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To the editor:
There is a great deal of controversy, confusion and misinformation circulating regarding the City Council’s reasons for proposing that three currently elected department heads become appointed department heads. Many believe that the City Council is targeting the individuals currently occupying those positions. That assertion could not be further from the truth. These people are my friends. I voted for them and I helped them get elected. I sincerely hope that we remain friends after the election. Politics, especially when friends are involved, is no fun. If the propositions are approved, those individuals will continue to serve out their current terms as elected department heads. Don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise. It’s fake news. In all likelihood, they will continue to serve after their terms expire, if they so desire.
For several decades, Altus operated under an Aldermanic form of municipal government. That system was proven to have many flaws. Under that system, certain elected members of your legislative body (City Council), as well as elected department heads had broad individual authority and autonomy with very little oversight or accountability, due entirely to the fact that they had prevailed in an election. Unfortunately, winning an election doesn’t somehow bestow great knowledge, wisdom or experience upon someone. It simply means that he/she came out on top in a popularity contest. Genuine job qualifications are not part of that equation. The Aldermanic system truly was the “good old boy” system. Many important decisions were made by some of those “good old boys,” and in many cases, they were very poor decisions. Even today, you and I continue to pay for some of those poor decisions.
In those days, many other cities and towns in Oklahoma operated under the Aldermanic system. They learned their lessons long ago. Almost all of them have moved to a Charter form, with appointed department heads, because it was the smart thing to do.
Several years ago, the voters of Altus elected Freeholders with the sole responsibility of writing a Charter. The Freeholders did so, all the while knowing that they would not get it perfect the first time. No one could. That’s why they wrote into the Charter methods by which it could and should be periodically amended. Amendments were part of the plan from the beginning. Whenever the City Council recognizes a weakness or flaw in the Charter; we are duty bound to propose a remedy, which is usually an amendment. Failure to do so would be dereliction of duty. As long as we operate under a Charter, amendments will occasionally be necessary. It is a living document.
I have served the citizens of Altus under the Aldermanic form as well as the Charter form. In the beginning, I was skeptical of the Charter. In hindsight, I was simply afraid of change. Since our Charter went into effect, I have completely changed my tune. With time and experience, I have learned that not all change is a bad thing. Sometimes, change is a very good thing. I believe that some voters, in regards to these Propositions, are like me and simply afraid of change.
Through experience, we Council members have become aware of the Charter’s strengths and its weaknesses. As for strengths, the number one strength is by far, the fact that it has taken the individual authority from the Council members and the mayor. I had no idea how truly beneficial that change would be for the citizens of Altus. With no individual authority, we are forced to operate as a team. The fact that we must cooperate as a team is an especially effective system of checks and balances. If we fail to operate as a team, we get nothing done. It has been great. Anyone who fails to recognize this fact simply fails to recognize the value of teamwork. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This absence of individual authority is truly the best part of the Charter.
The second best part of the Charter is the fact that the City Manager is directly accountable to the City Council. Instead of the old system with a mayor who, simply by virtue of the fact that he won a popularity contest, had broad individual authority and was accountable to no one, we now have a City Manager who is directly and explicitly accountable to the City Council, as a body. Your City Council, working as a team, now carefully selects and hires a professional City Manager. Our goal is to select someone with decades of experience, training and a track record of success, who is truly qualified to run the day-to-day operations of our city. Council, as a team, exercises near constant oversight and guidance. Anyone who thinks that the City Manager operates autonomously or independently is simply mistaken. I doubt that a day passes that at least one member of the Council doesn’t communicate with the Manager. The citizens of Altus now have the benefit of day-to-day oversight and accountability, coupled with professional management, at the highest level, where little existed under the Aldermanic form. That is a winning combination.
The fact that three department heads are still elected is simply a holdover from the antiquated and flawed Aldermanic system. These three positions truly are department heads. Like their fellow department heads, they have broad authority to hire, fire and expend public funds. The problems is that, unlike the appointed department heads, the elected ones, on a day-to-day basis, are subject to little or no oversight and are specifically accountability to no one. The citizens of Altus deserve day-to-day oversight and accountability in regards to all department heads. Almost all other cities and towns in Oklahoma have realized this and made the change. Anyone who believes we are the last because we are the smartest is naïve.
In summary, the Charter, along with our sworn oath, obligates the City Council to operate the City of Altus in the best and most efficient manner possible. Twice, the City Council has voted unanimously to propose these amendments. If we had done otherwise, we would be derelict in our duties to you, the citizens of Altus. These Propositions represent our best effort to do what we are sworn to do and what you elected us to do. The City Council is simply following the instructions that you laid out for us in the Charter. With passage of these propositions, you will have a much better Charter and your municipal government will work more smoothly and efficiently.
You are hearing a great deal of conflicting and confusing information as well as some intentional misinformation. Remember, the loudest voice in the room is not necessarily the right one. Please carefully evaluate your source(s) while forming your opinions.
While you are attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff, you might also consider that passage of these Propositions isn’t necessarily permanent. You, the voters, control the Charter and are always the final authority. If you approve Council’s requests (Propositions) and later find that you are unhappy with the results, you can always change them back.
Dwayne E. Martin Councilmember, Ward IV
Vice-Mayor, City of Altus
*Disclaimer: These statements represent my opinion and mine alone. I make no claim that any other member(s) of the City Council share my opinion.