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April 2006 Archives

April 10, 2006

Position of Tulsans Defending Democracy Regarding At-Large Representation

The following statement was presented by Greg Bledsoe on behalf of Tulsans Defending Democracy at the Friday, April 7, 2006, meeting of the Citizens' Commission on City Government.


Our group was formed in late October of 2005 to oppose the initiative petition drive of Tulsans for Better Government to reduce the number of individual city council districts from 9 to 6 and to add 3 at-large councilors to Tulsa’s City Council. It is multiracial and bi-partisan. It is made up of liberals, moderates and conservatives.

My name is Greg Bledsoe. Let me briefly tell you who I am. I have lived in Tulsa since 1971 when I came here to college. I began my legal career in 1979. I work primarily as a plaintiff’s civil rights and employment lawyer. In 1987, Jim Goodwin recruited me along with Louis Bullock and several other lawyers, to represent some of the plaintiffs in the voting rights case that was filed against the City of Tulsa by the NAACP over the at-large City Commission form of government.

Because people who fail to study history are often doomed to repeat it I think it is important to give you some history of Tulsa and how the present charter came to be.

Continue reading "Position of Tulsans Defending Democracy Regarding At-Large Representation" »

Don McCorkell's letter in opposition to at-large councilors

The following letter was sent in October 2005 by former State Rep. Don McCorkell to all board members of Tulsans for Better Government, the group pushing for replacing three council districts with three at-large seats on the council. Kathy Taylor, sworn in today as Mayor of Tulsa, was among the recipients of this letter.

As your friend, I feel compelled to share with you my personal reasons for opposing the proposed charter change that would reduce the number of city councilors elected by district to six and add three at large representatives. As someone that is seriously considering and likely to enter the race for Mayor of Tulsa, it is certain that my position will soon be the subject of much discussion. As such, I want to make certain that personal friends on the other side of this issue are told of my position by me personally. I also know that our friendship will withstand our opposing positions on the proposed charter change.

I know that you and the other committee members have the best interests of our city at heart. Yet, I feel that the unintended consequences of this proposal are extraordinarily dangerous to our city’s future.

First, I have probably as much reason as any Tulsa citizen to be upset with our dysfunctional city government. However, the fact that I believe the mayor and a couple of the councilors have acted irresponsible is not a sound reason to oppose representative democracy.

Throughout the country, cities with councilors chosen by district elections work extremely well. Councilors bring to their role the varied perspectives of differing parts of their city and after much discussion and debate usually unite to serve the best interests of their community. If Tulsa has failed to meet the mark in the last few years, it is due to the lack of leadership necessary to arrive at consensus.

Lack of leadership is a defect best resolved at the ballot box. Broad citizen support for government and the actions of government can only exist under a system of government where every citizen has the right to feel enfranchised.

The selection of three councilors at large will radically reduce the power of individuals and every individual neighborhood throughout the city. Beyond that, whose power would be increased under the proposal? Would the change even decrease the likelihood of a continuation of the dysfunctional spectacle that we currently witness at city hall? I personally believe that it could exacerbate the situation and ensure more of the same.

The fact is that it costs several hundred thousand dollars to successfully run for an at large office in the City of Tulsa. Races for City Council are often successful with less than 20 thousand dollars because the candidate can campaign on a more personal and direct level with citizens. Having three more at large races would price most citizens, except the wealthy or those supported by moneyed special interests, out of running for office. While I would now be able to compete in such a race due to my business successes, I certainly could not have, if that had been the situation when I ran for the legislature. I took considerable pride in my legislative career in being able to challenge powerful special interests when I felt they were wrong.

Under the proposed charter change, legitimate debate would be stifled by the lack of average citizen access to the more powerful positions of councilor at large that would claim a "citywide" mandate.

Electing four city officials (the mayor and three counselors) at large will dilute the leadership which can be offered from the Mayor’s office by someone who is really committed to moving this city forward. You will have three "mayors in waiting", some of whom perhaps can, and will, argue that they received more votes than the Mayor, and thus they should be the real "leaders" because they "have a larger mandate" than that Mayor. At the same time, the council will be permanently divided between the "lesser" members (i.e., ones representing districts) and the "greater" members (those elected at large).

Finally, on a very personal note, I happened to serve on jury duty last week. It was an extraordinary experience because it reaffirmed my faith our citizenry. Naturally as a person who has both lost and won political races, I sometimes disagree with their choice. Nevertheless, I truly believe virtually all citizens take their citizenship very seriously and do what they honestly believe is right. My fellow jurors were from every walk of life, with dramatically different educational backgrounds, economic and social circumstances, races, and creeds. Yet every one of them did their civic duty with the utmost sense of sincerity. With all the weaknesses and problems of the jury system, no one has yet come up with a system which more often produces fair and just results. The same is true of representative democracy. It is indeed, as Winston Churchill said, "the worst form of government except for all of the rest."

If we are not happy with the council we should first try to communicate more effectively with those council members, to persuade them of the value of our positions. If they are not persuaded, we each have the right to run against them, or support another candidate. That is the way democracy can and should work. Taking the power away from the people that was given them just a few years ago and giving that power to an "elite" -- any "elite" is simply wrong. I am firmly convinced that the problems we face today are not due to the structure of a representative democracy, but are simply due to the lack of leadership.

Elite, high dollar councilors, elected at large will not only not solve these problems, but will make this city government even more distant from its own people.

With Warm Regards,

Don McCorkell

Comments of former Councilor Gary Watts

Former Councilor and City Finance Commissioner Gary Watts, who was part of the committee that designed the 1989 City Charter, wrote the following comments, which were read at the Friday, April 7, 2006 meeting of the Citizens' Commission on City Government:

There are so many considerations in determining the best Council set up. We struggled with most considerations in 1988. Because we didn't want to go to the trouble to change to a mayor/council form of government and then be challenged for a voting rights violation, we were advised that we needed to have enough single member districts to assure minority representation. We also didn't want to have a large number of councilors and the lousy dynamics that a large group brings (leadership control, party line voting, etc.). So nine was the smallest odd number that would assure compliance with the voting rights act. We have now had nine councils elected of which I served on five. Every District has produced strong councilors who were motivated to serve for the right reasons. Many Districts have produced councilors who have been more about narrow agendas and egos than the good of the city, and these have come from north, south, east and west. City Hall lore has many stories of lousy city commissioners who were elected at large, so I am convinced that at large representation will not improve overall quality. The election Tuesday appears to have produced a good council, time will tell, but it appears the system has worked to provide needed changes. Unlike the campaign dynamics of at large elections, which are much about money, several council elections showed that person to person contact, grass roots campaigning is an effective way to win a seat, more so than spending money. I think that is a very good thing. A truly strong mayor can find many ways to instill a city wide spirit among councilors. The one area I've observed where district representation can become a significant problem is with zoning decisions. We need to be sure that councilors vote their independent position on zoning and not "defer" to the councilor whose district is affected. To date mayors have remained clear of most such battles, but that does not have to be the case. I don't believe our form of government is broken; those who want to fix it would help our community much more by advocating for improvement of municipal services, matters of substance like public transportation, rather than chasing charter change because one Council out of nine became disfunctional.

About April 2006

This page contains all entries posted to Tulsans Defending Democracy in April 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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