Oklahoma City’s Top 10 Stories – 2014 in review, from The City Sentinel

OKLAHOMA CITY – Humbly submitted, reflections on the year that was, and hopeful resolutions for the days to come. Here is the annual listing of the top 10 community news stories for The City Sentinel.

The top story for Oklahoma City was a subset of statewide news – an economy which is the envy of much of the nation. The capital city enjoys one of the best records around for high employment, low unemployment, personal income growth and net in-migration.

Indeed, the “reverse grapes of wrath” of which Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb has spoken is no where more apparent than right here. Descendents of “Okies” who migrated west to California are among those willingly, even joyfully, returning to the land of their forebears.

Much credit for this belongs to city and state leaders who have taken a determinedly conservative fiscal approach. The acclaimed MAPS projects were financed without debt, a “pay as you go” approach that seemed revolutionary two decades ago, but always represented the soul of common sense.

Now, as MAPS 3 enters the home stretch for implementation, the question is how to expand the fruits of economic growth beyond the inner city and the robust energy industry. To do so will require leaders to listen to critical voices who point out obvious truths – that some parts of our city have been neglected.

In second place is the reelection of Mayor Mick Cornett, a successful and popular politician, in the face of a determined and bold challenge from Ward 2 City Council member Ed Shadid. Voter turnout for the city elections last spring was up a bit (in marked contrast to the November election), due in large measure issues Shadid raised – and the subsequent vigorous defense of the mayor’s record.

As the city advances, it needs more (not fewer) divergent voices. In elections, the role of independent expenditures should be scrutinized. Without weakening robust free speech, voluntary reporting of all political spending would be a step forward.

Our third top story is the leadership role Oklahoma City University has assumed, held, and enhanced under the leadership of Robert Henry. In May 2014, the Methodist-affiliated institution garnered accreditation from the Association to Advance College Schools of Business. OCU was named to the U.S. Department of Education’s community service honor roll, for developing programs in interfaith and community service. OCU was listed on the Presidential Honor Roll with Distinction, the only Oklahoma institution of higher education thus designated in 2014.

U.S. News and World Report lists OCU as an “A+ School for B+ Students,” and as a top western U.S. university. The institution was named a “Best College to Work For” by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Similar high rankings have come from The Princeton Review and Kiplinger Magazine.

This month (January 2015), the OCU School of Law opens its downtown campus at the Historic Central High School Building. Dance Magazine has given OCU a special distinction for creating “triple threat” entertainers – those with strong foundations in dancing, singing, and acting.

OCU President Henry will be presented the Lifetime Leadership Award from Leadership Oklahoma at a ceremony in Tulsa this February. His past honors include Oklahoma Cityan of the Year, and honors from South Oklahoma City, as well.

In fourth place, we put the dramatic change in public policy wrought as a result of judicial decisions touching marriage. This year, fderal courts struck down a state constitutional provision upholding traditional marriage. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review lower court cases, marriage ceremonies were held at Mayflower Congregational Church. Church of the Open Arms has conducted such services as well. Within hours of the High Court’s demurral, municipal officials were issuing marriage licenses for gay couples across the state.

Even before the court rulings, Church of the Open Arms had conducted gay marriage services. Last summer, the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma issued a marriage license. Then, a ceremony for a gay couple was held on tribal land, attracting national attention.

Debate in this matter is probably not over, but the tone and substance of the discussion has shifted.

Our fifth top story is the strength of professional and community performing arts in Oklahoma City. The acclaimed Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park took steps in 2014 to achieve professional Equity status, while celebrating historic achievements during its 30th anniversary season. Lyric Theatre initiated a new program to present a world premiere musical each year at their facility in the old Plaza Theatre on N.W. 16 Street. As for national touring productions, Celebrity Attractions sold a record number of season tickets this season. Theater programs at University of Central Oklahoma and at OCU continue to bring forth the best in a rising generation of performers.

