POSTED ON AUGUST 28, 2013:
The Long And Winding Road
City council faces major challenge
Now that the City Council has agreed to ask the citizens of Tulsa to approve the largest capital improvement plan in the city's history, the long and winding road to make that happen begins. Contrary to the representations made by some councilors, the vast majority of Tulsans who may care about this plan and who will vote in November know little to nothing about it and had nothing to say about what's in it.
So let's start with honesty and admit that the biggest challenge ahead for the city council will be both the education and persuasion of the citizens of Tulsa to support everything in this package.
There are parts that will seem easy to sell, like street improvements. Streets don't really need any advocates, though someone does need to explain how in the world it can cost $12 million dollars to widen one single mile of straight road -- specifically, the mile between S. Sheridan Road and S. Memorial Road on E. 81st Street. There are no homes or businesses to relocate, no property to acquire, no hills to level out, no water to traverse, just a single straight mile of moving poles and adding lanes. And it's $12 million dollars? And there is example after example of costs like this in the proposal. As Desi used to say to Lucy, "You got some esplainin' to do."
The council has to be ready to give citizens a concise, understandable explanation as to exactly where this money is going. This is only one example of the details the council should be ready to be questioned on.
It's also going to be important that there is someone on the city council who has a reputation of being a conservative businessman who can sell a nearly $1 billion development plan -- not just the half-billion-dollar street portion, but the other portion that hasn't been fully vetted or explained yet. This half is mostly the quality of life projects.
In this day and age of intelligent, tuned-in citizens, elections like this don't necessarily need an organized "Vote No" campaign to fail. The strongest challenge will come from the citizens themselves and the questions they have about the proposed projects, the costs, and the justification for various projects. To be ready for these citizen challenges, it would be wise for the city councilors to put themselves through some tough "scrimmages" with people who know how to ask the tough questions and challenge the presumptions to make sure they are ready before the campaign season starts. Like a football team, the council had better have had plenty of practice before going on the field for The Big Game.
Councilors have had a glimpse of this already when some interested and informed citizens showed up at the neighborhood meetings. Even the slightest bit of credible challenges had the Council backing off of several items when the citizens successfully questioned why the taxpayers were being asked to pay for something that the private sector or tenants in the public buildings should have to pay for.
Councilors should expect more of that type of scrutiny and questioning from the citizens as the campaign begins this fall. Only now it's too late to take any of the projects off of the ballot. So if the council can't adequately defend or explain why a project should receive public funding, then the public's confidence in the package will begin to erode, and there will be nothing the council can do to stop it.
Now that the council has approved the list of projects and called for the election, we have reached the point of no return. They have to defend the inclusion of every project, leaving no doubt behind, or they will begin to see the tide of public opinion turn against them.
It will be important that the city council not forget the lessons from the most recent defeat of Vision2 last year. Some of those fresh lessons are: if you try to sell too many projects, the public may just tune out all of the messages; over-promising results will always get you trapped; don't believe your own polls because you paid the pollster to give you the results you wanted; endorsements are good, but they are not enough; grass tops fund campaigns, but grassroots win campaigns; predicting doom if the projects fails isn't enough to motivate people to support the project. Trying to scare people into voting the way you want can be really risky. It will most likely anger them.
When the campaign advertising begins, it's important that the supporters remember to run it like a political campaign, not a marketing campaign. These are different types of campaigns that don't use the same field work, messages, images, or approaches. Just showing kids, families, young people, old people, downtown, parks, and sunsets to give voters a warm, fuzzy feeling won't win it.
You can't win a campaign like this with just TV ads and postcards. How many failed campaigns have we all seen where that approach was heavily used? There is too much at stake in this campaign to drag out the same old methods that have a track record of failure. Remember the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over, and hoping for a different result.
The final challenge will fall on the shoulders of each individual city councilor.
It's probably fair to say that 80 percent or better of the people in any particular city council district don't know who their councilor is -- never met them, never needed them, don't really know what they do. So now, this councilor will try to convince the citizens in his or her district to vote for this package.
Even though a majority of citizens know nothing about their city councilor, when there is an election about a tax, people wake up and pay attention. For these people, it still won't matter who their councilor is or what they have to say. Money talks, and voters listen. They will do their own research, talk to their friends and neighbors. And that's good. That's the way it should be.
Get informed. Be sure to vote. And do what's right for Tulsa.
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