One of the more intriguing local races on the November ballot is sure to be the battle for the District 1 Tulsa County Commission seat, in which incumbent John Smaligo, a Republican, will face Wilbert Collins, the Democrat he defeated to claim the seat for the first time in 2006.
But even though the Democratic primary was held on July 27, it took until the end of August for Collins to emerge as the party's nominee. An extremely close race between Collins and the other challenger for the nomination, Steve Gallo, led to a recount and court challenge that ended only on Aug. 30 when Gallo asked that the case be dismissed.
Collins was happy to emerge the winner from the case, but he said the delay in settling the outcome already has put him at a disadvantage as he tries to reclaim his seat from Smaligo.
"Oh, absolutely it did," Collins said. "I could not have a fund raiser, and I hired attorneys, and that ate up a bunch of money. I'm starting from scratch all over again. My opponent, I'm sure, is well financed and well organized, but I'll get my crew back together and get organized."
Collins said he would be reopening his campaign office this week and scheduling fund raisers. One factor he will have working in his favor is that he is not unknown to voters of District 1, having already served on the County Commission from 1998 to 2006.
During that period, he said, he was one of the originators of the county's "Four to Fix" program, a sales tax extension that has been used to fund a variety of programs, most notably Fairgrounds improvements, flood control projects, and new roads and bridges.
Collins also said he was a major supporter of the Vision 2025 tax package that has funded the construction of dozens of projects all over the county. For District 1 residents, he said, it led to the construction of a new home for the Morton Health Center, as well as a new local campus for Langston University.
"If I had one hang-up about that project, it was that I wanted to put it north of the (Tulsa Community College) campus on North Harvard," he said. "That way, you could graduate from TCC, then go right on to Langston. But the regents and the administration decided they preferred to put it on Gatewood next to (Oklahoma State's Tulsa campus)."
Even so, Collins is pleased with the way both Four to Fix and V2025 have worked out.
"We've had a lot of success with the two programs," he said. "I think we've still got five or six years left on both of them, so there's a lot to do. And I see some things I could do."
Me Too, Me Too!
Smaligo cites a number of accomplishments of his own in his four years on the commission, most notably his commitment to making county government more transparent. For the first time, he said, the Tulsa County budget and audit are posted online, contributing to the county website's A-plus rating from sunshinereview.org, an independent, nonprofit group dedicated to state and local government transparency. Smaligo said Tulsa County had a C-minus rating previously.
"We're very proud of that," he said of the new rating, which he said only 10 government sites in the country have equaled.
He also pointed to the blossoming relationship between the county and the Cherokee Nation, and the infrastructure improvements that has meant to District 1 in particular, where Tulsa County and Cherokee Nation boundaries overlap.
"Those cooperative efforts have benefited the residents of District 1," he said.
Smaligo said one of the things that surprised him most when he became a county commissioner was that there was no mandatory background check for newly hired county employees. That was a particular concern to him in regard to parks employees because of the fact that their jobs regularly brought those employees into contact with children.
"That was very disconcerting to me," he said, noting that that policy has been changed.
The commissioner described himself as a leading advocate for the new North Regional Health and Wellness Center to be operated by the Tulsa City-County Health Department at 56th St. N. and Cincinnati Ave. and said he has worked hard to secure grants for emergency storm sirens in District 1.
Smaligo also said he is a strong supporter of the sheriff's office and its operation of the county jail, as well as the department's efforts to curb illegal immigration.
Another issue that has particular relevance in District 1 is the lack of healthy food shopping options to many residents of the area. Smaligo has worked with state Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, on that problem, helping officials at the Indian Nations Council of Governments draw up a map illustrating the dearth of grocery stores in that section of the county and working to come up with solutions to the problem.
"We've seen some improvement in north Tulsa County with the Blue Jackalope and the opening of the new grocery store at Pine and Peoria," he said. "And we have prospects for other, smaller niche grocery stores in north Tulsa. I was very excited for the opportunity to help put that map together with INCOG."
Additionally, he said, much progress has been made in recent years in regard to reducing expenses at the Fairgrounds.
"We've done a tremendous amount to eliminate the obvious excessive expenses that we saw at Expo Square," he said. "We're beginning to bring those down and look for smaller opportunities to save money."
Smaligo also has done a good deal of behind-the-scenes work on repairing the county's tattered relationship with the city, reaching out to Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. with an eye toward exploring areas in which the two entities can work together and perhaps save money. Even so, he acknowledged it can be difficult for the two entities to agree on anything.
"As county commissioners, we represent people outside the city limits, even people from other municipalities," he said. "Occasionally, we have divergent interests from the city. We are the direct representatives of those who live in unincorporated areas. So county commissioners have to have a broader view for the whole area, and the commission certain has taken a much more regional approach.
"We definitely seek every opportunity we can to work together. When you have all these differences of opinion, sometimes there are discussions that occur that sometimes are mistaken for bickering. But these are just opportunities to find solutions for the citizens we are representing."
Smaligo's challenger believes his previous tenure on the commission taught him many of those lessons about the nature of governing effectively.
"I learned if you see something that needs to be done, you make a careful examination of the problem and start looking for a way to go after it," he said. "It's good if you have some cohorts with you, both of the other county commissioners, for instance, but that doesn't always happen."
Collins said it is his impression that the pace of county government in responding to the needs of residents has been a little slow in recent years.
"That's not bad on anybody's part, but I don't think the energy is there that was there when I was there," he said. "I think there now are individuals there that are laid back. Karen Keith is energetic, and she's trying to get a new juvenile center built, but she needs some help. She's trying to do it by herself right now. I think I can pick the pace up."
From his perspective, Smaligo said he has several areas he plans to focus on if he is re-elected.
"Obviously, we expect to continue leading the efforts for government transparency," he said. "I'm going to continue that. We'll also continue our partnership with the Cherokee Nation on road and bridge projects, particularly in District 1."
Smaligo said he also will try to improve the efficiency of the county's maintenance department for roads and bridges. Too many of the department's facilities, he said, are located in the city of Tulsa, miles from where the work is actually done.
"Those trucks have to travel several miles before they reach those unincorporated areas," he said. "I think it would provide significant savings in the years to come if we can move ahead with (relocating those facilities)."
Additionally, Smaligo plans to turn his attention to helping with the demolition of abandoned buildings in unincorporated areas of the county, which he said are a health concern.
"The owners of these properties clearly don't live there," he said. "I intend to develop a program to make sure these structures are town down and mitigated. I think you're going to see some success there in the years to come."
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