Interview with Ward 5's David Greenwell: 'We can accomplish so much more when we work together'
Editor's note: this is the latest in a series of articles on VeloCity highlighting OKC's Council members, their wards, thoughts on OKC's future and more.
Ward 5’s David Greenwell was first elected to the City Council in 2011, twice winning reelection. He is a certified public accountant with more than 40 years of experience and a partner with RSM US, LLP. He recently took the time to sit down with VeloCity staff to talk a bit about his background, his experience on the Council, commuting via bike and bus, and his thoughts on OKC in general.
VeloCityOKC: To start off, just tell us a little about yourself.
Councilman Greenwell: I was born here in Oklahoma City and lived here all my life. Over the years in my career as a CPA, I worked in other locations at times, more so in Houston and Dallas, and to some degree some other cities throughout the United States, but this has always been my home. I grew up in south Oklahoma City, attended Capitol Hill High School, and then upon graduation, I attended Oklahoma City Community College where I was a part of that first class that began to attend there. It opened in September of 1972, and I graduated from high school in May of ‘72.
Then I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to OCU after obtaining my associate degree, and completed my bachelor's degree at OCU in accounting and went to work in public accounting. Then I went to OU and obtained my MBA at night. In my role of a CPA, I have worked with many privately owned businesses and individuals, and so I've gained even greater appreciation and perspective on the business side of operating here in Oklahoma City.
Many of those businesses had been operating since the 1930s, 1940s, and to gain an understanding of how they evolved, how they became successful, and how important they were to the city helped me to have a greater appreciation for the business segment here in Oklahoma City…
All those things were helpful to me in continuing to grow and mature and to gain an appreciation for the city of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma in general. Early on--my family's perspective has always included a responsibility to share and participate, and share any knowledge or expertise or resources that we may have with the community. So I got involved early on upon graduating from college, becoming involved in various civic and charitable organizations. Then that just eventually led to deciding to run for City Council in 2011.
So why did you originally decide to run for City Council, and has your motivation to keep going, to stay on, has that changed at all?
That's really a great question, because unfortunately, [often] people run for office for a particular issue that has motivated them, and in general, I think you'll be disappointed if you do that. So mine wasn't a particular issue per se. I just felt like our Ward could be better represented if somebody had a greater appreciation for the role of city government and each of our responsibilities to try to make this a better place to live. So that was probably my motivating factor, just to hopefully give a better representation to the majority of people living in Ward 5, and also hopefully to represent Ward 5 to the rest of the city as a ward that has great people, has a lot to offer, is a great place to live and raise a family, and people of Ward 5 are as concerned about the future and what's going on in the city as any other part of Oklahoma City.
We were successful in the initial election. I didn't draw a candidate in the second term, and while that's easy not to have to run for reelection, I think the community that you're representing misses out on something, because it allows both the current [councilor] and any opponents to share their thoughts for the public to hear their different perspectives and then make a decision as to whom they believe would be the best choice in representing them. So I was actually pleased that I had initially a couple of opponents in this past election, because again, it gives us the opportunity to share our thoughts and then let the people make that decision.
I think the higher the office becomes, from a municipal to a county to a state-level, even a national-level-type position, I don't like to see an unopposed candidate. I think it's best for everybody, both the candidates as well as the voters, to have opponents go through the campaign process.
That's a really interesting point. I hadn't thought about that, but yeah, it gives you a chance to make sure you have that connection and that you're representing the views of the constituency.
Yes, and so after eight years, has the focus for most of the citizens, has it changed in any manner? Has it shifted from where it was, say, in 2011 to where it is now in 2019? Unless you're out there meeting with the public in a campaign format, it's hard to judge that accurately. So you obtain feedback, positive and negative, when you go through this process, so I think that's always good to have a vibrant election process.
"We recognize—I think we all recognize this—that we can accomplish so much more when we work together. No one's trying to outdo the other, and apparently, that's pretty unique."
So do you think that your constituents’ priorities changed over that time? What's your read on that?
