Fallout from a well-publicized budget battle between Mayor Kathy Taylor and some members of the City Council in June continues to have an impact on a number of races in the upcoming municipal elections.
That's especially true in the District 2 Council race, where incumbent Rick Westcott is being challenged by Bart Rhoades in the Tuesday, Sept. 8 Republican primary. The winner of that contest will claim the seat, as no Democratic or independent candidate filed to run.
Westcott was part of a minority of councilors who voted to delay a final vote on the budget until a review of public safety-related numbers could be conducted. That led the city's firefighters union to endorse Rhoades, a retired firefighter, for the position.
Westcott maintains that his stance on the issue should not have been taken as opposing public safety employees.
"I will tell you the firefighters union and the (Fraternal Order of Police) completely misunderstood my position," he said. "They've been out campaigning saying I voted to cut 149 officers and firefighters. That's not true. I did not vote to cut any officers or firefighters. They're campaigning on a gross misstatement."
A council vote was never taken on a motion to cut public safety positions, said Westcott, a former Tulsa police officer who now makes his living as a lawyer.
"This imaginary issue that police officers and firefighters are out campaigning on just never happened," he said. "I'm the guy on the council who's been trying to find a way to pay for additional cops."
Rhoades disputed Westcott's version of events.
"Rick Westcott's actions on the last city budget were reckless," he wrote in an e-mail. "His claim of being misrepresented is a misrepresentation of the truth. Rick Westcott can hide behind parliamentary tricks and spin, but the facts are clear. He supported (Councilor Bill) Martinson's plan, which called for a 20 percent reduction in both fire and police budgets. He and the rest of the City Council were cautioned by both our police chief and fire chief that the Martinson/Westcott budget would force them to lay off 149 police officers and 140 firefighters."
Even though the issue has drawn a lot of discussion, Westcott said he's not worried about it framing the campaign.
"Not for anybody who's paying attention," he said. "I think most people pay attention and know what's going on, and this is having a minimal effect in the election."
Rhoades maintains that Westcott had several weeks to review the budget before it was brought up for a vote, and he accused the incumbent of a flip-flop. He also said the budget that eventually was adopted by the council over Westcott's objections calls for "shared sacrifice" by all city employees, with police officers and firefighters taking a voluntary cut of more than $5 million this year.
As for other issues in the race, Westcott--first elected in 2006 and seeking his third term on the council--said his priorities include helping to secure Amtrak passenger rail service for Tulsa and getting a good commuter light-rail system started. He believes the stars are aligning for that latter project in particular.
"I think the chances are excellent (it will happen)," he said, noting that the proposal already seems to have drawn the support of many officials in Tulsa's suburbs, at INCOG and throughout Tulsa.
Westcott believes the creation of such a system could have particularly beneficial effects in District 2, a geographically and economically diverse area that straddles the Arkansas River. A plan developed by Jack Crowley, formerly the mayor's adviser on urban planning and development, called for one leg of the planned light-rail system to run down the west bank of the river, an area that serves as the heart of District 2.
The development opportunities that many people believe would accompany the light-rail stops would seem to bode well for an area that has struggled to catch up with other parts of Tulsa.
"The west side of the river has been pretty economically challenged for quite a long time," Westcott said, noting that he has been impressed by the commitment many residents of that area have shown. "Everybody is working hard to bring that part of town back."
The remainder of District 2 on the east side of the river does not share those same economic development challenges, Westcott said.
"Most of their concerns are related to infrastructure," he said, primarily storm water runoff issues. "So, the two sides of the river have really diverse needs."
Even so, Westcott said that doesn't mean it's difficult to reconcile those needs and develop an agenda that helps all of the district's residents.
"I think everyone on both sides understands the needs of the district as a whole," he said. "It's not difficult to generate a consensus."
Westcott said his two terms on the council have taught him a great deal, including the proposition that "There are no easy black-and-white answers to most problems."
For instance, Westcott said, everyone seems to agree on the fact that Tulsa needs to hire more police officers beyond the number it loses each year to attrition.
"That's an easy-sounding question," he said. "But how many do we need?"
That's where a careful analysis of the department's staffing situation comes into play, he said, including an examination of whether civilian employees can be hired to take the place of officers with desk jobs and whether those officers can then be put on the street. There is also the question of how to pay for additional equipment and personnel, he said.
Westcott takes issue with the widely circulated assertion during this campaign season that there is a growing lack of civility in city government, especially between the mayor and the council. He acknowledged that he and a handful of other councilors have failed to see eye-to-eye with the mayor several times, but he insisted those differences have never gotten personal.
"We should have honest disagreements on policy," he said. "I think honest disagreement on public policy is healthy. There's usually more than one way to solve a problem, and our job is to discuss the alternatives and conceptualize about the best way to solve problems. Sometimes that discussion gets heated because each of us believes our position to be right."
Rhoades regards the situation differently. He said he was compelled to run partially because he was tired of watching those disagreements.
"I am a third-generation Tulsan who takes pride in seeing our city do well, and I am troubled by the bickering from our councilors," he wrote. "My grandfather joined the Fire Department in 1922 and served for over 40 years. My brother Bret and I served on the Fire Department, as well. Public service is a family tradition. So when I see bickering and fiscal irresponsibility at such an alarming level, I decided to get involved. I want to use my time, expertise in public safety and passion for public service to try and turn things around."
Rhoades said a lack of respect is the main problem.
"We need to place public service above politics," he wrote. "The council needs to work with the mayor, and the mayor needs to work with the council. Everyone needs to be respectful and proactive for Tulsa city government to function and move our city forward."
Rhoades describes himself as a lifelong Republican who believes in the principles President Reagan stood for. He also points to the example set by his parents, both of whom represented the GOP in various capacities.
Rhoades said he has been a homeowner in District 2 for more than 20 years and raised his family there. He also recognizes the district's diverse nature, noting that several blocks from Southern Hills Country Club--the site of last week's U.S. Amateur Championship--there exists some of the city's most abject poverty.
"But the one thing that binds us all together is our need to have a city that is able to provide for good streets and safe neighborhoods," he wrote.
Rhoades and Westcott seem to have found common ground on at least one issue, with the challenger saying the future of mass transit in Tulsa must have a light-rail or tram component.
"We need to be more aggressive about getting our fair share when it comes to a plan for rail," he wrote. "One possible idea to accelerate Tulsa's development of light rail would be to utilize our River Parks as a backbone for our mass transit/rail plans. It would reduce land acquisition costs and also promote Arkansas River development, which is key to Tulsa's future."
But Rhoades said his first priority as a city councilor would be public safety, explaining that city officials need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of how public safety services are executed and managed in Tulsa.
He has other concerns, as well.
"Our roads are in poor condition, that is no secret and it will take us a while to remedy this situation," he wrote. "I think Tulsans are being shortchanged when it comes to receiving our fair share of state and federal tax dollars. For every dollar spent, 4 cents in sales taxes go directly to the state. Tulsa needs to receive a greater share of those tax dollars, so we can repair the years of neglect our roads have seen."
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