August 17, 2015

Tulsa Balks at Forming Separate African-American Commission

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An effort to form an African-American affairs advisory commission got support last week from the Greater Tulsa Area Hispanic Affairs Commission.

However, the move could stall with the current city administration over budget and efficiency issues, an organizer said.

The Hispanic Affairs Commission, an advisory board to city and county governments in the Tulsa area, voted unanimously at its regular meeting to issue a letter of support for a similar group for African-Americans.

Although Tulsa has had for decades a Hispanic Affairs Commission, an Indian Affairs Commission, a Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women and a Human Rights Commission, it lacks a commission dedicated to giving black Tulsans an official advisory voice in city government, said Vanessa Hall-Harper, who brought the issue to the Hispanic Affairs Commission.

“We believe there’s an obvious absence representing the African-American community,” said Hall-Harper, a community activist who ran unsuccessfully for the Tulsa City Council District 1 seat in 2014.

The Commission on the Status of Women and the Human Rights Commission have both written letters supporting formation of  the group, Hall-Harper said. This week, the Human Rights Commission will consider a similar letter.

Given Tulsa’s relatively large population of black residents, as well as the city’s history involving a 1921 race riot, there is a need for an African-American Advisory Commission, Hall-Harper said. Recent issues, such as the controversy in 2013 over a street named after W. Tate Brady, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who had been one of Tulsa’s founders, underscores the need for more understanding, she said.

“Some have not even thought about it, but some are too intimidated to ask,” Hall-Harper said.

During a meeting with Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s office on the matter, Hall-Harper said she was told Bartlett’s office is considering consolidating some of the city’s commissions, such as the Hispanic Affairs, Indian Affairs, and, should it be created, the African-American Affairs commissions.

“They tried to convince us that this is something that past administrations have been looking into, but just have never done it,” Hall-Harper said. “My question is – why move forward on it now, now that the African-American community has asked?”

“We’re not letting it go,” Hall-Harper said.

Dwain Midget, Tulsa’s director of community development and transportation, said the mayor’s office is not opposed to an African-American Affairs Commission.

However, because of tight city operating budgets, city officials have considered consolidating some of its the commissions for years, he said. In some cases, the city has already consolidated existing commissions to streamline staff operations and save money while still meeting the city’s and citizens’ needs, he said.

“It’s not anything new. Mayors have recognized the need to more efficiently use staff and resources,” Midget said. “The mayor’s not opposed to the creation of an African-American Affairs Commission. Because of pressures on our general fund, we find ourselves in a position where we have to cut staff and resources because of revenue drops.”

Midget said the proposal for a new commission has also yet to be fully fleshed out – such as who would appoint members and what the commission’s powers, duties and responsibilities would be.

“No one’s opposed to it,” Midget said. “It’s just that we have to define what it’s doing and what its goals are.”