I think fundamentally they've not changed too much. I think they're always going to be concerned about living in a safe environment. They're concerned about having adequate police [and] fire protection, as well as any kind of first responder-type coverage. People are always going to be concerned about that. They're always concerned about an environment that's supportive and productive for them as a family, and so that includes education. I think education is always going to be an important component, even though our role as a City Council doesn't directly impact education, to the extent we can influence the quality of education, I think they'll always be concerned about that.
So they want a safe environment, which really came out a couple years prior to the election. I began hearing since being elected in 2011, there would be issues that would be public safety-oriented, such as, “There's a lot of speeding going through our neighborhoods. Can you add a stop sign here?” or “Can we get some additional police coverage these certain times?” We would always respond and support those types of requests, but as that progressed, more concerns began to be voiced as it relates to the quality of the streets, and back in about 2016 or so, I shared that with the City Council as a whole that we've got to begin to change course, because the city's former approach was just to provide maintenance… as streets began to deteriorate and have problems, we would try to correct that, but not try to maintain and keep a high level of quality in the streets.
Well, we've changed that and it required a bond election to support that as well as a penny sales tax initiative to provide for Better Streets, Safer City. The combination of those two items generated close to three quarters of a billion dollars for streets and sidewalks. So I think that became an issue of citizens that wasn't as strongly voiced in 2011. It just evolved.
Another item people are concerned with is, do we have good job opportunities here? Not just for themselves, but for their children and perhaps grandchildren. Do we have a vibrant economy? Do we have a city that has a lot to offer in terms of what do we do outside of work? So I think we as a city have grown in our level of sophistication, or perhaps being able to better identify or quantify what we do want out of the city, and I think we're getting there.
So in my travels, what's always been interesting is to go to different parts of a city, a different city, and see pockets of a community that were unique. Like up in Omaha in Nebraska, they've got a very interesting little Czech community, and it's just a great place for unique restaurants and little neighborhood bars. In Cleveland, Ohio, they've got a great little Italian community, and it's just one city after another that has little, unique pockets. I think we're continuing to develop those. We've got an Asian community, an African American community, the Plaza District, Capitol Hill is coming back, Stockyards still has a western theme.
So we've got those types of unique aspects of community, and I think that's what makes the city such a great place to live. That's a very important component. But jobs, quality streets, safe communities, I think those will always be important issues for the public.
You talked about how your experience as a CPA helped inform the way that you looked at the city, as well as some of your travels — has your experience as a city councilman, now that you’ve seen and have been working on the “inside,” so to speak— now when you travel to other cities, has that affected the way that you tend to look at the goings on [in other cities]?
Yes, very much so. The city has peer cities that we visit sometimes in connection with the Chamber. It's very insightful to do that in a formal setting and to have your friends and acquaintances that you know from Oklahoma City go and get to examine other similar cities and see what's going on in their locations. It's great and you get great feedback, but even on an individual basis or even if we're on vacation or something, when I go to different cities I see how certain aspects, whether it's public transportation, or perhaps police or other segments of municipal activities, are being performed. It is very interesting.
And you have a better understanding of limitations that all cities have in being able to provide those various types of services. One thing that I've learned since becoming a member of the City Council – and I think it's an issue that every member that makes their way into an elected office at some point realizes – that's to gain a level of patience, because, especially coming from the private business sector, when businesses felt a need for a change, they would shift their resources and address that need. In government, that process still occurs, but at a much slower pace, and you're always trying to gain a consensus in those ideas. Whereas in a business setting, you have usually a leader or a group of individuals leading a business and they'll make that decision and then, boom, the next day those resources are being allocated.
First, you gain consensus in government, and then you try to pull together resources, realizing that we always have a limited amount of resources, and if you're going to dedicate things to one area, many times that means you're going to have to pull it away from areas that currently are receiving some type of resources or assistance. So you just have to approach things a little bit more cautiously and do it with a greater amount of patience.
I think everybody that joins the City Council has great expectations of being able to influence things, and they should have that. I'm not saying that's not good. It is good, but they'll soon learn that they become one of nine people and not everybody may share that same level of interest in that one particular item that's of great importance to them. So then it's a matter of educating or trying to instill that same focus with other members of the Council.
