by Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
Humbly submitted for your consideration, The City Sentinel’s Top Ten News Stories for 2015.
In first place, after years of surging government revenues flowing from a robust state and local economy, the City of Oklahoma City now reports this bottom line: Local sales tax revenues have declined four of the first six months of the current fiscal year.
This adds pressure in the local debate about government programs that subsidize businesses in various forms, and will undoubtedly impact city planning for the long term.
In second place, a determined group of activists in Oklahoma City have joined with national leaders to transform the debate over capital punishment.
In the midst of controversies over the state’s administration of death sentences – particularly the near-execution of Richard Glossip — the Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) provided forums for national leaders such as Sister Helen Prejean, attorney Don Knight, death penalty exoneree Nate Fields and former Indiana state prison warden Frank Thompson to make the moral and practical arguments against the ultimate sanction.
The efforts of local leaders such as former state Sen. Connie Johnson, Rev. Adam Leathers, Ryan Kiesel of the American Civil Liberties Union, OK-CADP board members Rex Friend and the beloved Lydia Polley, a senior activist, have shifted this discussion over the issue.
One sign of changing times: A mainstream conservative group at the University of Central Oklahoma is explicitly challenging wisdom of, and the process surrounding, state executions.
The foregoing helps raise a question, and it ranks as the third top local story of the year: Is Oklahoma City moving to the left?
Consider: Cyndi Munson, a Democrat, won the election to replace reform Republican David Dank in House District 85. In doing so, she defeated a conservative Republican closely allied with city fathers and supporters of business subsidies.
Community activists stopped a possible fossil fuel development plan adjacent to Lake Hefner.
Wind power is not economically efficient in current market conditions, yet providers of wind energy have deployed resources into campaigns and elections, and into state capitol lobbying.
The “green” alliance could become more and more important in the years ahead.
Ed Shadid, the most progressive or left-leaning member of the Oklahoma City Council, won reelection easily last spring.
Joyful supporters of same-sex marriage held a well-attended rally after the U.S. Supreme Court sustained their view of the Constitution last June.
And so forth.
Common education policies and practices are the fourth top story for 2015.
Robert Neu became superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public Schools in 2014. After 100 days of discernment, he announced plans to reduce the suspension rate in the taxpayer-financed schools he finances.
Ney has had stormy relations with some classroom teachers and with the American Federation of Teachers local. Nonetheless, Neu is no shrinking violet, and his determined focus remains a source of hope for many school supporters.
In related news, Oklahoma’s charters schools are growing in importance. The two unaffiliated schools based at the old Harding building on North Shartel, the ASTEC charter system, and Santa Fe South are just three of the sites with notable achievements in the city.
Local private schools continue to attract patrons disenchanted with public school problems, and enhanced parental choice is empowering some taxpayers to access private facilities for some services, including for special needs children.
Casting a shadow over choice activists is a state Supreme Court case that could stop the move to great choice in its stops.
The strength of local faith communities, in diversity and in unity, is our fifth top story of the year.
The Oklahoma Israel Exchange (OKIE) held a large gala at the Skirvin Hotel, honoring ties between the Sooner State and the nation of Israel. Local rabbis led their congregations in matters particular to their faith and reaching out to the city as a whole.
Temple B’Nai Israel, Emanuel Synagogue, and the Chabad Community Center sustain and nurture the ages-old tradition of Judaism. In early December, Rabbi Ovadia Goldman and members of the Chabad led the grand Chanukah celebration in Bricktown.
For the first time in state history, adherents of Islam sponsored an Oklahoma Capitol Muslim day. In December, one group’s study of civil rights issues was released and garnered significant news coverage.
There are some disagreements among the majority who honor the dominant Christian faith.
The Oklahoma Conference of Churches leans leftward in many matters of public policy.
Archbishop Paul Coakley, much like Pope Francis, sometimes sounds conservative and sometimes not so much.
The Southern Baptists, Oklahoma’s largest denomination, play an important role in discussion of social issues, and run one the largest relief agencies in the United States.
In sixth place is Oklahoma City University under the leadership of President Robert Henry.
