Maria Barnes, chairwoman of the City Council, acknowledges she has some reservations about the new Collaborative Government Advisory Committee.
But if any of her fellow councilors are interested in serving on the committee, which is charged with exploring ways in which the city of Tulsa and Tulsa County can work together and save the taxpayers money, she said she'd love to hear from them.
"No councilor has come up to me and said they would like to be on this committee," she said last week, four days after Tulsa County commissioners voted unanimously to take part in the committee, which was created by an executive order signed by Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. on Jan. 13. "So I haven't given it that much more thought."
By last week, that had changed. Barnes said on Feb. 11 councilors Bill Christiansen and G.T. Bynum both had approached her and expressed a desire to join the committee. But Barnes said she didn't like the fact that the mayor had chosen to move forward with the idea of city-county collaboration through the creation of the advisory committee. In her role as chairwoman, Barnes is empowered by the executive order to appoint the council's three representatives to the group.
"It seems like we're being bullied into working together, and I think the way (Bartlett) went about it was not the right way," she said.
Nevertheless, Barnes encouraged any council member who wants to participate to give her a call.
"I wouldn't decline" to appoint the council's representatives, she said. "I will bring it up, and if there's some interest to serve, please let me know. Councilors do have the opportunity to do this, and they should feel free to contact me."
If he hasn't done so already, District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum -- who has spent more than a year championing the idea of city-county collaboration -- has already done that.
"Absolutely," he said, adding that he had been waiting for county commissioners to approve their participation in the committee before he approached Barnes.
District 8's Bill Christiansen said he was anticipating the chance to serve on the committee, as well. "I would love to be on it and maybe make some headway on saving taxpayer money," he said.
Another possibility might be District 5 Councilor Chris Trail, who seemed more open to the idea of exploring collaborative possibilities between the two entities than many of his colleagues.
"I would be willing to take part in them," he said of any possible discussions between the city and county. "If the meetings are open, I would have no problem taking part in it."
That particular concern, one shared by many councilors, has been resolved to his satisfaction, Bynum said.
"(Bartlett) has reiterated to me that the meetings of the advisory committee will be open," he said.
Trail has another concern, as well, indicating that it is his understanding that state law prohibits two government entities from working together in certain areas. He wants a clear explanation of what those limitations are first.
"I just want to know what we can and can't talk about," he said.
"We need to know what the boundaries are."
Trail said when he became aware of the state statutes that limit that kind of interaction between respective governments, he began to research the issue and learned that state Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, has been working on legislation that would make such collaboration easier. Trail said he welcomes Sullivan's work, given the importance of squeezing the most from the taxpayers' money these days.
"We've got to look at every option, look at what's out there," he said.
Other councilors said they recognize the importance of that goal, as well, but they aren't convinced the advisory committee is the right vehicle for doing that.
District 2's Rick Westcott said he doesn't think the chances are good of this committee succeeding where other efforts to establish city-county collaboration have failed.
"My opinion is, I don't think there is because (Bartlett's) going about it the wrong way," he said, adding that he's not opposed to working with county officials in principle. "The source of my opposition to it is that we're being forced to cooperate through this executive order."
Westcott said he's served on the executive board of the Indian Nations Council of Governments for a long time and understands that "good relationships are the key to good government. And my work on INCOG has helped me foster good relationships with other government officials. I just think the mayor's executive order in forcing collaboration on the council is the wrong approach."
The right approach, he said, would be to let those relationships develop naturally as issues come up. Westcott said he previously had discussed with county officials and representatives of other local governments the idea of all those governments buying materials together so they could get them at a reduced price. The opportunity to take advantage of that hasn't arisen yet, Westcott said, but every time that scenario has been discussed, he said, he believes progress has been made.
Westcott said he believes the council likely will reject the opportunity to participate in the advisory committee.
"I want to be careful here," he said. "If that's the route the council takes, I want to be sure we're not misunderstood by the public. This is not a council vs. mayor issue. Our position is not prompted by any ill will toward the mayor. It's just that we believe this is not the right route to take."
District 3's Roscoe Turner said his position on the issue hasn't changed since last year, when he expressed adamant opposition to the idea of the council participating in an advisory committee with the county. From his perspective, much of the problem with the proposal does center on the council's relationship with the mayor.
"We're not having any collaboration with the mayor's office," he said. "He tells us what we're doing to do. He doesn't collaborate."
Turner said the mayor often behaves as if he misunderstands the role of the council.
"The City Council is still part of the government over here in the city of Tulsa," he said.