That’s interesting too, because that sort of goes along with a lot of the things that we talk about in terms of being a basis for Oklahoma City’s success in general, that ability to get everybody on board, creating that consensus like you talked about, and everyone pulling on the same rope as it were, that sort of thing.
Right, and I've heard this from so many people that one of the unique advantages that Oklahoma City has is the close relationship it has with, say, the Chamber of Commerce, the business community, the arts community, the “you name it,” whatever segment you may be talking about, and the city government. We try to be as accommodating and understanding as possible with regards to all those various groups or areas of influence. We recognize— I think we all recognize this— that we can accomplish so much more when we work together. No one's trying to outdo the other, and apparently, that's pretty unique. In many other large communities you just don't often see that cohesiveness, so hopefully that'll continue on.
"People are self-sustaining, but at the same time, they recognize, hey, we all need help at times and are willing to help others."
Absolutely. Any guesses as to why that's the case here?
I don't know. I think Oklahoma City is still somewhat of a small town that's just gotten real large, but the overall personality of the city is still that of a smaller, welcoming community. I hope it always stays that way. So if you go back to some of the earlier years, another aspect that really had a lot of impact on me was in ‘82, we saw an economy that was expanding -- really expanding at a very high level. Then in ‘82, when the energy bust took place, we saw this economy just go flat. Not only did the energy sector suffer severely, but it brought down the banking industry and then later the savings and loan industry.
So all of that is pointed to beginning on the fifth of July of 1982 when Penn Square Bank failed. We really didn't recover until well into the ‘90s, early ‘90s for some, mid to later ‘90s for others. I can remember in the ‘90s, we would celebrate new job announcements, but those types of jobs at that time were often something like a new call center paying minimum wage and coming in and taking over an abandoned retail center, like a large Walmart store or something that had gone out of business. So we weren't really making any headway per se, and fortunately Mayor Norick and others took a chance and developed the first MAPS program and the community supported that.
At this point people wanted an environment where the scarcity of jobs doesn't develop again. I think a lot of people bought into that and we were successful in turning the city around and allowing us to elevate the quality of life to the point where we could then compete…
But one thing I believe is we can fall back into those times if we ever lose sight of that, and I'd rather continue to work hard to maintain that level of competitiveness from a city's perspective, quality of life perspective, and keep working to retain that as opposed to letting it start falling back.
What do you think is it about Oklahoma City right now that is making people want to stay?
For one thing, and it's in some ways a disadvantage, but we are not a densely populated city, nor are we a densely populated state. It's very easy to get around, and so I think the ease of transportation or going from one end of the city to the next, I think that's attractive. It's certainly attractive to me, and if you compare Oklahoma City, say, to Houston and Dallas, it is truly a struggle to get through those cities. So I think that's an advantage.
But [because of] light density, then we don't have as strong of a revenue base in terms of property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes that those other communities do. So we have to be more careful with our resources, and we don't have the luxury of being able to allocate more dollars into certain areas like they may be able to in terms of public transportation or some other service that municipalities often provide. It's our lack of density, but I think it's a strong factor in why people want to stay here, and they like it when they move here. Then that ability that we mentioned early on to where you see groups and organizations working together and you rarely see groups and organizations working against each other or trying to get in the way of each other. I think that's attractive to a lot of people.
And we've got a lot of good factors here. I think quality education at reasonable rates or prices is a convenient factor. The weather, I think the climate is attractive and I enjoy most of it. Again, just go up to Minneapolis or Chicago in January, and you really do appreciate Oklahoma City's weather. Go down to southern Texas in August, and it's the same thing.
So I think there's a lot of good things here. There's still this concept of “rugged individualism.” That's what led to people taking the risk, leaving Europe, coming over here to the United States, and then continuing to venture out further west. I still think Oklahoma has that perhaps, and not just Oklahoma, but the Midwest [in general], still has a lot of that compared to both coasts. It's really a good thing. People are self-sustaining, but at the same time, they recognize, hey, we all need help at times and are willing to help others.
