible explanations.
Miller's favoritism toward Jerry and Loretta Murphy, owners of the Murphy Bros. midway concessionaires and Big Splash water park, respectively, is just the latest and most blatant example.
Miller, as chairman of the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (the Fair Board), took the lead in the 2006 decision to boot Bell's Amusement Park from their lease at Expo Square. Miller justified the decision by saying that Bell's business plan was unsound and by hinting that concern for public safety meant the Fair Board couldn't allow Bell's even one more season in the location they'd occupied for half a century.
But in 2006 Bell's had no safety write-ups, paid more rent than any other Expo Square tenant, and had neighborhood agreement and the financial go-ahead to add a second roller coaster.
The Murphys' businesses, on the other hand, have documented financial and safety problems. While Miller was saying that Bell's wasn't economically viable, Big Splash was already late with their $68,335 2006 Big Splash rent payment. The check was dated over seven months late and then sat uncashed in Expo Square's office for a year. Their 2007 rent payment was still outstanding nine months after the due date.
Big Splash reopened this May without making structural repairs demanded by state ride inspectors in December. Last season a slide collapsed with a rider on it. For years, it has fallen into an increasingly dangerous state of disrepair--about which we have reminded readers on a regular basis.
In years past Murphy's midway has had problems with workers' compensation insurance and rides closed for safety reasons.
Far from being scrutinized as closely as Bell's, the Murphy businesses had been getting very favorable treatment from the Fair Board and Expo Square. In the months following Loretta Murphy's maximum $5,000 donation to Randi Miller's 2006 mayoral campaign, Murphy Bros. was granted a new midway contract without facing any competitive bidding, a Murphy associate was hired as Expo Square president, and the Murphys' main competition for summer fun money and Tulsa State Fair revenue was shut down by the Fair Board.
In a KOTV investigative report, Miller claimed that all future leases would be contingent on a sound business plan. Yet the Fair Board approved a five-year extension to the Big Splash contract in February, evidently without any scrutiny of the water park's finances.
What Miller did to Bell's Amusement Park was evil. She knew that Big Splash was far worse than Bell's and she lied to the public about the reasons for getting rid of Bell's. For her own reasons, driven perhaps by her relationship with the Murphy family, she destroyed a Tulsa tradition, and she broke the hearts of thousands of young children and adults (including mine).
As a city councilor, Miller had shown a certain amount of courage, a willingness to be in the minority, even when pressured by powerful special interests. We had a very optimistic opinion of her at that time.
Miller was one of only two councilors to vote against transferring city property to Tulsa Industrial Authority for use as collateral for Great Plains Airlines' loan from Bank of Oklahoma.
(For more information about how the Great Plains debacle played out, see last week's edition, "The Great Plains Ripoff," Op/Ed, 3-9 July, 2008).
In 2000, she was one of only three councilors to vote against "It's Tulsa's Time"--the city's second failed attempt to pass a sales tax to build a downtown sports arena.
As a councilor, Miller had been willing to challenge Mayor Susan Savage on some of her appointments. As a councilor, she generally supported neighborhoods in their disputes with developers.
All that seemed to change when Councilor Miller became Commissioner Miller in 2002.
Now here she was, newly elected by a strong majority to represent nearly 200,000 people on the County Commission. Instead of being emboldened by that popular mandate, she had become intimidated. So why was she suddenly afraid of "them," and how did "they" have the power to threaten her?
Beginning of the End
Miller has made a few good decisions as a county commissioner. She backed Bill LaFortune's push to have the sheriff run the jail. Perhaps as a peace offering to neighborhood associations, Miller recently appointed Liz Wright, president of the Florence Park association and an eloquent and determined advocate for fair zoning, to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC).
(Miller herself, as chairman of the County Commission, was an ex officio member of the TMAPC during 2007. She attended only 4 out of 33 meetings.)
But Miller's few good instincts have been overwhelmed by her constant deference to vested financial interests.
In 2004 Commissioner Bob Dick's pals at Infrastructure Ventures, Inc., came along with their plan to use the County's power of eminent domain to build a massively-profitable private toll bridge.
Miller, the one-time opponent of dodgy public-private partnerships and erstwhile neighborhood champion, voted to approve the county's contract with IVI, despite the questionable mixture of government power and private profit and the well-organized objections of south Tulsa residents.
Miller later testified under oath that she never read the 75-year contract before voting to approve it.
You'd think Miller couldn't get worse, but she did.
In 2005, Miller lent her name to the group who wanted to replace three district councilors with three at-large councilors, a change that would have diluted the representation of her own west side. When confronted, she later claimed that she thought she was only agreeing to give advice to the group. Nevertheless, her name remained on the Tulsans for Better Government website. (Kathy Taylor had her name removed when she ran for mayor.)
This incident reflects a pattern to the behavior of Randi Miller as a county commissioner: (1) Someone wealthy or powerful asks her to support their pet cause. (2) She agrees to do so, without thinking through the implications or consequences. When the fertilizer hits the fan, (3) she pleads helplessness, makes excuses, or tells bald-faced lies to try to placate the people whose support got her elected in the first place.
Also in 2005, her successor on the council, Chris Medlock, announced his intention, if elected mayor, to replace the County's "Four to Fix" tax when it expired in October 2006 with a City sales tax in the same amount to fund more police officers.
