Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another Contentious City Council Meeting

Muskogee's city council meetings have taken a contentious turn the past few months. The past two meetings have been attended by standing-room only crowds of over 100.

The two issues that have sparked the action are flying the POW/MIA flag at the Civic Center, and reviewing and changing the city charter. One seems to have been resolved at the this week's council meeting, while the other has gone back to square one.

Again, as at the July 13th council meeting, over 100 people came to hear the resolution of the POW/MIA flag issue. And again, the feeling in the room was very much against the way the council has handled this issue.

To review from last time, the city attorney wrote an ordinance that would address set the requirements for flag flying on city property. There were no copies of the ordinance available at the meeting, so one of the pro-POW/MIA attendees distributed copies at his own expense. That doesn't help public opinion...

The council decided to follow their standing policy of allowing public comment (without council response), but restricted to three minutes per person (and only one time speaking). They rarely follow this policy, which again, does not lend itself to a good public image for the council. Several citizens ran out of time, and had to have others finish their remarks. On a side note, three minutes is probably a little too short for common citizens who are not accustomed to speaking with a time limit.

The ordinance originally stated that the requesting parties would have to pay to put up the flagpole. City Manager Greg Buckley stated that the current flagpole cost between $500 and $700 to put up. Councilor James Gulley proceeded to move that the city pay for it instead. Buckley then clarified his statement, changing the figure to $10000 to $12000, on account that the city merely used the flagpole that had previously been up (before the remodeling of the Civic Center), and his cost estimate was just accounting for labor. I personally think that the $10-12,000 figure is a little high - a quick perusal on the internet found comparable flagpoles for half that price.

Buckley did note that the original remodeling plan did include several flagpoles, mentioning the U.S., POW/MIA, Oklahoma, and Indian tribes' flags as planned, but the project ran out of money and had to cut them out.

Gulley maintained his motion, and the council voted unanimously to pass the resolution as amended. In later conversations with councilmembers, they expressed frustration at the animosity towards them. One councilor said that he wanted to tell the people present that the only thing keeping this ordinance from passing was their arguing in favor of it - all of the councilors were planning on voting for the measure, but were being kept from it by the citizens dragging the public input time out. Another councilor accused Mayor Hammons of stirring the veterans up and starting the whole controversy for his own political self-interests.

With the POW/MIA issue settled, most of the crowd left; still leaving about 30, which is much higher than a usual city council meeting. Before exiting, veteran Pat Davis presented Mayor Hammons with a POW/MIA flag, to be flown whenever the flagpole is set up.

The next issue taken up was the implementation of a new city council policy. Policy 1-4 dealt with requests from the councilmembers or mayor to city staff, i.e. writing new ordinances for presentation to the council.

Basically, the policy states that if the staff member estimates the request to take more than one hour of his time, the request must go on the next council meeting's agenda for approval by the whole council. The council can then give or deny permission for the staff member to fulfill the request.

The argument from those in favor was that no one member should be able to monopolize the time of the city manager, city attorney or other staff members. Mayor Hammons protested, but he was the only vote against the policy. Essentially, now the council can vote down an ordinance before actually voting on an ordinance.

The council then moved on to the city charter issue. As mentioned in my post on the last council meeting, the city council formed a committee to review the charter last September. We learned more about the committee at this council meeting. At this meeting, the council was to go over the reccommendations of the committee.

Each councilor appointed a citizen to serve on this committee (Councilor Jackie Luckey did not appoint anyone, since the charter was not to be reviewed in whole). Councilor Bob Luttrull chaired the group, with Councilor Jim Ritchey also serving on the committee.

Mayor Hammons asked if the review committee ever voted on the reccommendations; John Vincent, the city attorney, said that he did not know if they did. Hammons pressed his point - "It is my opinion that if the charter review committee did not vote on these reccommendations, then these are not the reccommendations of the committee." Councilor Shawn Raper then asked if they were going to follow their policy of public input first; Hammons wanted to make sure that they were actually dealing with the reccommendations as voted on by the committee, but moved the meeting to the public hearing.

Since the council was following their public-input-first policy at this particular meeting (although they did not keep to the time-restriction policy), several citizens spoke. One person in particular had several very good points.

Brian Fuller, president of the local firefighters union, had requested and received from the city the list of the members on the charter review committee.

According to Fuller's research, most of the members only attended one committee meeting. The majority of those members were either never notified of other meetings, or were told that the meeting was canceled without being told when or where it would be held. One of the members is not a current resident of the city.

Fuller's findings also showed that the meetings were not properly posted, and were not held in a public forum; both violations of the Open Meetings Act. Several other provisions were, according to Fuller, in direct violation with state law.

There was a section that dealt with firefighter residency in the reccommendations, which said that firefighters had to live within 20 miles of the intersection of Main and Okmulgee - a change from the previous within-city-limits-for-one-year-before-hiring requirement. Fuller stated that 1/3 of the city's employees live farther than 20 miles from the aforementioned intersection, including many department heads.

Fuller closed by asking that the council start the whole process over again, do it right, and include the three city unions in the review process.

After the public hearing was closed, Mayor Hammons proceeded to ask Councilor Ritchey if the committee ever voted on the reccommendations. Ritchey said that he was never under the impression that the committee was to vote on reccommendations, but thought they were to complie them. Hammons restated his question, "Did the committee vote to approve these?" Ritchey again repeated himself statement. After several rounds of Hammons repeating the question, and Ritchey repeating his statement, Hammons asked Councilor Luttrull the question. Luttrull said that the committee voted on them, but he could not remember when the meeting was.

Hammons and Shawn Raper both suggested to restart the review process, since the facts were muddled. The council voted unanimously to take no action on the agenda item, and to come back another day to start the process over.

So, the POW/MIA flag will fly, but the charter review situation is unresolved. Stay tuned for the latest developements, available on the blogosphere exlusively at Muskogee Politico.


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