River review

By David Arnett    
Monday, 29 October 2007
Local Political Analysis:  Northeastern Oklahoma mishandled a great opportunity to move quickly forward with economic and cultural development when the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan’s first incremental offering was defeated on October 9, 2007.

Everyone lost.  The proponents lost by their own choices.  The opponents lost all credibility as a result of their lies and distortions.  Both local political parties showed deep divisions.  Nobody won – not even the pathetic principles of pedagogic demagogism including some elected.

I am and will remain a supporter of river restoration and development.  I was at the table for many pro-river meetings, but I was not allowed a voice in strategic or tactical decisions.  I received more than one text message during such meetings to “be nice” – and I was, but “nice” didn’t win the prize.  Though this analysis may well aggravate every side of the issue, it’s a fact that change is in the wind and change is exactly what is needed now.

In short, you cannot win a bricks-and-mortar public vote with a cotton candy campaign.  The “Our River Yes” campaign was irritatingly void of substance, based on emotion rather than on fact, and generally gay – as in limp-wristed, wimpy and non-confrontational.

Point of fact:  On the open field of public debate, if lies stand unopposed, truth has no chance.  The “Our River Yes” campaign early made the decision not to debate, choosing not to answer lies, distortions, misrepresentations or issue diversions.  It was far too genteel an effort, considering the early efforts by the long-established mud-throwing opposition.

In most, if not all, other cities in the world, matching private gifts of $117 million to go with $282.25 million of public money would be a classic “no-brainer.”  How rare is it for a community to be offered such an opportunity?  Very rare – and multiplying public money with private money is usually welcome.

However, Tulsa is spoiled.  The beneficiaries of the great wealth generated primarily by oil revenues over many years, some Tulsans take philanthropic gifts as a right, not a blessing – a foolish error.

Wealth is not obligated to contribute one thin dime at any time to any community.  If and when such gifts occur in the future, please remember there are many worldwide causes as beneficially charitable as any local need in Northeastern Oklahoma – those who can give to Tulsa do so because they love this community.

However, some Tulsans resent being told what to do with public money by wealthy contributors, and the opposition used that resentment to further its message – something that could certainly be called “Class Warfare 2007,” which is now even promoted by some so-called Republicans.

The opposition was basically composed of the same group that has unsuccessfully opposed every other infrastructure campaign in the last ten years.  They attack personally.  They distort repeatedly.  They are evil, but they are not stupid – and they won this one.

The “No River Tax” signage was printed a year in advance of the vote and long before the propositions were even written.  Unfortunately, that early position influenced media.  Even the daily newspaper, while supporting the initiative with excellent news coverage and insightful editorial pieces, used the headline “River Tax” repeatedly.  Who would vote for a river tax?  This was not a vote to impose a tax on the river, but to assign 0.4 percent of one penny sales tax for river development and restoration for a term of seven years or less.  Thus the opposition won the early positioning battle.

Early polling indicated the “Our River Yes” campaign started 25 points down, and though almost winning the vote was an accomplishment, it wasn’t enough.

The poor condition of Tulsa’s city streets has become a major issue of public discontent.  While it is a fair criticism, this vote was a Tulsa County infrastructure package – and despite what others may assert, the City of Tulsa is not and has not been engaged in significant street maintenance for several years.  The vast majority of street work is done by contracts lumped into the “3rd Penny” propositions – which began as a capital infrastructure program, but has devolved into necessary operations and maintenance so that the police and fire department may keep their salaries elevated.  Sequencing in street repair also appears to be an issue driven by politics rather than need.

Tulsa Mayor Kathy L. Taylor played an active part in the “Our River Yes” effort, but her effectiveness is still open to debate.  She is less of a consensus builder than a hardnosed administrator or private boss – the nickname “Mayor Mom” is gaining usage within her supportive group of Democrats.  She did deliver the best line of the campaign, “Tulsa’s history began with the river and our future depends on it.”

However, Mayor Taylor’s public release of news that a gift of private money was included for north Tulsa alienated supporters in the other 10 Tulsa County municipalities that had been told the propositions were “only for the river.”  The propositions were only for the river, but the private philanthropic gifts included the $5 million.  At that point, many in the suburbs appeared to stop campaigning for the propositions.

ImageFurther confusing the voters was The Channels proposal of 2006, an ambitious plan proposed by private folk which had been dismissed in large part by the Arkansas River Corridor Advisory Committee, though was not clearly denounced by the “Our River Yes” group.  Some voters were under the mistaken impression that The Channels project was a component of this vote.

Exit polls indicate that if just half of that group had voted yes, the proposition would have passed.  (By the way, where were the member organizations of the Advisory Committee?)  The notable and honorable exceptions are the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) and the US Corps of Engineers.  Of course, they are the principal proponents of the Master Plan, but they were drowned in a chorus of discontent.

