POSTED ON JUNE 8, 2011:
Delayed to Death?
PLANiTULSA could die from Mayor Bartlett's foot-dragging, critics say
Bob Sober thinks about the 10,000 Tulsans who tried to help plan the city's future and says he doesn't know what to tell them.
"It's not being implemented," he said about PLANiTULSA, the process by which the city's comprehensive plan was updated over a three-year period before being adopted as official policy last summer. "And it's in danger of dying."
Sober, the former chairman of the city's Preservation Commission and the chairman of the PLANiTULSA citizens advisory committee, is part of a chorus of individuals voicing alarm at what they describe as the anemic pace of implementation of the new comprehensive plan, which was supposed to initiate a new era of development in Tulsa.
Joining Sober in taking their concerns public are real estate agent Bill Leighty, who serves as the chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and a member of the city's Transportation Advisory Board, and developer Jamie Jamieson, a member of the PLANiTULSA citizens advisory committee and also a member of the Transportation Advisory Board.
"(Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.) took office early in December 2009," Jamieson said. "The comprehensive plan was approved by the council on July 22, 2010. That's eight months. Isn't that time enough to implement a forward-looking new policy for the city? I'm inclined to see a failure of management and a failure of commitment."
Sober believes the Bartlett administration should have used that period before the plan's adoption to develop a strategy for implementing it.
"They waited eight months until PLANiTULSA was actually adopted and did nothing," he said.
Bartlett maintains such perceptions are erroneous and that he is fully committed to carrying out the new plan.
"It's not on the shelf or being ignored at all," he said. "But one of the key recommendations of PLANiTULSA was the hiring of a planning director, and until we have a warm body occupying that position, it does give people the opportunity to think we're not following through on it."
District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum -- who agrees with the contention that the pace of progress on PLANiTULSA is unacceptable and says he cannot think of a logical reason why its recommendations have not been implemented -- said it would be a mistake to write off Sober, Leighty and Jamieson as malcontents who don't understand the process.
"These are not just lone wolves out there in the darkness," Bynum said. "They've been involved in the PLANiTULSA process for years and are experts on this."
Sober, Leighty and Jamieson charge the mayor with largely ignoring the plan, which was the product of a process that many have described as the most extensive public-participation effort in the city's history. Of the three, it is the involvement of Leighty -- who first voiced his dissatisfaction with the administration during a May 31 City Council committee meeting -- that is perhaps the most notable, given the fact that he campaigned vigorously for Bartlett during the 2009 campaign and was appointed to the TMAPC and the TAB by the mayor. Yet even he has grown disillusioned with the man he enthusiastically supported as the successor to Mayor Kathy Taylor, under whose administration PLANiTULSA was initiated.
"I just don't see any commitment to the comprehensive plan at all," Leighty said. "I know they can say we're making progress ... well, yeah, in super slow motion."
The mayor's detractors are particularly upset that 10 and a half months after the council adopted the new comprehensive plan, few, if any, of the six strategies outlined in the PLANiTULSA Draft Strategic Plan have been completed. The timelines set out for completion of many of those tasks -- including the hiring of a planning director to oversee a revamped and beefed-up community development department, and the updating of the city's zoning code -- were six months to a year.
"I met with the mayor in February, and Terry (Simonson, Bartlett's chief of staff) told me then this would all be done by now," Leighty said. "But by the time this thing gets done, it looks to me like the mayor is going to be nearing his third year in office."
Despite such criticisms, Simonson flatly rejected claims that the administration is dragging its feet on the implementation of the plan and laid much of the blame for the perceived lack of progress at the feet of the City Council.
"Absolutely not," he replied when asked if there was any opposition to PLANiTULSA in the mayor's office. "The administration can only move forward when the council gives it the resources. Once the council gave the administration the resources, we took off at a rapid pace to try to make up for the lost time last fall when we didn't have the resources to hire a planning director or to hire a consulting firm."
Simonson said the council did not approve a budget amendment providing the funding until January, weeks after the administration had requested it.
Bartlett echoed Simonson's assessment.
"It knocked us back about six months until they approved the funding," he said, explaining this administration was unwilling to start advertising for a planning director until the funding for the position was secured.
"We're doing it. It's just taking a little bit of time," he said.
The adoption of the new comprehensive plan also occurred in the midst of one of the worst budget crises in the city's history, Simonson said, making it difficult to scrape together the money needed to carry out its recommendations.