Which brings us to the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre. What a cycle in 2014 – “Much Ado About Nothing,” “South Pacific,” the hilarious “One-man Star Wars,” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Best of all the CityRep offerings, perhaps, was the stage version of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” This production, recognized by the National Steinbeck Center in California, drew attention from New York City when the national executive Director of TCG (Theatre Communications Group) came to see the show, along with senior representatives of Actors Equity from the Chicago, IL regional headquarters.

The Dallas Morning News wrote about the local “Wrath” production, and southwest U.S. regional critic Alexandra Bonifield has put ot in her “Top 10” for the year. OETA, the state PBS affiliate, featured the production in a statewide special.

Our sixth top story: Roman Catholic Archbishop Paul S. Coakley led opposition to city government’s surprising scheduling of a Satanic “Mass” in the taxpayer-supported Civic Center.

Coakley’s stance drew nationwide attention, including support from both traditionalist Roman Catholics and non-Catholic Christian leaders and from political leaders such as state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, and Labor Commissioner Mark Costello.

Throughout the controversy, Coakley spoke in measured terms about the intentional sacrilege of the profane Satanist service. On the day of the event, he led a peaceful Eucharistic Adoration service at the city’s historic St. Francis of Assisi Church.

At the Civic Center, the American Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) group brought in busloads of activists from across the central states region. A large crowd demonstrated peacefully, offering prayers of reparation while the demonic service unfolded before about four dozen people inside the Civic Center. This reporter’s story on the event was printed at Aleteia.org, a news website focused on Catholicism.

Not long after Satanists left, Archbishop Coakley quietly visited the basement space where the ceremony had been held, to perform an exorcism of the area. 

For his many stands upholding Catholic teaching, Coakley was recently honored with a national leadership award.

Seventh place in our rank of top city stories goes to the unfortunate events that deprived the Frederick A. Douglass High School Trojans an opportunity to play for the state title in Class 3A football. Game officials threw a flag late in the contest between Locust Grove and Douglass. The action was controversial from the git-go, and some Douglass fans reacted inappropriately.

A meltdown almost resulted when game officials, chosen by the controversial Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletics Association, improperly assessed the penalty, wiping out an apparent game-winning touchdown. Then, it became clear the penalty itself was improperly applied at the point of the original line of scrimmage of the game-winning play, rather than after the points were counted.

A 25-19 Douglass lead became a 20-19 deficit. Litigation resulted. The follow-up semi-final between Locust Grove and Heritage Hall was long delayed. After granting city schools’ officials a temporary injunction, a local judge ruled to sustain the game’s result, denying a do-over. Douglass players handled the bad call and bad penalty well.

If there was any upside, it was widespread community support for the Trojans, crossing all normal lines of sports rivalry or partisan politics. Further, OSSAA drew so much critical attention that reform of the group’s overweening powers seems possible.

The eighth top local story of 2014 incorporates a wide range of education related stories, including but not limited to the arrival of new local Public School Superintendent Robert Neu.

Neu spent 100 days scrutinizing local schools before issuing an analysis critical of historic priorities. His determined posture gives some glimmer of hope that low academic performance across the district can be ameliorated.

Off-setting the bad news, other local education stories included growing support for school choice. That trend was illustrated in the reelection victory for state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, author of the Lindsey Nichole Henry Scholarship program for special needs children. Bi-partisan legislative strength in the city delegation at N.W. 23 and Lincoln was enhanced. Several charter schools (led by KIPP Preparatory on the northeast side) garnered honors for quality education.

Energy and the Environment is the ninth top local story. Businesses such as Devon, Continental Resources, Chesapeake, Sandridge, and American Energy Partners drove much of the state and local economic surge of the past three years. As oil and gas prices weakned late in 2014, state government tax receipts weakened.

Fracking technology was for decades considered a blessing, but evidence the process may contribute to increased seismic activity has triggered rising concern.
Devon made a major contribution to fracking studies late in the year.

