Sallisaw City Manager Bill Baker confronted Sallisaw Mayor Julie Ferguson about an opinion article she wrote for her Mayor's Minutes column in the Dec. 5 edition of the Sallisaw newspaper, the Sequoyah County Times. Baker accused Ferguson of throwing city employees under the bus in the opinion piece, and that the city employees were very upset. Ferguson said she did not mean to degrade employees.
The confrontation occurred at the Sallisaw City Commission meeting Monday evening. Former Mayor Shannon Vann spoke first during the public comment period. (Read Vann's statement in its entirety immediately following this story). Other city commissioners also voiced their opposing opinions, and the audience, mainly city employees, approved with applause following many of the comments.
Ferguson said, "I appreciate what they (city employees) do. I'm only saying that they need help...better management." Ferguson said her written words were being taken out of context.
"That's not how it appears," shouted one employee from the audience.
"Show us what was taken out of context," countered Ward 2 Commissioner Ro Poindexter. "These people work for us and they deserve our respect."
Ferguson said, "Somebody edited it (at the newspaper) and I didn't get to see it before it was published." Later in the discussion Ferguson said she would contact the newspaper Tuesday and ask for a retraction. "I have been misquoted and misunderstood," Ferguson said. Ferguson said she was sorry that her published comments were misunderstood.
Members of the audience called out, "That's not an apology" and "It's too late. The damage is done!"
The specific points city commissioners, staff and employees took exceptions to were:
--Ferguson said the city had no plans to review existing practices in proposed infrastructure improvements or possible cuts to curb cost. Although the city has merged departments, there has been no cutbacks on staff, and no new clients were being solicited to use the city's landfill, which helps the city's finances.
--Ferguson suggested that more training from outside sources be utilized, and wrote "Yet, very little is provided in house for specific departments."
--Vann's response, "To imply that the finance director doesn't look for cost savings, landfill superintendent doesn't seek out new business, that departments are overstaffed and receive little training in house, and equipment is not shared between departments, is simply not true."
--Baker reviewed several department mergers which have taken place and said several supervisor positions had been eliminated from city salaries. He also said that nearly naming a landfill employee in the newspaper should not be done, and added that employee had saved the city about $700,000 with his mechanical skills. That if an elected official has a problem with an employee it should be handled in house, not in public. Baker also said that city departments often share equipment, and added Ferguson's statement about not sharing equipment was "simply not true."
--Ferguson said she favored using outside, professional expertise to evaluate city operations.
--Vann stated, "...adding a public works director and hiring an outside consultant to study staffing levels...is added expense of well over $100,000, not to mention the proposal tonight by the Mayor to spend another $12,000 to help hire a city manager." Vann added, "...if expenses are truly her concern, then the Mayor should set the example by not making unnecessary trips such as recent trips last November to Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas last month for National League of City meetings. This was over $5,000 in unnecessary spending."
--Bill Baker: "So yeah, I'm upset," Baker said, adding the mayor's negative words "Hurt our employee team and our community. It's not fair to them (employees, because they could not respond immediately in the same media)." Baker said Ferguson could criticize him as much as she wished, since he has announced his retirement after 11 years as city manager and is staying on to help hire a new city manager, but the mayor should be more appreciative of the city's employees.
Poindexter added that she was offended by Ferguson's comments, and turned to the audience to tell employees how she appreciated their work. They thanked her in person after the meeting.
Ward 4 Commissioner Vicki Sawney pointed out that every issue at the landfill had been discussed in the past by the commissioners. She turned to the audience and said, "You do a good job."
Ward 1 Commissioner Ronnie Lowe and Ward 3 Commissioner Julian Mendiola agreed. Lowe said he worked for the city many years and found city employees dedicated and hard working.
Near the end of the discussion Ferguson said she would like to meet with City Attorney John Robert Montgomery before making any more comments.
Baker said at the end of the discussion that, if the commissioners wished, he would set up a special meeting to review operations or any problems they may see.
Vann's Response to Mayor's Criticism
Following are the comments made by former Sallisaw Mayor Shannon Vann in response to a recent article written by Mayor Julie Ferguson. Vann had issues with Ferguson's negative comments about city operations and employees.
"I was disappointed to see the Mayor openly criticize specific city employees and their work, To imply that the finance director doesn't look for cost savings, landfill superintendent doesn't seek out new business, and that departments are overstaffed and receive little training in house, and equipment is not shared between departments, is simply not true.
"The appropriate way to address these concerns is through discussions with the city manager and city council. Instead, she used the newspaper as a forum to which the employees have no ability to respond. Frankly, some of these topics have been discussed at meetings, but I guess memory fades. In reality, I don't believe these are her true concerns and are not anything more than political ramblings meant to frame oneself in a positive light at the expense of others.
"Furthermore, the article was titled 'Mayor Outlines Possible Cost Controls.' I'd say that was misleading considering how it proposed adding a 'Public Works Director' and hiring an outside consultant to study staffing levels. That is an added expense of well over $100,000, not to mention the proposal tonight by the Mayor to spend another $12,000 to help hire a city manager. I guess she doesn't have confidence in the council, including herself, to make the decision on new leadership.
"Additionally, if expenses are truly her concern, then the Mayor should set the example by not making unnecessary trips such as recent trips last November to Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas last month for National League of Cities meetings. This was over $5,000 in unnecessary spending.
"I hope the Mayor will refrain from future unwarranted negative comments about our city staff and operations in inappropriate forums. I hope this council will meet to address the comments already made to determine their merit. Transparency is important.
"In closing, city employees as a whole don't get commended enough at times for keeping our water flowing, sewers draining, streets clear, and power on. While none are perfect and mistakes are made at times, it isn't a lack of effort. They take pride in their work and appreciate the people who employ them--the citizens. Keep your chins up, you are appreciated."
Story by Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director
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