To block any municipal attempt to reprioritize that taxing capacity, Miller led the effort to rush a renewal of "Four to Fix" onto the ballot a full nine months in advance of its expiration. The grab bag of projects included such high-priority items as a new golf cart barn for LaFortune Park.
(An aside to Commissioner Perry: Strictly speaking, "Four to Fix the County" isn't a slush fund, but more of a "rush fund" to get the tax renewed quickly. And so it was more about maintaining county control of a funding source than furthering any well-considered capital improvements plan.)
Ironically, Miller shortly thereafter ran for mayor herself, calling for an increase in the number of police officers, yet having just sabotaged one of the simplest ways to fund additional officers without increasing the overall level of taxation on Tulsa residents.
Her 2006 campaign for mayor was a lackluster affair that seemed to be mainly about splitting the anti-LaFortune vote in the Republican primary. In her decision to run and in the conduct of her campaign--e.g. an ORU political science professor recruiting volunteers for her campaign--she seemed more like a victim than a leader.
Her presence in the campaign also served the interests the daily paper's campaign to elect Kathy Taylor. The daily sought to distract voter attention away from Taylor's double homestead exemption and double voting in Oklahoma and Florida by slinging mud at all the other major candidates.
Thinking back to Miller's 2003 comment to me, I wonder if her fear was rooted in threats that irregularities in her personal life would be publicly exposed.
Name that Rings a Bell
Miller waded in--literally--to support first the $600 million Warren river plan ("The Channels") and then the $282 million Kaiser river plan ("Our River Yes"). Miller tried to convince voters that the river items in the Vision 2025 ballot resolution meant something entirely different than the plain, clear meaning of the words.
The final day of the campaign found Miller on KOTV, justifying a postcard the Vote Yes campaign sent to Broken Arrow voters, depicting a Broken Arrow waterfront that was not to be funded by the proposed tax. When Emery Bryan asked Commissioner Miller "Do you see how that is misleading?" she replied:
"No, because it not once says that this is what is going to happen."
At the very least, Randi Miller is in way over her head. In moving from City Council to county commission, Miller went from having 43,000 constituents to nearly 200,000, and from having very limited power to being both executive and legislator.
At worst, Miller has used her position to serve insiders instead of the public interest.
Randi Miller's most redeeming quality is that she is a very bad liar. There's not enough integrity to be open and honest about her decisions as commissioner, but there is enough integrity in there somewhere that she can't be convincing about it.
As a District 2 Republican voter, I'm thankful that I have a far better choice on the July 29th primary ballot.
While Sally Bell is seeking to replace the commissioner who drove her family's business off of Expo Square, she isn't running for revenge. She has seen county mismanagement and insider dealing up close, and she wants to clean it all up.
Bell is CFO for Bell's Amusement Park, which was founded by her father-in-law and is currently headed by her son. In years' past she'd have been too busy with the park to consider a run for office, but Miller's actions have--in a neat twist--freed Bell up to try to defeat her.
In a recent interview, Bell told KFAQ's Pat Campbell, "It's over; Bell's [at Expo Square] is gone. My husband is driving a truck. Robby is... trying to find a new location. We're trying to move on."
Sally Bell is a firm believer in limited government, in making government set priorities rather than increasing the burden on the taxpayers. She also believes that sunshine is the best disinfectant. She states on her website, sallybell.net:
"County government, like all levels of government, should be open and accessible.... There should be no special deals, no meetings without public discussion or scrutiny and the door to the Commissioner's office should always be open to any citizen who wishes to be heard. This has not been the case in recent years and Tulsans and our economy have paid the price . . . [Y]ou can be certain that no unfair or destructive practices will occur under my watch."
Commenting on the Fair Board's handling of Big Splash, Bell said, "There is way too much secrecy in government . . . Anything I have to do or say will be done in public."
One practice that she wants to clean up: County boards will publish an online agenda to meet the letter of the state Open Meeting law, but the specifics are frequently on a separate attachment which is never posted on the web.
For example, item 10 on the TCPFA's February 20 agenda reads, "Consider and vote on Facilities Lease Agreements and Miscellaneous Contracts and Agreements as listed on the attached form."
Compare that to the City Council's agenda, which exhaustively lists every contract, every zoning request, every special event request, and every budget transfer that will be voted on. Sally Bell wants to see the county catch up to that level of openness.
Rather than trying to expand the County's responsibilities and share of our tax dollars, Bell would oppose any tax increases and would focus county government's attention on its basic responsibilities.
Bell believes the sheriff's office is underfunded and would look for ways to allocate more of the county's revenues to this fundamental county function.
Bell said on KFAQ, "I will not support any new tax, period . . . Let's find what money is there, let's find what money isn't used efficiently."
In person, Sally Bell comes across as pleasant, intelligent, and professional, determined to do the right thing.
Who better to zealously root out cozy, insider deals at Expo Square and the County Courthouse than someone who knows how county government works and who has suffered greatly as a result of county insider deals?
Bell says, "What I sense is people are feeling very disenfranchised, that a handful of people are running things.
"I have the time, I have the expertise, and I believe I have the ability. Let's let people of integrity try to make a difference [in government]."
The theme for this year's Tulsa State Fair is "We're on a Roll."
"Heads Will Roll" would be a more appropriate choice, and it should start on July 29 as Tulsa County District 2 Republicans retire Randi Miller and nominate Sally Bell for County Commissioner.
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