On June 11, 2016, Smart Growth Tulsa invited Mayor Bartlett and Councilor Bynum to respond to eight challenging and thought-provoking questions not widely discussed in the media or mayoral forums. A deadline for receiving their answers was set for the close of business on June 17th.
This election is about far more than streets and public safety, so often the focus of campaign rhetoric. If Tulsa is to be competitive with our peers, the next mayor will need to deal effectively with a wide range of looming societal, technological, environmental, economic and political change.
If you invest the time to read the questions and answers, we are confident you will gain valuable insight into the thought processes and energy levels of the two candidates. In some instances, the contrast is quite revealing.
There has been a significant decline in the number of millennials seeking a driver’s license. Increasingly, they prefer public transit, walking and bikes. This is a major factor when young professionals choose where to live. Compounding this is the growing demand for more mobility options among seniors and retirees.
What opportunities and challenges do these trends offer, and how will your administration deal with them?
BARTLETT ANSWER: As the city continues to grow, we continue to expand our city’s infrastructure. Transportation exists in many forms. People can use public transportation, walking, cars and bikes to navigate their way through the various parts of Tulsa. It is my job as Mayor to offer a variety of all of these options in order to be successful in providing a holistic transportation network. Connectivity is central to ensuring that transportation infrastructure is usable throughout the city. Looking toward the future, we will continue to invest in our transportation networks.
BYNUM ANSWER: As Chair of the Improve Our Tulsa initiative, I worked with my City Council colleagues to fund construction of Tulsa’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) line on the Peoria Corridor. I supported inclusion in the Vision renewal of funds to construct a second BRT line on the Route 66 Corridor and to then operate both lines. As Mayor, I will manage the construction and operational start for both of these BRT lines – options which I believe will change the way Tulsans view and use public transit.
I co-authored (with Councilor Blake Ewing) the ordinance allowing ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft to operate in Tulsa. On the car front, I believe we need to start thinking about the opportunities presented by driverless vehicles. Some of the greatest minds in corporate innovation today are developing that technology, and we ought to prepare accordingly.
I also assisted in the establishment of the Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the City’s Complete Streets Policy. I championed funding for the GO Plan in Improve Our Tulsa, and worked to start its implementation in the Vision renewal. As Mayor, I will support the establishment of more bike lanes and routes throughout the city. We need to be mindful as Tulsa continues to evolve with some areas of greater density than others. We need to grow bike-share programs and focus on strategic multimodal integration.
I have seen a significant shift in just the last decade at the City level away from a car-first mentality and toward a context-sensitive one. We need to continue that evolution to better serve the populations you mention, in both our planning and our execution.
Public open space is known to be critical to a city’s health and livability, to property values, to the environment and to the local economy. Yet Tulsa’s parks budgets have been shrinking as a percentage of the budget, damaging the city’s ability to maintain these important civic assets.
What is your plan for reversing this trend? How do you plan to preserve and invest in our open spaces?
BYNUM ANSWER: There are two approaches to addressing this issue.
First, we can treat the symptom through more creative parks funding initiatives. We can utilize what has worked in other cities – ideas like the establishment of conservancies for the upkeep and enhancement of individual parks or “adopt-a-park” programs. We can do a do a better job of marketing and developing Friends of Tulsa Parks – a non-profit intended to help fund park improvements. We can improve mobility around and access to Tulsa parks – particularly in North Tulsa and East Tulsa, where sidewalk access to our parks is a problem. We should consider a merger of the city and county parks programs, providing for more stable funding on an annual basis. The integration of private sector recreational opportunities (like the wakeboard park in Oklahoma City) to help fund individual parks should also be on the table.
Second, we have to address the root cause of park funding declines: Tulsa’s lack of growth. Our population growth has remained stagnant for 16 years. If your city isn’t growing but your costs continue to increase, you begin to pare back on services. This is why our parks budgets (and all city departmental budgets, though many to a lesser degree) have been pinched so much over the last two decades. Until we are willing to address our need for growth as a city, we will continue to manage decline rather than planning for success.
BARTLETT ANSWER: Creating partnerships with local organizations has strengthened many of our parks such as the Tulsa Zoo and the Gilcrease Museum. We need to evaluate the collaboration between the City and the County to preserve and maintain our existing parks. We have to work collectively to find synergies from a jointly funded model. Dedicated funding is also helpful to keeping other services from crowding out needed resources when budgets become tight, and this could be a component of consolidating our parks system.
In Tulsa, and across the nation there is a shortage of good quality, affordable housing with easy access to public transit, particularly close to downtowns.
What policies do you support to promote a more equitable and affordable housing supply?
BARTLETT ANSWER: Good infrastructure, accessibility, and connectivity are the best ways to stimulate growth in any area. We have made very good use of tax increment financing to assist in downtown development. Property tax abatement’s are also effective in assisting new developments gain a foothold before being charged property taxes.
BYNUM ANSWER: When we look at affordable housing, it is important to consider it in two different categories: high-quality rental stock and owner-occupied housing.