You see businesses coming together and collaborating at times, so there are just a lot of positive factors, I think, for Oklahoma City. If we could work to remember those and not focus on the negative ones, which tend to rise, unfortunately, I think we'd all be a little better off. It's easy to fall into that trap of just focusing on the negative parts of a city or a community. I try not to.
"I think the people are the number one attribute for Oklahoma City."
Yeah, that’s a great perspective. I agree. And you also serve on the audit committee—your professional experience as a CPA—do you feel like that gives you a different perspective than some of the other [councilors]?
It does. For one thing, being in public accounting and understanding what an audit can accomplish, I have great respect for our internal audit group here at the city, and that committee really monitors the internal auditor's office and their activity. It's not just a traditional financial audit that they're involved with. They get involved with more performance-type audits. How could we improve these services? Jim Williamson is the city's internal auditor, and his group has done just a terrific job these last eight years since I've been on the Council, and I'm sure they were doing it even before then.
Then from a budgetary process, my background in public accounting is helpful just to see things. I kind of focus more on trends, and numbers can really show a lot if you know what to look for and how to compare them. So I enjoy that aspect, and I think I bring something to the group that others just may not have.
"I think the most enjoyable time in terms of commuting back and forth to work are the days that I do ride the bus."
Absolutely. So let's shift a bit and talk about transit--you're known to be a bicycle commuter and also a public transit user. Has commuting in those ways affected some of your views and maybe your votes on the horseshoe?
Yeah, absolutely. So just to give you say the same perspective as I have: when I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the bicycle for children was the normal means of transportation, so from south Oklahoma City—I grew up on Southwest 39th Street—it wasn't anything for us to ride our bikes from there to downtown, certainly to Capitol Hill. Really, we felt like we had the whole city within our grasp, and we would spend the whole day out just staying on our bikes going to places and doing things.
My dad worked six days a week, and if we needed to go downtown as a child, me and my siblings, we'd get on the bus for, I don't know, a dime or 15 cents or 25 cents or something. [It was] very reasonable, and we could be downtown with in 15, 20 minutes. So I grew up on the bike, grew up on the bus system, and so I was comfortable with it. So it wasn't until I joined the Council that I got back [to being] involved. I was assigned to COTPA, the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, and being assigned to that committee, I began to hear things and study the bus system. So it pulled me to want to try it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I think the most enjoyable time in terms of commuting back and forth to work are the days that I do ride the bus. They're much more enjoyable than when I drive myself in my own car. There's never been a time I've not been drawn into a conversation. Unfortunately, the people who ride the bus [generally] have to. I wish we could somehow gain more riders from among people that don't have to ride the bus. It would just be a choice.
But given the situation as it is, I just find it very interesting and enjoyable. I love riding the bus, and the bike. I'm not as comfortable riding the bike as some younger people are, because I think especially the further away you get from the core part of the city, drivers are less used to driving with bicycles. They're not as comfortable. They don't understand. You've got to give them [bicycles] some space, and so I find myself up on the sidewalks more often than not when I can, out in the neighborhoods.
I enjoy that. I live almost 12 miles from downtown Oklahoma City, so it's a chore for me to ride my bike, but I do like it. It's great exercise, but I'm pretty well limited to just do that between basically May and September, because then we start losing daylight… The only time I ride it is back and forth to work.
Gets a little darker earlier, yeah.
Yeah, it just makes it—I get a little bit too nervous, but I think it's important that I do it. I think it's important that there's a bigger focus now on bike lanes and trying to make biking safer for those who choose to do that. I think it’s great. I can say this honestly: For people that work in offices, even when you go to the gym on a regular basis, you're not getting the same kind of workout as you would if you rode your bike, well, in my case, it'd be more than 20 miles a day. That's good for you.
To take a little step back: since you joined the Council in 2011, what's something that you're particularly proud of or glad that this city's been able to accomplish in that time?
