Public interest, politics can blur in council’s view
By Jack Money, Steve Lackmeyer
Tuesday, July 18, 2000
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 1-A
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE?
When does a proposed city regulation or law go beyond protecting the public’s interest and harm an industry or other special interest group?
The question takes center stage as Oklahoma City Council members continue grappling with a comprehensive zoning and development plan that would restrict the number of new homes in outlying areas.
The debate is classic, pitting common good against an industry’s needs. In this case, it’s about keeping the cost of police and fire protection and other city services from escalating too rapidly vs. the desires of homebuilders, who want to build where land is cheap, development costs are low, the schools are good and the demand is high.
Purists would argue that public interest should always win. But it isn’t that simple.
To council members, the public also is homebuilders, other manufacturers and restaurant owners. The public is beautification supporters, real estate brokers and merchants. It is statewide organizations such as the Oklahoma Municipal Contractors Association and local groups such as the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Among these groups are some of the city’s most powerful individuals, people such as Bill Braum of Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores, homebuilder David Yost and commercial real estate broker Gerald Gamble.
These groups and individuals, armed with political donations at election time and well-organized letter-writing campaigns, can successfully influence City Hall politics.
Consider Councilman Frosty Peak’s statement that he couldn’t support an effort to actively enforce business sign laws because it would jeopardize his re-election chances. And consider Councilman Guy Liebmann’s remarks earlier this year about homebuilders’ concerns on the proposed comprehensive plan.
“We have a group here who has probably 10,000 employees, and they have some economic forces behind them. As an elected official, I feel like they are entitled to their say,” Liebmann said.
The “economic forces” referred to by Liebmann are not just felt in the community. They also can affect the election war chests of every council member.
Liebmann lists the following donations from developers for his 1998 mayoral campaign:
- Homebuilder Bill Mincey, $1,000.
- Homebuilder Gary Johnston, $1,000.
- Real estate broker Gamble, $1,000. (Gamble recently reviewed the proposed comprehensive plan at Liebmann’s request. )
- Homebuilder Earl Austin, $1,500.
Kirk Humphreys, Liebmann’s chief opponent in that race, also received donations from development interests, including Gamble ($1,500) and Austin. Homebuilder Tom Hoshall contributed $2,500 to Humphreys’ successful campaign, and the local Realtors’ political action committee also contributed money.
The mayor, like Liebmann, said he believes interested groups are entitled to their say. And Humphreys also said he isn’t accusing any campaign donors of wrongdoing or any improprieties. But he is concerned that council members could put the desires of these organized interests first because of Oklahoma City’s political realities.
“The average citizen isn’t coming to the party with as many checks at election time,” Humphreys said.
He said that organized interest groups are constituents, too, “and they have every right to see their views are heard. But, we need to not just do what’s best for business and the development community, but what’s best for the city as a whole,” Humphreys said.
Jay Johnston, Gary Johnston’s son, said their company’s donation was intended to help elect the person they believed would do the best job of leading the city.
“Sure, we would want a guy who is most on our side – would share our views about how we think the city should be run. And there is nothing wrong with that,” he said.
The politics of zoning
Zoning is a naturally political process, said attorney Eric Groves, a former city council member. Groves now works both for developers and for groups that oppose developments proposed in their neighborhoods.
He calls the battle over a comprehensive plan, such as one he went through when he served on the council in the late 1970s, “the ultimate political debate.”
Groves said zoning questions are the same today as when he served on the council 20 years ago: When does the common good of limiting growth cause too much harm to the development industry?
“Let’s face it: There are people who profit from that growth and people who subsidize that growth – whether they want to or not. As a city, we need to debate what is in the best interest of all. That is what comprehensive planning is all about. It has to do with fairness, the availability of infrastructure, resources, and it should be debated every few years,” Groves said.
Pete White, another former council member, tends to view developers as constituents.
“Oklahoma City lends itself to that perhaps because of its huge geographical area. Council members represent a wide, diverse population that lives in different ways.”
