Even though a wide-open mayoral campaign has captured most of the attention during this municipal election season, another race that is perhaps just as competitive is unfolding in City Council District 8, where two strong challengers are seeking to unseat a multi-term incumbent.
Located at the city's southern tip, District 8 is, in many ways, still a work in progress when compared to older, more-established areas of Tulsa. Many of its main thoroughfares are still two just two lanes, it has storm water and sewer management shortcomings, and the prospect of a bridge being constructed across the Arkansas River to nearby Jenks has been an issue for many years.
At first blush, the City Council race wouldn't seem to attract much notice there. Republican Bill Christiansen appears to be the epitome of a well-entrenched incumbent as he seeks his fifth term. He has drawn the endorsement of the city firefighters union and was even named Best City Councilor by Urban Tulsa Weekly readers in the recent Absolute Best of Tulsa poll.
But he has drawn a pair of Republican challengers with serious credentials of their own.
Phil Lakin Jr. serves as chief executive officer of the Tulsa Community Foundation, the nation's largest community foundation with assets of more than $3.5 billion, and has been deeply involved in the PLANiTULSA process. He also serves on the board of the Tulsa Metro Chamber and the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority.
Neighborhood activist Scott Grizzle recently was elected president of TulsaNow, and serves as the technology committee chairman for Mayfest and as an adviser for Land Legacy, a nonprofit land conservation organization.
No Democrats or independents filed to run in District 8, meaning the winner of the Sept. 8 Republican primary will claim the seat.
Christiansen's decision to seek re-election to his council post came only after he gave serious consideration to running for mayor.
"I thought the amount of money needed to compete evenly with (Republican mayoral candidate) Dewey Bartlett was going to be a significant amount of money, and given the state of the economy, it would have been difficult to ask my supporters to do that," he said. "I didn't want to wake up and have spent several hundred thousand dollars on my campaign and not won. My first loyalty is to my family."
Lakin's decision to enter the race was based on a conversation he had with Christiansen earlier this summer in which the incumbent told him he had decided to run for mayor, thus leaving the seat open. Even after Christiansen opted to forego the mayor's race and file for re-election, Lakin decided "to push the go button," as he said, and make his first foray into the world of politics.
While he faces the task of unseating a longtime incumbent, Lakin doesn't talk like an underdog. He believes Christiansen's earlier indecision has changed the dynamics of the race.
"He's effectively challenging me," Lakin said.
The other candidate in the race, Grizzle, is approaching the race from a straightforward direction.
"If you want something done right, you do it yourself," he said. "So why not take a stab at it?"
But he's also alarmed about the low level of engagement between citizens and their government. Recalling a statistic he saw cited after the 2007 Arkansas River improvements package vote, Grizzle said, "A lot of people had no idea what they were being asked (on the ballot).
A third of them thought they were voting on the channels project. If one third of people don't know what's going on, that's horrible."
Lakin shares those concerns.
"I don't know how many people are interested in city issues," he said. "We have 20,000 people in District 8 who can vote, and 12,000 of them have never cast a ballot. That's so foreign to me. Why would you not participate in a discussion about how your city is going to look in the future?"
Christiansen, on the other hand, said he gets plenty of feedback from his constituents and, having served so many years on the council, he's had plenty of time to learn what's important.
"I understand the citizens of Tulsa and what they want," he said, explaining that proper funding for the city's public safety departments--police and fire--top that list. "The citizens in District 8 are asking for additional police officers to be on the street."
Christiansen, who owns his own aviation business, calls public safety the foundation of city government.
"Without good public safety, citizens don't feel quite good enough. That can have an adverse effect on quality of life and economic development. You have to provide public safety and infrastructure. I've learned to prioritize. Public safety is first, but the other things have to be watched. It all boils down to making right decisions that will have the best impact on the citizens of Tulsa, and that begins with voting for a reasonable budget for public safety."
That stance earned Christiansen an endorsement from Tulsa Firefighters Local 176--a development that caught the attention of Lakin.
"Christiansen likes to refer to himself as very conservative, but I've never heard of a very conservative councilor or candidate whose been endorsed by a union," he said. "I'm concerned with the stress that the fire and police unions are putting on the city budget."
While emphasizing that he respects the job police officers and firefighters do, Lakin questions how the budget of those two departments has grown by $37 million in recent years without a corresponding increase in personnel.
"On the surface, I don't understand how that has happened," he said, adding that if the city continues down that course, it is staring at a potential bankruptcy. "It's not sustainable, and we're going to wind up giving up a whole lot if we let it go."
Grizzle has some public safety concerns of his own--not surprising, considering he said he's been victim of several automobile break-ins and home burglaries. He believes the solution to those problems lies, to a large extent, with citizens themselves.
"I'm talking about changes that can be made without affecting the police budget," he said. "I'm talking about fighting crime but not having to come up with the budget for more officers.
"People don't have the same sense of community, and they're not watching out for each other," he said. "If citizens want less crime, they need to put a little bit of themselves into it."
That's why Grizzle supports neighborhood watch programs, which he said need to be much more common. He also suggests that police make minor changes to their operating procedures, such as pulling into a neighborhood, rather than a retail business parking lot, to park and write a report. Such a visual police presence can go a long way toward discouraging burglars, he said.
