Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Review

Monday, 10 November 2008
Edit Note:  Tulsans may learn a great deal from other cities with different forms of city government.  Tulsa Today began a series of reports on local governments within the region with the Little Rock review and continued with Mobile, Alabama then Lawrence, Kansas then Dallas, Texas and now how our sister metropolitan city in Oklahoma deals with the ongoing challenges of urban administration and progress.

Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.
– John Naisbitt

Rebranding a product can be difficult. Rebranding a city is an even greater challenge, but it’s something that Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett hopes to accomplish during his term.

“There is a difference between someone saying I have to live in Oklahoma City or I get to live in Oklahoma City,” Cornett said. “We want them to see this city as a great place to live because it is. We lack traffic congestion in our city, have clean air as well as ample fresh water in areas where jobs can be created and those are great selling points.”

Cornett hopes to make those points more visible through a number of different marketing initiatives.  The idea is to create a city where people want to be,” he said.

Oklahoma City Municipal Structure

Elected halfway into his predecessor’s term, Cornett is in his fifth year as mayor, where he serves in a council manager form of government.

“It’s non-partisan,” he says. “It’s comprised of eight council people and a mayor, and the mayor presides over council meetings and nominates individuals for a total of 33 boards.”

He says the best thing about this system is that it allows him to hire experts at running day to day operations and provides the opportunity for a mayor and council members to focus on the “direction, vision, and policies for the city manager and the rest of the staff.”

Along with offering appointment authority, it’s the type of system that removes the mayor and council from personnel decisions.

“It might surprise people to know that we are not to be involved in those issues. When a new police chief is named, we are informed by the city manager and are not allowed to be involved.”

In this system, what the city manager hires and who the mayor appoints are kept separate. Cornett describes the greatest challenge in this system as preventing a block on votes or the act of trading votes among council people.

“In the past, we had a council where people were divided in teams and they voted in concert. Our system today is an honest and straight forward system and does not have voting clicks. That provides a refreshing point of view,” he said.

Cornett, who had a significant career in journalism covering sports, always thought he would do something in this field.

“I envisioned it much later in my career, but the time table switched from sports to news and I ended up covering city hall. I started my own business following that and again switched priorities. I decided then that I wanted to be on the city council and I ran against a two time incumbent and won,” he said. “There was no long term plan to the mayor’s office. It just turned out like it has.”

Cornett conducts his business from a beautiful historic city hall municipal building that was built in 1936. (www.okc.gov/city_hall/index.html) He is the 35th mayor to take office and, at age, 45, he is the youngest mayor to hold office, since 1959.

Frances Kersey has been serving as the Oklahoma City Clerk for the last 27 years.

“It is unusual to be in one department for that amount of time, but I am not elected. I am appointed by the city manager.  Some clerks are elected, but the position is appointed here,” she said.

She says the chain of command is the best thing about the current system.

“It is very clear who everybody reports to and it is clear that the mayor and council can not interfere in personnel matters. We are protected in that we report to the city manager,” she said. “In a strong mayor form of government, those boundaries can get crossed. That’s probably the main difference from other systems.”

Kersey, who has lived in Oklahoma City for 29 years, believes the downfall to this system is that the mayor is perceived more as a figurehead and not so much as a strong mayor, and that council members are considered to be more like part time volunteers rather than strong politicians. “That is a drawback,” she said. “They are not given the credit that they deserve. I wouldn’t want to work for any other form of government than what I have here.”

Oklahoma City Initiatives

Improving education and creating jobs are two priorities that Cornett has identified.

“We have a seven year program in effect to rebuild all 75 buildings in our school system,” he said. “We know that the educated workforce will want to be in that system. In the 21st century, jobs are going to go to where the people are. That is why we are focusing on rebranding and creating a place where people want to live.”  He continued, “Investing $125 million into what is going to be a new sports arena is part of that initiative.”

Oklahoma City is also positioning itself to relocate Interstate 40 seven blocks south in 2012.

“Our long range plan is to create a large central park and take advantage of the location of the interstate. We want to create the grandest street in the state Oklahoma. The thought is that we are going to create a place out of a street instead of just designing a place to build a park,” he said.

It may seem that Oklahoma City is following Tulsa’s lead, as they are making long range plans to develop a new convention center, but it is something that has been on the agenda.

“We need one and it’d be nice to put that along the boulevard as well. It’s an initiative that we will take to the citizens,” Cornett said.

Along with new construction, Oklahoma City seems to be fairing well in uncertain economic conditions. Forbes Magazine has already named the area as one of the most recession proof in the economy.

“Our revenue is still going up remarkably. This fiscal year has been really, really good for us,” he said.

Success comes as the result of what is said to be growing energy, aviation, and biomedical fields and the vast number of governmental agencies in the city. “Since we are the state capital, we have tens of thousands of government jobs. In a recession, those are good jobs to have in a community.”

