A recently-announced plan to form a group to look at ways to improve Tulsa’s city and county park systems came under fire after a Tulsa County commissioner said the majority of the commission was left in the dark on the plan.
Tulsa County Commissioner John Smaligo confronted Commissioner Ron Peters on Thursday during the Tulsa Board of County Commissioners’ management conference. Smaligo raised issue about Mayor G.T Bynum’s announcement regarding the formation of a Parks Realignment Commission.
The Parks Realignment Commission, which was first announced by Bynum during his State of the City speech in early November, has the stated goal of identifying duplication within the separate city and county parks systems and potentially aligning services. On Nov. 16, the city announced the nine members appointed to the commission, which will be headed by Bynum and Peters.
During Thursday’s meeting, Smaligo said he and County Commissioner Karen Keith were unaware that the Parks Realignment Commission was being formed until just before Bynum’s State of the City speech and had no input on the group’s formation or appointed members.
“I wasn’t asked or consulted or informed about that list of individuals,” Smaligo told Peters. “I wasn’t given any input into your intentions on this commission or the mayor’s intention to merge the systems into one system.”
Peters denied that his intention was to consolidate the park system.
“Merging of the parks is not the topic of conversation,” Peters told Smaligo. “In our conversations, that’s not the intent. The intent is what can we do to sustain our parks down the road.”
Smaligo replied that Bynum’s speech made it clear to him that the goal of the commission was consolidation. An earlier study in 2014 looked at the issue of park consolidation and found that combining the systems would not save residents money, Smaligo said.
“All I can go off of is what he (Bynum) said in the speech, and that’s to merge the parks,” Smaligo said. “To me, it’s astonishing to hear you say it’s not the intention even though the mayor said very clearly that is the intention for the parks.”
Peters replied, “Merging and consolidation is not on the table as the primary goal. The primary goal is sustainability.”
Smaligo also said the commission had only one person sitting on it who lived outside Tulsa city limits, and none from other communities in Tulsa County, such as Broken Arrow.
“To me, having this list (of commission members) handed to us by the mayor saying ‘this is who is going to be on it,’ that doesn’t seem like a process that I’m interested in being a part of,” Smaligo said. “I’m very concerned and highly suspicious about the work that’s being done because I’m hearing one thing from the mayor and something entirely different from you.”
Keith said the Board of County Commissioners should consider a resolution making Peter’s placement on the Parks Realignment Commission official, and consider adding other stakeholders who live outside the city limits to the group.
“Take me off the job, I’ll be happy with that,” Peters said after Keith brought forth her idea.
“That’s not the point,” Smaligo responded. “I live inside the city limits as well and I’m not saying it should not be you. I’m happy with the fact you’re on there. I don’t have a problem with you representing the county.
“I just have a problem with the fact two-thirds of the county commissioners had no idea this was going on and we end up reading about it in the paper instead of being consulted and asked for our opinions on this before it moves forward.”
Smaligo later said he was concerned the group’s goal is to consolidate the two park systems under one entity and that such a move may potentially leave residents of other cities in Tulsa County that help fund Tulsa County’s park system paying for city of Tulsa parks.
“My guess, although nobody has talked about in any of the public statements or in our meeting today, is that a tax proposal will be part of (group’s) recommendations down the line,” Smalligo said. “Residents in those suburban communities are funding not only a county park system but now they’re funding a city of Tulsa park system as well as their own community park systems, and the city of Tulsa is not funding those communities’ park systems that are outside the city limits of Tulsa.”
Michelle Brooks, a spokeswoman for Bynum, said the group’s goal is not to consolidate the park systems, but to “discuss what a world-class park system for our community looks like in the 21st Century and areas for collaboration between the City and County in achieving that vision.”
Brooks said the commission members were named by Bynum and Peters. Its first meeting is scheduled to be held in January, with the goal of presenting its findings in a report this summer.
“The goal of the commission is not consolidation — it is the is the identification of opportunities for collaboration in delivering the best overall park experience possible for our community,” Brooks said. “The Commission will determine its own recommendations for action after it has gone through a significant period of research and dialogue.”