POSTED ON MARCH 23, 2011:
A Big Change at City Hall
We need a fresh Public Works agenda and a new guru to match
At stake is the Public Works director post, a job that's hasn't been very visible because it's not glamorous. It's in no way as sexy as being police chief, chief of staff to the Mayor or even planning director, but the job is really "heavy."
Former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor simply calls the post "one of the single most significant factors for Tulsa's future."
Imagine a gig were you have a say over every development project that makes even tiny changes to the human-made environment of T-Town: you and the folks you oversee, review and have final decision-making authority over Tulsa's constructed landscape.
You are an essential part of every land use, permitting, inspections and building/construction approval transaction for all publically funded and private projects. And, amazingly, this is only a part of your portfolio.
The City of Tulsa's Public Works director (chief engineer) is also manages billions of dollars of project improvement funds and holds sway over hundreds of city workers and an entire array of architects, engineers and contractors -- anyone who seeks a building permit in Tulsa.
The Public Works chief is the person you should be shouting at when you think the streets are rotten or want to say that downtown's one-way streets stink, or when securing a building permit takes longer that you'd like. But the scope of the post also includes managing a team that handles water and sewer issues. As some of our readers may know, Charles Hardt has been the City's Public Works director for decades. Hardt was a private consulting engineer and a specialist in flood plain management and hydrology. When he and his partner, Ron Flanagan, stepped up in 1984 to help Tulsan's recover from an historic, monstrous flood event, some said their work in the immediate aftermath of the 1984 storm was simply heroic.
Hardt went on to help Tulsa fashion a first-rate storm water management regime that is renowned nationally and has, by informed accounts, kept Tulsa from reliving the nightmarish narrative and giant property loses occasioned by the flood of 1984. Shortly after the flood, Hardt became Tulsa's Public Works director, and he will step down at the end of March.
Hardt's retirement is a singular opportunity to hire an imaginative, first-rate mind to help push Tulsa into a new, trajectory, a path that might re-animate a surprisingly wide raft of city services, including our mobility, air and water quality and our overall physical amenity backbone.
The person to execute a new path for Tulsa may already be sitting at City Hall waiting for the spot, but the Mayor and City Council should mount a national search to secure top-notch talent.
The core task for the next Public Works chief is daunting. It includes the duty to "do more with less" in a time of fevered tax sensitivity and slowing city revenue growth.
A new path
If Tulsa's elected officials hire a transformative person, some keen observers believe we have a remarkable chance to rethink the city's big asset repair/maintenance routines, work force productivity and the future of Tulsa's huge capital improvements.
And as it happens, it might also be a good time to think about the outsized scale and scope of our public works department -- think break up and restructure. Indeed a handful of experienced local planners, one of Tulsa's most agile developers and a fellow who is arguably the City's most visionary architect believe that Public Work's hard line "engineering" vantage has often stiffed development, compromised design quality and hobbled a host of novel physical planning efforts.
They say that having to routinely navigate through an organizational maze that's managed at the top by a behemoth Public Works department is a problem. It may be why some claim, despite the presence of a talented and committed development services crew, that Tulsa's approval process is convoluted and slow.
Crafting an "intelligent city"
Tulsa is filled with demands for higher quality and more agile city services. Witness the incessant shouts for better streets and fewer potholes, or the perennial demand for more street cops. There is a nearly constant drumbeat for better city services. While City Hall and Public Works have made tentative movement towards a slice of next wave practices -- Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. has appointed a "sustainability director" -- we need a real accelerator.
There is clearly no "golden path" for moving Tulsa forward or kicking Public Works into higher gear, but there are a handful of powerful notions afoot, including what some call the "intelligent city" movement.
For what it's worth the cost of using some of the strategies associated with the notion appear to be relatively modest -- on the order of a small fraction of the cost of Tulsa's last half a billion dollar street improvement package. An imaginative approach to doing the "new path" might entail getting some of the technology companies that are active in the arena to provide "demonstration" pricing given the scale and visibility of anything other than a small, worthless effort.
Lastly, there is the prospect of doing carefully crafted joint ventures and novel private financing. The intelligent city notion exploits a passel of emerging technologies, real time remote scanning of streets and traffic conditions, novel use of aerial recon drones, agile use of out of state contractors, dynamic monitoring of the health of assets like bridges, traffic and street lights, parking meters and other devices and structures, advanced feedback to commuters and other powerful, "net-centric" ideas.
Hiring a visionary Public Works chief with exceptional collaboration and communications skills, who is also a forceful advocate for the intelligent city concept, might spark a real productivity breakout at City Hall. Grabbing a world-class guru could even improve Tulsa's competitive position by providing next generation amenities for entrepreneurs, prospect companies and investors who fund high yield start-up companies.
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