POSTED ON APRIL 15, 2009:
You Make the Call
Questions of judgment swirl as City Council and Mayor spar over vacant seat on Ethics Advisory Committee
Last Tuesday, April 7, the City of Tulsa's Ethics Advisory Committee (EAC) unanimously exonerated one of its members in an anonymous complaint brought forward by the City Attorney. The case has the appearance of a clumsy attempt by the executive branch of government to abuse the ethics advisory process as leverage in a struggle with the legislative branch.
The gist of the complaint was that Michael Slankard should have not been involved in the EAC's examination of District 3 Councilor David Patrick's flight from eastern Colorado to Tulsa on Mayor Kathy Taylor's Lear 31A jet last July, because Slankard, a District 3 resident, ran for the same council seat in the past and, according to city attorney Deirdre Dexter's letter to the EAC, "apparently continues to support former Councilor Roscoe Turner," who was defeated by Patrick in 2008 and plans to run against him in 2009.
The EAC unanimously found that Slankard committed no violation of the Ethics Code, that a political association predating his service on the EAC did not constitute a personal interest as defined by the City's Ethics Code, and thus he had no duty to recuse himself in Patrick's case. The EAC's opinion notes a report that Patrick had no quarrel with Slankard's involvement in his case.
(Slankard did not participate in his own case, except to present his defense to the remaining committee members.)
The timing of the accusation against Slankard is curious, coming as it does more than six months after the alleged offense and in the midst of a tug-of-war between Taylor, who wants Slankard off the EAC, and a majority of City Councilors who want Slankard to remain.
By way of disclosure: I did some computer work for Slankard when he was the Republican nominee for City Council District 3 in 2000. In 2002, he was a key volunteer for my campaign for City Council District 4 in 2002. Until I spoke to him for this story, we hadn't been in contact for a year or so.
Here's the timeline in Slankard's case:
Back in July 2008, Mayor Kathy Taylor wanted quick approval from the City Council on an assessment district to fund $25 million toward construction of a new downtown ballpark for the Tulsa Drillers. A few councilors announced their desire to delay the vote, and there was a chance that Taylor would not have enough votes to get the assessment approved before the exclusive negotiating period with the Drillers expired.
District 3 Councilor David Patrick was on vacation, working on a family ranch in eastern Colorado. Taylor offered to get him back to Tulsa in time for the vote and sent her personal Lear 31A jet, N227KT, to Kit Carson Airport to fetch him. Riding along on the trip was Stacy Kymes, a Bank of Oklahoma executive who had, according to one account, been involved in the downtown stadium deal.
Patrick was back just in time for the July 10 vote, although in the end his vote wasn't essential for passage and the negotiation deadline was extended by a month.
To many observers, the plane ride gave the appearance of offering a thing of value in exchange for Patrick's vote. The Taylor administration responded to the controversy by saying that they had consulted ahead of time with the State Ethics Commission (which has no jurisdiction over municipal officers) and with former State Election Board secretary Lee Slater. It's my understanding that the Taylor Administration did not consult with the EAC, the body assigned by city ordinance with advising city officials regarding ethics.
There was a considerable amount of public discussion regarding the ethics of Patrick's ride on Mayor Force One. In his written response to the complaint filed against him, Slankard wrote that he asked EAC Chairman Roger Scott to put the matter on the committee's August 5 agenda, citing EAC rules that allow the committee to take up a question on its own initiative.
Slankard wrote, "In my request, I wrote Mr. Scott that I had no issue with the Mayor, Councilor Patrick or the ballpark, only whether Section 605 A of the ordinance had been violated." Section 605 A deals with gifts or favors which "may influence or be reasonably perceived as influencing a City official in the performance of their official duties."
The EAC discussed the issue in August and decided as a body to call a special meeting for September 16, 2008, to hear the matter. At the September meeting, the EAC unanimously voted that no violation had occurred; Slankard seconded the motion that exonerated Taylor and Patrick.
Near the end of 2008, Slankard's term on the EAC was about to expire, and, according to Slankard, Chairman Scott urged him to stay on. In December, Slankard sent a letter to Mayor Taylor expressing interest in reappointment. On Jan. 6, 2009, he received a reply from Taylor stating that he would not be reappointed. Scott subsequently wrote Taylor urging her to reconsider.
Slankard said that about two weeks later, an aide to the Mayor offered him appointment to the Building, Housing, and Fire Prevention Appeals Board. He declined, citing the potential for conflicts of interest with hearing appeals from firms with which his plastering company has done business over the last quarter century.