But as a self-described "technophile"--he works in the information technology department at the electric utility AEP--Grizzle is primarily interested in re-engaging citizens in their local government through the use of technology. He said he's frustrated at how city officials have not taken advantage of the Web, along with other forms of media, to keep residents apprised of what's taking place at City Hall.
Simply broadcasting City Council meetings on Cox Cable is not enough, he said, pointing out that subscribers to DirectTV or The Dish or those with no cable service at all are out of luck. Grizzle questions why the city hasn't taken the simple step of Webcasting council meetings.
"If you have all that content recorded, it's not hard to get it on a Web site," he said, explaining that for just a few thousand dollars, the proper hardware and software could be purchased to make that a reality.
"That's a very small amount to get that online," he said. "That would be real easy. You could even broadcast it live online."
If elected, Grizzle promises to communicate directly with his constituents, holding monthly meetings at a site in District 8 where anyone who wants is welcome to ask him questions.
"It's just a great thing to have," Grizzle said of such meetings, which he has been part of through his work with Tulsa Now. "People are able to connect with their leadership. To really represent the people, you need that level of openness, especially on the City Council. That's the level of connection I would like to see, a situation where I don't have to dress up and pay $50 a plate for a fundraiser and talk to my representative."
Grizzle said he's simply trying to raise some new ideas in regard to how the city does business without incurring any new costs.
"Nothing I've proposed requires any sort of outlay, because especially right now, we don't have the income," he said. "But I would like to get discussions going on about stabilizing the city's income by finding ways to replace our (sales) tax base with something more stable without hurting people's bottom line."
One of Lakin's main concerns for District 8 centers on its thoroughfares.
"I think we have a definite need for wider and smoother streets," he said. "That's a significant problem, and it's one that can't be addressed until 2013 because of the way the streets package will run."
Lakin is already concerned about the state of such main arterials as Riverside Drive and Yale Avenue.
"Quite frankly, I don't know if they'll last that long. I hear all the time from people who get flat tires or broken axles driving those streets. I grew up in south Tulsa, and some roads there are the same roads I drove when I was 16."
He's also disappointed at Tulsa's lack of development along the Arkansas River, especially in contrast to projects proposed by city leaders in Jenks and Bixby.
But "Nobody cares what we're going to do to our bank of the Arkansas River," he said. "We've got a Kum & Go on prime real estate property on the river ... I don't mean to disrespect any business, but that is not the highest and best use of riverfront property."
In his position at the Community Foundation, Lakin said he lobbied hard on behalf of the legislation that ultimately will create a series of low-water dams, designed to make the river corridor a more attractive place to do business.
"We have to build these things so the economic development can follow," he said.
Lakin said the interests of District 8 largely reflect the interests of Tulsa as a whole, and he said it's time to quit playing "ward politics." Like many other candidates this election season, he decries what he called a lack of civility in city government.
He also hopes to make it easier for outside entities to deal with municipal government.
"I know things can be much better," he said, adding that at the Community Foundation, he is involved in a lot of projects of a public/private nature that seem to take much longer than necessary.
"The public side always has a lot of issues," he said. "It's slow and cumbersome. I think Tulsa would be five years ahead of where it is if it had a more productive mentality."
Lakin's work on PLANiTULSA--he helped secure additional funds to enable the hiring of Fregonese Associates, the consulting firm that is compiling public input and making recommendations for the city's new comprehensive plan--gives him a sense of optimism, especially when he saw citizens express their preference for development scenarios that favored downtown development, infill and a light rail system. The city badly needs to increase its density, he said.
"I believe in Tulsa," he said. "I'm tired of having all the development go to Jenks or Owasso or somewhere else. We need to keep the core of the citizen base here."
Christiansen also had praise for PLANiTULSA and the role it is playing in the comprehensive plan update.
"I think it's a great step in the right direction," he said. "It will give us more consistency, so all citizens of Tulsa will know what to expect when they buy a home."
He views that comprehensive plan update as part of a broader effort to balance the interests of residents and developers. Christiansen said he became well acquainted with the conflicts that can result from those often-competing interests through his work as chairman of the city's Land Use Education and Communication Task Force.
After concluding months of public meetings and discussions this spring, that group recently submitted a series of recommendations to Mayor Kathy Taylor. Christiansen hopes those proposed changes will help the city avoid situations like the controversy over Sonoma Grande, a luxury apartment development near 81st Street and Mingo Road that was built in close proximity to a residential neighborhood. The resulting uproar was perhaps the main factor in Taylor's decision to appoint the task force.
"I believe we came out with some really good recommendations that will be followed through on," Christiansen said. "With that, and completion of the comprehensive plan, we'll see some good, positive development."
He also said he's proud that he has fought for the average homeowner to make sure the infill and zoning processes are fair.
Christiansen said he considers himself a good fiscal conservative who has worked to stretch taxpayer dollars whenever possible, citing his work to help revise the city's energy policy.
"When we replace vehicles in the city fleet now, we have to buy something that gets better gas mileage," he said, describing one of those changes.
Those kinds of policies make a difference when the city is battling significant monetary woes, as it is right now, Christiansen said.
"I really believe the city needs to operate within its budget, and the budget, obviously, is dictated by the economic conditions and revenue we've got," he said. "We have to operate within those guidelines. I'm not in favor of raising revenue through independent fire districts or (more) sales taxes because we've got a pretty heavy tax burden already.
"The solution is we just live within our means, and that means having good, earnest negotiations with the unions."
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