Elizabeth Wright considers it a foregone conclusion she'll be removed from the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission during a hearing before the Tulsa County Commission on Monday, Nov. 23.
But the reasons for her removal, she maintains, are less clear to her.
Wright's future as a TMAPC member was cast into doubt three weeks ago when County Commissioner Karen Keith filed a petition seeking her removal. On Nov. 2, the commission voted to hold the public hearing to consider her possible ouster. That hearing will be held at 9:30am Nov. 23 in Room 119 of the Tulsa County Courthouse, 500 S. Denver.
Keith's petition alleges that Wright violated the Planning Commission's policies, procedures and code of ethics when she made an appearance before the City Council in August 2008. The petition also alleges she violated the commission's prohibition against conflict of interest and that her conduct has materially and adversely affected the orderly or efficient operation of the TMAPC.
The charges appear to be rooted partly in Wright's role as president of the Florence Park Neighborhood Association, while she was serving on the commission last year. Wright was appointed to the TMAPC in April 2008 by then-District 2 Commissioner Randi Miller, who was succeeded in January by Keith. Wright resigned from the neighborhood association earlier this year.
Wright--who claims her removal from the TMAPC in the middle of her term would be unprecedented--said she considers those allegations a smokescreen. She said she's never met Keith and doesn't know precisely why Keith is seeking her removal from the Planning Commission. But Wright speculated it has something to do with her unwillingness to serve as a rubber stamp for development interests as a commission member.
"Can we say, 'Karen Keith, tell the truth? You're backed by the developers and real estate people. Why don't you just pony up to what you're really doing?' " Wright said. "This is political payback."
Keith responded sharply to those allegations.
"That could not be further from the truth, and she knows that," Keith said. "What possible political gain could there be for me? Zip. I'm friends with her parents."
Keith declined to add any specifics to the petition she submitted, adding it was her preference to let the issue play itself out at the Nov. 23 hearing.
"I think we were pretty specific (in the petition)," she said.
Wright said she has little doubt about how things will turn out for her at the removal hearing, contending Keith already has the votes to assure her ouster.
"The (County) Commission can come up with any charges they want," she said. "There's no oversight. They are the judge, the courtroom and jury. I doubt seriously (Keith) will recuse herself and be out of the room while I talk to (commissioners) (John) Smaligo and (Fred) Perry."
Keith had asked Wright to resign her position on the TMAPC earlier in October, citing the need for more diverse geographical representation on the commission. Wright refused that request, leading Keith to file the petition seeking her removal.
If the County Commission does vote to remove Wright from office, Keith said the action would be effective immediately. She said she would like to put together a list of possible replacements at that point that would include residents of other areas besides midtown Tulsa.
"I would like to see somebody from west or south Tulsa," Keith said. "I have a responsibility to see some of these other areas are covered. That was my objective in making this move."
Wright believes Keith may want her out of office because of her opposition to a zoning application for a proposed QuikTrip store at 21st Street and Harvard Avenue in the Florence Park neighborhood. Wright said she became aware of the project in May 2007. In the fall of that year, she was elected president of the neighborhood association.
In April 2008, Miller appointed Wright to the Planning Commission. At the next neighborhood association meeting in May 2008, Wright said she left the room while residents discussed the QuikTrip issue. She said the neighborhood association never took a stance on the issue.
She also maintains she discussed the potential for a conflict of interest with Chip Ard, the Planning Commission chairman at the time, and they came to the conclusion there was no conflict for her.
When the issue came before the TMAPC on May 21, Wright was asked by a QuikTrip attorney if she considered herself to be impartial and capable of rendering a fair hearing to the applicant. Wright answered that she was. Later that evening, the Planning Commission voted 7-1 in favor of the application, with Wright voting against it.
When an application for a zoning variance went before the City Council in August 2008, Wright made two appearances, emphasizing that she was speaking as a private citizen. She said her purpose was simply to inform councilors that the Planning Commission had granted the zoning application with a covenant, something she said it had never done before. In neither instance, she said, did she express opposition to the application in question.
Wright's appearances before the council in August 2008 are what are being alleged to be a violation of the commission's code of ethics. Wright acknowledges the commission's code of ethics prohibits such appearances now, but she said it didn't at the time and was only revised later. She also claims it is her First Amendment right as a private citizen to appear before the council whenever she wants.
Wright said she isn't planning an elaborate defense at the hearing. She is permitted to speak on her own behalf, and she plans to. But she said she can't afford to hire legal counsel to represent her at the hearing, and she isn't rallying an army of supporters to speak for her.
Regardless of what happens at the hearing, Wright--who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the District 4 City Council seat this summer--doesn't plan on giving up her involvement in public issues.
"I'm a fourth-generation Tulsan," she said. "I probably won't be going away."
As for what form her involvement will take, she was somewhat cryptic.
"I'm working," she said, smiling. "There are some meetings planned. Now that the elections are over, my removal from the TMAPC allows me to speak much more openly and freely and be involved at a different level."
Wright did not rule out the possibility of seeking a seat on the County Commission.
"I've been asked," she said. "I'm thinking about it ... You just never know."
Keith said she was sorry the situation had come to this, but she contended Wright's actions left her little choice.
"Do I care about how Tulsa moves forward?" she asked. "Absolutely. If you talk to her fellow commissioners, it's been a problem for them, as well."
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