POSTED ON JUNE 22, 2011:
A Way Through the Maze
Mayor Bartlett says he knows a shortcut through the labyrinth of boards, trusts and commissions. Will he find it?
Dewey Bartlett Jr. was no stranger to public service even before he was elected mayor of Tulsa in November 2009. The son of the state's first Republican governor, Bartlett served a stint on the Tulsa City Council from 1990 to 1994, but the most time-consuming and demanding role he played was as a member of some of the dozens of authorities, boards, commissions and trusts that augment the local governing apparatus.
"Oh, boy," Bartlett said recently when asked to recount what it was like to serve on so many of those entities. He let out a sigh and began to recite a list. The Tulsa Airport Authority and Mayor Kathy Taylor's Complete Our Streets Committee comprised his service to the city, but there were other commitments, as well, including his role as chairman of board of the local chapter of the American Red Cross, a seat on the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board and a seat on the Grand River Dam Authority.
"I love 'em," the mayor said of the various organizations he served over time. "It's given me a tremendous amount of satisfaction but also a tremendous opportunity to learn about my city and my state and my country. I've enjoyed every second of it. But it does take time."
How much time? Bartlett conservatively estimates that at the height of his involvement, he was spending 30 hours a month conducting business related to those various authorities, boards, commissions and trusts. That certainly impacted his ability to manage his oil-and-gas firm, as well as spend time with his family, he said.
He realizes his experience was hardly atypical. In fact, some Tulsans, he said, serve much more than that, coming close to working the equivalent of a full-time job with their memberships on various entities.
"It's not just a one-hour meeting," Bartlett said, describing what it means to agree to serve on an authority, board, commission or trust. "It's the preparation for it. There's always a committee or two to be on. And there's the time to make a presentation to the City Council or the mayor's office or somebody."
While hundreds of Tulsans willingly take on that burden, the mayor would like to take a step back and ask whether it's really necessary for so many people to serve. That's why his administration is studying the city's authorities, boards, commissions and trusts, and examining whether some of them serve the same function -- or no longer serve any real function at all -- and can be consolidated, downsized or eliminated.
It's a daunting task. Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, said 462 volunteers serve on 53 authorities, boards and commissions by his count -- certainly a sizable number on its own -- but a quick look at the city's website leads to some confusion.
Under the "Our City" link on the city's home page (cityoftulsa.org), a click on the "Meeting agendas" header and another click on the "Access Agendas by Board, Trust and Authority" link yields a much longer list -- almost 200 entries, a number that seemed to catch Simonson by surprise. However, a closer look a that list reveals that many entities are listed twice by slightly different names, while others, such as the Broken Arrow Planning Commission and the city of Bixby, don't have anything to do with the city of Tulsa. Many others are committees that serve various authorities or boards, while still others are neighborhood associations or privately incorporated groups.
How many of the remainder are active, legitimate authorities, boards, commissions or trusts is almost impossible to determine. So the job of deciding which ones should be weeded out won't be quick or easy.
Why go to that trouble in the first place? Simonson said the recent KPMG audit of city services revealed that the equivalent of 22 full-time staff positions across 11 departments is required to support those entities, providing 42 services at a cost to the city of $2.8 million.
"That's a lot of money, that's a lot of people, that's a lot of services," he said. "And the consolidation or blending of some of these authorities, boards and commissions, will that save us on cost and personnel time? That's one of the reasons we want to look at this idea.
"Some people may think, 'You don't want to get rid of us.' Well, it may not be getting rid of you, it may be that we find a more cost-effective way to address your purpose without spending as much money to do it."
Pitching the Idea
The mayor initiated his review of those entities with a March 28 meeting that the leaders of 53 authorities, boards, trusts and commissions were invited to. A total of 47 actually attended the event, which Simonson said he believed was the first time such an effort to bring all those leaders together had been attempted.
"So it was huge, a great turnout," he said. "Every constituency was represented by its chairman, and there were three purposes for the Leaders Summit. One, the mayor wanted to meet some of them for the first time and also to tell them what his vision and priorities are for 2011 and going forward. The second purpose is he wanted them to be introduced to the support staff that assists all of the authorities, boards and commissions for appointments and reappointments. He wants that process to be smooth and timely and thorough.
