USAO News Bureau

Student research draws city interest

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Student researchers from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma met with members of Chickasha’s city government recently to present findings that could inform future policies.

Members of Dr. Aleisha Karjala’s State and Local Government course gave two presentations for Chickasha Mayor Hank Ross, City Manager Stewart Fairburn and several city council members in late April, offering possible solutions to persistent city issues.

The topics for consideration were chosen by Karjala, associate professor of political science, after gauging the city’s interest in a student think-tank.

“My students may go on to work for organizations exactly like Chickasha’s city government,” Karjala said. “City councils and managers never have more help than they have work so I met with the city manager and asked him, ‘How can I use my class to make your job better?’”

Zachary Quintero, an economics major from Yukon who graduated after the spring term, said that he appreciated the real-world applications that he had the opportunity to explore in the class.

“Dr. Karjala is exceptionally skilled at incorporating hands-on experiences for her students in the upper division classes so that we’re not just reading textbooks and talking about things but we’re actually doing them,” Quintero said.

The State and Local Government students were split up into two teams: one to address the issue of property blight and the other to look at performance management in relation to city services.

Jennifer Stewart, a sophomore psychology major from Valliant, was a member of the team that studied performance management.

“We started with the basic question of ‘How does a city know when it is doing a good job with the services that it provides?’” Stewart said. “There are two ways that most cities have chosen to handle this: performance measure, which is the city looking at statistical data of their inputs and outputs and making its own assessment; and citizenship satisfaction surveys, which is asking the customer how he or she feels about the services received.”

The team focused on the survey method as they felt, “ultimately, all that matters is how the citizenry feels about the services because they are paying for them.”

Stewart’s team looked at survey methods from as nearby as Norman and as far afield as Connecticut before drawing up a survey of its own.

“We focused on a general survey and then moved on to surveys for each department based on what we thought would be questions we might ask as taxpayers,” Stewart said.

Fairburn said that the team’s presentation was very timely.

“Citizen satisfaction is an important issue that we’re constantly working to address. We are working to follow-up on some of these suggestions in this next year by having a citizen survey done,” Fairburn said.

Quintero’s team was assigned the issue of property blight, which he described as properties with “numerous code violations that go unaddressed over time.”

The team’s research suggested that the effects of property blight extend well beyond just the single residence under consideration.

“Property blight can bring down the value of homes surrounding as well as commercial sectors located adjacent,” Quintero said. “If unaddressed, it can bring values down to the point that there can be reduced commercial investment. People may choose not to live in older parts of the city because of what they perceive as dilapidated properties. It even reduces the rent that landlords can charge.”

To look for solutions, the team turned to conventional academic research by taking a look at other cities of comparable size and resources to see what they had done to combat the effects of property blight.

What they found was a growing movement to improve property blight by focusing on rental properties in specific.

“What we proposed was registering rental properties with the city and requiring a yearly inspection by an inspector employed by the city,” Quintero said. “Each property inspected would be assessed a small fee, which would generate enough revenue on its own to employ a full-time city inspector.

“The benefits would include making sure that properties were safe for the inhabitants as well as maintaining property values for the neighborhood of which they are a part.”

Mayor Hank Ross was impressed by the presentations.

“I was quite impressed with the students’ projects, and in particular, the presentation about rental property,” said Chickasha mayor Hank Ross. “I have actually invited Zach as a representative of his team to come present to the Chickasha City Council.

“Approximately 35 percent of residential property in Chickasha is rental. I feel this research can help change the infield of our city and improve the quality of life here. There are many other towns in Oklahoma already implementing similar policies.” 

The performance management team was made up of: Stewart; Luke Doane, sophomore political science major from Meno; Taylor Smith, senior physical education major from Oklahoma City; Carla Wasson, senior economics major from Chickasha; and Logan Wilsie, senior history major from Tecumseh.

The property blight research team included: Quintero; Sarah McManes, sophomore political science major from Tuttle; Nancy Martinez, sophomore communication major from Chickasha; Mary Newcome-Hatch, junior political science major from Moore; and Amanda Robinson, senior political science major from Moore.

Karjala was recognized as a DaVinci Fellow by the DaVinci Institute of Oklahoma in March for her creativity and innovation in teaching.

The award recognizes creativity and innovation among members of Oklahoma’s higher education faculty, according to the organization’s website.