Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories The Frontier will post regarding Mayor G.T. Bynum’s proposal to give city employees, including firefighters and police officers, more freedom to participate in elections for mayor, City Council and city auditor.
Today’s story examines why Bynum is making the proposal. On Monday, The Frontier examined a federal court ruling that set the stage for Bynun’s proposal.
Mayor G.T Bynum has heard the concerns — some expressed by workers inside City Hall — about his proposal to give city employees more freedom to participate in elections for mayor, City Council and city auditor.
He’s even sympathetic to those concerns. But at the end of the day, Bynum said, he will always come down on the side of giving employees more freedom of speech.
“I really want to harp on this,” Bynum said. “Why do we have freedom of speech? Why do we have freedom of the press? Why do we have freedom of assembly? We have those things because our Founding Fathers felt that they were necessary for a representative government, and they were basic rights of people. That is what I am trying to pursue here.”
The first step in that pursuit comes Wednesday, when the City Council will be asked to consider a resolution calling for a November election to change the city charter to loosen restrictions on city employees’ ability to participate in elections for municipal office. It is one of an expected seven charter changes Tulsans will be asked to vote on that month.
The existing city charter limits employees from taking an active part in municipal elections “except to vote and privately state a personal opinion.”
Bynum’s proposal would loosen those restrictions and allow municipal employees to participate in partisan and nonpartisan political activities as long as they do so “only during off-duty hours and while not in uniform.”
But that’s not the all of it, the mayor said. The new charter language would do more than address what he sees as unfair restrictions on city employees; it would help give rise to a more informed electorate by allowing those who know city operations best to express their opinions.
“This is about something much larger than, can an employee go out and work on a mayor’s campaign or a City Council race?” Bynum said. “It’s very much about, will the citizens of Tulsa have access to all the information they need to make responsible decisions when they vote? And right now I would argue that they don’t.”
Bynum dismisses claims that he is promoting the charter change to gain favor with the police and firefighters unions. During his 2016 campaign for mayor against former Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Bynum promised the unions that under his administration they would have the same rights to campaign as they’d had under former Mayor Kathy Taylor and some previous administrations.
Bynum won election to the City Council in 2008, when Taylor was in office, and says he was troubled to see a stricter interpretation of the city charter adopted under Bartlett.
“I didn’t think that was right, but he was the executive in place and ultimately that is the responsibility of the mayor” Bynum said. “So as a councilor, I didn’t have a tremendous amount of control over it. But I always said, if I were in a position to change it, I would.”
So now comes his proposal to change the 1989 city charter through a vote of the people. After years of different mayors interpreting city charter differently, Bynun said, he wants clarity on the issue.
“Everything that I am suggesting here is only that the citizens of Tulsa ought to get a chance to vote on it,” Bynun said. “If they want to vote and say, ‘No, we don’t want to hear from city of Tulsa employees’ … then they ought to have a right to do that. But they ought to be able to have a right to vote on this particular issue.”
About those concerns
Bynum said he has heard from some city employees who have concerns about his proposed charter change. The Frontier interviewed 10 department heads and other city employees about the proposal. Although a majority of the department heads did not object to the proposal, several questioned it, for a variety of reasons.
Here are the mayor’s responses to the concerns he’s either heard directly or been told of.
1. Employees could be put in a position where they would be pressured to take a position in an election.
“I understand that. That is a fair concern,” Bynum said. “But I am always going to side on the ability of our employees to have too much freedom of speech rather than restricting it for everyone because a few employees are worried about having to take a position on something when, again, they don’t have to take a position, because the charter says that elected officials should not be seeking their support.”
2. The charter change could create an environment of retribution or favoritism based on whether an employee supported or failed to support a candidate.
“It’s absolutely a fair concern. …There are sections of the charter that say that elected officials cannot hit up employees for donations or support. There is a section of the charter that says elected officials cannot enact retribution for the positions of employees. And I am not wanting to touch either of those. I think it’s very important that we have those in place.”
3. The police and fire unions already have too much power. For example, public safety accounts for about 60 percent of the city’s general fund spending, crowding out funding for other departments.
Bynum acknowledged that the police and fire unions are the strongest employee unions in city government.
However, he said, “I am not suggesting that we turn over budget-making authority to all of the employees. Budget-making authority is reserved for the City Council and the mayor, who are elected by the citizens of Tulsa.
“The fear of that happening has nothing to do with employees being able to participate in campaigns. That has to do with elected officials and whether or not they are willing to have a balanced government or whether they are willing to just take the approach of always focusing on public safety.”
In addition, Bynun said, “if it is a ridiculous statement (made by city employees), the citizens of Tulsa aren’t going to listen to it. But the citizens of Tulsa ought to be able to hear from those people.”
4. City records show that approximately 75 percent of firefighters and about 60 percent of police officers live outside the city of Tulsa. Why should city employees who don’t live in the city have a right to actively participate in municipal elections?
“We had a tornado hit a T.G.I. Friday, and if you had seen it, it was completely destroyed,” Bynum said. “And yet we had firefighters go out there in the dark, in the rain, in the middle of the night and go into a building that is collapsing to save Tulsans lives.
“We didn’t check where they lived before they went in. They are heroes, and they serve the citizens of Tulsa, and they should have the right to voice their opinions about the leadership of the place that they work, regardless of where their homes happen to be. They are serving Tulsans.
“Secondly, their residency has no impact on their awareness of the workplace at the city of Tulsa.”
Bynum also noted that no one questioned the campaign donations that he and former Mayor Dewey Bartlett received from outside the city of Tulsa during last year’s mayor’s race.
5. Under earlier administrations, the police and fire unions have taken an active role in elections for mayor, City Council and city auditor. The unions’ campaign activities have included paying for and putting up signs for candidates; manning phone banks for candidates; going door to door, as directed by candidates, to hand out literature; putting up yard signs, as designated by candidates.
Would those activities be allowed under the proposed charter change? And are you OK with that kind of participation in elections by the police and fire unions?
“Sure,” Bynum said. “I support the right of anyone in our community to do that.”
He added: “I am not pretending that this is not advantageous to police and fire — it is. … But I come back to, it being advantageous to police and fire is outweighed, from my standpoint, from our employees not being gagged from sharing their beliefs on how the city government is being run and by citizens of Tulsa being able to make informed decisions based on all the information out there.”
What say the judge?
The opinion that got Bynum’s charter change proposal rolling in the first place didn’t come out of City Hall. It belongs to U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell. In a 2011 legal opinion, Frizzell affirmed the city’s legal right to limit employees’ political speech to the language in the city charter.
In doing so, the judge stated that the city of Tulsa “has a legitimate interest in permitting its policymakers to make decisions for the city without fear of political retribution from the city’s own employees and their public employees’ unions.”
Bynum said he was not about to argue with Frizzell, who he described as “brilliant.”
But neither have Frizzell’s words, nor anyone else’s concerns about his proposed charter change, caused him to change his mind about it.
At the end of the day, Bynum said, when it comes to weighing the benefits of giving city employees more political speech versus the possible downsides of those employees having more political speech, he will always opt for giving employees more political speech.
“It is a very dangerous slope to go down in saying, ‘Well, we are worried about the outcome of an election, so it is OK to restrict the speech of a certain group of people because we are worried about what might happen in an election,’” Bynum said. “If you are talking about other areas, that would be insane that people would be saying that. But, in this case, we’re accepting that as OK.
“I completely disagree with that.”