Bill Christiansen has served on the City Council under three mayors since first being elected in 2002 -- Bill LaFortune, Kathy Taylor and now Dewey Bartlett Jr.
"They all had different backgrounds and personalities and management skills," he said. "And I just don't think the present form of government works for a city the size of Tulsa."
That's why Christiansen, a Republican, has become perhaps the most vocal supporter of a measure by fellow Councilor Roscoe Turner, a Democrat, that calls for letting citizens vote on a proposed change in the city charter from a strong-mayor form of government to a city manager-style of government.
"We need somebody as city manager who is educated and experienced at managing the city and all its departments, and I just think it would be an improvement in service over the long term and probably a major monetary savings over the long term," he said.
That assessment doesn't sit too well with Bartlett, the man who would be most directly affected by such a change. He figures he's heard this argument before.
"Every so often, some elected official gets mad at some decision the government might have made and says, 'Let's change the form of government,' " Bartlett said. "The reality is, if you just change the people you elect, you possibly could get the result you want.
"A city manager is not elected by the public," he said. "In my view, it's not necessarily in the city of Tulsa's best interest to have an appointed person managing the city who avoids those checks and balances. The voters have the opportunity every four years or every two years to get rid of their mayor or their city councilors. That's a great check and balance to me, and that's the beauty of our governing style."
While Turner did not respond to a call from Urban Tulsa Weekly seeking comment on his proposal, Christiansen spoke about it at length. He said the proposed shift to a city manager-style of government is something he's been thinking about for four or five years. He believes a full-time professional administrator would be better prepared for the job of serving as the city's CEO than someone who's never faced those challenges before.
The advantage of having a city manager, he said, would be evident in how that person interacts with the Public Works Department, for instance.
"That's the largest department we have," Christiansen said. "I think it would be helpful to have somebody experienced with that department and knowledgeable about its operations, not just somebody who gets elected and doesn't have that experience."
The problem, as Christiansen sees it, is that strong department heads who remain in place while mayors come and go is that those administrators continue to build power and dictate what goes on within their departments. Too many times, Christiansen said, he has been forced to beg and plead to one of those department heads to do something he believes needs to be done.
"As a city councilor, city employees do not work for councilors," he said. "So we have to go with our hat in hand and nicely ask Public Works to do something in our district," he said. "If we rile up and create a fuss about Public Works inefficiencies, where does that go? It's hard to stay in good stead if you're hammering away at them."
The mayor attributed the timing of the proposal to his well-documented differences with the council and said he believes the measure is "98 percent" motivated by politics.
"I believe the members of the City Council, if they disapprove of the actions I'm taking, in three and a half years can help vote me out of office," he said. "That's their right. I think if the council wants to look at changing the form of government, they should look at other forms of government, as well.
"I've heard people say they'd be more comfortable with a group of city councilors who are elected at-large. They'd still have to live in their district, but they'd be elected by people all across the city, and that would make them more beholden to the city of Tulsa instead of a particular area."
Bartlett said he believes most cities the size of Tulsa operate under a strong-mayor form of government, while smaller cities operate well with a city manager style. A prominent exception to that, he pointed out, is Oklahoma City, which proponents of the city manager-style of government like to cite as an example.
"I agree with them that Oklahoma City is an example of a city that's run well," he said.
But Bartlett noted that hasn't been the case until recent years. For many years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the City Council there was split almost evenly between two factions, and whichever faction held power at any given time would hire its own city manager. The result was a revolving door in that office.
"They were having a terrible time keeping city managers and keeping the City Council engaged in a forward-thinking way," he said.
Bartlett said he has spoken to city officials there at length about what turned the situation around, and he said they told him it is their belief that two things make the situation in Oklahoma City different.
The first is the fact that the city holds nonpartisan elections, meaning candidates do not run under a party affiliation -- an idea strongly espoused by Mark Perkins, a Republican who ran as an independent in the mayoral campaign against Bartlett last fall, earning 18 percent of the vote. The second element, Bartlett said, is that city councilors and the mayor in Oklahoma City are paid only a nominal salary.
"The obvious result is the people on the council and the mayor are there because they have a strong commitment to public service to Oklahoma City," he said.
Bartlett believes it's rare that a situation like Oklahoma City works well. He believes when it does, it's more the result of having good, community-minded people in office, rather than the system itself.
"There's not a bit of self-promotion or ambition among the people who run for office," he said. "They want to do what's best for the city as a whole."
Christiansen said he wasn't aware of the problems in Oklahoma City many years ago, adding that he certainly hoped a similar scenario never developed in Tulsa if the change to a city manager form of government is made.
"I guess I don't know the answer to that," he said.
But his frustration with the current system has boiled over under this administration, he said, which has locked heads with the council on a number of issues throughout the past six months.
"I think it's probably been the icing on the cake for me," he said. "It just reinforces the position I've had since before Mayor Bartlett got elected. I don't think it's working any better under a conservative businessman like Mayor Bartlett."
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