Is there extraordinarily bad chemistry between Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. and the City Council?
Is it a bad "risky shift" psychodynamic occasioned by the fiscal stress or a catastrophic trust deficit spawned by last year's police/public safety layoff?
Maybe it's a conflation of all these things.
Sometimes political machinery becomes unstable simply because the critical players can't maintain effective working relationships. But we don't abolish marriages, outlaw capitalism or decommission churches because such institutions can and do fail.
A group of Tulsans seems determined to fatally modify Tulsa's current city governance arrangement because they don't like the City Council/Mayor confrontation loop of the last year. Or maybe, for them anyway, our local democracy has gotten "too loud."
Late last year, a group calling itself "Save Our Tulsa" (SOT) issued a brief for a drastic reworking of Tulsa's strong mayor/city council form.
Some days ago, the group got the green light from City Hall for a November election on their proposal having secured the petition signatures needed to do so. The SOT group's steering committee -- a few dozen Tulsans -- is noteworthy and filled with locals who have served Tulsa well in past decades.
But in an age when many corporate, government and non- profit leaders embrace "diversity" with a real passion, the SOT membership is far from diverse.
The SOT steering group -- if a Tulsa World map analytic and an October piece crafted by Tulsa blogger Michael Bates are correct -- is populated by folks who overwhelmingly live in the most posh parts of Tulsa.
The SOT fix seems directed at a set of cardinal issues:
Excessive partisanship: SOT seems to think the dysfunction we've witnessed since the October 2009 elections is driven by party divides on the City Council and between the Council and the Mayor.
Insufficient mayor/council bonding: SOT wants a tighter, more organic connection between Tulsa's mayor and our city council.
Parochial council behavior: SOT claims that city councilors pay too much attention to their individual districts and not enough to the city as a whole.
The SOT folks also want Tulsans to substitute the imperfect arrangement we have with a system shot though with citywide councilors -- a regime that the U.S. Justice Department has questioned in the past on the grounds that such systems dilute the representation of small groups including ethnic, racial and other minorities. A simple look at electoral dynamics in Tulsa suggests that voter registration asymmetries (rooted in part in the younger average ages of black, Hispanic and American Indian populations) make it likely that most of the winning candidates in SOT's envisioned citywide contests will be selected by outsized turnout from south/far south voters.
If the SOT folks win, folks in South Tulsa will get almost triple representation while other parts of town -- including North, East and West Tulsa and Midtown -- will get less than their historic share of council seats.
A sample from the SOT "reform" package:
There is little real evidence to support the argument that the current mess at City Hall has anything to do with Tulsa's political parties or the "partisanship" of the Council -- or Mayor Bartlett for that matter.
Many of the nasty struggles at City Hall of late have been marked by 7 to 2 or even 8 to 1 votes -- meaning that almost everyone on the Council voted against the Mayor or to substitute a Council plan for Mayor Bartlett's suggestion --independent of party affiliation. But there is something more important at play here.
Some of the most powerful mathematical/empirical work in political science suggests that voter turnout in U.S. cities with party elections is higher than turnout in non-partisan towns.
It seems likely that the new structure proposed by SOT will lower, overall, the participation of city voters -- especially people with modest incomes -- a result that few Tulsans should really want.
Super-councilors/at large representatives
SOT calls for creating three super districts that would
add three new folks to the council; supposedly these people -- residents of a North, South and mid-Tulsa super district -- would work for the "common good" since they would reside in each super district but be elected by everyone in Tulsa.
It's hard to know what this element of the SOT proposal would actually produce, but it seems likely that the wealthy or those with lots of access to money will dominate these new citywide races.
Campaigning at the citywide level in Tulsa almost always entails buying time on radio and TV and upwards of $100,000 could be required to compete in these races. Currently few successful candidates for the Council have spent more than a $20,000.
Another possible outcome is the emergence of a bunch of "min-mayors" winning citywide Council candidates who get more votes in a given election cycle than the prevailing mayoral candidate.
Do the SOT folks really think that these three new "mini potentates" will behave? Think "four-headed monster" at City Hall. Three puffed up "supers" and a mayor. Can you say "the mother of all conflict" at Tulsa City Hall? This sort of outcome would surely be a major abrogation of voter intent and an insult to democracy in Tulsa.
This element of the SOT proposal is not bad -- tying city elections to state contest dates would produce a more full-bodied result, lots more voter participation and much more interest -- too bad it coexists with bad stuff Tulsa doesn't need.
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