POSTED ON AUGUST 25, 2010:
We Can Work It Out
Lost time, fussing and fighting, City Council to vote on whether to mend fences with the mayor -- or not
Appomattox, Revisited. “If Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant can call a cease fire and come together at a house and meet in the midst of the Civil War, I think that the City Council and the mayor can sit down at a table and call a cease fire for a week to try and figure out a way to repair things,” says councilor G.T. Bynum.
One widely overlooked irony to the pitched, months-long battle that has been fought between the City Council and Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. over a number of issues has been the impact the situation has had on relations between the councilors themselves.
A fairly contentious bunch under normal circumstances, the nine members of the council seem to have gotten along swimmingly during the past several months -- perhaps because their attention has, in large part, been focused on their increasingly bitter dealings with the mayor.
In that respect, at least, Bartlett can claim credit for bringing the City Council together like no mayor in Tulsa history.
"Yes, it'd be accurate to say the council's been unified," District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum said earlier this month, noting that while other mayors have had their problems with individual councilors, no mayor in his memory has found himself at odds with the entire group.
That unification will be put to the test on Thursday, Aug. 26, when the council votes on whether to go to mediation with the mayor to resolve its various differences with him. Council Chairman Rick Westcott of District 2 originally planned to call for the vote a week earlier, but announced he was postponing the vote until this week to allow all councilors to be present.
Westcott has acknowledged it will not be easy to get the two sides to iron out their problems, which involve an investigation into whether the mayor and his chief of staff Terry Simonson lied to the council over the use of a federal grant used to rehire laid-off police officers, an ethics complaint the council has forwarded to the city auditor involving the mayor's acceptance of pro bono legal services from an attorney under contract to the city, a defamation lawsuit Bartlett has said he intends to file against the council and the mayor's assertion that the office of council attorney is not authorized by the city charter.
"It's going to be difficult," Westcott said earlier this month. "I think there are a couple of ways it could be salvaged ... but I don't know if each side is willing to make the concessions that are necessary."
As this week's vote loomed, it wasn't clear whether a majority of councilors favored the mediation approach. District 8's Bill Christiansen, perhaps the mayor's sharpest critic on the council, expressed his support for the proposal, but only on limited terms.
"I am going to vote for mediation on some of the issues that the mayor wants to mediate," he said, adding that Westcott had sent a letter to Bartlett asking him to let councilors know what those issues were. "Once we get that (response), we'll decide as a group what we'll mediate."
But Christiansen said some of the things he believes the mayor is interested in resolving through mediation -- namely the investigation into the use of the federal grant and the ethics complaint -- are not on the table.
"I don't know how we as a council have the authority to look the other way and wink at the fact that there may have been misdemeanors committed," he said. "I know I'm only one councilor, but I will not mediate that aspect of this whole thing. I don't think it's our right to say, 'Maybe they did, maybe they didn't.' I don't think we have that authority, nor would I want to do that."
Christiansen said if he were Bartlett or Simonson, he would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate his innocence conclusively in a court of law or whatever setting was deemed proper, rather than having the issue go away because of mediation.
Councilor Jim Mautino of District 6 largely agreed with Christiansen's position, though he indicated he likely would vote against mediation.
"If you really look at the issues, what are we going to mediate?" he asked, explaining that the council has done what it needed to do in referring the federal grant issue and the ethics complaint to the proper authorities for their consideration. The council would be overstepping its bounds, he said, by opening those issues up to mediation now.
"We really cannot prosecute or do anything to anybody," he said. "We're a legislative body. We can't make judicial decisions. All we can do is advise on this."
Bynum did not address the specifics of what might be on the table for mediation, but he sounded more optimistic than many of his associates that some common ground with the mayor could be established.
"I've always been a believer in people with differences of opinion sitting down and hashing them out," he said. "And I think ultimately we have to do that. I also think we need to have some shared policy objectives. Maybe that's the optimistic policy wonk in me who thinks that policy solves all your problems, but I know that there are things the mayor wants to work on that I want to work on, too, and I think a majority of the councilors want to work on.
"We need to get back to that team approach," he said. "It doesn't mean that everyone agrees on every issue. Government wouldn't be working if that were the case. There needs to be a difference of opinion. But we do need to identify those areas where there is agreement, and we can start working together. And I'm hopeful that we can do that."
Westcott said he believes mediation is worth trying.
"As a lawyer, I have seen mediation be successful in cases when, at the beginning, I did not hold out much hope," he said. "Even though it might appear bleak, I am always an optimist. We want to give ourselves every opportunity to resolve these issues."
But if the mayor insists on the federal grant issue and the ethics complaint being part of the discussion and is rebuffed, the question arises of whether the whole process will be stymied before it gets started.
"I agree with that," Christiansen said. "I think what the majority of the people want is to ensure that we mediate our future relationship, so that heals and we can work together in a positive way for the future."
Bynum acknowledged how frustrating the current situation is for many citizens.
"For a lot of city councilors, too -- at least the one who lives at my house," he said, laughing.
The District 9 councilor tried to make the point last week that, despite their differences, the mayor and council have managed to accomplish a great deal this year between them. At the Aug. 19 council meeting, he delivered a presentation that focused on some of those accomplishments, including the passage of a budget, the allocation of Community Development Block Grant funds, the approval of a comprehensive plan update and the adoption of a proposed charter amendment that would create a municipal "rainy day" fund.
Mautino echoed that point, explaining that during his previous tenure on the council from 2004 to 2006, when he and Councilor Chris Medlock found themselves the target of a bitter recall campaign, council business came to a virtual standstill.
"We've accomplished more in the first eight months than we did in two years when I was on the council before," he said. "That was really a disaster. That really hurt things. This here, we've all decided we're not going to let it affect the way we do business."
Westcott, a Republican just as the mayor is, said the whole episode has been distasteful for him.
"I was looking very much forward to working with this administration," he said. "I had kind of known Dewey for a few years through various party activities, and I thought I knew who he was and what to expect. But I've been very, very disappointed."
The council chairman emphasized he casts only one vote out of nine, and he would not presume to try to tell his fellow councilors what to do on the mediation vote. But he sounded an ominous tone when it came to considering what the alternative is in the event mediation is rejected or unsuccessful.
"We're going to have to let everything play out in court," he said. "That is regrettable, but it may be the only option left available."
Not everyone was quite so pessimistic. Bynum even found room to inject a bit of humor into what has evolved into a not-very-funny situation for all those involved.
"If Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant can call a cease fire and come together at a house and meet in the midst of the Civil War, I think that the City Council and the mayor can sit down at a table and call a cease fire for a week to try and figure out a way to repair things," he said.
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