The Appeals Board post might have been very helpful for Slankard's business. He could have recused himself as required where a strict conflict of interest existed, but used his position to set precedents on other cases that would have been indirectly helpful to the contractors that hire his company. Slankard rightly recognized the broader ethical dilemma and did not allow his name to go forward.
Slankard expected to be replaced quickly on the EAC by a new mayoral appointee, but on Feb. 24, Taylor's choice of a replacement, Sandra Rodolf, was put on the council committee agenda then pulled and rescheduled.
The following week, March 3, Rodolf appeared before the committee, there was some discussion, and Councilor Jack Henderson requested a continuation to the first week in April.
In the meantime, without a replacement, Slankard continued to serve on the EAC, bemusedly watching the conflict between Mayor and Council from the sidelines. Through the grapevine he heard that a majority of the councilors wanted him to stay on and were determined to block Taylor's choice of a replacement.
What I've heard, through the grapevine, is that the councilors who support Slankard appreciate his independence and integrity.
On March 27, Dexter sent a "request for ethics opinion" to the EAC chairman on City legal department letterhead, asking whether Slankard violated the code of ethics and whether such violation merited removal from office.
There is a telling statement in Dexter's "request": "The citizen in question has requested anonymity, stating fear of retribution from City Councilors, based on comments made by some of the Councilors during Ms. Rodolf's appearance before the Council."
So the anonymous complainant wasn't bothered enough to complain in August when the EAC considered Slankard's request to take up Patrick's flight on Mayor Force One. The complainant wasn't bothered enough to complain in September when the EAC heard the case and Slankard and the committee voted unanimously that the airplane ride did not constitute a violation.
Dexter's statement places the anonymous complaint after the March 3 hearing in which councilors had objected to Taylor's intent to replace Slankard. That gives the appearance of an attempt to embarrass councilors into dropping their support for Slankard.
The anonymity of the complaint appears to have worried the ethics commissioners. A footnote in the opinion states, "Although the Committee proceeded in this matter, it has been its policy to not act upon anonymous requests. In this case the anonymous Tulsa citizen is the real party in interest, notwithstanding the City Attorney is sponsoring the request. Anonymous requests fail to meet the requirements of EAC Procedures for Advisory Opinions, Rule No. 2, adopted January 24, 2006."
Taylor has publicly denied involvement in the complaint against Slankard, but there is reason to be concerned that a mayor could use the situation as political leverage.
Note that I said "a mayor." I need to be careful here. If I refer to the current mayor in my hypothetical scenario, her keyboard commandos online will recycle the same old accusations of sexism, partisanship, negativism, heightism, hair color bias, and Learjet envy that are spun at anyone who suggests a problem with her administration.
So let's take it as read that Mayor Kathy Taylor can do no wrong, and if there is anything amiss on a city board or commission, she didn't know about it, they acted independently, without her knowledge, and it's not her fault.
Instead, let's suppose that at some point in the far distant future Mayor Michael Bates is getting frustrated that he can't get Council approval for his appointment to replace a respected commission member. Bates doesn't want to take the political heat for attacking the incumbent commissioner or launching a PR offensive against the council, so he has his City Attorney, an at-will employee, announce an anonymous ethics complaint against the commissioner dealing with a matter that's half a year old.
The idea is to embarrass the Council into submission, to raise the question in the minds of voters, "Why are councilors backing an ethically-challenged commissioner?"
If I were to do something like that, it would backfire on me, and rightly so.
The City of Tulsa Ethics Advisory Commission ought to be a point of pride for Tulsa citizens. It was launched as a result of efforts by the notorious Gang of Four--Turner, with Councilor Jack Henderson, and former Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock, to pass a clear, strict ethics ordinance.
The ordinance dictates that the EAC's role is purely advisory. Under Roger Scott's leadership, the initial committee members have worked to establish the committee's independence and credibility, setting strict rules for the kinds of cases that they can hear and the way in which sensitive information is handled.
The EAC did the right thing in rejecting mere political alignment as a rationale for recusal. That sort of loose association, subject to sudden change with the political winds, does not constitute a financial, personal, or organizational interest. Slankard did not stand to benefit in any way--except to the extent that every Tulsan would benefit--should Turner return to the Council.
Slankard is a credit to the EAC, and the Council is right to want him to stay in place. Mayor Taylor should reappoint him to the EAC, and in the meantime, she should direct her City Attorney to desist from forwarding anonymous ethics complaints that have even the hint of an appearance of political manipulation.
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