Eager to take part in Tulsa's first master plan update in about 30 years, citizens from across the city attended a series of nine PLANiTULSA workshops from September 2008 through February 2009, providing their input on what shape they'd like their community to take in the future.
It was a rare chance for local residents to have a literally hands-on experience in community planning. Workshop participants were divided into groups, then spent the sessions working before oversized maps of the city, indicating with colorful markers what type of development, transportation, housing, historic preservation, arts and culture, and open space and recreation opportunities they'd like to see for various parts of the city.
That input, compiled by Fregonese Associates--the Portland, Ore.-based consultants hired by the city to conduct the workshops--now is being analyzed, processed, sliced and diced by the firm into four development scenarios that will be presented to the public May 12 at Cain's Ballroom. Eventually, when more input has been obtained from the public and elected officials, Fregonese Associates will submit its final recommendations for the master plan revision, at which point Mayor Kathy Taylor and the Tulsa City Council will decide what to do with them. The results of all that activity are likely to have a profound impact on what kind of city Tulsa turns out to be for the next three decades and beyond.
It seems like a fairly straightforward and transparent process, and it is. But in many cases, the actual implementation of those policies will be the job not of elected officials--supposedly directly accountable to the voters who put them in office--but of the dozens and dozens of authorities, boards, trusts, commissions, committees and task forces that collectively represent an enormous part of the municipal governing apparatus.
Ruled by volunteer appointees, these organizations operate as quasi-government entities--some empowered only to recommend action, others with greater authority than official city departments--with varying degrees of oversight by officeholders. Some carry a fairly substantial public profile (the Stadium Trust, the Airport Authority and the City/County Library Commission), while others (the Sign Advisory Board and the Residential Occupancy Limitation Task Force) are obscure to the point of being virtually invisible.
Most of the time, even the better-known entities attract little public attention, but as recent controversies over the Tulsa Development Authority have demonstrated, that isn't always the case. And when such cases crop up, they invariably raise questions about how much authority such organizations wield, who's keeping an eye on what they do and how well they fulfill their mission.
"There is a useful role for authorities, boards and commissions, but their role should not be above accountability to citizens," said former Tulsa mayor and state legislative leader Roger Randle, now the director of the Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture at the University of Oklahoma campus in Tulsa. Randle said the key to avoiding conflicts with those organizations is having them working with full transparency and in partnerships with elected officials.
Easier said than done, no doubt. With the list of authorities, boards, trusts, commissions, committees and task forces in Tulsa numbering well in excess of 100, it's apparent that a tremendous amount of civic power is invested in these organizations, arguably to the point that they operate as a shadow government. What isn't so clear is how many of them are really needed. But that's a question about which some city leaders have developed more than a passing interest these days.
John Eagleton, who represents District 7 on the City Council, is one of those interested in tackling that question. But even he urges caution when it comes to singling out organizations for removal in a system so complex and extensive.
"You don't want to leave a whole in your coverage and no way to fix it," he said. "You can't fix something you don't adequately understand all the moving parts in."
The search for a list of all the city's authorities, trusts, boards, commissions, committees and task forces begins at the city's Web site, www.cityoftulsa.org. Under the menu bar on the right side, under the "Quick Links" header, there is a link for boards and commissions, a list of 51 entities that also includes authorities.
An extended entry for each entity is featured at the end of that list, including information about the number of board members, meeting locations and times, the organization's purpose and the city staff person designated to serve as the public contact.
An even more extensive list of organizations can be found by clicking on the "Meeting agendas" link under the "Essentials" header on the right-side menu on the same Web site. By opening a link on the ensuing page titled "Access Agendas by Board, Trust and Authority," visitors can find the meeting agenda for virtually any city organization they can think of. The list goes on for some four pages, including several regional groups, as well as those from Tulsa, all presented in alphabetical order.
But that doesn't make the list any less overwhelming. When it comes to having a handle on what the purpose of all those organizations is and understanding the rules under which they operate, Eagleton admitted many of them are a mystery to him.
"If you had asked me that a couple of years ago, I would have said I had a pretty good idea," he said. "But the more I see, the less I understand."
One reason for that is very few of them operate under the same set of rules. According to City Attorney Deirdre Dexter, these organizations come into existence in several different ways--some under amendments, some under ordinances, some under state law and some by executive order--and that largely dictates what they are empowered to do.
On the surface, Dexter said, all of them operate in essentially the same way. They are governed by volunteer members who are usually appointed by the mayor with the confirmation of the council. Most are subject to the state's Open Meetings Act, which requires them to post an agenda in advance and allow citizens to observe their proceedings.
But if an organization serves a purely advisory capacity--as many task forces do--and if they are not empowered to engage in any financial activities or have any decision-making authority, they are often exempt from the Open Meetings Act, she said.