I think there's been a greater shift to transit in terms of visibility and understanding the importance of it, and I think that's one of the reasons why Mayor Cornett asked me to serve on COTPA—prior to that there had never been any member of the Council involved with COTPA. So I could gain that perspective, that "insider's perspective," bring it back to the Council, share my thoughts and understanding, and then take the Council's perspective [and] share it with COTPA. So I think it was good. I appreciate Mayor Cornett appointing me to that board early on in my role on the Council.
So I think I've brought a better perspective of public transportation to the Council. I think I was able to bring that concern from homeowners, the general public out in the suburbs about their feelings of neglect in terms of streets and roads. [And] when I first joined, we were still kind of pulling ourselves out of the 2009-2010 recession, and during that time, we had to actually cut back on some police officers who were just not replaced. So I was able to put together a plan to where we would systematically try to grow both police and firefighters during that time, and I think we've done that. I think we're now at a stage that we feel like we've got good numbers in both police and fire.
So it's fun to reminisce, even though it's only eight years… I miss those individuals. They had different perspectives, but starting with Garry Marrs, former chief of the fire department, Pete White, Skip Kelly, Pat Ryan. Those individuals had been on the Council, many of them for many years, and just had great history and they could tell you a lot of great insight as to how things evolved, how did we get to this point. So I guess I'm slowly evolving into that role to be able to share from my perspective, “How did we get here? What's the history behind this?”
Yeah, there’s kind of a natural segue with—especially on the public transit side—with some of the new members of the Council this term.
You guys have some definite crossover in terms of interests in that area.
Yeah, it may be time for me to relinquish that and let the younger people run with those areas, not that I won't share the experience and history that I have, but let them take hold of that and get more involved from that perspective. There'll be other issues that develop over the years that at most, I may just be able to provide a little bit of history as to what we were doing in regards to this and try to merge that into their perspective on where we should be going next.
Absolutely—the more complete your picture, the better your decision making, so that's definitely an important role. Have you had good feedback on the Safer Streets, Better City programs so far?
Oh yeah. I wouldn't say it's all positive, because what happens is, the city was successful, with the help of a lot of people, in getting those issues passed by the citizens. Well, they don't have the benefit of my experience in terms of patience, so as soon as they passed it, they were wanting to see results. So those haven't occurred as quickly as we all would have liked to have seen them, but knowing what has been approved and what will be happening, I'm sure they'll be satisfied and happy within a couple years, because there'll just be more and more projects.
"Growing up and living in south Oklahoma City all my life and in Ward 5 ever since being out of college, I can't think of a better place."
Right. So, speaking of improvements, what's one thing that you think Ward 5 needs most, or maybe, what's the biggest challenge that the ward faces?
So just to try to give a little bit perspective about Ward 5, it begins on Southwest 59th Street, and it's one of the smaller wards… It's primarily a residential community, and it's supplemented with small retail areas with the exception of I-240. So the northern section is a little older, and the further south you get, [there are] newer areas, more affluent areas, and then the far southern part, there are still farms and your regular type of rural areas.
So in some ways it's diverse, especially if you compare 59th Street, say, to 149th Street, because down on 149th you'll have people with 40 acres, or you'll see developments with five-acre lots, very affluent homes, and along South Western Avenue from 134th down to 179th where we connect with Norman, that area had a lot of very plush ranches, farms, and a lot of them raised horses. Just beautiful areas.
So it's predominantly a residential community... I would like to see I-240 regain a little bit of its glory. When I-240 was built back in the early ‘60s, it was “the place” in terms of retail and back then, everybody had a car and you drove, and so having retail along a thoroughfare like that, as busy as it was, was great and the thing to do. Well, nowadays, you see retail more in smaller community areas, corner lots. So I'd like to see us being able to get some life back into I-240, especially on the retail side. Then we're looking to see what we can do in terms of multi-family housing along I-240. Many of those units were built in the ‘60s with not any significant improvement since then. So they're approaching 50, 60 years old.