If Oklahoma City is the recipient of more federal assistance than other areas, that is difficult to say. Cornett believes, in affairs as such, it is better to be the state capital than to not be.

Image“For one, you have state legislatures that are familiar with your city. If you look at the way things are funded, however, Oklahoma City has not received its share. What you will see is that Tulsa will get something and that Oklahoma City and rural areas will get something,” he said. “Oklahoma City is larger than one third of the state. It’s often inferred that we should share more with Tulsa. Based on our population, we actually should get more, but we are not complaining.”

Municipal Funding

It all comes down to taxation.

“In the state of Oklahoma, municipalities are funded by sales tax. In Texas, 25 percent comes from sales tax. That forces the city government to chase retail and to compete for what side of the street Wal-Mart will be located to achieve the other 75%,” Cornett said. “In a system as such, the viability of smaller cities is going to be determined by who got a Wal-Mart or who did not. There are two sides of the coin, as we are overly reliant on sales tax and that is very inconsistent when you are trying to budget.”

Cornett says the media is often too quick to compare one city to another using all sorts of criteria. “The only city that can truly compare to Oklahoma City would be Tulsa, as their municipalities operate under those of the same state government. It is fair to compare Tulsa in the way that it is funded,” he said.

On the same note, he encourages a more unified approach between the residents of Tulsa and Oklahoma City because the two share a common agenda and could accomplish more by working together than competing.

“That way, we would speak as one voice, instead of two.”

Christopher Knight once said, “You must have mindshare before you can have market share.” Considered the invitation to Tulsans extended.

What I do is so, this world will know, it will not change me. –Garth Brooks

There’s a saying that if the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign which reads, "Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday," you’ve created advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed, that’s publicity. If you can get the mayor to calm down about his flowerbed, that’s public relations.

If the town’s citizens then go to the circus and you show them the many entertainment booths; explaining how much fun they’ll have spending money at the booths, and they spend a lot at the circus, that’s sales. Getting someone to identify an area with something else…that’s rebranding.

Image“Oklahoma is synonymous with many things, but none so much as the Oklahoma City bombings, which garnered International media coverage,” Cornett said. “In many respects, I think that we are a very cosmopolitan place that has moved on, but people in other areas are very aware of it and that presents significant branding issues for this community. I think it is important to remember that half of our population did not live here or was not born yet when the bombing occurred, but it is a significant part of our history.”

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum was established to pay respect to that history and to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever.

Before the bombing, Oklahoma City was a vibrant community with many attractive rural features, known for its rich Indian heritage. Rebuilding has been a significant task, but crisis readiness is something this city knows a little about.

Oklahoma City is unique in that Cornett serves as its spokesperson. Because of his extensive background in the media, he doesn’t delegate that task. Few have his experience when it comes to crisis reporting.

“When something occurs, our response is to gather information and to allow the media complete access. Rather than call a press conference, we will chose an hour or two where I am available to the press. We don’t call press conferences to bring positive attention to ourselves or to generate publicity, we do it to distribute needed information,” he said.

City Demographics

Oklahoma City was considered the 29th largest city in 2000. “I think it is the 30th today. In 2010, we’ll pass Portland,” Cornett said. “The majority of our city is Caucasian, 15% African American, 10-12% Hispanic, with a number of other minorities below five percent.”

The city does offer a high quality of life but residents are almost completely reliant on the automobile. “We are not very pedestrian friendly,” he said. “There is plenty of affordable housing. Our real estate market never rescinded and our housing values are continually increasing.”

At present, average median income is $35,000, among the lowest in the nation, but the cost of living is the second lowest in the nation.

The Oklahoman is Oklahoma’s City’s major metro newspaper.

One interesting fact about Oklahoma City is that a person must have a permit to have a yard sale, which costs $7 and can be obtained by filing with the License Division at 420 West Main Street in Oklahoma City. Residents are limited to two garage sales per year. Those who do not comply with regulations are subject to a fine of up to $200, plus costs.
See it in this light…

Oklahoma has a rich history. It is most famous for the “land run” competitions, nicely portrayed in Ron Howard’s, 1992 film, Far and Away, featuring Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman.

After Oklahoma City settled in 1889, the city became a center for oil production. The capital building at 23rd and Lincoln is the only capital in the nation with an oil well under it.

Oklahoma City remains the largest city in Oklahoma. According to Adam Knapp, the name originated from the Choctaw words “okla,” meaning “people,” and “humma,” meaning “red.” When translated, it means “red people.”

The area is known for introducing the first shopping cart and remains the headquarters for the Amateur Softball Association of America, founded in Oklahoma City in 1933.

The Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995 was considered the largest domestic terrorist attack in the nation’s history, until the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

About the author:
Tracy L. Crain is a freelance writer. She holds degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and completed post graduate work at the University of Memphis in Tennesse. To reach her, send an email to tlcrain10@aol.com.
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 11 November 2008 )