"I think many people thought as soon as it was adopted, we'd move forward and that maybe the last council or the last administration had already appropriated or set aside money for some immediate implementation once it was adopted," he said. "That's not the case. Nobody did that."
The administration isn't to blame for that, he said.
"It was like, 'Here's a plan, but you don't have money to do anything with it,' " he said, going on to describe the administration's reaction: "This isn't the best of times for you to be telling us that."
Those who believe the administration is not committed to the new comprehensive plan aren't buying that explanation. Leighty described it as "poppycock," while Sober pointed out PLANiTULSA had been on the books for five months before the administration even asked the council for the money. Bynum -- who also campaigned for Bartlett and was a member of his transition team after he was elected -- bristled when presented with Simonson's version of events.
"The notion that the council delayed passage of that -- which was for three weeks during the holiday season -- is ludicrous," he said, his voice rising. "I can't believe Terry can say that with a straight face."
City Councilor Chris Trail disagreed with Simonson's characterization, as well.
"That's not at all how that happened, although it doesn't surprise me they'd blame us for it," he said. "We'd been pushing for that for a long time. I don't think the facts back up what Mr. Simonson is saying."
Bynum said it took the council three weeks to approve the money because the original budget amendment it received from the mayor called for the funding to come from one-time sources. That would have provided only enough money to last through the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2010, he pointed out.
"You don't hire a planning director with one-time funding," Bynum said. "It's irresponsible. That's the ... I have nothing polite to say in response to that."
Instead, he said, the council identified money from other sources to cover the cost of hiring a planning director and provide for a zoning code update, as well as several other initiatives the mayor wanted approved, on a continuous basis.
Even with the approval of those funds six months ago, the city is not close to hiring a planning director or beginning the zoning code update. An advisory committee charged with interviewing internal candidates for the planning director's job rejected those candidates in May, Simonson said, and a California firm has been hired to begin a national search.
Representatives of that firm will be in Tulsa this week to visit with the mayor and the city's human resources department to get a full understanding of the job duties and responsibilities, and of PLANiTULSA, Simonson said. He expects the firm to begin its search at the beginning of summer, though he doesn't know how long it will take.
"We've never done this, so we don't know if a month or two months is a reasonable amount of time to wait," he said.
But Simonson expects the position to be filled by the end of the year. He said no one needs to remind the administration of the important role the new planning director will play, especially given a planned reorganization of many aspects of city government that will see the size of the department increased 10-fold.
"After seven or eight years of past councils or past mayors really not embracing the importance and urgency of having a planning director, I think over the last eight to 10 weeks, we've moved pretty quickly in an area where heretofore there had been no movement at all," he said.
Simonson said it was necessary for the administration to complete its plans for restructuring the Planning Department into a larger Community Development Department before a well-qualified planning director could be hired.
"Who are we going to hire for a department of 10?" he asked. "We're not going to get anybody for a department of 10. PLANiTULSA is certainly a key part of it, but PLANiTULSA is not the only reason to have a planning department. And since there had been no work done on prior to this administration on really putting together a high-performance, high-powered Planning Department, we had to do that, too ... It wasn't simply go run an ad in the paper and go find somebody. You had to take a department that was A. worthy of Tulsa and B. worthy of a high-caliber director."
As for the zoning code update, Simonson said a number of proposals have been received from companies interested in performing that function, and another advisory committee will meet soon to begin reviewing them. The process of selecting a winner should unfold a little more quickly than the hiring of a planning director, he said.
"It'll happen first," Simonson said.
That timetable irks Bynum. He pointed out the administration moved very quickly to hire a new police chief and director of the new Management Review Office when both those positions came open and wonders why it's taking so long to fill the planning director's job.
He also maintains it's a serious mistake to select a company to rewrite the zoning code before a new planning director is in place.
"That's putting the cart before the horse," he said. "Bass ackward is the term that comes to mind. The person who is going to oversee the contract should have a role in selecting (the firm)."
Critics of the administration's commitment to PLANiTULSA have adopted a sense of urgency in recent days as the window for approving a new municipal budget begins to close. The City Council must approve the Fiscal Year 2012 budget by June 30, and Sober, Leighty and Jamieson believe it is imperative that more resources be devoted to PLANiTULSA in that budget.