In late December, citizen activism stopped possible exploration in the Lake Hefner basin.

Our tenth-place story is the strength and resilience of Oklahoma City’s communities of faith. No surprise that the buckle of the Bible Belt is home to strong Evangelical Christian churches, including some with leaders willing to challenge controversial mandates in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Members of the Southern Baptist convention have long led by example in provision of direct care to the suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Some Christians cleave to interpretations of Sacred Scripture that make them distinctive from conservative brethren. While public policy debate continues, these denominations also give examples of direct charity and compassion which have been covered in the pages of The City Sentinel.

The local Jewish Federation, and worship centers at the Temple and Synagogue have long been a valued part of the local mosaic of faith. Seemingly invigorated through the passion and kindness of the Chabad Community in north Oklahoma City, which hosted the annual Chanukah Memorah lighting in Bricktown in December, the Jewish community’s example continues to uplift local lives.

Adherents of Islam have established a strong identity in Oklahoma City, through local mosques and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which led peaceful demonstrations at the state Capitol and held their largest-yet annual banquet at the Tower Hotel (formerly the Northwest Marriott). When a state legislator criticized CAIR in particular and Muslims in general, a range of local faith leaders rallied to offset his words.

And, just beyond the top 10 stories – for what the future may hold and in celebration of historic achievements – we list the solid debut (in the past two years) of ReMerge and the continued strength of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), and what these organizations represent for our state and community.

ReMerge, patterned on the awesome success of Tulsa’s Women in Recovery, developed by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, is one of many programs feeding hope that this can be made a model city, a place where those who have faced the underside of the justice system can find their way to a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

TEEM has long modeled forgiveness and acceptance. Now that the program has been retooled to serve individuals coming out of incarceration, TEEM’s historic mission based in the heart of Oklahoma City is more important than ever.

Originally established by Rev. Theo “Doc” Benson at Sunbeam Family Services under the sponsorship of the United Methodist Conference of Oklahoma, TEEM has evolved its mission while maintaining a focus on those forgotten or left behind in the city’s economic growth. Under former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, the TEEM staff now works explicitly on the toughest assignment any non-profit organization can tackle, namely, helping those leaving prison to develop personal habits and skills required for advancement in a free market economy.

Criminal justice reform, broadly defined, will be an essential ingredient as citizens of our city, state and nation seek to build a better future. Within that framework, prison and jail reform will be essential ingredients. Sentencing reforms designed to sustain a shift away from incarceration for non-violent will be needed within the near-term.

The coming year, 2015, is a non-election year (at least it will be after local elections unfold this spring). That seems as good a time as any to get started with both local and statewide efforts to end Oklahoma’s unenviable position as first for female incarceration and third for male incarceration.

In 2012, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a Sooner version of the restorative justice or “Right on Crime” movement, a truly bipartisan set of policy reforms aiming to trigger the shift away from imprisonment for non-violent offenders, through creation of meaningful after-jail supervision, to include drug counseling and monitoring. To be candid, it is time for Republicans to put meat on the bones of JRI. Two years late is better than never.

Finally, the progressive or liberal strength within Oklahoma City – obviously laced throughout the foregoing points – offers a hint of the city’s future.

With economic vitality, dynamic arts, improved schools and a diverse faith community comes both strength and the potential for deep fissures driven by differing views about the best public policy prescriptions. These can also be a source of strength, if both those with power and those aspiring for empowerment act wisely, reaching out to each other in ways that could make life better for all people of good will.

This is not to imply that ours is not already a welcoming city. One of the remarkable things about Oklahoma, from territorial days to the present, has been its subtly populist culture, as a place where those who “show up” willing to work hard and do their share get to “play.”

In practical ways, in this city and during this coming year, we hope to be report on better ways to build economic and personal liberty, respectful of diversity while enhancing the quality of life for all.

NOTE: The City Sentinel is a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. This analysis is also appearing on the newspaper’s website.