"And the third point was, he talked about the notion of maybe consolidating boards that, it would appear, shared a common core vision and that we're looking for those common threads to see if it made any sense to work this out."
In theory, that notion appears to already have gained a fair amount of support in other quarters, even among those who have been critical of the mayor. Two City Council members, John Eagleton and G.T. Bynum, have floated the idea of reducing the number of authorities, boards, commissions and trusts in the past and appear eager to take up the issue again.
"It would be nice if we could consolidate some of the many authorities and boards," said Eagleton, who has led an effort to have the state attorney general conduct an investigation into a series of alleged improprieties by Bartlett. "I look forward to working with this administration and determining if that's possible."
Determining how many entities can be consolidated or eliminated will be challenging, he acknowledged, but he believes there's plenty of room for improvement.
"I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I do want to flush the bath water," he said.
Bynum said his effort to have the council examine the issue in the past was hampered by a lack of administrative support to determine what the actual cost was of providing staff services for those entities. He said he welcomed the mayor's effort and indicated he wasn't surprised at the $2.8 million figure Simonson cited from the KPMG report.
"On the one hand, these aren't just social clubs," he said. "These are entities designed to carry out the public's business. But there hasn't ever been any sort of systematic review of them and what their function is, and I think it's wonderful the administration is looking at it."
Others are less sure. Bill Leighty, the chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission who also serves as a member of the Transportation Advisory Board, preaches a cautious approach.
"I don't have a problem with the mayor going through and reviewing these," he said. "I think that's probably a pretty good exercise. But I'd be very careful about eliminating any of them."
Bob Sober -- the former chairman of the Tulsa Preservation Commission, the chairman of the PLANiTULSA citizens advisory committee and a current member of the Tulsa Arts Commission -- said the notion of perhaps consolidating or eliminating some of those entities may have merit for reasons beyond saving money.
"What I found during my time on the Preservation Commission was, it's really easy to get lost and not remember what your initial reason for being is," said Sober, who has faulted the mayor for not moving more quickly to implement the specifics of the city's new comprehensive plan. "You start with a clear vision and a specific goal, but you're anxious to get on with things, and as time goes by, people on the commission change, the staff changes and you wind up taking on other projects that don't have anything to do with your original purpose.
"So I think this is a worthy project, and the mayor ought to be commended for jumping in and examining it."
Anxious as he is to save the city money, Bartlett agreed there's more to his review than simply reducing spending. The mayor has been roundly criticized for failing to fill many of the vacancies on the city's authorities, boards, commissions and trusts in a timely fashion.
"It's a significant reason because we're talking several hundred people," the mayor said, acknowledging that criticism while explaining the difficulty of keeping those seats filled. "Tulsa is a large city. However, it is at times difficult to find and vet enough people that are willing to serve on various authorities, boards and committees. It's nice to have somebody with specific experience or a very strong history of interest in specific boards, authorities or committees."
But finding those individuals and convincing them to make the necessary sacrifice to serve can be a challenge, he said.
"Most people are very, very busy in their normal lives," he said. "For them to contribute a significant amount of time is a real asset that this city has, and to avoid burning people out and still being the recipient of their fine advice and counsel, I'd like to at least attempt that effort. I do talk to a lot of people on the boards and authorities, and a lot of them just say, 'Oh boy, I just can't afford the time anymore.' So I understand. It's a real imposition on their personal time. And their business time. And their family time."
Another element in his decision to review the situation, Bartlett said, is the difficulty some authorities, boards, commissions or trusts have in finding a time to meet that's convenient for most members.
"Some of these committees are very, very large, and they have a difficult time getting a quorum to have a meeting," he said. "It takes a significant amount of time for a staff member to call and e-mail and contact everybody to see if they will attend, and, if not, to reschedule 20 people is very difficult and takes a huge amount of time. The size of the committees, yeah, they could be maybe a little smaller and make more efficient use of everybody's time."
Putting together a quorum on the Preservation Commission was a problem sometimes, Sober said, particularly in the summer when many members were on vacation. Eventually, though, the group found a way around the problem.
"We ended up going in a different direction," he said. "We tried to make the meetings shorter while at the same time making them more available to the public. So we started meeting two times a month instead of once. I don't know that we had a problem after that."