And the council has made it clear it has no desire to participate in such an exercise with the county, he said. Last spring, the council voted 5-4 against a measure forwarded by Bynum that would have created a city-county advisory committee.
"He doesn't listen to us anymore," Turner said. "Everything he's done, he's done on his own."
That kind of talk disturbs Bynum, who said he believes the committee has a good chance of being successful if his colleagues on the council will keep an open mind about it and examine the idea on its own merits. He said there are several things different about the situation now, as opposed to last year, when the mayor talked about issuing an executive order that would have created an advisory committee.
"No. 1 is, the county is on board," Bynum said. "The first time we voted down this proposal when I brought it forward, the argument was, 'We're not sure if the county is on board, and we want them to stick their hand out to us.' "
The county has done exactly that in this case, he said, and it's time for the council to respond.
He also believes the mayor has met the council halfway on the issue. Bynum said he was opposed to Bartlett's proposed executive order last year partly because it featured disproportionate representation between the mayor's office and the council, with Bartlett having the majority of appointees. Now, he said, each entity will appoint three members to the 12-member body, with the balance of representatives coming from the County Commission.
"I've been a critic of the mayor when he's been wrong, but in this instance, he's really tried to meet the concerns of councilors, other than the argument that 'We don't want to work with the county at all,' " Bynum said. "And that's not a real response. That's not responsible.
"He really has tried to address the concerns councilors have, which he has not always done in the past. My fellow councilors ought to take that for what it is and more forward on this."
Bynum said his fellow councilors would be well advised to accept the mayor's olive branch.
"It would really be a shame and reflect poorly on the council to rebuff his efforts to address councilors' concerns," he said.
County Commissioner Karen Keith is hopeful they will. She and Bynum had several conversations last year about the possibility of the city and county working together, and she was disappointed when those talks didn't bear fruit.
"I'm really hoping we have put to rest some of the fears the councilors have," she said, referring to a stipulation in the county's resolution approving its participation in the committee that the idea of any kind of city-county law enforcement operation was off the table. "I am more optimistic. We need to kind of get an idea of who we want to put on this committee."
Keith she said she understands there is still considerable resistance to the committee on the part of some councilors. She said last week she had not talked to Barnes about her plans for appointing representatives, though she said she did plan on approaching Trail about the idea.
Barnes said County Commissioner Fred Perry called her last week after he and his fellow commissioners approved the resolution and promised to send her a copy of it. As of Feb. 4, she said, she hadn't seen it, and while she indicated she appreciated Perry's attempt to reach out to her, she doesn't think the timing is any more right for such a committee now than it was last year when the idea was rejected.
Keith doesn't agree.
"I do think it's time for us to do this," she said. "We have this one pool of taxpayer dollars, and we all as elected officials need to use it as efficiently as we can. And if that means we need to work together, we need to work together."
Bynum said he already had taken up the issue again independently before the mayor issued his executive order.
"I had sent (Keith) and the mayor an e-mail (earlier this year) saying I was going to put this on the (council's) agenda for the end of January to kick start the discussion," he said. "But then, the mayor issued his executive order."
Bynum said he knows there are still some hard feelings among some council members on an issue that contributed to the defeat of the proposal last year, a dispute over storm water drainage fees at the Fairgrounds allegedly owed by the county to the city. Officially, that issue has been settled, though some resentment over its terms lingers.
Christiansen is one of those who think the settlement that was arrived at was very much in the county's favor.
"I'm unhappy with the way that was resolved, but I think I need to be open to the idea (of establishing the advisory committee)," he said. "I think I need to be a bigger person than that."
Christiansen said the county commissioners' decision to remove a joint law enforcement entity from the discussion was a good step and one worthy of a positive response from the council. He's not sure whether all the bad blood between the city and county can be overcome, but he thinks it's time to try.
"I think Mayor Bartlett has thrown a lot of wrenches into the system, and there's been a lot of mistrust built up," he said. "But I would hope something could come out of it. At the end of the day, this could be a good thing, yes."
Bynum emphasized the point that the new committee is advisory in nature and carries no legislative power. He said that should help put to rest any lingering "conspiracy theorizing" about the committee being the first step toward a county takeover of the government.
"There's a lot of room for improvement (in relations) between the two, and that's why I made this proposal in the first place," he said. "Improving the relationship starts with having better communication than we have."
Bynum expressed his appreciation to the County Commission for moving ahead on the proposal.
"Unfortunately, this became a lightning rod of an issue when it never should have been," he said. "The commissioners have really taken the high road on this, and I am appreciative of that. This is an opportunity to save people money and operate more efficiently. We need to put parochialism aside."
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