MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 21, 2013

Councilors change stance on coalition

They support proposal by Tulsa organization for goals in Legislature

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— With some new information and a little nudging from an economic development expert, city councilors endorsed the legislative agenda sponsored by a regional coalition.

Four of the city’s nine elected officials snubbed the proposal a week ago, citing the potential for conflicts of interest. They also cited a need for details, some of which were provided before the meeting.

Although some additional details were provided by officials of the Tulsa Metro Chamber, councilors also were swayed by comments by Brien Thorstenberg, the economic development director at the Port of Muskogee, who said the city “has benefited tremendously” from past collaborations with the Tulsa group.

Thorstenberg cited a recent $11.8 million industrial expansion that added 25 jobs in Muskogee as an example. He said he is in constant contact with the Tulsa Metro Chamber, and he quashed concerns about the potential of competing interests.

“I have never seen where the Tulsa Metro Chamber did not work on behalf — or work against — its stakeholders or supporters,” he said. “I am in constant communication with them in regard to economic development.”

Ward III Councilor Randy Howard said the city funds much of the economic development activities overseen by port officials. Howard said it would undermine the city’s best interest to hire Thorstenberg “to do a job and then hinder them (port officials) by not allowing them to do that job.”

Ward I Councilor Lee Ann Langston, who expressed concerns a week ago about the limited information provided, reversed her position even thoughz the information she sought was not provided. Langston said the issue “is important to our city to move forward.”

The agenda was developed by a coalition of area cities, business groups and school districts assembled by the Tulsa business-backed organization. Dubbed OneVoice, the agenda is designed to promote a regional approach to economic development.

The agenda includes state and federal issues, with education funding, health care reform and infrastructure improvements among  them. The document also addresses tax issues related to income, sales and energy production.

Although some of the issues are unique to Tulsa’s needs, former Oklahoma House Speaker Chris Benge, who is now the Tulsa chamber’s senior vice president of government affairs, said the issues are interrelated.

Mayor Bob Coburn, who attended the summit where the legislative agenda was decided, said the process was one of inclusion. Stakeholders from across the region  were allowed to provide input during the development of the agenda, he said.

Benge encouraged city councilors to be more engaged this year as the 2014 agenda is being assembled.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.