Chances are, Tulsans haven't heard the last of Elizabeth Wright.
As a member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission since April 2008, Wright has developed a reputation in some quarters as a strong voice for residents who believe their concerns too often are ignored by a system that is skewed toward the needs of developers.
To others, she's simply a royal -- and outspoken -- pain in the butt.
Wright acknowledges her philosophy about public service may not be everybody's cup of tea. But she makes no apologies for the way she has approached her job on the Planning Commission, particularly as her term nears its expiration on Jan. 18. That style frequently included following a dogged line of questioning when she felt a developer appearing before the commission wasn't being forthcoming enough.
Wright insists she would have been happy to serve another term on the Planning Commission, if she had been reappointed.
To no one's surprise, she wasn't. County Commissioner Karen Keith unsuccessfully tried to have Wright removed from the commission in November 2009, alleging Wright had violated the commission's policies, procedures and code of ethics, and that her conduct had affected the orderly and efficient operation of the TMAPC.
Keith's fellow commissioners didn't agree, and Wright kept her seat on the commission. Now, as her term approaches completion, she has set her sights on something new.
"I'm really happy to be rolling off (the TMAPC)," she said. "That sounds kind of strange, and I would be happy to be staying on, because I've enjoyed being on the Planning Commission. However, rolling off allows me to do things I did not have time to do while I was on the Planning Commission."
Local political observers have speculated that Wright may be priming herself for another run at public office. An unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for the District 4 City Council seat that ultimately was won by Maria Barnes in 2009, Wright has been mentioned as a challenger for that seat again this year, as well as a candidate for the County Commission.
But if she already has planned her next move, Wright isn't quite ready to reveal what it is.
"Have I ruled anything out? Let's keep 'em guessing," she said, smiling. "I think there are a lot of things that need to be changed at the county level, and one thing is visibility."
Reflecting on her service on the Planning Commission, Wright said she learned a great deal from the experience, particularly in regard to the TMAPC's consideration of the city's comprehensive plan update.
Even with the adoption of the plan update last summer, Wright said PLANiTULSA has yet to make its impact felt. Until the specifics of the plan are implemented and the zoning code is rewritten, development patterns in Tulsa will remain the same as they have for the past several decades, she said.
"It's uncomfortable for a lot of people," Wright said. "The comprehensive plan is the vision, not the law.
We're doing things now we wouldn't do if we were following the comprehensive plan. We would be following things that would be more walkable, more sustainable, more dense. Instead, we're still doing things that are car oriented."
Wright won't be around on the Planning Commission to see those changes come about. But she hopes to continue to be a voice for residents who feel their concerns about development haven't been adequately addressed in the past.
As for the perception that she had become a bit of a lightning rod for controversy as a planning commissioner -- a job not generally regarded as a high-profile position in local political circles -- Wright acknowledged that her style may have ruffled some feathers.
"If anything, I'm more blunt than anything else ... I think there are times that we come across as being rude, and we're not trying to be rude," she said, recalling a Planning Commission case in which a developer appearing before that body became upset with her because of her questions over the project's lighting. Wright said she regards asking such questions as part of her job and said many developers simply aren't used to having to go into such detail.
"There were some developers that were accustomed to doing business the way it had always been done," she said. "They were used to not having someone question what they were doing or saying, and not putting together the pieces to what they were doing.
"And that's still going on, but under PLANiTULSA, we're trying to stop some of that. That's what gave rise to the whole Land Use Task Force."
That task force, headed by District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen, was charged with developing a list of recommendations for improving public communication and education for zoning and land use matters. The group was formed in the wake of a heated controversy over the construction of a luxury apartments complex in south Tulsa that was located adjacent to a subdivision where many residents claimed they were not adequately informed of the scope of the project.
Wright regards that episode, along with many other zoning and development controversies that have arisen in Tulsa in recent years, as the product of a poor system that doesn't provide clear answers for developers or property owners. Once again, she said, Tulsa is behind the curve in that area.
"There's a disconnect between what the real estate people will tell you, between what the developers will tell you and what the city will tell you," she said. "But if you look at what Denver does, they have a Web site where you type in an address, and it tells you everything you need to know about property. It is the most user-friendly interface I've ever seen. All the cards are on the table, and they're not hiding anything."
Wright believes there's a strong need for more transparency at many levels of the local political structure, particularly at the county level. She said Keith's attempt to have her removed from the Planning Commission "brought attention to an otherwise dark corner of county politics." She bemoans the fact that county meetings aren't broadcast and says official records of county meetings reflect only the generalities, and not the specifics, of what actually transpired.
"All that county stuff needs to be thoroughly scrutinized," she said.
Wright said when she survived Keith's ouster attempt, her perception was that it damaged the county commissioner's political capital while adding to her own.
"I had a lot of people who wanted me to run for county commissioner," she said. "Despite my own self-doubt about not being very knowledgeable about this or that, I know the only way to prepare for those jobs is to do them. You don't get good at it in three years, you get good at it in many, many years. This is the School of Hard Knocks. So I'm still toying will all that."
Nevertheless, Wright maintains she was on the Planning Commission long enough to learn more than a few valuable lessons.
"Things don't have to be done the same old way every time," she said, explaining that storm water runoff on development projects -- and its impact on surrounding properties -- is one such issue that has been ignored or neglected by the TMAPC for far too long.
"The Planning Commission should stand up and be responsible and quit passing the buck," she said.
Wright's willingness to speak up on such issues is a big part of what has earned her the resentment of some members of the development community. To an extent, she regards that as a natural product of the changing atmosphere in Tulsa.
"We're in a shift, so, yes, it's going to be abrasive," she said. "When you're going through times of change, some people want it, some people don't, and there are going to be clashes."
As for the frequently repeated assertion that her tone put many people off, Wright was unrepentant.
"Could I have been more sensitive to people? Everybody communicates in a different way," she said. "I hope I continued to ask the kind of questions that brought some clarity."
In the eyes of her supporters, that's exactly what she did. Many of those same people, she said, again are encouraging her to run for the council or the County Commission. Wright responds by letting them know that running for public office is not an inexpensive proposition and that she needs their help.
"It's going to take me this much money to get the presses rolling," she said. "When I get that kind of commitment, I'll run."
If another campaign is in her future, Wright -- a Democrat -- believes her political persuasion won't stop her from drawing voters from both sides.
"I even have Republicans asking me to run," she said. "From the sounds of it, I'd get bipartisan support. I think I'm viewed as tough and -- I hope -- fair."
Her 2009 campaign taught her the basics of running for office, Wright said, and she now has a much better idea of what it takes to be successful.
"I've been through a race now," she said. "I'm a little bit more prepared now. I think I'm better experienced. The funnest part of running for office is going to door to door meeting with people and finding out what their concerns are."
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