In the area of rental stock, the vast majority of new apartment units being built – particularly in the downtown area – are high-end units with high-end furnishings. These obviously do not promote affordable rents. The City can play a role in incentivizing more affordable housing rental stock through creative financing and land acquisition. The Tulsa Development Authority offers an ideal vehicle for land acquisition and possibly a guaranteed loan program, while the City itself should be an advocate at the State level for making sure Tulsa receives its fair share of low-to-moderate housing tax credits.
In the area of affordable owner-occupied housing, the City (again via the Tulsa Development Authority) can identify land – individual lots or tracts of land that is either vacant or in need of redevelopment – on which affordable owner-occupied housing can be constructed. The potential for the Tulsa Development Authority to offer down-payment assistance would improve accessibility to these new homeownership opportunities.
Tulsa is fortunate to have the legal and financial mechanisms in place to improve our volume of affordable housing, but we need a Mayor who will make it a priority for the City.
Resilience is sometimes defined as the capacity of individuals and communities to adapt, survive, and grow in the face of stress and shocks by anticipating and preparing for them. Climate change is cited as a major challenge to such preparedness.
How will your leadership help insure that our city is prepared to deal with the effects of climate change and natural disasters and what areas will you prioritize?
BYNUM ANSWER: As an avid outdoorsman and Eagle Scout, I believe we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our environment on behalf of future generations. As an employee of the American Red Cross during one of the worst ice storms in Tulsa history, I know the importance of disaster preparedness.
The reality is that Tulsa has a long history of being afflicted by natural disasters. We reside in Tornado Alley. We have faced historic flooding. We lose power due to ice storms in the winter, and we keep a close eye on our water supply due to drought conditions in the summer. We used to be able to rely on at least being exempt from earthquakes, but today even that has become a routine concern.
Any mayor in a city facing those types of natural disasters should prioritize preparation for future disasters. As mayor, I won’t be caught by surprise when a snowstorm hits. We will begin long-overdue improvements to our levee system. We will listen to the members of the City’s Stormwater Drainage and Hazard Mitigation Advisory Board when they raise concerns. We will plan properly for the impacts of earthquakes on our city’s buildings and infrastructure. And we must continue to modernize our tornado alert system. All of these will be priorities during my time as Mayor, because the lives of our fellow Tulsans depends on it. We will establish Tulsa as the national leader in disaster preparedness.
BARTLETT ANSWER: Resilience is very important to me and my administration. We have been awarded a position in the 100 Resilient Cities network pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, an international network of cities working to become more resilient. We are working to create a plan to be completely resilient to not just the challenges of shocks created by natural disasters, but also the constant stresses of operating a city in various economic climates. We are building a plan to be more economically, socially, and systemically resilient.
Technological advances and enormous investments in driverless cars make it a certainty that these vehicles will be on Tulsa’s streets sooner rather than later.
Do you view this paradigm shift as a problem or an opportunity and how do you think the City should begin to adapt?
BARTLETT ANSWER: This would be a huge opportunity. Driverless cars will change the economy and the way that people move and transport. We are doing a lot of facilitate the growth of automated technology and software to manage travel so that it is safe and reliable. We have a huge asset in the Tandy Supercomputer because we can run complex models and prove the viability of this type of technology in a simulated way. Our openness to this progress is very helpful to the City of Tulsa and our continued economic growth in the 21st Century.
BYNUM ANSWER: I believe driverless cars present a tremendous opportunity for us in Tulsa. We should be proactive in seeking the chance for national leadership in this area, through testing venues and recruitment of those companies working to produce the vehicles and software.
We also need to empower our City planners to proactively assess the impact of this new technology rather than wait for it to arrive. A good example of this need relates to burden on traffic flows. Proponents of driverless cars rightly point out efficiencies in parking space utilization that could come from them. Today, your typical car spends the vast majority of its time parked rather than on the road. This creates demand for parking spaces and garages. But with driverless cars, the potential for sharing a vehicle amongst several users may reduce that demand for parking and instead place it on our street infrastructure.
Today, my car sits in a parking garage most of the day while I am at work. If it were driverless, it may instead spend its day dropping me off at work, then taking my wife to graduate school, then our kids to their school, then my sister to the library, then my mother to visit a friend, and then back to park at my house until one of us needs it. Instead of multiple cars owned and operated by all those people, you have one. Instead of many parking spaces occupied all day, you have one for part of the day. BUT, that car is on the road all the time. Will this create greater traffic congestion or less? Today we can only theorize, but Tulsa should be at the forefront of planning for this technology. It is exciting to consider.
Many Tulsans still express frustration that their voices are not seriously considered in the process of land-use decisions. There is a popularly held perception that development interests are afforded disproportionate consideration when it comes to rules-making, comprehensive plan amendments, and zoning decisions.
If elected, how would you propose to deal with this perceived imbalance?