It would easy, but wrong, to grow so accustomed to the Methodist-affiliated school’s achievements that its quality becomes obscured.
U.S. News and World Report again put OCU among the nation’s best institutions of higher education.
Princeton Review slotted OCU one of the “best in the west.”
And, Henry and his wife Jan continue to provide elegance and style in their manners and substance, working in a way that goes far beyond the limitations of politics to unite and enhance life in our community.
Top story number seven: At a time of notable fiscal challenge for the state and city, Oklahoma’s Indian tribes have carved out a strong niche for their casino-based entertainment venues.
In November, at the Gaylord-Pickens Museum in MidTown, the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association unveiled results of a study called “Statewide Economic Impact from Oklahoma Tribal Government Gaming.”
The investigation for OIGA, conducted by the Steven C. Agee Economic Research and Policy Institute and Klas Robinson Q.E.D., found estimated impact of around $6.2 billion from Indian gaming in 2014. Further, in less than a decade, gaming operations have paid $1 billion into a fund that benefits public schools in the state.
OIGA’s operations are based from an office in downtown Oklahoma City.
Top story number eight is the erosion of our most economically significant heritage industry. Oil and gas (along with agriculture and the blending of diverse cultures) built Oklahoma and made it distinctive.
Recent action in Congress, with President Obama’s agreement, allows export of American petroleum products for the first time in decades. Harold Hamm says the export authorization is great news for the oil patch.
In the face of the Paris climate accord Obama helped to craft, it is unclear whether or not oil and gas will return to his long-held place the forefront of the Oklahoma economy, or begin to fade in the face of wind, solar and other sources of power. For now, as oil and gas go, so goes Oklahoma, at least economically.
Top story number nine references as a group those national “players” who reside in the local business community.
I deliberately limit myself to two examples, lest the list become so long we leave out obvious names. For a longer listing, visit with our friends at Friday newspaper.
Robert Funk started Express Employment Professionals and remains deeply involved in the employment agency industry. He is a philanthropist of legendary generosity, serving as a board member for many worthy causes. And to top it all off, he has long served on the board for the Federal Reserve Board of Kansas City.
Highlighted in this edition is Brenda Jones Barwick, founder of Jones PR. In the past year she has been named a national “headliner” for the Association of Women in Communications.
As the New Year begins, her firm is one of five nominated for the National Non-Profit campaign of the year – the JonesPR’s case for stellar work that benefitted the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS).
In tenth place, despite concerns about taxpayer subsidies, the Thunder NBA franchise remains a source of unity and pride for most local residents.
Like the Green Bay Packers in the NFL North, the Thunder is in charge of the NBA Northwest Division. At press time they had the third best record in the Western Conference, seemingly a lock for the playoffs and a title contender.
Oklahomans love winners, and they love the team businessman Clay Bennett and his partners have put on the court.
To close this essay is a point of personal privilege, naming an “honorable mention” recognition for stories our faithful non-human companions.
Week after week and year after year, local news organizations print, post or broadcast stories about “furry persons” who make the lives of all of us better.
In the case of this newspaper, two tributes to a pug named Ivy Jane drew international comments, uniformly generous and tender-hearted. A reporter and commentator who works online, a man I have never met, wrote, “A newspaper is valuable.” He described as “shocking” and “wonderful” this editor’s decision to print an obituary about a pug.
Mark Potts continued, “Printed in the top-left corner, the Sentinel’s motto reads, ‘Print News for the Heart of our City.’ If anything tugs at the heartstrings, it’s reading about a beloved pet who recently died.
“It makes you think about your own pets. It makes you ponder life without them. You wonder what life without you will be like for those you leave behind. And if this pug was a part of the paper, its writers’ lives and its readers’ interests over the years, then maybe it deserves kind words about the life it led.”
Sometimes tugging at heartstrings, perhaps enlightening the mind, informing discerning citizens about things that matter – these are among the functions of a community newspaper.
Such is our joyful task. In the New Year, I pray for the opportunity for our small band of brothers and sisters to continue to serve you, dear readers.
Note: McGuigan is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame