A pilot since high school, Bill Christiansen knows the drill anytime there's a plane crash.
"I guess it's a slow news day, because the TV stations are out here in force," he said wryly. Earlier that morning, news had broken that a single-engine plane crash in Texas had killed a 64-year-old Broken Arrow man.
Christiansen's aircraft leasing and flight instruction business has been located at R.L. Jones Riverside Airport for 40 years. His connection to the plane crash was incidental and purely business -- the pilot had been a fuel customer -- but still enough to garner some attention from news reporters.
With an air of practiced ease, Christiansen briefly broke away from an interview scheduled days earlier to dispatch some instructions over the phone on how to best deal with a pushy reporter.
"When one person gets killed on an airplane, it's a big major story. But you know, you can get six people killed on the highway and it's ..." he said, voice trailing off, the implication obvious. "I'm not complaining about it. It is what it is."
Now 64, Christiansen retains a youthful, upbeat demeanor that makes it hard to imagine him complaining about much. He described with enthusiasm his idea in response to a recent radio show debate on the best brand for Tulsa, double-checking on his phone the exact wording of a text he sent to the show's host: "A great place to live, work, and play," he beamed.
He's hoping that voters choose him for the city's highest office. He is the only candidate thus far to declare for the 2013 election, though the filing deadline remains months away.
Along with this enthusiasm, Christiansen brings 10 years of experience serving on the Tulsa City Council. He represented a south Tulsa district before choosing not to seek reelection last year -- though he's kept his eyes on city government.
"I think that the new comprehensive plan has been neglected, and I think that there were citizens that participated in the PlaniTulsa program that ended up creating the new comprehensive plan, and it just seems as though in the last two to two-and-half to three years, it's been put on the backburner," Christiansen said to a questions about any concerns he's had with city government. The result, along with what he called a delay in hiring a full-time planning director, has been that "we have no real change yet," he said.
He told a story about visiting a man's home and hearing about how a curb-to-curb city street repair project had unfolded.
"He had his driveway and his approach to his driveway done twice, and it still wasn't right and he was waiting for them to redo it again," Christiansen said, emphasizing the need to be vigilant against city waste. "To me that kind of spending is totally unnecessary."
Christiansen ran as a Republican in previous City Council races, and his concerns about spending sound similar to other voices in that party.
In the wake of the failed Vision2 proposal, which would have extended a voter-enacted sales tax hike to fund various projects, "I guess the challenge to me is, if you look at the really big picture, I think the challenge immediately is to regain the confidence in the citizens of Tulsa that money that they give to the city in the form of taxes is being handled properly," Christiansen said.
The "next immediate, big issue" facing Tulsa is the plan for a new Fix Our Streets package to be put before voters. The current tax package expires in 2014.
The emphasis must remain on street repairs with the package, Christiansen said.
"I think I've heard that they may try to attach some different things to the next Fix Our Streets package, and I say that's walking on thin ice with the citizens, because I know that the citizens want their streets fixed," he said. He said that when the package was first passed, he understood that the city needed a series of five such packages to truly return the streets to proper pavement conditions.
The mayoral race will no longer involve political parties after a voter-approved switch to non-partisan city elections -- a move Christiansen cited as a positive change.
"I would hope that it would enfranchise more citizens of Tulsa to get involved, to learn all the issues and to take a positive step to participate in the process," he said.
Bill Leighty: Mr. Transportation?
No one expects Bill Leighty to remain silent during planning commission meetings. His passion runs too deep.
The real estate professional in recent years has volunteered considerable time to serve on governmental advisory boards, including the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission and the Transportation Advisory Board.
He's been a vocal advocate of the city's comprehensive plan, an approach to development that Leighty, 67, likes to stress was developed with a great deal of public input.
"Thousands of Tulsans participated in that process," Leighty said. "They identified and asked for a completely different type of approach than what we have known in the past."
The city's PlaniTulsa plan, adopted in 2010, calls for new development balanced with community features like bike paths and more public transportation.
"This mayor [Dewey Bartlett] had a huge opportunity to really go in a new direction ... and it just hasn't happened, and I think people feel very disappointed by that," Leighty said. "They feel abandoned. I believe they feel neglected."
Short-term, Leighty said the city faces an "enormous" fiscal challenge to find ways to fund infrastructure improvements.
"We have very finite resources to meet growing needs," Leighty said, putting the price tag for the city's unfunded capital improvement wish list at more than $7 billion.
"What I advocate for is trying to give voters and citizens the big picture," Leighty said. When faced with such challenges, he said the city should consider a needs assessment study that would look decades into the future to best prioritize projects.
Leighty was perhaps the first public critic of the Vision2 sales tax extension ultimately rejected by voters. A lack of ties to the city's comprehensive plan fueled Leighty's criticism of that plan.
"We need a little bit more open and transparent process this time around," Leighty said, referring to any upcoming Fix Our Streets proposal or other tax plan.
He suggested that spending be tied to plans outlining the city's future development. Street and road fixes, along with growing public safety expenses, have proven to be costly budget increases -- in Tulsa and elsewhere, he said.
