The City Sentinel’s Top 10 Stories for 2017: Leadership stability, criminal justice reform, growing tax base, and the color purple

Submitted for your consideration, a listing of the Top 10 Stories in Oklahoma City during 2017, from The City Sentinel.

First, stability in local municipal leadership seems assured with the rise of state Senator David Holt, an Oklahoma City Republican, to the city’s top job. He seems likely to work his way, next Feb. 13, and then take the gavel from incumbent Mayor Mick Cornett, the longest serving mayor in Oklahoma City history and a national leader in municipal governance. Holt is a measured conservative able to have productive conversations with caring and capable citizens across the spectrum. Holt has served Cornett loyally, yet kept communications open with his critics. With a tidy sum raised for the election campaign, where he faces two long-short candidates, Holt is on his way to the top.

Second, criminal justice reform – including real solutions to the legacy issues besetting the Oklahoma County jail – has a bipartisan local base of support that ranges from Clay Bennett, principal owner of The Thunder, to the left-of-center VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagements); from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. While the state government remains a study in lethargy when it comes to prison reform, there is real impetus to change mindsets and shift the jail toward more humane treatment of offenders – and redefining offenders to exclude the non-violent and offer alternatives to incarceration. Sheriff P.D. Taylor’s early moves are a mixed bag, but as the year ends, there are many reasons for hope. 

Third, the year ends with another strong month for city government tax revenue – and that means the private sector is succeeding in ways that assure an adequate tax base. December sales tax revenue was up 5.4 percent. For the past six months, the net increase is 2.6 percent. Given the volatility of sales taxes as a revenue stream, there is clear evidence the local economy is on track – and driven by more than the notable success of the local energy sector. After two years of fiscal stress, the city government has enough money to do its job. In sum, the local economy is strong because of a pro-business climate. So long as that remains the case, the future seems bright.

It remains an open question whether Oklahoma City is trending toward the Blue (Democratic) and shifting away from the Red (Republican). There is no doubt that Democrats have had success in recent years, including victories in races to succeed in safe seats long held by Republicans. Strong showings in 2016 propelled Democrats into 2017 with a burst of optimism. Then, in the race to replace a Republican state senator who engaged in sex with a minor, Michael Brooks (formerly Michael Brooks-Jimenez) defeated a credible Republican, Joe Griffin. The overall trend (some wags deem it “turning the city purple”) in local elections are just enough to earn our fourth spot on the list of top local stories in 2017. Time will tell if the credible candidacy of Democrat Kendra Horn, or the Progressive enthusiasm of Tom Guild, might present a serious challenge to reelection of U.S. Rep. Steve Russell. Worthy of note: Horn actually raised more money than the incumbent in one quarter this year.

The year 2017 concluded with Oklahoma City University’s annual triple play of artistic excellence – the Vespers performance, the exquisite “Home for the Holidays” dance extravaganza and a production of the Broadway smash, “Noises Off!” The Brighmusic Society’s cycle of excellent chamber music concerts nurture a quality of life needed in any major American city. The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (CityRep), after a good year, faced a tough fall cycle after the legendary Hal Holbrook stopped his Mark Twain tour – but, before long, CityRep was back with a spectacular pinch-hitter: Legendary singer Judy Collins, who will perform at Oklahoma City Community College this spring. Joel Levine is leaving the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, but the future looks bright for orchestral performance worthy of our town. The historic Paseo Arts District annually hosts of the best “small” (neighborhood-based) arts festivals in America. And so it goes: the sustained quality of the local arts community is our fifth top local story of 2017.

Oklahoma City’s communities of faith – as varied and diverse as America itself – remain a staple of our annual top 10, this year settling into sixth place. For many Oklahomans, the beatification of Father Stanley Rother, held in downtown Oklahoma City, was especially notable. If ultimately canonized – as now seems likely after his designation, by Pope Francis, as a martyr for the faith – the humble priest from Okarche, ordained six decades ago at Our Lady’s Cathedral, will become one of the most notable people in state history. The beatification ceremonies were covered worldwide, with news stories about the event appearing in every state of the country.

It might seem odd to equate local Progressive elements with tradition, but such people and groups are, in and of themselves, our seventh top story of 2017. Still, after 32 years, the annual Peace Festival at the Civic Center seems to have a firmly established — shall we say traditional? — spot in the life of the city. From offices here, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom Oklahoma, influence policy and personnel debates at the state Capitol and around the region. While not intending to neglect any organizations, we hold a general proposition that liberals are an important part of life and law in Oklahoma’s capital city.

After a long time of uncertainly, the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum is on track, and that is a steady story that, with little drama recently, earns the #8 spot on our top ten J. Blake Wade, the departing director, deserves much of the credit for pursuing with determination and grace an agenda to create a unique cultural treasure, keeping it on track even during the recent economic doldrums. The feeling in this corner is that years from now the story of the center on the Oklahoma River at the southeast edge of downtown Oklahoma City will be more positive than negative, and Wade will deserve much of the credit for that.

On Sept. 12, local voters approved the “Safer Streets, Better OKC” referenda, and it earns a ranking as our ninth top local story. The resulting general bond program financed by sales taxes will provide nearly $850 million for street improvements, safer bridges, bikes paths and more. The package finances new police and fire personnel. 

Folks around here love the Thunder, and they obsess over the NBA basketball team, even in the off-season. The franchise’s trades to acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the off-season were signs management is serious about building, and sustaining, a perennial contender. The results were until recently quite mixed, but the new Thunder now seem to be gelling. Only time will tell if the team led by Russell Westbrook can return to the top tier.

Meanwhile, the Thunder have a safe spot in the compilation of top 10 local stories.

Floating in and out of our compilation of top local stories is the state of education. Is the glass half-full, or half-empty, when it comes to the blend of public and private schools hereabouts? We take a pass on detailed assessment of 2017, but confess that we hope the news in 2018 will be better.