Dexter periodically finds herself explaining that to citizens who don't understand why they've been denied entry to a meeting. But that isn't a major issue, she said, because most civic committees and task forces, even the ones that aren't required to abide by the Open Meetings Act, assume that they are or do so as a matter of policy, voluntarily complying with the law.
A fair amount of the time, she said, an organization may submit an incomplete agenda or fail to post it in time. But if it isn't required to abide by the Open Meetings Act in the first place, the City Attorney's Office takes a "no harm, no foul" approach to such cases, she said.
A former associate district judge, Dexter has worked in the City Attorney's Office since 2006 but said others in her department are much more experienced in the nuances of how all those organizations operate. With that thought in mind, she observed, "There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding, sometimes significant, as to why these entities exist and how they operate. It all goes back to why they were created."
It is that language, she said, that explains the differences between those organizations. Title 39 of Tulsa's city ordinances (found on the city's Web site under the "Our City" header at the top) sets out the specific terms under which each of the city's trusts operate. And Article 5 of the city's amended charters establishes the terms under which its authorities and boards operate.
Ultimately, Dexter said, an entity's designation as a trust, authority, board or commission matters less than what it is charged with doing under the specific language that created it.
That explains why some entities meet for only a designated period of time and wind up simply making recommendations--the mayor's recently created task force on city planning and development, for example--while others have been around for decades, controlling multi-million-dollar budgets, featuring professional, full-time staffs and entering into long-term contracts.
It is that kind of power that makes many of those entities so crucial to city government, Dexter said.
"Some of these organizations, like the (Tulsa Development Authority), have authorities and powers the city can't exercise. For instance, the city can't enter into a contract for longer than a year unless it has all the money set aside in advance," she said, explaining that under the terms of a three-year, $10 million deal, the city would be legally obligated to put the entire amount aside up front, rather than just one-third of it. Many trusts are not required to do that, she said. "So trusts have the flexibility to enter into long-term contracts. It gives the city, through these organizations, the ability to conduct business it wouldn't be able to otherwise."
From Dexter's perspective, another complicating factor is that her office does not represent every trust, authority, board or commission tied to the city. Some, most notably the TDA, retain their own legal representation, she said, and that can make some of their dealings less than clear even to her.
Everybody's Doing It
Tulsa certainly isn't alone in employing so many of those organizations as an extension of its government. The use of such entities is widespread across the United States. In fact, Randle, who served as a member of the state House of Representatives and Senate president pro tem before being elected mayor Tulsa in 1988 and again in 1990, said their presence in state government looms just as large.
Citing the various entities that oversee Oklahoma's higher education, human services and wildlife concerns, among others, Randle said the philosophy behind the creation of those organizations stemmed from a desire to insulate state government business from corrupting influences.
In those days, Oklahoma governors were restricted to one term, thus limiting the ability of the state's chief executive to appoint a majority of board members for such entities over a four-year period. Supposedly, that kept governors from stacking such governing bodies with those pursuing a particular agenda.
"It was thought that their functions were too important to be left to political concerns," Randle said. "But the practical consequence of that is accountability sometimes is lessened."
Randle lauds that interest in protecting important government functions from partisanship, but he fears some entities have become too far removed from the light of day.
"The No. 1 thing a citizen should be able to do is find out who's accountable," he said. "But when their power is too great, a lot of these independent boards wind up hiding accountability."
Many observers would argue that is precisely what has taken place recently with the TDA, an organization charged with promoting development and revitalization across the city but particularly in downtown. Over the past few months, the authority has come under fire from members of the City Council on a variety of fronts.
First, the TDA was charged in a federal investigation with misspending Community Development Block Grant funds that had been allocated by the council and was forced to repay $1.5 million.
Then the TDA awarded a 10-year, $4 million, interest-free loan to a local developer for a downtown lofts project without going through a competitive bid process, leading other developers to cry foul.
Last August, the organization also found itself a defendant in a breach-of-contract lawsuit by a local developer who maintains the organization wrongly and prematurely terminated his exclusive negotiating period for TDA land adjacent to the new downtown ballpark.
The TDA, formerly known as the Urban Renewal Authority and created by the state several decades ago, is staffed by city employees but operates free from the oversight of the council, which has no jurisdiction over it.
With those and other issues in mind, District 5 City Councilor Bill Martinson believes the need is strong for more transparency from some authorities, boards and commissions.
"In my opinion, I think we could definitely beef up accountability is certain cases," he said.
Martinson stressed that he has no accountability problem with most of those quasi-government organizations, especially those that serve a clear, specific purpose, such as the Tulsa Parking Authority. But when it comes to the TDA, "which is totally separate from the city," he said, that responsiveness just isn't there.
Under state law, he said, the TDA is required to present an annual report. "But we haven't had much success getting a report out of them," he said.
Martinson acknowledged the fact the council has little power to compel the TDA to do anything, but he believes he and his fellow councilors have a right to be kept up to date on the organization's activities.
