Councilwoman Meg Salyer reflects on a decade of representing OKCís Ward 6
After serving the residents of Oklahoma City’s Ward 6 for more than a decade, Councilwoman Meg Salyer will step down from her role when Councilwoman-elect JoBeth Hamon is sworn into office on April 9. Recently, VeloCityOKC staff spoke with Salyer about her impressions of Oklahoma City since moving here from Long Island, her time as a city council representative, and perspective on where Oklahoma City is headed.
"I have observed this shift from a bit of a lack of self-confidence to an attitude that we can do anything, and nobody can stand in our way if it's something that we want to do."
Kaylee Terracina: First off, talk a little bit about how Oklahoma City has changed from when you first moved here until today.
Salyer: Oh my goodness. Well, I first came to Oklahoma City in April of 1981. So, it doesn't resemble, in any way, the same place that I came to all those many years ago. This is a city today that is just full of positive energy, and excitement, and promise. In 1981 we were in the midst of a giant oil boom so that energy and optimism and reckless fearlessness was there, but when Penn Square Bank closed in July of 1982, that set off years of repercussions of economic downturn and difficulties in every business sector. It's taken years and years to recover. So, the town is completely different today. It is diverse, there's a food scene, there is traffic, and there are people downtown at night. You know, it's just a reimagined community with a beating heart downtown, and in all of the neighborhoods all over the city, they are full of life and energy.
That's awesome. What do you think spurred those positive changes? What do you credit with that transformation?
Well, a couple of things and some of it revolves around the Chamber. There truly was a paradigm shift in this community. One way to describe it is that for years and years, our license plate said, 'Oklahoma – OK.' I just don't think that's a high enough bar for us to set. There's a long story behind it. It actually was supposed to say 'Oklahoma – OK!' with an exclamation point, taken from the song, but when that slogan was approved by the Legislature, apparently a legislator commented that you couldn't use punctuation on just one word. So they dropped the exclamation point, and there we are with Oklahoma being okay.
For years and years, our license plate said, 'Oklahoma – OK.' I just don't think that's a high enough bar for us to set.
After the incredible tragedy of April 19, 1995, the people of Oklahoma didn't act any differently, but people saw from other parts of the world how we reach out and help each other in the midst of tragedy. They saw the kind of caring and wonderful people that are Oklahomans. We seem to have just had this shift where we became confident that if we set our minds to something, we could do anything. I have observed this shift from a bit of a lack of self-confidence to an attitude that we can do anything, and nobody can stand in our way if it's something that we want to do.
I love that. I want to shift a little bit for your history as a public servant. When did you decide to run for public office? What was behind that decision, and what really inspired you as you took that role?
That is kind of a funny question too, honestly, I decided the first day of filing in September of 2008. So just to give you a little history, my predecessor resigned after serving for 13 years because her son became a firefighter, and they couldn't both be employed by the city. So, she resigned, and that left a two-and-a-half-year unexpired term that needed to be filled. So the election for that seat was actually held in November of 2008, and it was held for the first time ever, I believe, on the same date as a presidential election. So, when her seat became open, a few people had called and inquired if I might be interested. You know, I really think it was because of all the volunteer work and the work I had done with the city leading up to that.
Being the founding board chair of Automobile Alley, I had worked with the public works department, with the planning department and with the city manager's office. I had a working relationship with the Mayor [Mick Cornett], having helped him first be elected to his council seat, and then with his mayoral campaign. So, I knew a number of people at the city. I just didn't think I was ready, or I wasn't sure that it was something that I was qualified to do, or had the time to do. I had daughter in high school, and I just wasn't sure about the timing, so I continued to, I guess, think about it a bit, and the honest story is that my dear friends Clayton and Marnie Taylor took me up to Stillwater to a football game, and all the way up in the car and all the way back, they had me as a captive audience. We just talked through the idea that serving on the council is not a political job, it is a community service position. It really would mirror a lot of the activities I'd already been doing, just from a different seat or a different level of responsibility.
"Serving on the council is not a political job, it is a community service position."
So I came home that Saturday night thinking, two-and-a-half years, anybody can do anything for two-and-a-half years. So, Monday morning, I went down and filed.
Wow. That's amazing.
It really was a surprise. It was as much a surprise to me as to anybody. That Monday morning, I did pick up the phone and started making some of those phone calls. I called the Mayor, and I called the city manager, I called Debi Martin, all of whom were totally surprised, but very supportive. So, that's truly how it happened.
So what would you say are some of your favorite memories or any big moments that stick out to you when you're reflecting on your time in office?
