The City Council may have made clear in a recent vote to approve a new municipal budget that it did not approve of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s plan to reorganize the city's Public Works Department, but that won't stop the administration from proceeding with the reorganization.
That's the word from Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff.
"We believe we can still move forward and begin to do some of the reorganization with the budget that's been provided," Simonson said. "The budget for Public Works that was approved is exactly what's needed under the reorganization."
District 2 City Councilor Rick Westcott said he wasn't surprised to learn of the mayor's intentions to continue with his plan, though he believes Bartlett has no right to do so.
"Once again, Dewey Bartlett has interpreted the city charter in a way no previous mayor ever has," he said.
The mayor announced a plan to restructure the department during an April 7 press conference at City Hall, just days after the retirement of the department's longtime director, Charles Hardt. The department, which was created in 1990 and had grown into the largest in the city, employs approximately 1,400 employees, taking up more than 30 percent of both personnel and budgetary resources, according to city officials.
Under the plan announced then, Public Works would be split into three smaller departments -- Engineering Services, Streets and Public Facilities, and Water and Wastewater -- each with its own director. City officials set July 1, the beginning of Tulsa's new fiscal year, as the target date for implementation, though some of the details of the restructuring still needed to be worked out, they said.
But that plan has evolved over the ensuing months. Bartlett later signed an executive order splitting the department into only two units -- the Streets and Stormwater Department, and the Water and Sewer Department -- with Engineering Services being absorbed into those two units.
Those changes left some members of the council unhappy, especially in light of their contention that such changes require council approval under the city charter. The council approved a new city budget of approximately $650 million on June 23, a move that included no provision for restructuring Public Works.
Westcott maintains the city charter clearly indicates the mayor is required to present an executive order to the council providing for the creation or abolition of any city division, and the council then has 30 days or accept or reject that proposed change. He said the mayor's contention that the charter allows him to organize those divisions as he sees fit as "ludicrous."
Simonson said that won't change the administration's course of action.
"No, not really," he said. "The mayor does have the sole responsibility for management and organization, and the council has sole responsibility for the adoption of a budget. There's no reason those should be adverse to one another, nor do we think it should be. We've got the budget to improve and reorganize service in the Public Works Department."
Simonson said some details of the mayor's restructuring of the department still need to be worked out, but he said that won't result in any kind of disruption in service to citizens.
"They'll still get the same high quality of service from Public Works, whether it's June 23 or Sept. 7," he said. "The citizens will see no differences."
Administration officials have said they expect the reorganization of the department to save $500,000 to $800,000 annually.
District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum also was opposed to the mayor's plan, though he acknowledged there is little the council can do about it.
"I think the mayor does have the right to make this decision," he said. "For me, more than anything, it was a timing issue. We're still discussing this. We only received the executive order from (Bartlett) a day or two before the meeting (when the budget was approved). I don't like to vote on something I don't understand."
Bynum said he would like to see a new organizational chart and receive a firm explanation of how the changes will save the city money.
"Those are the things I would need to understand better before I vote on a budget change," he said.
The District 9 councilor said he didn't know whether some of his fellow councilors might try to mount an effort to halt the reorganization.
"So far, the discussions we've had have been confused and hazy," he said. "We've been given mixed explanations by the mayor's office -- what the mayor is allowed to do and what the mayor is doing."
Westcott said the issue of whether the mayor has the right to proceed with the reorganization without council approval illustrates one of the basic sources of contention between the two entities.
"There's no ... I'm going to use the phrase 'arbitration clause' in the city charter," he said. "The city charter was written believing people would read it and obey it. There's no provision for a situation if the mayor interprets it one way and council interprets it another. There's no provision for deciding who's right. That is the root of most of the contention between the mayor and the council."
Westcott compared the situation to playing a game without a referee.
"There's nobody who's going to call a penalty and throw a flag if somebody interprets something incorrectly," he said.
Westcott acknowledged the reorganization of Public Works may be a good idea. Unfortunately, he said, the administration has never explained why that is the case.
"The mayor has had two press conferences regarding the restructuring of Public Works," he said. "The first one was back in April, where he announced it would be broken up into three divisions. The second one was in May, where he said he was going to break it up into two divisions.
"At both press conferences, he talked about how this will provide a more streamlined form of government. But at neither press conference did he identify a problem that exists with the current structure of Public Works, and he never explained how this is going to benefit the citizens. And never once has he sat down with the City Council and discussed it at all. It may be a good idea, but come and sit down and discuss it with us."
Westcott, who has announced he will not seek re-election to his District 2 seat, acknowledged there is little the council can do about the planned reorganization aside from bring the mayor's action to the public's attention. He said councilors plan to discuss the changes with Bartlett at their meeting on Thursday, July 7, though he lamented the fact that discussion would take place 11 days after the mayor issued his executive order.
He said the situation typifies Bartlett's approach to governing.
"This is a fundamental style of management that is headstrong, and tolerates no disagreement and no discussion," he said.
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