POSTED ON AUGUST 3, 2011:
"Save Our Tulsa"(SOT) Proposition is A Drunken Beast
Local democracy is loud & boisterous...Get over it.
Amy Winehouse's tragic, but sadly not unanticipated departure shines a critical light on the burdens of outsized talent; but there's another artist with great power---- a sober genius about Winehouse's age, with much more talent. Esperanza Spalding is the 2010 Best New Artist of the Year: her wildly eclectic style conflates chamber music from centuries ago with stout elements of jazz, Latin American influences, blues, rock and roll and classical music. And while she is hardly the first American musical artist to do so, she is arguably one of the most audacious, inventive and intellectually powerful performers to concatenate these worlds in a long time. Spalding is also, at 26, a professor at the famed Berkley School of Music in Boston: she is a shining example of why diversity in our culture, in our workplaces and at City Hall is quintessential for excellence.
There is a bad voter proposition that seeks to clumsily "harmonize" the noisy proceedings at Tulsa City Hall. If it prevails, we will have diminished city council diversity and a local democracy shot through with too many big money priorities. And to top things off, we might get Justice Department scrutiny in a season where City Hall needs to be focused and working on all cylinders.
Last week, I took a critical look at the Tulsa City Council's city manager proposition ---- now on your November ballot. This item steals psychological, emotional, intellectual and actual energy from elected officials, our civic pro's and our political community--time and energy that would be better deployed on new strategies for ratcheting up employment, fiscal futures for Tulsa, the number of critical start ups in Tulsa or the deficit of grocery outlets in North Tulsa. Unfortunately, there is yet another toxic proposition that will appear alongside the city manager lunacy. Called "Save Our Tulsa," this non-starter calls for a dreary bucket of dysfunctional, decidedly anti-democratic changes to City Hall including adding three members to the city council and concealing the political leanings of candidates.
Putting Tulsa's Mayor on The City Council: Making A Hard Job Impossible
The Save Our Tulsa proposition would add, as does the city council manager proposition, the mayor to the city council. Oddly, both proposals would have us believe that requiring the city's elected chief executive to participate on a day-to-day basis in council sessions would engender more comity than the existing "separation of powers" model. It's safe to say that any Tulsa mayor wouldn't have the time, the psychological or the intellectual energy to be a fully engaged member of the City Council.
Leading city hall is tough, exhausting work -- work that also requires a strong, trustful and effective working relationship with the Tulsa City Council. Mayors Randle, Savage, LaFortune and Taylor all had rocky but fruitful relationships with the council during their tenure.
Obviously Mayor Dewey Bartlett's dynamics with the current council have been very problematic. The parties clearly don't have the chemistry, at the moment, to do well. Things like annual budget approvals get done, eventually, but a whole range of challenges that require "all hands on deck" have been neglected. Council/mayor dysfunction has produced disasters including the recent trash restructure project and parts of the public safety layoff crisis last year. But the solutions entail replacing or disciplining council folks or the mayor himself via elections not restructurings.
Non-partisan Elections: Stealth Campaigns & Voter Demobilization
A second big element (and a piece of the city manager prop also) of the SOT thing, removes party labels from local contests. If the "Save Our Tulsa" passes, Tulsa voters will be given a ballot with no information on the partisan identification of the candidates. Some folks in town believe that this would relieve elected officials of the "heavy burden" of having to be responsive to party bosses.
My own experience in Tulsa, as a veteran of several mayoral campaigns, is that "party bosses" are not a big influence on city candidates either for mayor or council spots. Candidates and their staffs are the big drivers and usually the only drivers of consequence in these efforts.
Political parties play a deep, visceral role in orienting people who don't eat, breath and dream politics (most human beings). For them, party labels are simple guideposts for thinking about candidates. Tulsa mayoral campaigns, in particular, are highly competitive from a partisan vantage.
Partisan elections produce higher turnouts and guide people in non-trivial ways. In towns with non-partisan elections "slate" candidates run on "Orwellian" group labels. Imagine choosing from among candidates "blessed" by (I've made these examples up) Tulsan's for Better Government (TBG), Better Government for Tulsa (BGT), Tulsa Coalition for Good Government (TCGG) and you can see the problem. Though these examples are fictitious, they bear a ready resemblance to the stuff you see every campaign season in non-partisan havens like Dallas, Houston, Austin and OKC. What these groups actually stand for, their connection to the candidates they endorse and how they secure their often-voluminous campaign war chests is a vexing problem for media folks and voters time after time.
A "party free" local election setting is also, if the comparative local election literature is any guide, likely to strengthen the hand of well-financed candidates with strong ties to local banking, real estate and big business since expensive, multi-wave TV/radio spots and massive mailing will be essential to garnering the name recognition needed to prevail in a denuded contest environment.
Super Councilors: The Mothers of Tulsa Conflicts to Come
SOT calls for creating super districts that would add three new folks to the council: supposedly these people----residents of a North, South and Mid Tulsa super district would work for the "common good" since they would come from each super district but be elected by everyone in Tulsa. It's hard to know what this part of SOT would actually produce. The at large contests will again require heavy use of TV/radio and expensive mailings.
A possible outcome is the emergence of a clutch of "min-mayors" or winning council candidates who get more, sometimes a lot more votes, in a given election cycle than the prevailing mayoral candidate. Think "four headed monster" at City Hall including three puffed up "supers" and a mayor. Imagine a guy/gal council rep who decides they can do better than the mayor by putting together a coalition of other councilors, one that either overshadows the mayor or simply substitutes for it.
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