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Election preview: Future projects big and small are in balance with next week’s council vote

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Community members and city council candidates meet at Church of the Open Arms to discuss problems in the community, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Community members and city council candidates meet at Church of the Open Arms to discuss problems in the community, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015.

A billion-dollar bond for infrastructure, possible tax incentives for a convention center hotel and early planning on a potential MAPS 4 vote await candidates who are elected to the Oklahoma City Council Tuesday.

Seats in wards 2, 6 and 8 are up for grabs on March 3, and a third of the council could change as several important issues face city hall in coming years.

“Anytime you prepare for a bond issue, you are preparing the city for the next decade,” said Mayor Mick Cornett, who won reelection last year. “Whoever gets elected is going to have a significant impact on where those millions of dollars are going to be spent.”

In the coming year, the city will begin preparing for another general obligation bond in 2017. Each counselor will help shape how the funds will be spent in their ward, overseeing millions of dollars for road and infrastructure improvements, along with other capital projects.

While city leaders are still working to implement the projects from MAPS 3 — including a new convention center and downtown streetcar system — it’s likely the groundwork on another MAPS campaign will be set during the next council term.

There are also plans to move forward on announcing a regional transit system and supporting tax that will present the city with a MAPS-like project that could further transform the city.

But those elected to the council will not just deal with large-scale infrastructure projects and economic development.

The work of city councilors also includes one-on-one meetings with constituents, neighborhood associations and business leaders.

“In addition to those big issues, we spend the majority of our time on the council dealing with issues related back to our various wards that may not sound too exciting, but to citizens, they are just as important,” said David Greenwell, the councilman in Ward 5 that won another term this year after filing as the lone candidate.

While Greenwell’s seat is safe, he said the elections in three wards could sway the council on important issues.

“I am rarely 100 percent behind an issue, and I may be only 60 percent in support of something, but I only get a yes or a no vote,” Greenwell said. “So just a couple new people [on the council] could have an impact when you take into account that maybe other members are not completely for or against a particular direction. Depending on how the issues are presented, that may sway two or three other council members.”

It’s possible that one-third of the council could change, but both incumbents appear to be frontrunners, and the one ward where a new councilor will be elected features a pool of candidates that seem to be of a similar mind to the outgoing councilor.

Ward 6, the city’s central ward, features a race between incumbent Meg Salyer and two challengers: Dario Alvarado and Bob Waldrop.

“I think this [next] term is incredibly crucial for [Ward 6] because there is so much happening downtown,” said Salyer, who joined the council in 2008. “There is stuff happening all over the city, but Ward 6 happens to be the epicenter of public and private development that is going on right now.”

Many of the city’s largest capital projects slated for future construction will take place downtown, including a new convention center and possible hotel that has already become a somewhat controversial project as tax incentives are discussed.

Both Waldrop and Alvarado expressed opposition to additional tax incentives downtown, including those for a proposed convention center hotel.

“I think those [downtown] developers have already got enough of the tax breaks,” Waldrop said. “I’d like to use that money to help those who really need it to start a business or something like that.”

While Ward 6 features two challengers that, if elected, could soften the council’s support for such incentives, Ward 2 features an election in which an incumbent loss could strengthen support for tax breaks and city-sponsored economic development.

Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid has consistently questioned tax incentives, especially concerning the idea that some might be used for a new convention center hotel.

“I’m worried about the direction we are headed when we don’t stop and ask ourselves if we are handing out too [many incentives],” Shadid said previously.

While challenger James Cooper has also indicated he would be cautious in voting for additional public funds for private projects, his victory — or a victory by Major Jemison or John Riley, the two other candidates on the ballot — would likely add a more pro-business and incentive voice to the council.

In Ward 8, where Councilman Pat Ryan is not seeking reelection, there doesn’t appear to be much philosophical change, if any, between Ryan and the three candidates running for the open seat.

Steve Curry and Mark Stonecipher, the two Ward 8 candidates with the most resources, have both spoken highly of Councilman Ryan. At times during the campaign, both have also claimed to have Ryan’s endorsement, even though the councilman has said he is not officially backing either candidate. John Ederer is also running in Ward 8.

Whether the council sees sweeping change or more of the same, chances are it will only be a handful of citizens calling the shots on Election Day. Of 300,000 residents in the four wards up for election in 2011, which includes minors and other non-voters, just 18,000 votes were cast.

The Ward 2 election in 2011 featured six candidates and 4,225 votes cast. A runoff with the two top vote getters a month later saw just over 5,000 voters.

“It’s not easy to win a council election, but when you look at the turnout history, you can see a path if you can get turnout from your own supporters,” Waldrop said.

Residents in wards 2, 6 and 8 can vote on March 3. A runoff will be held on April 7 between the two top candidates if none receive more than 50 percent of the vote.

“Every council member brings their own life experiences to the seat, so you never know how the council might change during an election,” Cornett said. “It’s always interesting to watch and does impact the future.

Print headline: Tuesday’s vote, Future projects — big and small — are in the balance with next week’s Oklahoma City Council elections.

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