A destructive proposition will be on the ballot this November. The proposed change whacks leadership dynamics at Tulsa City Hall at a time when imaginative helmsman-ship is paramount.
Leaders help societies focus, mobilize talent and crystallize strategies for moving ahead -- they push for deciding what to do, how quickly to do it and how to "stick out" in a hyper-competitive environment. In Tulsa, we have a gut-wrenching array of challenges -- big stuff that will determine whether we are among the fab spots people rave about ten years hence or fizz out as a bland, "me too" place.
The City Council's "Reform" Effort
Tulsa's City Council has sway over dozens of mayoral appointments and approval rights over a half-a-billion-dollar plus budget. You'd think they would be confident in their role, but the "feeble" power of the council apparently bugs most current members. Tired of its long battle with Mayor Dewey Bartlett the council approved a charter amendment this past week, which if sanctioned by voters, would upend City Hall. The Council has conjured a weird, feckless beast -- an extreme council/pathetic mayor monstrosity. And, interestingly, one where council members almost double their compensation to $34,000 a year while lopping over $40,000 from the mayor's current salary. The new proposal replaces what we have now -- an elected "strong" mayor/chief executive with a city hall "czar": an unelected, super-manager who will be a complete cipher to Tulsa voters. The new city manager would report to the council and would oversee almost every aspect of city operations: all $650+ million's worth including law services, auditing, water and waste operations, street crews and billions of dollars of capital programs. The altered structure also calls for an elected, but now enfeebled mayor who would basically cut ribbons, kiss babies and wave to crowds.
Part of the organizational psych lit asserts that while leadership can spring from a small team, as opposed to an individual, it rarely emerges from an often-fractured assembly like the Tulsa Council.
And it's problematic as hell, to imagine it coming from an appointed person -- probably an outsider -- selected via a risk aversive, conformity packed process. Although generalizations are tricky, statistically "city managers towns" tend to be smaller, more homogenous, less challenged places -- places without much economic, social, racial or political diversity. A much touted exception is Oklahoma City -- but it is sui generis -- a town festooned with huge military and federal installations, our state capitol and a bevy of state agencies. OKC is also the emerging locus, via Chesapeake Energy, of an apparent revolution in natural gas. Assuming that OKC's current good fortune has anything to do with its city manager governance, as several of the most prominent Tulsa "manager" advocates do with annoying frequency -- is ludicrous. OKC has had a city manager system for decades: including long stints when people saw it as "dumpsville" and Tulsa as the golden spot.
The Efficiency Mantra and The Reality
The "manager project" advocates argue that we need more "efficiency" at City Hall: the fact that a Tulsa Mayor can hire a small cadre of talented managerial folks, at any time, seems to have escaped their notice. Simply "running the trains on time" at City Hall is something we should expect and demand. But there is another narrative that goes to council intent: having more power -- getting to call the tune -- all the tunes: seems to be at the core of the council's demand for a handpicked czar. But I'll bet that Tulsans, having grown accustomed to picking our chief executive/mayor directly, will not be happy allowing ten council members to do so -- something 66,000 folks had a hand in doing two years ago.
Tulsa's Actual Challenges -- A Partial List
Making progress in Tulsa requires top-flight political skills, lots of imagination, coalition building savvy and communications moxie. We don't often get this full skill set in elected mayors in Tulsa -- but it seems highly unlikely that we will get it via a risk aversive, "round up the usual suspects," city manager hiring. And it won't come via consensus-obsessed city council stewardship either. We continue to need a real, fully empowered, elected mayor because we have a lot of hard work to do, including:
• Crafting stellar strategies for fully animating Tulsa's economy -- repositioning the great entrepreneurial culture that made us vital and consequential during the oil boom;
• Rethinking city hall finances and our problematic reliance on sales taxes;
• Executing our new comprehensive physical plan----a touchstone for a much greener, agile, equitable, and better connected Tulsa;
• Constraining the explosive growth of public safety outlays at City Hall; we need great cops and a top flight fire suppression crew but we can't continue to impoverish other city workers and just about every municipal city service to do so;
• Doing the reconciliation needed to quash the racial, social and physical developmental dysfunctions spawned by the race riot of '21----and finding a path for fully embracing our growing Hispanic community; folks that can further energize our economy and deeply enrich our culture and politics;
• Pushing the strategies needed to create the "open culture" that developmental economist Richard Florida calls key to nurturing high yield start-up companies and the iconoclastic folks who build them; This is essential to keeping bright Tulsa kids here and seizing the high frontier economically.
Elected Leadership Works
Vivid, combative elected leaders -- mayors with spark and verve -- have been a T-town hallmark for a while now. Like 'em or hate 'em -- recall former Mayor's Inhofe, Young, Randle, Savage, and Taylor; should we abandon this useful tradition because we've had a raucous season or two at City Hall? Do we really want to descend, via the council's artless city manager parley, into the gray goo of "managerialism"?
The last 20+ months have been a bad time -- a period punctuated by alarming national economic reversals and a collateral revenue shortfall at City Hall. And there has been lots of stupendously bad Mayor/Council chemistry, tons of pointless theatrics and an almost total communications breakdown -- all stuff that has hobbled Tulsa. But destroying our capacity to elect a clearly accountable chief executive is astonishingly shortsighted and doing so is counterproductive given our actual challenges. And, proposing fundamental changes to local government without a deep, wide-ranging debate and a vigorous appraisal of all our options is a gross violation of public trust.
There is another thing: the political science literature suggests that voter turnout -- especially modest income voter participation -- is appreciably lower in city manager towns than in strong mayor communities. Intuitively this makes sense----why waste effort in city elections, time-pressed voters might ask, when puppet masters call the tune in a city manager system?
Reject The Horse With No Head
Adopting a governing arrangement that "hot" cities abandoned years ago, seems retrograde, even primitive: the council should be about expanding the scope of local democracy, not choking it by crafting an opaque system used mostly in tranquil, backwater towns.
The "manager" project is a hugely anti-democratic notion and a shocking betrayal of Tulsans who have long worked to bring full-bodied neighborhood representation and direct governance to Tulsa -- the whole effort is repellant and should be rejected by the voters.
Next week, I'll look at the other gonzo "reform" effort ("Save Our Tulsa") that will be on the ballot in November.
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