That would be a great area to come in—and we're looking at ways to provide economic incentives to do this—to provide workforce housing or affordable housing, because we got a lot of people living in those areas that serve the retail and hospitality community... let's see if we can find ways to rebuild those apartment complexes, provide some economic incentives to do that. So if we can do that, to come in and rebuild those, I think that would bring some life back into the area, and we might see a resurgence of the retail community there.
Then, although it's not in Ward 5, the "Lariat Landing," or the area west of I-44 by the airport, we want to see continued development. Amazon has their fulfillment center there, and it's going to be completed within months, if not weeks, and it's a great example for the private sector, [where it] can put a lot of resources and have things completed almost overnight. We can't do that in government settings. That's going to be a great job center. 2,000 jobs, the minimum wages are $14 an hour, and being just down the street from Oklahoma City Community College—So close to college is a great combination.
So those are the kinds of things [we need]. Then we want to continue to have a good first responders in terms of police and fire. We need a couple of new parks in the area.
We’ve got Earlywine at 119th and May. We've got Earlywine Golf Course. We've got a lot of things on the west side. I want to get some things on the east side of Ward 5, so we can help that area continue to develop with some public parks and other public facilities.
And this kind of leads into the next question, which is, what's something great about your ward that people may not know?
Growing up and living in south Oklahoma City all my life and in Ward 5 ever since being out of college, I can't think of a better place. There's some very nice areas in terms of neighborhoods that people may not be aware of. Oklahoma City Community College, especially their new performing arts theater, that's a great addition and it serves just a perfect environment because I think it can hold 1,200 people or so. It is a great venue for a smaller crowd. So Oklahoma City Community College, in terms of continuing your education, it's a great place to take courses to add… The Moore Norman Technology Center at 134th and Penn, it's a great facility, and then the South Oklahoma City Library which is adjacent to that, it's a new library… The new Senior Wellness Center will be adjacent to the Earlywine YMCA.
So there's just some neat little things like that... So I love it. It's a great place.
Oklahoma City Public Schools serves Ward 5 from 59th street to 82nd street. All the other area is the Moore Public School System. I go to a lot of the schools' open houses, elementary and middle schools open houses, and get to meet the teachers and the administrators. So I'd say our school system [in Ward 5] is good.
I wouldn't live anywhere else. So I'm sorry I can't be a little more specific.
"It's easy to fall into that trap of just focusing on the negative parts of a city or a community. I try not to."
No, that's great. So what do you appreciate most about Oklahoma City in general?
Well, it's just a very relaxed environment to work in, to live in, to shop in, to have any leisure activities. Again, it's fairly easy to get around it, and I'm one of the ones who can complain when we're on the interstate at 5:00 and it doesn't seem to be moving very quickly, but all I have to do is just think about what it'd be like in some of these other cities. So it's got a lot of nice attributes to it. I think the people are the number one attribute for Oklahoma City, and we should promote our people. They're just great.
And what are you most excited about when it comes to Oklahoma City's future?
I'd say just think of the top five or ten cities in terms of in the United States. We are probably 30-50 years behind them in terms of development. One day, we're going to be just as densely populated as, say, Fort Worth is today, or Dallas is. I hope not, but it's just going to happen eventually. So there are a lot of opportunities and businesses are now recognizing that hey, let's go to Oklahoma City now, because relatively speaking, the cost of land, of housing, it is very inexpensive. We're something like the third-least expensive place to own a home. The amount of salary that you [need to] make is the third lowest in the country to afford a home in Oklahoma City. Businesses will continue to recognize that, and it's a good workforce… Comparatively speaking, I don't think you could find a better place to live...
On May 20, 2013, we were at a meeting in our firm, and it was one of those meetings where I was paying more attention to my cell phone than to the meeting. I could see the storm coming, so finally at about 3:00 I said, "I've got to leave." Our son and his wife, our daughter-in-law, had just had a set of twins. I thought, she still might be at home… And the tornado came right through there… by the time I got [there], the tornado had [just] gone through. And you saw people, like contractors and doctors, people were just coming down to the area to help. They didn't live there. You saw nurses and physicians, guys in their scrubs coming down to help, and they didn't live there, so...
Yeah—it's just what happens in Oklahoma.