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Transparency Fight Muddies Tulsa's Mayoral Race

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, September 12 2013

Kathy Taylor Makes an Issue of Openness in Tulsa

Transparency and open data have been buzzwords for civic hackers and a select group of city hall employees nationwide over the last few years. But can they be fighting words as well? Kathy Taylor, a candidate for mayor (and a former mayor) of Tulsa, Oklahoma is currently testing out the proposition. Last week Taylor challenged incumbent Mayor Dewey Bartlett over transparency, and released her plan to improve the city’s web offerings and access to city records. The plan contains a list of ways to “bring back” transparency to Tulsa, from improving its websites and records requests, to updating old IT systems, and ensuring data is continually updated.

“We kept hearing a lot about how [constituents] felt like there wasn’t a lot of accountability in government,” says Joey Wignarajah, Taylor’s director of research. “The city wasn’t very transparent.” Tayor’s campaign connects Bartlett’s lack of transparency to a recent scandal in which green waste Tulsans were paying the city to be recycled into mulch was instead being incinerated.

Mayor Bartlett begs to differ. His press secretary Lloyd Wright downplayed the idea that the green waste issue had anything to do with transparency, and pointed to the city’s recent “A+” transparency grade from the nonprofit Sunshine Review. Wright questions the feasibility of Taylor’s transparency fixes.

“What does it cost to do something like this? Do we have the ability to do something like this? Nobody’s challenged that at all.”

A local news report sums up the kerfluffle best: “Kathy Taylor accused Mayor Dewey Bartlett of clogging up the flow of information at City Hall. Bartlett says it's flowing better than ever before.”

If you’re to take the campaigns at their respective words, the issue of government transparency in Tulsa looks anything but. A closer look at the progress of Tulsa reveals something less paradoxical: a city moving cautiously towards greater transparency, and developing the policy and infrastructure to supply it. That change is being driven by a group of knowledgeable civic hackers working Tulsa’s City Council, the city’s Chief Information Officer, and the cautious approval of the Mayor.

"The mayor’s position is really clear," says Wright. "He’s looking at this, he’s putting people and time on the books for this to see if it makes sense."

The civic piece of Tulsa’s move towards open government is driven by two related groups, Tulsa Web Devs with is Tulsa’s main tech networking organization, with nearly 300 programmers, and its spinoffCode for Tulsa, an official Code for America brigade with nearly 40 active members, which partners with the city on civic technology projects.

Luke Crouch is a developer for Mozilla active in organizing both groups.

“We have it probably better than some places do,” says Crouch regarding the availability of data, “it really depends on the agency.” Crouch blames the spotty reception on an outdated mentality in some city agencies. For some data, like salaries, agencies are accustomed to requests only in the case of investigative journalists looking for dirt. “We’ve had to pull them along and really demonstrate what we want to do,” says Crouch.

Beyond helping build apps for fire department dispatch data, and trip planning, Crouch participated in formulating a resolution supporting accessible open data, and open source software which was passed by the city council last Spring, and signed by Mayor Bartlett.

According to Tulsa City Councilor Chairman G.T. Bynum, the city council was supportive of the initiative.

“My colleagues on the city council got it really quickly,” he says. Bynum himself learned about the importance of open data policy from California Lieutenant Governor and tech booster Gavin Newsom when he was a fellow at the Aspen Institute.

The resolution states that it’s the city’s policy to support open and accessible data, open standards, and open source software. It creates a committee of city employees and local tech experts (Code for Tulsa) to identify the data that should be released, and monitor the project’s progress.

Bynum is pleased with progress on the open data plan thus far, and credits Mayor Bartlett with hiring Tulsa Chief Information Officer T.L. Cox, who has been pushing the open data resolution.

“We’ve begun exploring the datasets…discussing the standard that those datasets will be provided in, looking at various portals to share that data,” says Cox. He says the committee is focusing is on geo-spatial data, and thinks that the first sets will be out in the next five or six months.

Bynum also acknowledges the City Council resolution doesn’t go as far as Taylor’s plan.

“Mayor Taylor’s proposal is larger than just open data. It’s about open records and transparency in government and responsiveness to open records requests.”

But will Taylor’s plan matter to Tulsa voters? Crouch, the civic hacker is not sure transparency and open data are issues to move voters in Tulsa.

“People don’t understand what this is, and why someone would want to do it,” he says. Still, he thinks Taylor, who is a fellow member of Code for Tulsa, has a better chance of implementing transparency policies in Tulsa. “I do think that Kathy’s probably in a better position to embrace and push it forward.”

While the race to lead the city of 400,000 will continue to no doubt unveil new planks of disagreement between the candidates, there’s at least one person in favor of keeping the transparency row going.

“I think it’d be fantastic if they get into a fight over who’s going to do more to move open data forward in Tulsa over the next three years,” says Councilor Bynum, “if that happens I will be standing there with two thumbs up.”