"Communities are looking at ways to try to reverse the growth in those things by investing in smart growth policies that have a chance of a more sustainable return on investment," Leighty said.
One goal is a better transit system for Tulsa, which he described in economic terms, noting that the cost of owning a car is roughly $10,000. He said that if public transit can meet a family's daily needs, then perhaps that money could be spent on other needs, like education.
Courtesy of Bill Leighty
Planning staff deserve a larger role in hammering out things like capital improvement packages, he said, questioning the ability of finance-types to comprehend the true needs of a city.
"You know, the term economic development has been bandied about by a lot of people, and ... [it] has really morphed into something that I don't think was the original intent," Leighty said. "The original intent of economic development really was as a policy intervention which aims to improve the economic and social well-being of people, and it should be more about social justice and social equity than it is about corporate giveaways and incentives."
He pointed to efforts to spur downtown revitalization as successful spending of public funds.
"Those public dollars have generated an enormous amount of private development. But, in my view, we've only begun to skim the surface of the potential," he said, referencing a trend he said is much larger than Tulsa.
"There's an attraction for urban living and lifestyles by people who, you know, are kind of turning their back on the auto-centric type of development that we've had in the past," Leighty said.
That's not a knock on the growth of single-family homes that have fueled Tulsa's growth in decades past, he said. But, for Leighty, the notable trend departs from that type of development.
"The suburban growth has been at the expense of downtown. And now we're seeing a reversal of that trend, and people are looking for housing downtown, and we have a limited amount of choices when it comes to ownership ... Those are things we've identified in the comprehensive plan. We want to aspire to increase the number of rooftops, to increase the population density in the core of the city, including the neighborhoods that surround downtown," Leighty said.
The plans drafted with help of the public may not have a bigger advocate than Leighty. But he is also vocal about changes to the planning process -- particularly the planning commission -- that, in his view, would strengthen the city.
"We have people who live in Collinsville and Sand Springs who are voting on key zoning changes in the Pearl District? How much sense does that really make?" Leighty asked, his voice rising slightly. The 11-member planning commission includes three representatives appointed from Tulsa County, as well as six city appointments (along with designees from the Tulsa mayor and the county commission).
"As one person said to me, this model that we're using ... is an outdated model, and it's like trying to drive your car from the backseat. It doesn't make any sense," Leighty said.
And if it doesn't make sense to him, Leighty isn't likely to remain silent.
"Because of the political ramifications of that, it's been ignored, basically. There's been no part of anybody in elected office saying anything about this, and I'm saying something about it. It needs to change."
Kathy Taylor: The Comeback Kid?
Near the end of her term as Tulsa's mayor, Kathy Taylor -- to the surprise of many -- announced she would not seek reelection.
Instead, Taylor served as an education advisor to then-Gov. Brad Henry. Her perspective on the city no doubt reflects both experiences.
"Crime and having a good tax base to get our streets fixed all relates to having -- and retaining, attracting and developing the companies that will provide good jobs -- all relates to the education of our workforce," Taylor said. "That's the baseline issue."
Her work now has involved focusing resources from the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation in part on education.
She still has eyes -- and ideas -- on the city as a whole, and what would make it better.
"It's one thing to say you're satisfied or not with the trash service or the streets, the water, those are all bread and butter issues for a city that are baselines," said Taylor, 57. "But the cities that pop out ... make decisions today that will keep them competitive, that will get their workforce educated, attract and retain the innovators of tomorrow, have a vision for where they see their city's character or personality."
There's been talk of branding for Tulsa, and Taylor said once the city does a bit of thinking on the subject, maybe it can be discussed in such terms.
"But it's really, who do we want to be? ... Are we a city that is welcoming and lifts up people from all over our country or state or world? Are we a city who prioritizes what I believe to be the single most important issue, not only in Tulsa, but the competitive issue in the world, and that is educating our young people?"
To move forward, Taylor offered a suggestion.
"It's time to go back to the grassroots and hear the voices at the broadest table possible as to who we want to be and then have leadership to implement those voices," Taylor said.
But asked about any negative trends she's observed in Tulsa, Taylor brought up the rancor now associated with elections.
"What I see trending in the wrong direction is nothing different locally than what we saw nationally, and that is just the pure partisan nastiness of politics," Taylor said.
While the city has shifted to non-partisan elections, Taylor said many young people she's spoken with have a negative attitude about running for office.
"They say my time is better spent working at the food bank," Taylor said, wondering aloud how the next generation of Tulsa leaders will emerge. "To remain personality and partisan-driven, we are going to miss out on an incredible amount of leadership that this city needs for tomorrow."
She praised the downtown revitalization efforts as a strong, positive trend -- and, though she didn't mention it, one that she was directly involved with as mayor.
To improve city government, she said transparency is a must.
"We own that business of government. It's our dollars that are being spent, and making it as transparent and simple as possible for people to understand where their dollars are going and the impact on them is vital," Taylor said.