Bynum has his doubts whether the attendance issue is really as significant as the mayor portrays it.
"A lot of these people who get appointed to authorities, boards and commissions are business people who have a lot on their plate. So I can see how scheduling these meetings is difficult. However, the people who get reappointed have outstanding attendance records," he said, noting that the council is provided with those figures when it votes on a candidate's reappointment to one of those entities. "So that's important to councilors. And almost to a T, these people have outstanding records."
The bigger difficulty, Sober said, is finding members who understand the issues the commission addresses.
"It is very important to find people who are interested in that topic," he said. "As the chairman of a commission, I've got issues I'm really trying to make decisions on that affect the city of Tulsa. But when you have to start running meetings with people who don't know what the issues are, it really handicaps your commission."
Bynum is also concerned about finding enough qualified people to fill all those seats, though he wonders how that can be possible in a city of this size.
"I can't help but think in a city of 400,000 people, there are enough citizens willing and eager to serve, but I don't think enough of them know how to engage the process," he said.
Leighty is less willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the administration's inability to keep up with all the appointments.
"That's their job to find these people and get these appointments made in a timely fashion," he said. "And they haven't done a very good job of it."
How to Proceed
Simonson said the mayor's interest in taking a closer look at the city's authorities, boards, trusts and commissions initially was a product of his wanting to know which of them had an impact on economic development, a focus of the administration.
Later, the mayor said, his approach broadened to include all those entities. But it is that group of a dozen or so organizations that play some role in the city's economic development efforts that will be analyzed first. Simonson said the administration hopes to determine if some of those entities are more aggressive than others.
"When you have this many, you wonder if that's the case," he said. "Is there enough economic development work going on in different areas that all of these groups need to exist and there's no duplication or overlap? That's where we would like to take this analysis."
Bartlett also is concerned that some Tulsans are serving on two or even three of those entities at the same time.
"That, to me, is not a very efficient use of the expertise of all those individuals," he said. "There should be a way to combine many of those into fewer committees or boards and still provide the same expertise and advise and counsel."
If it becomes apparent that duplication exists and strong candidates for consolidation or elimination emerge, Simonson said there are various mechanisms in place for carrying out that task.
"It depends on how they're created," he said. "If they were created by an executive order of a past mayor, then I believe this mayor could issue an executive order dissolving it."
In other cases, he said, consolidating or eliminating one of those groups would require the passage of an ordinance by the City Council, he said. If the entity was created by statutory authority, Simonson said, the city would need to follow state law in regard to dissolving it. And if it was created by the city charter, only a vote of the people in favor of a charter change could result in its consolidation or elimination.
"It is complicated," he said. "You have at least four ways to create one of these bodies. It takes a lot of study to determine how you either modify it or dissolve it."
Longtime Tulsa political observer and blogger Michael Bates believes there's some merit to what the Bartlett administration hopes to accomplish, but he said it's going to be difficult to get past some legal hurdles.
In some cases where duplication is rather obvious -- he cited the Tulsa Airport Authority and the Tulsa Airport Improvement Trust as an example -- it will be necessary to maintain both entities because of legal obligations or restrictions, Bates said. Depending on the language under which they were created, some of those entities have the power to enter into long-term contracts and issue debt while others do not.
Other moves would be more fraught with political difficulties, he said, citing the uproar that likely would be caused if the city decided to withdraw from the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission or eliminate the Mayor's Commission on the Status of Women or the city's Human Rights Commission.
"There would be a backlash, and there would certainly be accusations that the mayor's office was motivated by sexism or racism," Bates said.
There is, however, precedent for doing that, Bates said, noting that Gov. Mary Fallin recently eliminated three statewide commissions that dealt with various ethnic groups by declining to renew the executive order that created them.
"She simply said, 'We have no need for these,' " Bates said.
Simonson insists the mayor hasn't targeted any specific groups for consolidation or elimination, although the chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Claiborne Taulbert, apparently emerged from the March 28 Leaders Summit with the impression that Bartlett might very well have his organization in his crosshairs. Taulbert went before the City Council a day later to make the case for protecting his group, explaining that Bartlett had met with commission members earlier and said he was examining the idea of consolidation.