It is a true joke that Michael D. Bates, the self-appointed “intellectual leader of the opposition,” has no formal education in public policy or government – and it doesn’t really matter how prestigious a school he attended, if he wasn’t enrolled in the subject specific classes.

In addition, it appears that Bates has issues with women in positions of power – I wonder if his segment of Christianity makes that an issue of faith like the Muslims.  He has rushed the stage to confront Mayor Kathy Taylor and County Commissioner Randi Miller.  He superimposed a picture of Commissioner Miller’s face on a wrecking ball destroying an old part of the city during a river presentation.  It was neither relevant nor appropriate; it was a personal attack.  Further, he attacked a private citizen, Nancy Rothman, and only by her good grace has a lawsuit not been filed.  Tulsa Today covered that story [click here for more], but not the many other lies and distortions of that batty boy Bates [click here for more history].

Jim Hewgley III was the greatest disappointment.  While he has continually harped on city street issues since losing his elected job as Tulsa Street Commissioner several decades ago, Hewgley lied.  He asserted that the “Our River Yes” plan did not have the approval of the U.S. Corps of Engineers.  Bull-hockey – they have been involved from the beginning.  Their logo is on the cover of the report.  They paid for half the cost of the study.  Deliberate lies are evil.

Additional falsehood was provided by John Eagleton, City Councilor District 7, who asserted that “miraculous as it may sound,” he arrived “independently” at the same revelation at the same time as Bates that Vision 2025 contained all the money needed for river restoration and development.  This was a $200 million mistake in their calculations.  They came up with the same mistake, the same calculation, at the same time?  Come on, guys, stop lying.  This falsehood was covered by Tulsa Today first in “Rifting Tulsa this and river that” and in more detail in “Myths of river money.”

Wade McCaleb, Mayor of Broken Arrow since April 16, contributed significantly to the defeat of the river proposition, even though his city is on the river.  Previous administrations had been very supportive, but apparently McCaleb has gone back to turning his city away from river development.  Don’t misunderstand him as against taxes – he just wants taxes for other things.  What makes him a complete fool is that the current economic development plan for Broken Arrow touts “regional economic development.”  We think the mayor speaks with forked tongue – and for many, from this point forward, we would rather drive to Kansas City before we spend money in Broken Arrow.  Not understanding the importance of water and land and how they work together in the region may be why Broken Arrow floods with almost every rain.

Tulsa County is also responsible for providing the opposition momentum early, as Terry Simonson, the new First Deputy for Commissioner Randi Miller, opened his mouth prior to filling his brain with facts.  (That, by the way, is why he lost both his races years ago for mayor – by a politically deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance.)  The river opposition cheered his quotes as “manna from Heaven.”

Tulsa County Assessor Ken Yazel proved the old adage that “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”  Continually, Yazel asserts that Tulsa County taxes are too high – this from the official raising property taxes continually.  In fact, Oklahoma ranks 47th in the nation in taxation – it’s fourth from the bottom of the list.  Our taxes combined – all federal, state, local taxes in average as a percentage of income – currently stand at 28.2 percent.  The highest in the nation is Connecticut with 35.9 percent.  Yazel is also fond of comparing Tulsa County’s sales tax rate with those Oklahoma counties that have a fraction of the population and miniscule public services.

However, the greatest criticism I can level against anyone is rightly placed on my shoulders.  For four years I have served as the public information manager for PMg, the company hired to implement the Vision 2025 and 4-to-Fix programs for Tulsa County.  I have counseled – urged – begged – pleaded and otherwise advocated a more aggressive response that would directly answer those trying to make a career of damning what is the best-run, most transparent public building program in Oklahoma history.  However, Tulsa County doesn’t even have a public information officer and, as an organization, avoids media as they would rather just do their jobs – get the projects done – and let public debate flow where it will.

Those that opposed Vision 2025 – and every infrastructure program since including the river development – have spent those four years building their careers off of distortions and misrepresentations and falsehoods spun into conspiracy theories about the program that would make plot-hungry political-thriller writers drool.  As you can tell from these last few paragraphs, I have had about enough of that – and, as I wrote early in this analysis, change is coming and more than a few attitude adjustments are long over due.

Check Tulsa Today for the latest in local news on this and other issues.  To review the complete set of Tulsa Today stories on river development to date, click on the links below:

Tulsa can recover the Arkansas River (June 25)

Myths of river money (August 12)

Rifting Tulsa this and river that (August 20)

Tulsa senator thinks river tax is all wet (September 6)

Conservatives should support river infrastructure (September 17)

Congressman Sullivan supports river restoration (September 21)

Tulsa politics and propriety in punditry (September 24)

Key Corps of Engineers team member addresses Arkansas River development process (October 3)

Loyal opposition leader supports river development (October 4)

River questions muddy waters of decision (October 8)

Vote today on river restoration (October 9)

River restoration rejected (October 10)

Last Updated ( Monday, 29 October 2007 )