It would probably be an overstatement to refer to Tulsa's recent municipal elections as a political tsunami. But there's little doubt the results have dramatically changed the elected-officials component of city government.
In addition to a new mayor in Republican Dewey Bartlett Jr., Tulsa voters elected a new city auditor, Republican Preston Doerflinger, who unseated longtime incumbent Phil Wood. But the biggest changes may be coming on the City Council, where four new councilors will be seated in December.
In the Nov. 10 elections, District 4 incumbent Eric Gomez, a Republican, lost to Democratic challenger Maria Barnes. In District 6, Democratic incumbent Dennis Troyer lost to Republican challenger Jim Mautino, and in District 3, Democratic challenger Roscoe Turner beat independent incumbent David Patrick and Republican challenger Karl Hulcher.
Combined with challenger Chris Trail's upset victory over Bill Martinson in the District 5 Republican primary--which gave Trail the seat, as no Democrats or independents filed to run--that means the eight-district council will have undergone a 50-percent turnover rate.
But the three councilors who emerged victorious last week will not be new faces. Each of the three, in fact, has held the seat before, a strong indication of the fickle nature of the local political scene.
Mautino--first elected to the seat in 2004, only to be defeated by Troyer two years later--was particularly delighted with his victory, claiming he was heavily outspent by the incumbent. Mautino seemed to get plenty of bang for his political buck: he said he spent $2,543 on his primary and general election campaigns, a pittance by modern political standards.
"I had a lot of good people and some real good friends helping me," he said. "And a lot of good voters voted."
Mautino said every time one of his supporters planted a yard sign, the Troyer campaign put out two.
"But I found out signs don't vote," he said.
Mautino said he was thrilled about Bartlett's victory in the mayor's race, and he expects the new council to take a leadership role in solving the city's problems.
As for the challenges facing his district, Mautino sounded a familiar theme.
"We need to do something about our deteriorating roads and about the safety of the roads we're fixing now," he said.
Mautino, who has created a PowerPoint presentation on that issue, is particularly upset about a stretch of 145th East Avenue between South 21st Street and South 31st Street. He said the recently milled road has no shoulder and features a dangerous 18- to 20-inch drop-off.
"There have been five accidents on that road in two and a half months--two of them head on," he said, adding that guard rails on both sides have been damaged and replaced.
Mautino also is concerned about the state of East 41st Street and East 51st Street east of 145th East Avenue. He believes all three of those thoroughfares were poorly constructed and are a hazard to motorists, though he acknowledges that many drivers are traveling too fast on those roads.
Mautino has been an outspoken critic of the city's Public Works Department and the tendency of the city to outsource so much of its road work to independent contractors. He was particularly alarmed by a recent scandal in Public Works that exposed a bribery and fraud ring involving millions of dollars in construction and consulting contracts.
Originally, Mautino said he did not have much faith that a review of Public Works that was being conducted by a St. Paul, Minn., firm at the behest of Mayor Kathy Taylor would reveal much.
"I fully believed it was going to be a whitewash, but it's a scathing report," he said.
Mautino said it's imperative to get the problems at the Public Works Department resolved for the benefit of other city departments that are suffering during the budget crunch.
"We need to make sure we get a full audit report and implement it," he said. "I believe once we're operating more efficiently, we won't have any problem getting the budget straightened out and paying our police and fire departments," he said.
A simple 1 percent reduction in the overall city budget--which Mautino believes can be achieved by a more efficiently run Public Works Department--would result in a savings of more than $2 million, enough to address the public safety shortfalls, he said.
Mautino said he felt vindicated by the Public Works review, although he still feels like there's more to be discovered.
"It's really a lot worse than the report says," he said, adding that he regularly receives information from people alleging continued wrongdoing at Public Works.
Mautino said he heard from a lot of residents in his district that they were upset about city government's move to a new home at One Technology Center and the construction of ONEOK Field, the new home for the Tulsa Drillers, which is being financed largely by a downtown property assessment district, private donations and the Drillers' lease.
"Those were the two things that came up all the time," he said. "There was a large number of people dissatisfied with Mayor Taylor and thought she didn't care anything about the people out here. They thought she was just wasting money."
Mautino said many other District 6 residents are upset about the area's crime rate and what he termed the lack of police cooperation. He said a recent utility rate increase was also bothersome to district residents, many of whom are retired, he said.
"That all combined to form a backlash at what's happened in Tulsa," he said.
In District 3, Turner--who previously held the seat from 1998 to 2002 and 2004 to 2008--was pleased to be returning to city government. He attributed his victory to a renewed sense of urgency among his supporters.
"Last time, people didn't get out and vote," he said. "They just assumed I had it won, and they didn't go to the polls. This time, they did. That's the difference."
Turner promised to serve as an independent voice on the council.
"I'm not there for the establishment," he said. "I'm there for regular people. That's my position and always will be my position."
He said his first order of business will be to help the city find a new, more stable source of income than the sales tax receipts it relies on now. Sharp reductions in those funds during economic downturns in recent years have left the city in a bad position financially, including this fiscal year, when every city employee has been required to take several furlough days.
Turner said he's seen that problem repeat itself several times throughout the years, and he believes the council needs to make a priority of working with the state Legislature to identify a funding source that will allow the city to get off the sales tax roller coaster.
"We need to find something that's stable, and I know the sales tax isn't stable," he said.
Turner knows it won't be easy to get everyone pulling in the same direction. He said his previous terms on the council taught him that local politics is a "dog-eat-dog world," and there aren't many people who are concerned about doing something for the populace as a whole.
Even so, Turner said he relishes the chance to get involved again.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to work and helping people, that's all," he said. "We've got an opportunity to really make some big differences, as far as the city of Tulsa is concerned."
Barnes, a longtime neighborhood advocate who served on the council from 2006 to 2008 before losing to Gomez, reclaimed her seat last week. She might have been part of the change that saw four incumbent councilors swept out of office across the city, but she declined to speculate about the reasons for that turnover.
"I really only paid attention to my campaign, and I was very focused on that," she said. "People got out and voted. What reasons people had for voting the way they did in other council districts, I don't know."
Barnes said there was no one issue in particular that galvanized voters in her district and convinced them to return her to office. But she said many voters were upset about a number of developments in the district, feeling they had no voice in the approval process. Asked if she was referring to the construction of a group home at 10 N. Yale that has become a lightning rod for controversy, she replied, "Not necessarily."
Barnes said she was particularly excited about the potential adoption of the recommendations coming out of the PLANiTULSA process and the update to the city's comprehensive plan, something that is expected to play out over the first half of 2010. She said she would begin planning a series of town hall meetings soon across the district to address that subject.
As for her own district, Barnes said the concerns that were most often expressed to her during the campaign dealt mostly with abandoned houses and the crime rate.
Barnes believes she is better positioned to be an effective representative for District 4 voters this time because of her previous term on the council.
"I think I've learned who the players are, who you need to go to to get things done, how it functions," she said.
Barnes said she remained active in district affairs even after being voted out of office.
"I still had people who called me after I left the council and asked me to help them," she said. "I tried to be helpful. It just felt like I've stayed in the groove and had good relationships with people."
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