If you were a member of the Oklahoma City Council, you could have gone to see them for free.
Over the course of three years, current and former City Council members received thousands of free event tickets, mostly for Oklahoma City Thunder games, but also included tickets to rock concerts, stand-up comedians, ballet performances and a multitude of other events, records show.
Under the city's complimentary ticket policy, City Council members and the mayor are allowed two free tickets per event.
Since 2008, council members and Mayor Mick Cornett received 2,259 free tickets to events ranging from Thunder and Oklahoma City RedHawks games to Lady Gaga and a stage performance of “Legally Blonde.”
The city charter states in Article IV, section 12 that “no officers or employee of the city, elective or appointive, shall accept or receive, directly or indirectly, from any person, firm or corporation operating within the city … using or operating under a public franchise or franchises, any frank, free ticket or free service or accept or receive, directly or indirectly, from any such person, firm or corporation any other service upon terms more favorable than is granted the public generally, or any salary, commission, compensation, or thing of value whatsoever.”
Any violation of that rule could be grounds for removal from office, according to the charter.
However, the provision goes on to state that the rule shall not “void the terms of any franchise now outstanding, or prevent the granting of franchises conditioned upon free service to the city and to its officers and employees while engaged in the performance of their official duties.”
Furthermore, the city has an official policy in place allowing elected officials to receive free tickets.
Lease agreements between the city and athletic organizations —the professional basketball club LLC (Thunder) and the OKC Athletic Club Limited Partnership (RedHawks) — include provisions allowing for complimentary tickets for the mayor and council, as well as a suite and seats reserved for city officials.
“The mayor and City Council use complimentary tickets in carrying out their responsibilities to oversee management, operation and maintenance of city facilities used for public events,” City Auditor Jim Williamson wrote in a memo Nov. 9, 2009.
Specific provisions of the ticket policy include: restrictions of two complimentary tickets per official per event, the tickets must be used by the official and one guest, the city official must be present with the guest when the tickets are used, the tickets may not be sold or given to any party and the tickets must be returned if the official requesting them is not able to attend.
According to a Jan. 30, 2006, letter from Municipal Counselor William Burkett, the reason officials receive two tickets is “the guest who accompanies the city officer (spouse or other person) is attending because it would be entirely unreasonable to expect the city officer to dedicate his or her personal leisure time to public-function oversight duties without at least one person to accompany him or her.”
In addition, the purpose of oversight by attending the events is “the protection of the health, safety, and/or welfare of both residents and nonresidents of the city who may attend events held in these facilities,” Burkett wrote.
Three specific public duties of the officials attending events are to ensure the facilities are managed in a manner to provide maximum public safety, that the types of entertainment are “reflective of our culture and people” and to gain an overall working knowledge of the buildings’ operation and management to ensure highquality standards are maintained, Burkett wrote.
Records show Ward 4 Councilman Pete White received the highest number of complimentary tickets (445), followed by Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, (362), Mayor Mick Cornett (284), Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs (284) and Ward 7 Councilman Ronald “Skip” Kelly, (274).
The two newest council members received the fewest number of complimentary tickets, with Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell accepting two tickets and Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid accepting none.
Former Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman accepted 196 tickets and former Ward 5 Councilman Brian Walters received 112.
McAtee said he has been able to pass along information and thoughts to event organizers.
“I’m not embarrassed about it, ashamed about it or hiding it. I’m happy to go and fulfill my responsibility, and it’s been beneficial,” McAtee said. “There have been times when I’ve observed things going on that after attending the event, I passed along to the event promoters or manager of the facilities, and I think the outcome of that has been very positive.”
McAtee said the policy has been in place since he joined the council in 2001, and attending such events is part of his duty “It has always been in my opinion, always correct, totally ethical and totally beyond any impropriety,” McAtee said.
White also said he reviewed the policy when he returned to the council in 2005 and did not see a problem with it.
“I think it serves a good purpose,” White said. “I’ve not seen the policy been abused.”
Some tickets have been used to entertain visiting officials and dignitaries to help promote economic development, goodwill and public relations, White said.
Cornett’s Chief of Staff Steve Hill said the mayor has his own Thunder season tickets, and does not usually use the complimentary tickets reserved for him.
Hill said the mayor is often obligated to request tickets for events at the Civic Center, but often does not use the tickets, usually because of scheduling issues.
“He usually doesn’t go,” Hill said. “Despite the fact they requested the tickets, I don’t think he’s been to the Civic Center (events) in about a year.”
Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer said the tickets are an important part of the job and help keep an eye on how public facilities are used.
“I don’t think there’s any gigantic mystery to it,” Salyer said.
The more than 2,000 complimentary tickets issued since 2008 are not excessive given the large number of city events, Salyer said.
“Given the fact that the lease agreement with the (Oklahoma City Arena) provides a suite for city, it does allow us to attend important events in the community to invite people to come with us, civic leaders — people engaged with what’s going on — and not have someone else invite you. We’re there because of our jobs.”
Photo by Shannon Cornman