POSTED ON OCTOBER 22, 2008:
Out With the Old
In with the new. Sally Bell's platform is reality-based for the new economy. The Karen Keith/Randi Miller approach is part of the problem, not the solution to responsible government
I've known for almost three years that I wanted someone new to represent me on the Tulsa County Commission. In fact, I wanted a clean slate. Even before their foolish decision to evict Bell's Amusement Park (the biggest source of rent revenue there) from Expo Square, even before Big Splash's rent check was stuck in an Expo Square drawer, I had seen enough smelly insider deals to want all three commissioners replaced.
Specifically pertaining to my commissioner, Randi Miller, I'd had enough of her weak-willed capitulation to the good ol' boy network. I wanted a county commissioner smart enough to know a bad deal when she smelled it and with enough strength of character, enough backbone, to do something about it.
It took a while for a challenger to emerge. When I first heard back in the spring that a Bell -- as in Bell's Amusement Park -- was looking at the race, I was skeptical. The Bell family had a valid grievance about their hasty displacement from what had been their place of business for over half a century, but that wasn't sufficient reason to elect one of them to the body that had given them the boot.
Meeting Sally Bell in person changed my thinking. Bell was soft-spoken but direct and professional in her appearance and conversation. She was conversant on many aspects of county government, but she was also bright enough to know what she didn't know and the right questions to ask to get the information she needed.
It also became apparent that her views on county government weren't a disjointed collection of positions on individual issues, nor were they shaped by a personal sense of grievance, but her platform was grounded and unified in a solid foundation of principle.
Sally Bell believes in limited government, that each level of government has its proper role and responsibilities, which it should perform as efficiently as possible, placing as small a burden as possible on the taxpayers. It's a refreshing perspective in an age where almost every elected official, regardless of party, seems to seek to increase the power of their office rather than the best interests of the citizens.
I came away from that meeting convinced that Sally Bell would be a great county commissioner but still wondering whether she had what it would take to beat an incumbent. Outspent three to one by the incumbent, Bell had (and still has) the support of an army of young volunteers canvassing the district, knocking on doors and talking to voters. These twentysomethings share her passion for liberty and limited government.
When all the votes were counted, Bell had turned the one-to-three funding disadvantage into a four-to-one margin of victory, winning 81 percent of the Republican primary vote. Even the most scandal-ridden incumbent doesn't lose by that kind of margin unless the challenger has made a connection with the voters and demonstrated her credibility.
Although Randi Miller is gone, her philosophy of county government is still in the race. The Karen Keith platform is nothing more than the Randi Miller approach to county government with a more appealing façade.
At last week's Downtown Kiwanis Club/KRMG debate, Bell's calm eloquence on the issues contrasted sharply with Keith's awkward attacks on Bell's business record.
Keith reused the very same attack talking points against Bell that Randi Miller had used during the primary campaign, oddly mixing them with a weepy sentimentality about the loss of the roller coaster that she had no doubt planned to deploy had she been debating Miller instead.
In an era when scores of family-owned amusement parks close for good each year and even corporate-owned theme parks are struggling, the Bell family kept their park going, entertaining Tulsans and generating revenue for Expo Square.
After a protracted legal battle over a new roller coaster, after a devastating microburst that destroyed their ferris wheel, after the adverse impact of construction on State Fair foot traffic and revenue on the western end of the Fairgrounds, they remained open, and at the end of the 2006 season, with financing lined up for a new ride and approval at long last to build a new roller coaster, Bell's Amusement Park was poised for a resurgence and to continue as the Fairgrounds' top rent-payer.
As the park's president, Robby Bell (Sally's son) has said time and again, the park needed a "half-million dollar dip in paint." The old mini-golf area on the south edge of the park was closed because it was generating more cost than revenue, and it was the site for the planned new roller coaster, approved as part of the settlement with the neighborhood.
With Sally Bell as the park's chief financial officer, Bell's Amusement Park stayed open when many other parks were shutting their gates. The blame for Bell's demise rests completely at the feet of the Fair Board.
All that is apparent to anyone who doesn't have an axe to grind against the Bell family, to anyone who isn't desperate to keep Sally Bell's limited government philosophy out of county government.
The debate also revealed that Bell is ready to deal with the realities of 2008, while Keith is still living in 2003.
Bell's platform is specific and focused: offering open and accessible county government ("no special deals, no meetings without public discussion or scrutiny"), reducing waste and mismanagement throughout county government, prioritizing spending on basic county infrastructure (roads and bridges) and public safety (the Sheriff's Office).
The daily paper has tried to paint Bell as "dangerous" but the only danger she poses is to special interests who are accustomed to manipulating the County Commission for their economic benefit.
At a time of economic uncertainty, Bell understands that Tulsa County needs to focus on the basics, not the frills. This is not the time to undertake another program of taxing, borrowing and spending.
Keith's yard signs proclaim a slogan of "Vision, Experience, and Integrity." Keith's sole claim to county government experience is her service as a spokesperson for the 2003 Vision 2025 sales tax campaign.
Keith's vision for county government appears to be repeating Vision 2025---putting another county sales tax for amenities (not necessities) before the voters.
Whether you loved or loathed the Vision 2025 sales tax, it was a one-off. Keith and her midtown money belt allies appear to think it was a foolproof recipe for passing funding packages, but as we saw last October, in the failed attempt to pass a countywide sales tax for river projects, its time has come and gone.
Demographics and the need to refocus on basic infrastructure make it unlikely that Tulsa County's municipalities will ever again cooperate to promote a countywide sales tax.
Broken Arrow, the county's second-largest city and fourth largest in the state, is experiencing much of its growth and its greatest demand for new infrastructure on the Wagoner County side of the city. The same sort of thing is happening in Owasso, one of the fastest growing municipalities in Oklahoma--it's been growing rapidly into Rogers County.
Neither city is likely to want to yield taxing capacity to one of their two county governments when they need that source of revenue to buy police cars, widen arterial streets, and build new firehouses to support a growing population.
Likewise, the county's largest city, Tulsa, is seeking to pre-empt Tulsa County's renewal of its "Four to Fix" tax, repurposing the revenue stream on roads without raising the overall sales tax rate.
For the same reasons, Karen Keith's idea of having the county government act as some sort of metropolitan government service provider isn't likely to get off the ground. Too much of the metro area is now outside the county, and Oklahoma's one-size-fits-all form of county government doesn't have the flexibility that, say, an inter-municipal compact would have.
Sally Bell understands that the county sales tax era is drawing to a close. It's time for county government to refocus on basic infrastructure and public safety within its existing revenue streams. Karen Keith doesn't seem to get that.
As to integrity, some of Karen Keith's campaign decisions undercut her promises of transparency and accountability in government. She is quite proud of her endorsement by former County Commissioner Bob Dick, and for some time a snapshot of Keith and Dick next to Dick's laudatory comments headlined the endorsements page on her website. Under Dick's leadership, the County Commission was known for cozy, insider deals involving massive contracts, issued without competitive bidding to friends and contributors. (See my column, "How Good an Ol' Boy Are You?" in the October 20-26, 2006 issue of UTW for all the details.)
Dick's way of doing business didn't serve the taxpayers' best interest. With Randi Miller's primary defeat, the last remnants of Bob Dick's machine have been swept away. Either Karen Keith doesn't understand how bad Bob Dick was for county taxpayers or else she's hoping to bring it back.
Keith's decision to hire Jim Burdge as her campaign consultant further undercuts her squeaky-clean image. Burdge is renowned in political circles for his slimy, underhanded, and often clumsy attacks on his clients' opponents. As the consultant of choice to the development industry lobby, Burdge led the disastrous 2005 recall campaign against Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock and the even more disastrous opposition to the recall petition charter amendment.
Keith's selection of Burdge, like her enthusiastic embrace of Bob Dick's endorsement, doesn't speak well of her judgment.
The prospect of a Sally Bell victory evidently has the good ol' boys rattled. The daily paper's editorial board has blasted her with harsher language than I've ever seen it use for Mahmoud Ahmedinijad or Osama bin Laden.
Last week they condemned her for her long association with the John Birch Society, a group that arose in opposition to the expansion of Communism abroad and the expansion of invasive government at home.
I'm not a fan of the John Birch Society. I wouldn't want a Bircher to run America's foreign policy. But I can't quarrel with their principle of keeping government within its constitutional limits.
The fact that Bell has been involved in the JBS for many years assures me that her talk of limited government is not a mere slogan but a core conviction.
The daily paper's attempt to equate the John Birch Society with the Ku Klux Klan was reprehensible. I've never known a JBS member to be involved in violence or intimidation. They might bore you to death with a dissertation on the evils of fiat money, but they aren't going to bomb your church or burn a cross on your lawn.
Far from being out of the mainstream, Bell has been endorsed by Sen. Jim Inhofe, U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, County Assessor Ken Yazel, City Councilor John Eagleton, and numerous state legislators including State Senators Brian Crain, Randy Brodgdon, and Mike Mazzei, State Sen.-elect Gary Stanislawski.
Tulsa County needs a strong advocate for the taxpayers on the county commission, someone who will keep county government within its bounds and focused on its basic responsibilities, not someone who wants to bring back Bob Dick-style empire-building.
Sally Bell has the character and experience we need to keep county government on track and serving the taxpayers. Bell is clearly the best choice for District 2 County Commissioner.
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