"I've looked at the mayor's budget, and I'm dismayed at the way it does not address PLANiTULSA," Jamieson said. "It hardly refers to it. There is no sense that this budget is dealing with the city's new comprehensive plan, yet it should be."
Leighty referred to a recent Urban Tulsa Weekly article when he pointed out, "(Simonson) said it himself: 'If you want to know what the mayor is about, look at his budget.' When I look at his budget, I have a lot of questions about where the priority is."
The need for additional funding for the city's beleaguered mass transit system was the subject of Leighty's May 31 remarks before a City Council committee meeting. Leighty was there to present a TAB resolution asking the council and mayor to not only meet the Metropolitan Tulsa Transportation Authority's request for additional funding that would help it meet rising fuel costs but also demonstrate a greater commitment to mass transit by funding the restoration of some bus routes that had been cut during the city's budget crisis. Leighty said improved mass transit options are an important part of the PLANiTULSA recommendations, and he believes the mayor's budget proposal that called for a 22-percent increase in MTTA funding didn't go far enough.
"If the administration is going to pat themselves on the back and say they accomplished some great feat by giving MTTA its request and adding a little bit, that's not enough," Leighty told UTW. "I'm not going to sit here and question the management of the MTTA. They're professional, they're well trained and they're fighting the good fight day in and day out.
"But we've had an underperforming bus system for decades, and then it was one of the first things cut," he said, citing figures that indicate 30 percent of Tulsans rely on something other than a private vehicle as their primary means of transportation. "I look at mass transit as a core service, not far behind police and fire protection in importance."
Sober's concerns about PLANiTULSA in regard to the budget are related to the lack of additional resources for city planners. He believes the administration's move to create a new 121-employee Community Services Department is merely a matter of shifting personnel from one department to another without growing the size of the planning staff itself, which consists of 13 employees.
"That's wholly inadequate, and we know it," particularly in regard to the staff's ability to develop additional small area plans, he said.
SAPs are described in the PLANiTULSA document as plans that cover the issues of a specific part of the city and can apply to territories as small as 10 acres or as large as thousands of acres. Sober believes they are vitally important to the city's future because they encourage often-competing interests in a specific area to sit down together and resolve their differences over development themselves, rather than relying on the Planning Commission or City Council to act as the referee.
"Small area plans are the backbone of PLANiTULSA," he said. "They provide for the resolution of conflict in a different way."
Trail said he wasn't sure how much support their would be among members of the council for the idea of pushing for additional PLANiTULSA funding with budget negotiations entering their final stages. Bynum doesn't necessarily think additional funding for the plan is an imperative at this point, arguing that the money for the two most important elements is already in place.
"We funded the planning director and the new zoning code," he said. "Beyond that, I think the council is looking to a planning director for guidance on what is needed for implementation."
That shouldn't be construed as an unwillingness to spend money on the new comprehensive plan, he said.
"The council has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to funding PLANiTULSA," he said, adding that, so far, the allocation of that money hasn't resulted in any action.
"The one person who can spend that money is the mayor," he said. "Not Terry Simonson, not Dwain Midget (the mayor's director of community development). It is the mayor's responsibility to discharge the expenditure of those funds."
Sober takes perhaps the darkest view of the situation, wondering whether the administration hasn't simply chosen to cast aside PLANiTULSA in favor of a new plan for the city's future of its own devising, one that is based on the KPMG audit of city services, a recent customer satisfaction survey of Tulsa citizens and other elements. He pointed out a four-person Management Review Office charged with evaluating and implementing the KPMG recommendations was up and running within several months of the receipt of the KPMG report last fall. That's just one example of how quickly the administration can move, he said.
"They know how to get something done if they want to," Sober said.
The problem, he said, is that the administration gives the appearance of only being interested in pursuing an agenda that it shapes privately, with a minimum of public input -- a philosophy that is the antithesis of PLANiTULSA, which Sober said uncovered considerable discontent among residents with the level of transparency in how the city is run.
"There is a group of people perceived to control much of Tulsa, and they're trying to do it behind closed doors," he said. "And then you've got the masses who can't get anything done."
PLANiTULSA solicited and welcomed input from the public at all stages of its creation and adoption, Sober said, and that gives the plan a great deal of credibility among citizens. But the lack of progress is now feeding cynicism, he said, noting that when a group of citizens approached the mayor in September 2010 to offer its assistance in implementing the plan, it was rebuffed.
