Morning at the Council…A City Notebook (May 24)


Editor’s Note: As part of our ever growing desire to find out “what it means” to live in OKC, we’ve started going to more public meetings and things. Enjoy citizenry. It’s out there, waiting for you. 
At Oklahoma City council meetings one can look around and see the people who may be there for that particular day. The short black guy next to me with plain shoes and glasses appears to be pretty interested in all of the budget proposals being laid out. The lady next to me bridges the two back row aisles with her wheel chair. She also looks pretty engaged. Outside after the meeting she says to me, “Wasn’t all of that interesting?”
You don’t find out who these people are until the end when the people who signed up go to make their case speak to Mayor Cornett and the rest of the council. If the people sitting in the chambers are there to support the cause or speaker, they’ll be acknowledged. The 4 out of 579,999 concerned citizens of Oklahoma City in attendance last week were from NewView, a non profit that employs the blind. NewView says on its Web site that one of its chief aims is to help empower people who are blind and help them achieve a maximum level of independence.  
At the podium an older woman in a red dress named Colby and a man whom I took to be her husband introduce themselves as part of The Alliance of Public Transportation. They are reading from large print paragraphs they prepared. They ask for a conversation with the council to open about allocating more funds to public transit initiatives. They point to successes in Norman. They’d like to see more wheel chair friendly options, a conversation about rail transportation, and better sidewalks. And for the bus stops we have now, a little more consistency with respect to arrival times and coordination between the bus schedules, and time of actual arrival.  
After the meeting I get to better understand why Colby was speaking for the polite and rather quiet Alliance in attendance. Oklahoma is not known for having the best bus systems, but I’ve never actually talked to people who use our busses, just people who deride them, have a short laugh and then change the subject. 

The girl in the wheelchair talks to me for a bit. Her name is Cassie Rodkey and she works with Colby at NewView. 
Colby was getting to work by taking the bus. One day she was left waiting for hours at her stop, Rodkey tells me. On another occasion, she was dropped  off 3 blocks from NewView. 
“It’s OK though, she had a guide dog,” Rodkey says.
In 2007 Texas Transportation Institute issued the Urban Mobility Report (Texas A&M). Rankings were based on metro region public transit ridership miles and square miles per region. Oklahoma ranked 50 out of 50. 
While Colby makes her requests to the council, the man standing beside her is lightly holding onto her elbow. 
Two weeks ago and  before the F-3 tornadoes Oklahoma City was hit with massive rains that caused impressive floods throughout the streets. Downtown near the prison on Sheridan Ave., I was driving my Buick and started to float for a good 10 feet. This was scary. 
Elsewhere, some facilities didn’t get the benefit of mobility. Ward 7 councilman Ronald “Skip” Kelly told a representative from the Public Works Department that once again Edwards Elementary School (10th & Grand Blvd.) flooded 3 inches high.
“This is an area I know was flooded 2 years ago. [This wouldn’t happen] if they had proper drainage. Children there were displaced for half a day because, you know, everything was shut down .. I think this is an issue to students, to citizens there. When this contract is given somebody should’ve had more information about the terrain.”
Kelly requested this area be put on priority next session. Select activities resume there June 28th. 
Kelly said the same drainage situation has existed there for over 50 years. Debris and fallen trees are often not cleaned up in a timely manner.
The rep form Public Works said that ,yes, the area was on the list.
“We have a health epidemic issue,” Ward 2 councilman Ed Shadid told his fellow councilmen during the last presentation of the meeting. “It’s beyond people. It’s an economic issue.”
Shadid at the last council meeting started addressing issues of individual obesity that plagued the state. At Tuesday’s meeting he focused on smoking, citing a Feb 10 study by the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Centers and statistics from USA Today and MSNBC which mentioned Oklahoma’s general poor health. 
“We need to start sending signals to city officials that we are serious about health,” Shadid said. 
I assumed it was this Green Party candidate’s particular place to get city government to take a firmer stand on key lifestyle matters like health. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. The city can take a stand on health with certain measures, I imagine, like providing bike friendly sidewalks and roads, and take due effort to curb the sprawl that right now has us driving everywhere. These are issues it looks like Shadid is prepared to fight for with a fresh and reasonable energy. 
However, it may benefit the new councilman  to sincerely work toward establishing strong bonds with his fellow councilmen while he learns and continues to unroll these more tangible lifestyle issues. As we know, politics is personal. So it’ll be tricky navigating because health issues immediately highlight the cultural differences between Oklahomans (how much we exercise, what we eat, what constitutes “healthy living”). At the last council meeting it was said that one councilman  took offense to Shadid’s point that sprawl was making more Oklahomans obese, saying that the people in his district were getting exercise, chopping their own wood, etc. One must tread carefully. 
Also, there were times during the budget presentations from the different city departments when Shadid appeared aloof, looking out into the benches or off at the press box (and speaking of press, citing MSNBC and health stats from Hong Kong may not be the best way to make a point with some on the council) … He’s new, but one would like him to look more comfortable in conversation with the other councilmen and women, if these valuable initiatives of his are to take traction.  
 A Note from Colin on Riding the Bus
 I rode the bus for a while before my cornea transplant; I can say that it’s not the worst bus system I’ve ever ridden on. The busses themselves are clean and comfortable, the drivers are good, and the fare is reasonable. No one on the bus has ever stated flatly that they were going to cut off my ear. These are all things I care about in a transit system. Where it falls flat is in frequency (on the hour or on the half hour when some routes really should be coming and going every 15 minutes) and range. Norman is rightly lauded for its good bus system, but Norman is also much smaller and less diffuse, and the service to the outskirts of Norman could probably be better.
Really, OKC is a challenging city to plan transit for– the footprint is huge and there are pockets of density in low density areas and pockets of low density in high density areas. The streetcar circulator is a good solution for downtown, but what we really need is a phased introduction of Bus Rapid Transit, commuter rail, and eventually Light Rail (built on the established BRT right of ways if possible).  … For example:

                                                                                                     –Colin Newman, Editor/Publisher, OKC.NET




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