District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes remains alarmed by that possibility, arguing the HRC serves an important role in the city and needs to be maintained. She fears the administration is pursuing its consolidation/elimination agenda on its own with little or no regard for what the council or Tulsa citizens want.
"You can't just start killing them off," she said of the city's dozens of authorities, boards, trusts and commissions. "People volunteer for these, and they have a function that's really important to the city."
Serving on those authorities, boards, commissions and trusts provide citizens with a means of participating in their government beyond voting or holding public office, Leighty said.
"You need that oversight," he said. "It's a balancing of the playing field so that the citizens can participate, not just the bureaucrats."
Barnes said the council hasn't heard from the mayor about his intentions, so she doesn't know what he'll be basing his decisions on if he decides to consolidate or eliminate some of those entities.
"There are a lot of things that are done without the council," she said. "But the councilors are the ones who work very closely with their constituents, and I think we would have concerns about what the mayor does with those authorities, boards and commissions.
"But this shouldn't be a battle," Barnes continued, explaining that if the mayor were more willing to engage the City Council in these kinds of discussions at an early stage, he might not encounter so much mistrust later on.
"We're not bad people, we just have questions on things," she said, taking exception to the perception among some citizens that the council constantly takes an adversarial approach with the mayor. "We're just trying to understand the things he's trying to do that affect the citizens of Tulsa."
Even Bynum, who supports the mayor's review, said Bartlett's communication style already is working against him on this issue.
"I've had no discussion with the mayor about this, but that doesn't surprise me," he said. "I would think they would want to bring the council on board for this earlier rather than later ... Every one of these authorities, boards and commissions exists for a reason. Somebody created it to address the concerns of a particular interest group or group of stakeholders. So when it finally comes down to making recommendations, that is when you're going to see a dust-up."
Bynum said the mayor would be better served by soliciting the input of councilors from the get-go.
"If they want to be successful at this -- and I want them to be successful -- they need to be doing their outreach effort now rather than at the end of this," he said.
Leighty also takes issue with the mayor's communication style, characterizing the March 28 Leaders Summit as "a dog-and-pony show about all the good things the mayor has done, but there was nothing of substance."
He said the invitation he received to the event asked him to prepare a written report on the top priorities affecting his commission or authority for 2011. Leighty prepared a three-page report that focused on the need to implement the PLANiTULSA recommendations -- a document the TMAPC passed unanimously last year -- but was disappointed that he never had the chance to convey its contents to the mayor during the event. Nor did any other chairman, he said, because the mayor spent most of the meeting discussing his vision for Tulsa.
As the meeting was adjourning, Leighty hurriedly asked if he could submit his report, and he said those in attendance were told they could leave their reports with an administration staff member. Leighty did so, later e-mailing a copy of his report to the mayor, as well. He doesn't believe it received any consideration.
"It was clear to me they didn't appear to be seeking serious input from us," he said.
While the mayor said in May it likely will be some time before his administration reaches any conclusions about how it wants to proceed in regard to most authorities, boards, commissions or trusts, it already has targeted a handful for possible change.
"We've identified a couple of approaches which we're implementing now in order to combine a large group of boards, and we also identified one that because of the sheer number of the participants, it had become extremely ineffective," he said. "It's a good committee, but too many people. So we've approached them to ask for them to ... make it more useful or user friendly."
Bartlett, who declined to reveal the name of the entity, said the response so far has been favorable.
"They've agreed to do whatever we decide, whatever the group would like us to do, they're certainly agreeable to it -- voluntarily resign, or some would like to wait until their term is up," he said. "So we'll see what the group likes to do.
"I don't want to force the issue," he said. "I'm not going to make people do things because this is a volunteer effort. And if they feel that a committee should remain as is, that's their decision. That's fine. We have many, many to choose from, and it's their committee, and they're responsible for running it. But if they agree that it might run better if it were done differently, great. We'll help them out."
Simonson emphasized that the final decision on the fate of any authority, board, trust or commission will be the product of a thorough and inclusive process.
"Our plan is to involve the chairs or members of any particular group where it appears consolidation might be appropriate," he said. "It won't be done arbitrarily or unilaterally. It'll involve the affected members of any group where consolidation might seem to have merit. And I'm sure in the course of that, arguments and positions will be stated as to why it is, or is not, a good idea. So we'll just cross that when we get to it."
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A40326