For all these issues, however, Taylor noted the importance of reaching out to the public.
"Citizen engagement is vital, and that means there needs to be a broad table set. So boards, commissions and authorities need to not be simply represented by people of one political party or view. They need to actually have a healthy dialogue of different views," Taylor said.
Dewey Bartlett: The Job-Gettingest Mayor?
On the 15th floor, Mayor Dewey Bartlett paused to take in the view. Inside city hall, Bartlett's office windows afford a grand perspective of Tulsa from up high.
A vocal proponent of Vision2, the failed effort to extend a sales tax hike, Bartlett spoke about the need to act to solidify the city's uncertain aerospace future which the tax package would have addressed. Aging, World War II-era buildings at Tulsa International Airport's industrial complex house the employers of roughly 15,000 Tulsa workers.
"Issues regarding our facilities at the airport, they have not gone away, even though Vision2 was unsuccessful. And the related multi-thousand employment base at the airport, that is in jeopardy still, in my view," Bartlett said, adding that his office is committed to working on the issue.
His view of the city no doubt references his family history -- his father, Dewey Bartlett, Sr., served as Oklahoma's governor and as a United States senator in the 1960s and 1970s. The family legacy also includes success in oil and gas -- and Bartlett described the city's recent successes in that industry.
"I see continuing, terrific opportunity in the entirety of our energy industry," Bartlett said, asked about any promising trends in Tulsa. "Everything, from any and all companies that are associated with exploration, production, manufacturing, engineering, education, alternative energies ... They are all growing. They are all in a position of continuing to require additional employment," he said, noting that international opportunities also exist for city businesses.
If other industries employ more people, he still points to the energy economy "insofar as the salaries that are paid and the money spent for the equipment, all the different things that are a part of that very complex definition of energy." Bartlett called the energy economy "a huge opportunity for us, still," acknowledging that he could "rattle on for hours" on the topic.
Along with the opportunity, Bartlett identified a challenge in developing a workforce to meet the demands of such employers.
For students who, for whatever reason, aren't pursuing the college path, "we haven't done as good a job, in my view, of encouraging that student to strongly consider a vo-tech opportunity, a technical school opportunity, and providing over a one, two, three, even four-year period of time, another skill set that is very transferable and would also meet the local demands of manufacturing sectors in our economy," Bartlett said.
Along with discussing opportunities, Bartlett spoke about some of the challenges the city has faced. The mayor who took office during the deepest recession in recent memory said unpopular government decisions simply had to be made very quickly.
"A lot of special-interest groups got mad, but we made the decisions, made the changes -- all done without a tax increase, which I am opposed to," said Bartlett, who was elected as a Republican.
In the next breath, he stated what might be the shortest version of his philosophy for handling tough issues faced by the city: "I believed then and still believe now that so many of our problems can be dealt with good management practices and prioritization."
For the city, the next priority issue to appear before voters may be another street-repair tax package, which Bartlett said would appear on a ballot "probably in November 2013."
"We want to see a focus for Fix Our Streets 2, and it will only be projects that will be funded by an extension of our existing funding sources," said Bartlett, who co-chaired the original program.
In his view, the direction for the next package is clear, to not have it "diminished by adding more projects, no matter how well-intended and well-needed they are, it should be purely focused on streets."
Governing a city isn't all about business and fiscal decisions, no matter how important.
He praised the police reaction to the Good Friday shootings.
"The national media was trying to define us as a racist city that was revisiting our race riot past. But ... they saw and experienced our city, and saw that we were not that way and we have dealt with our issues very directly ... that we focus on our city as one Tulsa," Bartlett said, noting how he began his administration by visiting, with his wife, Victoria, dozens of churches throughout the city.
The national perception of Tulsa certainly remains debatable. However, Bartlett emphasized the importance of local efforts, again circling back to his businessman background: "We have focused and continue to focus on economic development and job creation in those parts of our city that heretofore have been economically disadvantaged, ignored ... and we will have success."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bartlett demurred when asked what area of city government needed improvement. "We're always striving to improve, and singling out one particular area, I don't think would be fair. I don't see one that is underperforming miserably," he said.
Bartlett, 65, chose his words carefully -- "I can probably get myself in trouble here," he said -- when asked about any concerning trends that trouble the city.
"The complexity of providing good social services, good education, good opportunities to people who have heretofore not had that opportunity, is very, very difficult," Bartlett said.
Government programs seeking to address these issues "are not coordinated," he said. "Fixing the problem is an extremely complex problem in itself, and finding how to smooth the complexity of that fix is what I see as difficult, and it's going to take a significant amount of coordination and a lot of people, everything from the health care industry to law enforcement to education to public charities, private charities, foundations -- the list could go on endlessly. And that coordination would need to be much less self-centered, much less parochial, and much less political for all this to succeed."
Bartlett famously campaigned on a promise of being the "job-gettingest" mayor the city has ever seen, and -- while diverse and complex factors influence local employment -- the Tulsa metro area has added 14,000 jobs since Dec. 2009, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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