For the first 80 years Tulsa was a city, ours was a commission form of city government. We had four city commissioners, an auditor, and a mayor all elected citywide. During that time, we elected men, women, whites, and African-Americans to these citywide offices: mayor, streets and public property commissioner, police and fire commissioner, water and sewer commissioner, and finance and revenue commissioner. White people voted for African-American candidates, and African-Americans voted for white candidates.
Every voter in every part of Tulsa got to vote for every city office-holder. Every candidate had to campaign everywhere in Tulsa. There were no districts, no political wards, no separate elections, and no separate constituents. We successfully passed bond issues, sales tax issues, capital improvement plans, highway plans, and countless other good pieces of legislation. If ever there was a period of time that we were "One Tulsa," that was it.
It was a good government that served its citizens well. Professional men and women ran for office. Citizens knew clearly which elected official was responsible for what. It only took five people to make the decisions nine make today. And the decisions aren't as good today as they were then.
But that form of government wasn't good enough for some. Even with all Tulsa had done right, some said they felt left out. They were not close enough to their government, nor was their government close enough to them. Something had to change, and they moved forward to accomplish that end.
With threats of civil rights and voting rights lawsuits, some in the city felt compelled to change the form of government in the late 1980s. What they wanted to do -- and were successful in doing -- was to convince our citizens that breaking Tulsa into nine pieces would be a good thing. That somehow dividing our city into nine separate districts would unite us and equalize us.
With only the mayor and the nonvoting city auditor being elected city-wide, no one on the newly created city council had the interest of the city as a whole at heart, because no one was elected citywide. Some who promoted this change in government and were elected to serve talked about being able to see the "bigger picture," but most citizens saw those speeches for the empty rhetoric they were. From that point forward, we were nine Tulsas.
First and foremost, the priority and preference of the councilor had to be the piece of the city he or she represented, not the whole to which the piece belonged.
The days of one Tulsa were over. In its place was supposed to be a more representative government. That's what those who pushed for the change wanted. To break Tulsa into pieces. Somewhat like the United States, except for the fact that it's 50 separate states all operating independently under the umbrella of the federal government.
History has now proven that putting Humpty Dumpty back together again will always be a struggle. Agreeing on just what is one Tulsa will forever be difficult to define and the source of constant bickering between the city council and the mayor and, at times, between the councilors themselves.
Fast forward 20-plus years, and now look at those who are standing up today at city council meetings or at press conferences saying we must have "One Tulsa." Some of these same people were advocates for busting up One Tulsa into Nine Tulsas. Be careful for what you wish for.
The recent unnecessary controversy over the renaming of a street has brought this topic all back to light. Instead of talking about fixing the street, the city council has been debating the renaming of a street. What a strange twist of priorities. They are more interested in the street sign than the street itself.
As the council debated the issue, more than one councilor remarked that while they personally understood the issue and were sympathetic with those concerned about it, the citizens in the district which they represent are dead set against any change to the name of the street, so that's how they were going to vote. Back in the commission days, you never heard the street commissioner or police commissioner say he needed to check with his constituents before voting, because everyone of those elected officials represented all of Tulsa.
There are ways we can be One Tulsa. Pulling together for a city-wide capital improvements plan is one, provided each councilor and each district is assured they will get some project in the plan. Getting behind a jobs creation and economic development program is another. We need to look for those things that cut across city council district lines as if they aren't there in order to bring back that One Tulsa feeling.
Being One Tulsa means being a seamless city. Building a seamless city means you can go from one part to another and feel safe, you see businesses developing, and you see good parks and streets and neighborhood beautification. All parts of the city are not the same, and that will always be true. But a seamless city is an attitude that we are all in it together. It means we don't pit one area against another, but work toward advancing the entire city by addressing the needs of the parts.
I conducted an informal poll on this topic. I asked one simple question: "Do you feel having a city council has been positive for our city government?"
The response I received most was, "You're kidding, right?" I received a number of eye-rolls, most while heads were shaking back and forth. I got a number of responses that are inappropriate to print. But my favorite was not an answer but, rather, a question. One of those "polled" asked, "Comic relief?"
Maybe the 20-plus-year city council form of government experiment has run its course, and it's time to go back to the commission form. We really can't point to any great achievements under the council form that we wouldn't have had under the commission form. But we can point to bickering, confusion and little being accomplished under the current form of government. And those lawsuit threats that prompted the change in the first place? From other cities experience, the threats were only that. Nothing ever came of them.
So, maybe it is time to go back to the future.
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