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Normally placid Tulsa riled by power struggle

Tulsa was built by oil barons in the early 1900s, and their stone, columned mansions still adorn the old historic districts. Lately, the city's image has been less ostentatious -- as a middle-American family town, with a modest cost of living, comfortable neighborhoods spread across a rolling landscape, and a regular place on the most-livable cities lists.

But the city's normally placid civic life has fallen into turmoil. At City Hall, where Council meetings once played out in quiet tones, the mayor and Council members have been accusing each other of ethics violations and slapping each other with lawsuits. The police have been in court -- but as defendants rather than witnesses. Veteran officers have been indicted for felonies and the department is enduring its worst corruption scandal in recent history.

The chaos has clouded the city's effort to pull off a major urban revitalization, already lagging well behind other cities in the region.

Residents of Tulsa, who have long considered the one-time "Oil Capital of the World" a cut above its neighbors, seem confused and alarmed at the new state of affairs.

"I've never seen anything like this, and I've been here a long time," said City Councilman Roscoe Turner, 78.

University of Tulsa faculty member Cornell Cross worries that the troubles are more than a rough patch.

"There is just something wrong with Tulsa," said the chemistry instructor, who moved to the city six years ago. "When there's this much strife going on in the City Council, where the mayor and the Council just can't seem to get along, as a businessman, do you really want to bet your fortunes on Tulsa?"

The problems have opened wounds from the past. Most of the abuses in the police scandal occurred in the black community, which experienced one of the nation's worst race riots 90 years ago and is still plagued by blight and violence.

Life in Tulsa seemed charmed for generations. With the discovery of oil near the city in 1901, Tulsa grew fast and wealthy in its early years. Oilmen and business tycoons spent lavishly on culture, and the city became home to two renowned art museums and treasures of art deco architecture. But by the 1980s, the oil business was in decline and major oil companies began moving to Houston, leaving the downtown increasingly empty.

Tulsa recently added a glitzy multipurpose arena and a minor league ballpark to the center city, and nighttime entertainment is flickering to life in an old industrial section pocked with empty lots. But the real fireworks have been at City Hall.

The City Council and Mayor Dewey Bartlett, an oilman who took office in 2009 and the son of a former governor, have been locked in a power struggle, each accusing the other of exceeding their legal authority on an assortment of city business. Investigations and lawsuits have ensued.

Some local leaders say the police abuse scandal shows a community that hasn't addressed its problems. In neighborhoods where drug deals and shootings are common, officers allegedly planted drugs on suspects, stole money and fabricated evidence.

"It's a no-lose proposition for them, until someone starts cracking a little bit," Mark Lyons, a former Tulsa prosecutor, said of rogue cops patrolling the north side. So far, five former and current officers have been indicted.

Bartlett acknowledged times have been "rocky." However, he said the city will push ahead with improvements and update the city's comprehensive plan for the first time in 30 years.

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