POSTED ON MAY 4, 2011:
Peering Into Our Puzzle Palace
Consternation congeals at City Hall
When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." -- Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass
Lately, Tulsa's city government looks a lot like the lucidly crafted landscape of director Christopher Nolan's film Inception. In the film, Nolan imagines an alternative world, much like your own, except that a clutch of neuroscience breakthroughs allow properly equipped operatives to observe, catalog and even manipulate the dreamscapes of people -- especially those who have commercially or politically relevant secrets in their heads.
Inception is visually arresting and emotionally powerful -- it is also often confusing -- in that it's hard to know if a character is in dream world or in awake-scape.
This past week, Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. announced that, he, like several folks on the City Council, had decided that having an all-powerful managerial guru on deck was just what the doctor ordered. A new "city manager" was needed, the Mayor argued to scotch Tulsa's nearly 18-month-old all-party discord.
The shape and functionality of local government is outlined in its city charter. So it is stunting -- even if like me, you have an extremely permissive conception of what an elected executive should be able to do via staffing and organization at City Hall -- for an elected official to wakeup one fine morning and seemingly change our prime form.
The Mayor's action in appointing staffer Jim Twombly to the newly conjured post was both unexpected and strange. Importantly, the traditional council/manager model envisions a city council recruiting, interviewing, selecting and overseeing a city manager. In almost every instance, the City Council also has the exclusive right to fire a city manager. Weirdly, the Bartlett's city manager "initiative," as announced, has almost nothing to do with the classic city manager model.
Typically, a city manager is the front end of a sort of collective rule model, along the lines of the old Soviet politburo regime wherein a tiny group of folks closely supervises a powerful administrator who does much of the critical work that Tulsa's elected mayor is now executing.
In most of these systems, the mayor becomes a distinctly secondary figure often outfitted with trivial, ceremonial duties. In such classic setups, the mayor is often simply selected from among the sitting council members.
History of Our Form
A city manager/council/weak mayor is one of three prime organizing sets that the people of an American city employ to organize local government. Critically, Tulsa has had a vastly different machine in place for nearly 20 years: the strong mayor/council.
In the late '80s, Tulsans from virtually every side of the political universe imagined that a strong mayor/council would serve as a grand way to run city government in Tulsa; keen observers saw this form as one that would simultaneously provide potent neighborhood representation for North-siders, Midtown denizens, West-siders and everyone else while allowing for aggressive, even visionary leadership from a powerful elected chief executive officer.
Tulsans pitched our fusion executive/legislative "commission" form and voted to put the strong mayor/council system in place in 1990.
A charitable observer might argue that Mayor Bartlett is simply trying to be responsive to the city council -- he is, they might say, taking their own best notion about ending the mess at City Hall by putting it to work -- months in advance of a possible public vote on a council-sponsored measure to do the same thing.
A less generous analyst might say Bartlett was rolling his odd gambit out as preemptive strike to somehow forestall serious consideration of the Council's city manager measure.
But it doesn't look like the council is buying: City Councilor Rick Westcott is quoted in the Tulsa World as saying that the Mayor can call a truck a jaguar if he wants, but it is still a truck. Councilor G.T. Bynum opines that retiring Tulsa's current strong mayor/council form is a matter not for the Mayor. It is, he said, " ... a matter for Tulsa voters."
City Manager Not a Pacific Paradigm
Interestingly "manager" towns fire incumbents with surprising frequency -- a city manager's tenure is often short, nasty and filled with theatrics and confusion.
Previously, I wrote about the city manager tenure in Oklahoma City, the model for our own manager quest. OKC has had a city manager for decades and only a couple of incumbents lasted for more than two or three years during this period, a notable exception is the current manager, Jim Couch, who has held the post for more than 10 years.
The new confusion at City Hall is inflationary: last week, OSU-Tulsa president and veteran politico Howard Barnett crafted a "hybrid" city manager notion, which basically borrows from our national model by using the federal "advise and consent" regime.
Barnett allows a Tulsa mayor to pick a city manager with the consent of the city council. Moreover the city manager, in Barnett's version could be fired by the Mayor or, with a "supermajority," by the City Council.
Oddly, there is a repellent, anti-democratic piece in the Barnett hybrid: The new city manager would function largely without an elected mayor's supervision. Basically, once hired, an unelected person -- one unknown to almost every Tulsa voter -- would run every aspect of City Hall, including $640 million worth of policing, public services, vital water and waste operations, street crews and billions of dollars of capital programs. All this would take place as an elected, but totally defanged mayor cuts ribbons, consumes bad chicken lunches and kisses babies.
Sometimes your city's trajectory just makes you want to holler.
Maybe, it's time to just say no to ad-hoc city council, mayoral or self appointed "fixit" cadres and insist that we organize a serious, fully democratic process to pilot a way forward out of this mess.
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