MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 13, 2013

Response to Tulsa chamber plan cool

Several members of council don’t see clear benefit for Muskogee

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— An attempt to drum up support from Muskogee’s city councilors for the Tulsa Metro Chamber’s legislative agenda turned out to be a tough sell.

City Manager Greg Buckley said the agenda was developed by a coalition of area cities, business groups and school districts. The legislative agenda, dubbed OneVoice, is an attempt to promote a regional approach to economic development.

The coalition’s agenda includes issues that can be taken up by state or federal lawmakers. Among the issues are education funding, health care reform and improvements to infrastructure.

The agenda also addresses tax issues related to income, sales and energy production along with some issues unique to Tulsa.

Former Oklahoma House Speaker Chris Benge, who is the Tulsa chamber’s senior vice president of government affairs, pitched the organization’s agenda Tuesday during the Public Works Committee meeting.

Concerns expressed by several city councilors centered on whether the impact of the Tulsa chamber’s agenda would be different for Muskogee than its metropolitan neighbor. They also questioned how the city’s endorsement might be viewed by lawmakers if city councilors were to later oppose legislation drafted in response to the OneVoice agenda.

“I guess we are just taking it in faith those things that will benefit Tulsa will help us too,” Deputy Mayor David Jones said about agenda items that address issues tied more closely to Tulsa.

Ward IV Councilor Kenny Payne said his primary concern and responsibility is to pursue options that benefit Muskogee residents. He questioned Benge about how the Tulsa chamber’s agenda would meet that objective.

“I don’t want to sign off on something that just makes your lobby look bigger,” Payne said, following with a more pointed question: “What’s in it for us?”

Payne, who cast one of four votes against moving the plan forward, also cited concerns about endorsing a plan or an organization that might decide later to advance something that could prove detrimental to Muskogee. Legislators could misconstrue that endorsement, he said.

In response to Payne’s inquiry, Benge cited education, health care, municipal funding, inland waterway navigation channel dredging and workers compensation among those issues that he believes would benefit all of northeastern Oklahoma, including Muskogee. Benge said “regional cohesion” also tends to benefit everyone when it comes to promoting economic development.

After Benge completed his presentation, the committee voted 5-4 to send the issue to the City Council for its meeting Monday.

Ward I Councilor Lee Ann Langston, who cast one of the four dissenting votes, said she agrees with much of the agenda but requested more information before she would support it.

Ward III Councilor Derrick Reed echoed that sentiment, saying caution is warranted and more information needed before a final vote is cast.

“I understand there is strength in numbers, but like Kenny (Payne) said, when you put that before legislators and they see the city of Muskogee supports that, it might have an impact on something we might not necessarily agree with,” Reed said.

“My job as city councilor is to look out for the best interest of the city and my constituents. Maybe after we see additional information, my vote might change, but right now I don’t see anything there that would really benefit Muskogee.”

Ward II Councilor Dan Hall said he also needed more information before he would support the agenda. He also expressed doubt about the potential benefits.

“I can’t just jump in with both feet and vote for something without knowing more,” Hall said, noting that he is looking forward to learning more about the agenda as information is made available. “I am hoping it will give us more of an idea about how it will benefit Muskogee — I really want to know why we need to do this.”

City councilors will revisit the issue when they meet at 7 p.m. Monday for their first regular meeting of the year.

Those who wish to weigh in on agenda items or speak about an unrelated topic must complete a form before the meeting begins.

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