He said that includes not only residents, but developers and owners and operators of restaurants and major industries.
“So it is no stretch at all to think of those people as your constituents. It’s kind of the nature of the beast,” White said.
And these groups are good at dominating the time of council members, too. They can flood council offices with phone calls, letters, electronic and facsimile mailings when the need arises.
Such organized efforts can sway council members when only 10 percent or less of registered voters come to the polls in city council races.
Oklahoma City’s Planning Department wrote its recommendations for the plan after conducting surveys and holding dozens of public meetings.
But those efforts to include a broad range of interests now face a challenge from the organized interests that are most directly affected by the plan – real estate brokers, investors and developers.
“No matter how much public involvement you have… the vast majority of people don’t care as long as the water comes out of the tap, the sewage goes down the line, the garbage gets picked up and there are no holes in the streets,” said former Oklahoma City Manager Don Bown.
“Residents don’t want controversy, so they are not going to get involved when one comes up.”
Bown said council members are caught in bad situations when they are faced with controversial proposals.
“They are berated all the time, and they have to make these Solomon decisions that affect a lot of people. And they have to make them usually without all the facts or knowing all the needs or desires of everyone involved,” Bown said.
A comprehensive city plan is a perfect example, Bown said.
“It gets down to how well informed a council person is about a particular issue, and it is really difficult for them to get there with the time and effort involved,” Bown said, adding that he encountered this problem throughout his public service career.
Despite efforts, citizen involvement in local government continues in a four-decade slump.
“We all complain about the low turnout in local elections. But that goes back to what an old news editor once told me, ‘We get better government than we deserve.’”
Like it or not, members of the Oklahoma City Council are taking action on issues such as signs and the proposed comprehensive plan.
A majority of council members moved quickly to do away with the new sign law, for example, disregarding City Manager Glenn Deck’s request to wait until the council could be thoroughly briefed.
And although unsuccessful, a group of council members also tried in January to derail any density restrictions in the comprehensive plan. They started making their case even before work on the plan was done.
“The plan may not technically include any types of downzoning. But if it includes any limitations on how a person can develop their land, then that impacts the value of their property,” Councilman Jack Cornett said at the time.
There also was another proposed law, considered by the council in October 1998, that would have allowed the city to cut high weeds or pick up litter that blocks drivers’ views near rural intersections and then bill property owners for the work.
Council members Cornett and Jerry Foshee opposed the law, saying it would be unfair to rural property owners.
They told the city’s staff they could not support the law, and instead asked for additional money in the coming year’s budget to pay for the staff to address the issue. The staff never brought the matter back before the council.
Humphreys said the council’s action there bothered him. Accidents could be caused by weed-obscured stop signs, he said.
“But staff just beat a retreat, and it is laying out there in nowhere land,” Humphreys said.
“That is irresponsible. Is it wrong to listen to a special interest group, or people who might be negatively impacted by a proposed law? No. But when a council member is carrying someone’s water, you have to call it what it is.”
Cornett said Humphreys is wrong about his and Foshee’s concerns.
“We are talking about the average person who doesn’t have the means to be able to afford the equipment to keep some of those areas clean. Some of those bar ditches are pretty rough,” Cornett said.
He said there is no doubt sight-obscured stop signs create a safety hazard.
“And it is one that both Foshee and I are very concerned about,” he said.
But Cornett said he and other council members who represent rural areas work with county commissioners to take care of problem intersections.
Humphreys said voters should carefully consider the council’s actions on these and other issues at election time. He said voters also should monitor their state and national representatives.
“Pay attention. Get informed. What kind of city do you want to have?”
Humphreys said residents who want a city where they might get into an accident at a rural intersection because of high weeds should re-elect those responsible.
“But if you want a city where you can drive these roads safely without worrying about having that accident, then you ought to kick out those council members who are listening to a couple of farmers rather than worrying about public safety.
“Find out what the issues are, and hold them accountable,” he said.