Sober said the proposed budget the mayor submitted to the council in April did not include a single reference to PLANiTULSA while making repeated references to the mayor's vision. He noted the new comprehensive plan was adopted only three weeks after the Fiscal Year 2011 budget was approved at the end of June 2010.
"That three weeks bought the mayor 49 weeks of not paying attention to (PLANiTULSA) if he didn't want to," Sober said. "So when he comes out with this budget which makes reference to the mayor's visions, I'm confused."
So is Leighty.
"I don't get it," he said. "Why do we need a new vision, and where did it come from -- a telephone survey? I applaud a survey that provides baseline information for future performance measurements about how we're doing with customer satisfaction goals, but not as ... some kind of new vision document.
"We have a comprehensive plan that is public policy," he said. "It is the most fully vetted, fundamentally sound, and well-reasoned and discussed thing the city has ever been involved in in its history."
It's as if PLANiTULSA, not even a year after its adoption, already has become an afterthought, he said.
"It's not on the front burner," Leighty said. "It's not even on the back burner. It's in the back room. If you were setting out to kill the comprehensive plan but not do it in an overt way, this is kind of how you'd go about it. You'd create a smokescreen and say you're supportive but not do the things to implement it."
The mayor shrugs off such complaints, especially the contention that his administration has become so consumed with the KPMG report and its efforts to make city government more efficient that it has forgotten about PLANiTULSA.
"No, I don't think that's really the case," he said. "I'm certainly not distracted by it. That's why we have the Management Review Office set up. They do a tremendous amount of work and give a report to the council almost weekly. That's a very important component of us having to deal with the financial problems we inherited a year and a half ago. We have to look to the future and act accordingly.
"It's an important part of how we're managing the city, but it's not the only thing we're doing," he said, citing his administration's commitment to developing the riverfront, completing the Gilcrease Expressway, creating an intermodal transit facility near Tulsa International Airport and acting on the results of the citizens survey.
"That's a roadmap for what the citizens want to see us do," Bartlett said. "We're reacting in a lot of ways to a lot of good ideas, and we're not doing it from the standpoint of making one more important than the others."
But to Leighty, the projects the mayor cited only fuel his belief that Bartlett isn't interested in PLANiTULSA. He, Sober and Jamieson openly question whether the mayor has even read the new comprehensive plan, and Leighty said during the 2009 mayoral campaign, when it was his job to brief Bartlett on PLANiTULSA on a regular basis, he began to have doubts about the candidate's commitment to the plan.
"He didn't appear terribly interested, but he insisted he was going to get up to speed on it," Leighty said.
To his consternation, that hasn't happened, Leighty said. He believes Bartlett has missed an opportunity to score a tremendous political victory.
"I told him during the campaign, 'It's going to take a strong mayor to implement this plan. You win, you're going to be in that position. This could be like a gift that will fall in your lap. You can be a champion of a real turning point in the city's history in terms of the built environment looks like for the next few decades,'" Leighty said.
Sober argues the same point.
"There has never been, in the history of Tulsa, Okla., a mayor who has been handed success on a silver platter like this mayor was," he said. "But he chose to ignore it and create his own plan separate from the people's plan."
Bynum flatly maintains the mayor has rejected the new comprehensive plan as a political artifact.
"PLANiTULSA is viewed by the Bartlett administration as Kathy Taylor's project," he said. "It's not something they initiated. This administration views PLANiTULSA has a leftover from Kathy Taylor's administration and they've given it the level of priority they would accord anything else that didn't come from them."
To Jamieson, the situation has an unsettling familiarity.
"Tulsa has been shown to be good at writing reports, damning them with faint praise and then burying them," Jamieson said. "Unlike other 'reports,' this is a matter of public policy. It therefore has to be implemented -- and it's an inspired piece of public policy."
Sober feels the same way, but he worries whether it isn't already too late to salvage the situation. PLANiTULSA was intended to be a living document, he said, one that is updated annually to reflect new trends and changing goals.
That hasn't happened, he said, and he sees no sign that it will.
"The public hasn't been invited in since the PLANiTULSA process was completed," Sober said. "(The administration knows) how to manage a project. They also know how to kill a project. They've killed the public enthusiasm for PLANiTULSA. And since they know the difference between good management and poor management, I can only conclude they did it intentionally."
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