POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2011:
Know Before You Go
New ballot initiatives propose changes to city charter
Four ballot questions hold a lot of possibility for change in Tulsa's city government. One proposal was developed by the City Council, and the other three were developed by an organization called Save Our Tulsa. All four involve some major changes to our current form of government and elections.
Have no fear the UTW is here to help you unpack the four initiatives one by one.
In 1989, Tulsa voters passed changes to the city's government from a presiding commission to a strong mayor and nine-member city council.
And it would appear that since those first nine members were elected to the council, the bickering started ... and never ended. More than 20 years later, the council has now proposed another change to the city charter.
The city council's proposal, which will be one vote on your ballot, will have the mayor join the council as chair and 10th (and tie-breaking) voting member with no veto authority.
Instead of a mayor running the city, an experienced city manager would be hired to handle Tulsa's daily operations.
The city manager would not face elections, and instead would be hired by (and answer to) the city council. Removal of a city manager would require two-thirds of the city council votes.
District 3 City Councilor Roscoe Turner was behind the proposal. "This is what needs to happen," Turner said at the July 6 city council meeting. "Right now, if my people want something done in their area, I've got to come to City Hall and talk to some underling from the Mayor's Office to get something done. And if he's mad at me, he'll just turn a deaf ear to me," Turner said.
Turner wants to bring the mayor to the council chamber to allow for more transparency in government. "No one knows who's deciding what until they bring it down [to us]," he said. "If you turn the lights on, the cockroaches will run."
In cities of comparable size, about 49 percent have a City Council/City Manager form of government, according to a study of 7,000 cities with a population of 2,500 or more. The study was conducted on behalf of the city council.
Oklahoma City employs a city manager.
About 44 percent of comparable cities have implemented a Strong Mayor/City Council government.
A much smaller percentage of U.S. cities utilize a City Commission (like Tulsa more than 20 years ago or Portland) or Town Hall style (New England towns) of government.
The Tulsa Metro Chamber and Tulsa League of Women Voters have come out against all of the proposed changes to the city charter, including the council's proposal and Save Our Tulsa's initiatives.
The Save Our Tulsa (SOT) props will be included in the ballot because the group collected about 27,000 signatures from Tulsans who supported the ideas they've put forth.
Chairman and founder of SOT John Brock talked to UTW to better explain the three proposals you'll see on November's ballot.
Brock said the SOT crew has worked on these proposals for the past seven years, and it's now or never. "Our committee is made up of about 70 or 80 people from all parts of town," Brock said. "We keep hearing that we're just a bunch of rich white guys from the south side."
To clarify, Brock said, "We're a bunch of old coots who have nothing to gain but to hope our grandchildren will have a beautiful place to live. So, in that respect I guess we're guilty."
"We have interviewed mayors both current and past, from Oklahoma City and Tulsa, councilors current and past, and a lot of these ideas came from there," Brock said.
"When this system [Strong Mayor/City Council] started 20 years ago, [former councilors] will tell you that this conflict between the council and mayor has been going on since day one," Brock said.
The first two SOT initiatives haven't received much fire, but the third has created a lot of fuss and contention.
One initiative would make our municipal elections non-partisan. "That will eliminate disenfranchisement," Brock said.
The second initiative would streamline terms so that they'd all be two years and the elections would be held at the same time as federal elections. "It would increase turnout radically and keep special interests from controlling the offices," Brock said.
"The councilors we've elected were chosen with only 10 percent of the vote," Brock explained, "A lot more people will turn out as a result of both of those things."
The third ballot question put forth by SOT is causing the most contention. It would amend the city charter to put the mayor on the city council, too, but with some key differences from the council's proposal.
In SOT's proposal, the mayor would join the council but would remain in charge of the city's day-to-day operations. Additionally, three at-large councilors would be added to the council, for a total of 13.
"The councilors keep complaining they can't get [the mayor's] attention. So how do we get them to cooperate?" Brock asked. "Well, we put 'em in a room together and throw away the key, and work out their differences in the council room rather than in the press," he said.
Additionally, this SOT proposal would add three at-large councilors from three "super districts." One district will be primarily north Tulsa, one east and one west, Brock explained.
"Councilors believe it's going to dilute their ability to vote," he said. To preserve minority influence in north Tulsa, Brock said they combined Districts 1, 3 and 4 (those with more racially diverse areas) into the first super district.
"We think [at-large councilors] are important because of the accusation of 'ward politics,' and what has happened with five councilors ganging up on the other four. If you have more councilors, that will be harder to do," Brock said.
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