POSTED ON APRIL 6, 2011:
A Tale of Two Cities
Should Tulsa's progress hinge on an OKC-style politburo?
November may bring two fateful city propositions to the voters. Both are toxic, retrograde measures that, if approved, could badly damage Tulsa for years to come.
I could be wrong about this. A city council-initiated effort to put a city manager in place, has yet to be publicly unveiled so I've not reviewed it in detail. As it happens, given the row of the last 18 months, Tulsans may be in a mood to approve just about any measure that promises to fix the mess at City Hall.
This week we look at the city manager idea. Later, I'll explore the other notion, weirdly called SOT ("Save Our Tulsa"). The SOT thing is a real dandy. If passed, it would almost surely dilute representation in East, Midtown and North Tulsa. SOT could actually aggravate the chaos at City Hall by creating a bevy of "mini-mayors" and attracting the attention of the U.S. Justice Department. More on that later.
Ever heard of Daley of Chicago (the older and the younger), Young of Atlanta, Giuliani and Bloomberg of New York City, Lugar of Indianapolis, Bradley of Los Angeles? How about Brown of San Francisco and Brown of Oakland or Riordan of Los Angeles, Voinovich of Cleveland, or Berkley of Kansas City? These are the last names of mayors -- arguably great ones -- who had or are having huge impacts of their cities. Each had a sharp, tightly crafted notion of the best face and futures for the places they were elected to lead.
Here in Tulsa we could celebrate the signal contribution made by former Mayor Bill LaFortune: passage of the Vision 2025 improvement package. LaFortune put together a countywide alliance that secured voter approval of the program. We got Tulsa's wildly successfully BOK Center, an array of new research/expanded campus spaces and other high yield projects. Many observers believe that the Vision 2025 package significantly improves the metro's economic trajectory.
We could also talk about former Mayor Kathy Taylor's amazing and largely successful efforts to re-animated Tulsa's downtown with the successful completion and energetic launch of the BOK Center, the Driller Stadium relocation gambit and the move to our gleaming new City Hall. Taylor also, with the constructive contribution of the then sitting City Council, secured voter approval for an historic street improvement program.
On the "soft" front Taylor ram-rodded an array of business incubation, start-up venture support efforts and entrepreneurial promo projects that could ratchet up the new venture start rate in Tulsa -- a critical metric that development planners see as core to any metro economy with a compelling future. All of Taylor's progress was pulled off in the midst of the biggest economic turndown since the Great Depression.
Taylor and LaFortune were not perfect but they were, arguably, effective leaders. More than once, both did risky "push" work that would very likely been avoided by the hired guns typically recruited for city manager posts.
Tulsa is clearly in the midst of a feckless effort to "do something" about the mess at City Hall. Some good people honestly believe the fix entails jettisoning the strong mayor/council form and hiring a city manager. This new administrative/managerial czar would oversee all major city operations and departments and report to the Council.
Now for a second question: do you know the name of a city manager -- the name of a single city manager anywhere, in America?
Tulsa's new city manager project is led by District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner. Mr. Turner and his rumored big business allies want to institute the council/manager model. The idea is not new -- all the books on city managers that I found at the downtown library were musty and pre-'80s -- and the model is a widely used, especially in smaller, socially homogeneous municipalities.
Whether it's the way to govern a great city or to advance the cause of a city that aspires to greatness is a different question.
With the council/manager form, the city council recruits, interviews, selects, oversees and can fire the city manager. Interestingly "manager" towns fire managers with surprising frequency and a manager's tenure is often short, nasty and filled with theatrics and confusion. Take Oklahoma City: A quick analysis of the city manager tenures since 1927 shows an average career that lasts less than three years. For those statistic buffs out there, the median tenure was even less.
Why informed observers would think that city manager towns are peaceful precincts defies explanation. And there is, of course, the little matter of substituting our current strong mayor/council form for what looks a lot like a hugely anti-democratic one. When you think about, it council/manager is really not very different from how the old Soviet politburo selected folks to run the U.S.S.R.
Currently, Tulsan's get to hear what candidates for our most powerful city post think about jobs, deadly force, schools, unions, streets, parks, development and the comparative fates of various aspects of the city.
The fact that a Tulsa mayor can hire a small army of staffers and recruit one or more high quality managerial types to attend to "running the trains on time" has been lost.
We are told the city manager form is the secret of OKC's recent progress. I wish someone would tell us why OKC was doing poorly with the city manager system when many thought Tulsa was winning in every way.
OKC has employed a city manager system since 1927, according to a detailed overview piece on that city's website. Evidently, the new Tulsa manager proposition is modeled on OKC's.
Is OKC really the best model for Tulsa's success?
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