Well, Kaylee, there are lots of moments, and they're big and they're small. So my timeline really tracks pretty tightly with MAPS 3. We began that conversation early in 2009, and so I had the privilege of being part of putting that package together, and talking to groups of citizens and weighing the balances, finding something for everyone. It really was a discussion about trying to reach out into the community, and to talk about important issues, like health and well-being, so senior wellness centers, and trails, and sidewalks, and whitewater activities down on the river, things that would get people outside and moving, along with the momentous things of addressing peoples' interest in public transit, knowing that we needed to replace the 50-year-old convention center. Having the opportunity with the relocation of I-40 to create a 70-acre park at the front door to our downtown. All of those things came together. So, I'd have to say that one of the biggest moments was counting down and then seeing the vote in December of 2009 when the citizens approved that penny sales tax. That was an exciting, exciting time.
We did the same thing in the end of last year when we did the September bond issue. That's even more exciting in a way as you sit and watch each individual proposition, and whether or not the citizens supported it. So to be able to impact the kind of money that we need, not just in more quality-of-life things, but in actual repairs and maintenance. Kind of putting the roof on your house, rather than redecorating.
"Every single day, I get to work on something that hopefully helps somebody else advance a project forward, or connect with the city in a way that helps them answer a question, or solve a problem."
Those bond issue things are so important, and being able to work on drainage, streets, streetscapes, parks and all of those things that are just part of making our city a great place to live. In the little things, every single day, I get to work on something that hopefully helps somebody else advance a project forward, or connect with the city in a way that helps them answer a question, or solve a problem. So, I've been able to help so many developers work on projects that we all enjoy. Redeveloping some of our little pocket parks. Solving simple traffic problems. This will make you laugh, but one of my favorites, and one of lots of peoples' favorites, is we installed that flashing yellow turn signal at 16th and Classen Boulevard.
It's the best!
I mean it's just, it's crazy, but I smile every time I drive through there. So you know, there are lots of little teeny things that have an impact on people's day to day life, that I wouldn't even have thought about as part of the job description, but it's really, you know, makes a difference.
So what would you say is the biggest lesson that you've learned in your time? Not just serving on city council, but even before that when you were volunteering with the city and helping some of these districts start and blossom. What are some of the biggest lessons that you've learned?
I probably would start with the skills needed to be a really good listener, and it is different being in a role like this is very different than I've been used to running my own business. When I encounter a problem here we talk about it, but typically we'll just come to a solution, we'll just move to solve the problem. In working with a lot of diverse groups of people, it just takes more time and you really need to come to the realization that within a group of very smart people, people can definitely disagree on either an approach or on the right direction to go. So, listening and trying to distill down where the real challenges are is really an important skill to have doing this job.
So what do you think is Oklahoma City's best asset?
Without any hesitation, it's the people. What I see today is this beautiful combination between what makes this place so unique—the grit, the pioneer spirit, the roll-up-your-sleeves and do the work yourself, combined with this great new energy that we're seeing around where our society is a lot more mobile, people are traveling, they're experiencing new things, new foods, placemaking, new concepts, and you know, bringing those ideas here with our own special Oklahoma twist, and making them ours. Getting to work with the people of this great city and this great state has been a real joy and it just points out that I do think we have a unique type of personality. People ask all the time, how did MAPS happen, or how did you create this community? It's something more than just the actual, "well, we passed the penny tax to pay for this," or "we've been supportive of each other." It's just a really unique place with very special people.
Absolutely. We have new faces on the city council and new leaders at almost every level of city government. My final question is what advice do you have for them? I'm noticing the parallel between your early time on council was the beginning of MAPS 3, and we're currently in the beginning of MAPS 4. So what advice or words of wisdom would you share?
Well, be true to yourself to start with. I think the approach that Mayor Holt's taking is really exciting. He's doing exactly what he campaigned on, which is trying to reach every corner of this community to allow people to feel that they're participating in the growth of this city. Different things are needed at different times. Just like in a person's evolution, you need something different at different times. I would say the same thing about Oklahoma City. We're maturing in some ways, and we've tackled some of the big problems that we have experienced in the last, as I've been here, 30, and then 20, and then 10 years. There are new things to tackle. There are things that we know we can do better.
"I just hope that we're looking fast to the future, but that we can hold on to kind of what got us to the place we are today."
So, I would really just encourage new leadership to listen to the citizens, to pay attention to those things, but also to remember how hard the work was to get us where we are, and to not take for granted that special sauce and collaboration, but to try to build on it. To do that with respect and a lot of thought, because it's taken a lot of time and a lot of energy for people to build the layers of trust and things that make a community really work well. It doesn't take much to break some of that down. I think it's much harder to build then it is to kind of cut some chinks in it. So I just hope that we're looking fast to the future, but that we can hold on to kind of what got us to the place we are today.