BYNUM ANSWER: As it relates to our boards and commissions, I am a strong believer in diversity of background. I’ve seen it work on the City Council. The City Council is intentionally comprised of people from different parts of town, people with different life experiences and constituencies who bring diverse opinions to any discussion. That diversity allows for the development of consensus on behalf of our fellow Tulsans. As much as I might like to have 9 city councilors who all think just like me, I recognize that we have a better end result when that array of experience is mixed together. When it comes to those boards and commissions that determine land use policy, we would benefit from a similar level of diversity.
I have always been, and will continue to be, an advocate for public engagement in land use decisions. I believe you derive a better end product through that process, and it affords the chance to resolve differences.
A great example is the former Christmas tree lot at the Southeast corner of 41st and Harvard. Before I became a councilor, there was a proposal to build a shopping center there and the neighbors raised strong concerns. As a result, the proposal was not approved by the City Council. After I became a councilor, the developer and neighborhood leadership worked together to resolve any concerns. The proposal was brought back to the City Council, this time with neighborhood leaders speaking on its behalf, and it passed unanimously.
I am a strong believer in an individual’s property rights, but I also acknowledge that the use of one piece of land can impact the value of a neighboring piece of land. That is why we have a comprehensive plan, a zoning code, and a public process to resolve discrepancies: to provide predictability and protection for all parties.
The issues of greatest controversy in recent years around proposed land use decisions (the Riverside sidewalk, the Turkey Mountain outlet mall, the Helmerich Park shopping center, etc.) have become controversial because the present Administration tried to handle things behind closed doors or through avoidance of public engagement. They offered no creative solutions to bridge the divide between groups. I am not afraid of public engagement, and believe we will offer both developers and everyday citizens a better environment for collaboration by having a mayor eager to introduce some sunshine to the process.
BARTLETT ANSWER: We have engaged the public extensively. I created the first ever Planning Director in the City of Tulsa’s history. We also do small area plans and engage everyone when doing so. As mayor, I will strive to continue this commitment to engagement in the planning process.
A robust, public transit system is a key element of Tulsa’s comprehensive plan and a top priority of modern cities everywhere, because it benefits so many aspects of a community. The Mayor’s Task Force on Transit Governance and Funding’s preferred recommendation suggested enactment of a 2/10¢ dedicated sales tax to MTTA for capital & operations to fund Phase 1 & 2 of MTTA / Fast Forward Plan, yet Vision Tulsa will only deliver about one quarter of that.
Are you committed to funding further improvements in Tulsa’s public transportation system?
What equitable funding streams would you consider to pay for those improvements, to implement Phase I and Phase II of the adopted, ‘Fast Forward’ Plan?
BARTLETT ANSWER: Allowing Vision Tulsa to support operations was the key to this progress. I stood alone in this for a long time until others came to realize the need for us to extend Vision in more ways than in the past. I am interested in more dedicated funding for transportation. However, I am not going to commit to a new tax. We need to work to diversify our revenue so that we have adequate funding to make investments that we need without raising the existing tax rate.
BYNUM ANSWER: I agree with the need to continue building up our transit system. I supported the first dedicated city transportation tax in Oklahoma, which voters approved last April. I was also a strong proponent of implementing bus rapid transit in Tulsa. I believe bus rapid transit will change the way Tulsans perceive public transportation. Today, many Tulsans view it as a vehicle of last resort for people who don’t have cars. If we are to expect Tulsans to invest in public transit at a level that can fund a vehicle of choice, we need most Tulsans to think of it as something they would use themselves. As we build on our successes, we will be in a better position to evaluate and pursue other funding options.
The world around us is changing ever more rapidly – in societal change, technology, environment, economy, politics – and cities like Tulsa are being affected accordingly.
Do you think the City of Tulsa should adapt its management style and systems to meet these challenges and to compete effectively?
BYNUM ANSWER: The greatest change the City of Tulsa can do in this regard is to more aggressively adapt the Open Data Policy I authored. The Council adopted it, but initiatives in the area of open data have lagged due to lack of interest and funding from the Mayor’s Office.
In many ways, the City of Tulsa is operating the same way it did in the 1950’s. It only recently adopted a computerized time-and-attendance system, something I championed after finding out we still tracked that for every employee with pencils and slips of paper. When it comes to empowering citizens, the City still reverts to the “call the Mayor’s Action Line” response. In 2016, you can apply for a mortgage on your iPhone but you can’t report a pothole.
This is largely because the City government still feels the need to control the tools you use to interact with it. If we want an app that helps you report a pothole, they have to pay thousands of dollars to design or buy or lease it – at least, that is the mentality. Fortunately, we know of a better way.
Tulsa has a thriving web development community and they are eager to be of help. All they need to create tools that empower citizens is the raw data to plug into their creations. That is the idea behind open data: making information the City is already collecting available to the public so brilliant minds can use it to better serve Tulsans. I’m not talking about handing out private information. This is information like traffic counts or active fires.
By adapting to the resources at our disposal in the 21st Century, we can empower everyday citizens and deliver better service.
BARTLETT ANSWER: Certainly not. As an elected official, I respect the opinion of Tulsans and their wishes. The citizens have approved and supported a strong mayor form of government and we should respect that.