Tulsa’s City Auditor Race – Did You Know We Had One?

By Lisa Stringer, Tulsa Today    
Thursday, 30 March 2006
It took Michael Willis a while to warm to the idea of entering the Tulsa city auditor’s race. Now that he has, he’s on fire.

Willis, a Republican, will face incumbent city auditor Phil Woods on April 4. Voters have consecutively elected Woods to the office for the past 18 years – often because he lacked an opponent.

Willis, who had heard rumors that Woods might retire, was first approached in 2004 about the possibility of running for the office.

“I really considered it, but I decided it might not be the right place for me at the time,” he said, adding that he didn’t feel he knew enough about the responsibilities of the position.

The 25-year-old Willis, who has served four years as director of government relations for the City of Tulsa under the LaFortune administration, did his homework, and by May 2005 had begun to plan his bid for the 2006 election.

Talk of Woods’ retirement persisted, and Willis met with the incumbent – they both have offices on the same floor at City Hall – with the hope of obtaining an endorsement.

“He told me that he was ‘absolutely not’ going to retire,” Willis said. “The last thing he said to me as I left his office was, ‘That doesn’t mean you can’t run.’”

Woods’ comment might not have been a gauntlet thrown, but Willis has taken up the challenge.

“While Mr. Woods and I have always had a friendly relationship, I decided that I could bring some new ideas and some new energy to the table that would set me apart,” he said.

“I’m really confident in what I’m doing. I believe in it and I think it’s an area where I can make a difference.”

Willis’ educational background and experience in city government are strong indicators of his dedication to “making a difference.” Growing up in southwest Tulsa and graduating from Sapulpa High School, Willis earned his bachelor of arts degree in public administration and administration at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Working as a researcher at OU for a year before entering graduate school, he moved back to Tulsa when he took a position with the City of Tulsa. He completed his master’s degree in public administration at OU-Tulsa’s Schusterman campus in December 2004.

Willis said part of his campaign strategy is education.

“As I’ve been campaigning, I have found that most people in Tulsa don’t even realize that we have an elected city auditor,” he said. “It’s not the highest-profile position at City Hall, either, so there’s not much press associated with it, or high-level interest. It’s such an overlooked position that there aren’t many people lining up to run for it, and there’s very little public knowledge about it.

Willis explained that the city auditor overlooks all of the City’s financials – including all revenues and expenditures – and assesses the risk of loss or waste.

“That’s all very important, but the City charter also charges the auditor with auditing the City’s operations,” he said. “I have a very comprehensive plan to work with the City Council to do performance audits, so we can try to find better ways of doing things.”

Willis said the charter actually prohibits the city auditor from effecting performance audits without the express permission of the City Council.

“In the past, that has been used as an excuse for not doing those performance audits, but I can’t think of any City Council member that I’ve ever worked with who would say no to a performance audit,” he said.

Willis said communication would be a key part of his job.
“Communication is huge in any organization, and while the city auditor is completely independent of the mayor and the City Council, I think it’s incredibly important that we have an auditor who proactively communicates with both the mayor and City Council to try to find those areas where we can save money, or where we can produce a greater amount of service for the citizens while spending the same amount of money that we do now,” he said. “I’m all about efficiency and effectiveness in the city auditor’s office and the City as an organization.”

Willis said many cities measure their outputs for use as a basis for effective programming.

“They measure how many potholes they fill in a year, or the number of traffic citations issued, or how many millions of gallons of water they pump out to the residents in a year,” he said. “We don’t currently do that on a citywide level in Tulsa, and we’ve got to do that to be able to compare ourselves to other service providers, other cities.

“Cities, like businesses, are competitors with each other, and while the city government cannot be run exactly like a business, we should try to implement as many facets of the business world as we can into what we do at the city level.”

Willis said the city auditor should be able to make recommendations on implementing those policies and procedures needed to make city government more efficient – something he feels the current city auditor has not done.

“Mr. Woods is very focused on the financials – which is probably the most fundamentally important function the city auditor’s office is charged with – but the primary difference between us is that I want to work on performance audits and communicate with the mayor and the City Council about how we can do things better. While that happens somewhat, I think we need to greatly increase our efforts in those areas,” he said.

Willis said the city auditor’s staff consists of 12 people.

“Those 12 people have all kinds of different disciplines – some are certified internal auditors, some are certified public accountants, some are certified fraud examiners, and there are some disciplines I’m not even aware of,” he said.

“They’re a talented group of folks, and I really believe that we’ll be able to increase the city’s profile and make it a leaner, more efficient by taking these proactive measures.”

Willis said the mayor and the City Council are constantly embroiled with a “relatively small set of issues” – police, public safety, jobs and economic development – that will always be hot-button items.

“No matter who the mayor is or who’s on the City Council, many of these issues – such as equipment management or parks and recreation– don’t get as much attention as they should, and there’s really no push to change anything we’ve done in the past,” he said. “The city auditor should really act as an independent consultant and be able to make money-saving or service-increasing changes and recommendations.

“I think the citizens demand that, and that’s where the auditor can make a huge difference – by helping make recommendations to those departments that don’t get a lot of attention from the management.”

Willis credits his work with the mayor’s office, the City Council, and other area governments for developing his enthusiasm for positive change.

“It’s been a great experience, and I’ve learned quite a bit from all those people I’ve worked with over the past four years,” he said. “I have a great job, but I see an opportunity to make a difference here. Running for office is a major undertaking, but I believe in what we’re doing.”

Willis is an active member of several Tulsa civic organizations, including the leadership team of Tulsa’s Young Professionals.

“Over the last year, we’ve seen a huge opportunity to get our young professionals really motivated and interested in what happens in the community,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a huge voter turnout in that group like we’ve never seen before in this city. In fact, it was a significant factor in my decision to run for office.

“While many young people may not have the years and years – and years – of experience that some of our city officials have, we have a lot of great ideas. I think that for us to be sitting at the table will prove to be an asset for the city.
Between the different organizations – the Jaycees, the TY Pros, the Young Professionals of Tulsa – we’ve already made differences in the community, and I think it’s key that we’re involved in terms of our local leadership,” he said.

Last year, Willis served as president of the Southeast Tulsa Jaycees. He serves on numerous boards and is a member of the 34th Leadership Tulsa class.

Willis shares his home with his Boston terrier, Otto.

“Otto just turned two years old a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I was in the throes of campaigning, but I got him a new collar and some new treats he hadn’t tried yet. He hasn’t decided if he likes the new treats yet, but he likes the collar – he’s pretty good at demolishing collars after a couple of months. He’s a high-energy dog.”

And so, from all indications, is Otto’s candidate for Tulsa city auditor, Michael Willis.
Last Updated ( Thursday, 30 March 2006 )