"When you're talking about the TDA, we ought to be able to expect them to come before the council and report on how they're progressing on their mission," he said.
Martinson also said the TDA has property on its books that it has controlled since the 1960s.
"I don't know how that does anybody any good," he said.
Eagleton is even more pointed in his assessment of the way the TDA has conducted itself.
"It's a long way from transparent," he said, adding that public confidence is eroded when individuals or businesses appear to have been given preferential treatment based on who they are. "I'm not saying that's what has happened, but it's what appears to have happened," Eagleton said.
Two members of the TDA board did not return calls from Urban Tulsa seeking their response.
Appendix or Liver?
Will Wilkins, the developer who filed the breach-of-contract suit against the TDA, said his experience has made him much more reluctant to get involved in a project with the city. He believes the TDA's status as a state-created entity with city ties is part of what makes the situation so perplexing.
"There needs to be a clear delineation," he said. "Is it a state entity? Is it a city entity? Because of that, oversight is the biggest thing lacking."
Wilkins and another local developer, Micha Alexander, both wonder aloud about the makeup of the TDA board and that of other organizations charged with dispensing public funds.
"What qualifications do people have to making these decisions in the first place?" Alexander asked. "I have faith in our mayor and her team... but it's all these other people in between who just screw it all up."
Alexander was careful to point out he was not questioning the worthiness of the proposal that ultimately attracted the loan from the TDA. But he does take exception to the process under which it happened.
"I don't think it's fair that $4 million gets distributed without other people having a say in it," he said. "The other people who are players down here should have had an opportunity to compete for it. But, again, who's going to be the decision maker in the deal?"
Wilkins, who maintains he simply wants a fair shake for himself and every other developer, worries when he looks at the makeup of some boards and sees relationships or affiliations between board members and the parties their decisions will affect.
"Is that allowing fairness in the process?" he asked. "Is that a good representation of Tulsa in its entirety? Is it fair to everyone?"
Wilkins emphasized that he understands that most individuals serving in a volunteer capacity on one of these quasi-government entities are doing so because they genuinely care about making the community better. And for every prominent, well-connected Tulsan who serves on a trust or authority board--such as Bank of Oklahoma president Stan Lybarger, who chairs the Stadium Trust, or George Kaiser Family Foundation executive director Ken Levit, a member of the River Parks Authority board--there are dozens of average, mostly anonymous citizens who do the same.
It's the contributions of those individuals that are most valuable when it comes to determining the worth of authorities, boards and commissions, according to District 4 City Councilor Eric Gomez.
"They do bring a lot of new ideas and perspectives to the table, even though [the organizations] can be onerous on the city to staff," he said. "However, they bring so much new input it balances the staff requirements."
Eagleton heaped praise on the hundreds of citizens who serve on those boards with nothing in mind but the idea of performing a public service.
"They do a wonderful amount of work, the vast majority without receiving any thanks, fanfare or kudos," he said. "It is truly public service on the highest level. Unfortunately, it's the anomalies that get the most attention."
Gomez said he and Mayor Taylor have spoken on a number of occasions about the possibility of reducing the number of those quasi-government entities in Tulsa, but he believes it would take about a year of careful study to even develop an understanding of all their functions and roles.
"Based on the work we're already doing, who's going to study that?" he asked. "We could hire a consultant, I guess. The council could take it on, and probably should take it on, but right now, we're in budget season, then we've got (Community Development Block Grant) season, and a significant portion of our resources are already spoken for. It is something worth looking at, but only if we thoroughly vet what the consequences and unintended consequences would be, financially and otherwise."
If the current system doesn't work, what would replace it? Gomez said the perfect example of the complexity of that question is the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, an organization overseen by the Indian Nations Council of Government, a confederation of local governments for whom Rich Brierre serves as executive director. The idea that the city of Tulsa needs to establish its own Planning Commission and planning staff has generated a fair amount of momentum of late, but Gomez said that isn't a realistic possibility right now.
"We cannot absorb the impact financially right now," he said.
But what the city can do, he believes, is hire an aggressive and capable planning director, a new position that is now in the budget but hasn't been filled yet. Gomez believes the right person would make a huge difference in the city's ability to head off many of the planning and zoning problems it faces today, as well as implement the PLANiTULSA recommendations coming down the pike.
"A strong planning director can help us achieve that without changing our relationship with TMAPC and INCOG," he said.
As for the dozens of other authorities, boards and commissions with ties to Tulsa, Martinson agreed the city would be well served by making such an examination of each entity's goals and missions, but he, too, said the council really is no position to take on that assignment.
Eagleton continues to espouse the idea of trimming their numbers, and he hints that such a move could be only as far away as his ability to corral enough votes on the council.
But even his enthusiasm for that task comes with a rather sizable caveat: "When it can be done without curtailing the city services or benefits we derive from their existence," he said.
After all, "You've got to be really careful when you pull the life support because you may need that organ donor at some point," he said.
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