POSTED ON OCTOBER 26, 2011:
All Tricks and No Treats
No to the czar and the hydra-headed City Council
Change can be great, but not when it's half-baked, anti-democratic and packed with grizzly side effects. On Tuesday, Nov. 8 Tulsans will vote on a bundle of City Hall "change" propositions.
Replacing our elected mayor with an unelected bureaucratic/quasi-corporate "city manager"
"Packing" the city council with three at large councilors/mini mayors to "realign" the city's legislative body.
I'm taking a final look at these two elements of this toxic ensemble this week. Next time, we'll look at the other piece: an innocent sounding, but truly insidious scheme that allows candidates to run as "phantoms" for city office and actively hide their philosophical leanings from regular voters.
The Czar: A Non-Starter
The city manager proposal would replace our elected mayor with a faceless bureaucrat/czar selected via back room negotiations by Tulsa's City Council and a deeply conventional, "find all the usual suspects" recruitment process. The proposed city manager would do what the current mayor/staff are doing but without a direct connection to voters and real accountability.
We could argue, narrowly, that a new city "form" is now unnecessary: the supposed rational for these big changes -- our almost two year mayor/council dysfunction -- could be in abeyance since we have an almost completely new council. Obviously a newly productive mayor/council depends on better duo dynamics, but the recent wholesale change made by voters provides a second shot at getting things right in a time of real challenge.
Our fundamental problem is not management, or even the very real and terribly counterproductive mayor/council mayhem of the last two years.
We have a slew of managers at City Hall and a Tulsa mayor can hire a small army of senior staffers who are able to work directly with him/her and the professional civil service folks who run city government.
No, our challenge is leadership and direction; we need to fully recover from the monumental mayor/council clash of the last 24 months and move on to our real challenges. We need the grand chemistry at City Hall that can fuse imagination, compelling strategy, superb communication, coalition moxie and chutzpah to put T-Town on its best trajectory.
The proposed city manager proposition is not only wrongheaded, it's also an instance where the wrong problem is being attacked. Tulsa city government is not like an airplane that needs to be correctly piloted, it's more like a symphony with dozens of players that requires a composer, great music and a compelling work culture. Ever heard of Daley of Chicago (the older and the younger), Bloomberg or Giuliani of New York City, or Bradley of Los Angeles? Obviously these are the last names of mayor's -- arguably great ones -- that had huge impacts on their cities. Each had a sharp, tightly crafted notion of the best face and futures for the places they were elected to lead; and in every case they fashioned city council alliances, energized activists of every variety, enlisted political party operatives and sometimes secured the backing of national politico's. And in every case they crafted a real agenda, and with their city councils, got things done.
Here in Tulsa, we could celebrate the transformative contribution made by former Mayor Bill LaFortune: passage of the Vision 2025 improvement package. LaFortune put together a countywide alliance that secured voter approval of 2025. This successful, robust development campaign was leadership intensive, required intricate negotiations and entailed much -- dare I say it -- politics. Vision 2025 also improves Green Country's mid-run trajectory.
We could also talk about ex Mayor Kathy Taylor's amazing, and largely successful efforts to re-animate Tulsa's downtown with the energetic launch of the BOK arena, the Driller Stadium relocation gambit and the bold move to our new City Hall. Taylor and LaFortune were far from perfect mayor's but they were, arguably, effective leaders, and did risky "push" work that will very likely be avoided by folks typically recruited for city manager posts.
Generalizations are tricky, but "city manager" towns tend to be largely devoid of economic, social, racial or political diversity, places without T-Town's challenges or prospects. An obvious exception is OKC: but assuming that OKC's current good fortune has anything to do with its' city manager governance is ludicrous. OKC has had a city manager system for decades: including long stints when most Tulsans saw OKC as "dumpsville" and Tulsa as the golden spot.
The Hydra Headed Monster:"Super Duper" Councilors
A thought experiment: imagine that a national constitution reform creates twenty new U.S. senators: five new ones for the north, the south, the east and the western part of our country. In the first of a two-step process, super senators would be nominated -- presumably producing five republicans and five democrats from each of our four regions. In the second stage, we would all vote on the "national" super senators, during a presidential election year. Know anybody who would cotton to this idea? We would get a bevy of immediate presidential candidates who turn the limelight towards themselves: many would be running for president the moment they were elected.
Well, take away the national piece of this imagining and substitute three "super counselors" running for citywide posts and you get "Save Out Tulsa" (SOT). SOT calls for adding three new folks to the council: supposedly these people, residents of North, South and Mid super districts would work for the "common good", since they would reside in each super district but be elected by everyone.
In all likelihood we'd get a batch of "min-mayors", winning councilors who might overshadow a mayor's agenda or routinely put forward substitutes for it. This outcome would make a mockery of citywide contests for mayor and is likely to produce paralysis and much more chaos at City Hall.
My suggestion: vote against the czar and the hydra-headed/SOT scheme. Both are poorly thought through, didn't come from the extensive, communitywide engagement that characterized, say, our grand PlaniTulsa process, are hugely antidemocratic and...scary.
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