Wheels come off of proposal to limit use of city vehicles
By Ken Childers
An Okemah city councilor’s proposal to no longer allow city-owned vehicles, including police cruisers, to be driven home was dropped after being met with resistance from the city manager and the police chief.
City council member Kelly West, who represents Ward Three, requested that the following item be placed on the agenda of the Oct. 17 meeting:
Discussion and take possible action to add the following language to Section 25 of the city employee policy handbook: All city owned vehicles are to remain on city property when not being used by employees employed by the City of Okemah. Furthermore, city owned vehicles will not be used by city employees for personal gain or outside venues without the consent of the city council.
“I asked to put this on the agenda because it’s a liability to the city, I think,” West said. “I think it’s a good idea that the cars stay parked here (at city hall) when they’re not out on business.”
City Manager Dustin Danker said the vehicles in question go home only with employees – nine in all – who are on call 24 hours a day. “We’re a small group. Your water department, in a moment, a street can wash out with a 12 inch line break. With the police department, seconds matter. There’s no one here driving a vehicle home as a privilege – its a responsibility,” Danker said.
Police Chief Ed “Skeeter” Smith defended the long-standing policy of letting officers drive cruisers home by posing a series of questions to West.
“What in the world are we thinking? How are we saving money by doing this? What about the guy that needs help, and the guy that needs to help him? Does he leave his house and come to the police station to get a car? It happens more than you realize – we’re coming straight out of bed to help them.”
West then asked Smith if the the sheriff’s department and the highway patrol were available to assist officers when they needed help.
“Did you dream that up?” Smith asked West. “They are not 24/7 agencies. We’re the only one. We’re it…there’s nobody else.”
During the public appearance portion of the meeting, which took place before any business items were discussed, former councilman Loren Aldridge advised the council to look at West’s proposal “very, very carefully.”
“Response time is my main concern. For example, Jim Bill (Copeland, Emergency Management Director). If a tornado or something happens and we’ve got damages, we don’t need to wait for him to get to his vehicle,” Aldridge said.
“Another possibility is, all these vehicles are parked here, and a tornado hits here…then we have no vehicles and no one responding. But what I’m looking at are the ‘over-big’ emergencies. Heaven forbid there’s a mass shooting at one of our schools or at one of our churches. We need these people to respond very quickly. We cannot wait. I’m more concerned about saving lives than the $80 we’re going to save on that gas bill,” Aldridge added.
As discussion of the issue began to wind down, West asked Danker if he was comfortable with the vehicles being driven home.
“Absolutely,” Danker answered. “As long as they’re abiding by the rules. If not, it’s going to cost them their job, and I’ll be the one to take it.”
According to the city employee handbook, employees must live within a five-mile radius of city hall and be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to take a city vehicle home.
After the discussion, Mayor Mike Fuller suggested that the council “nail the issue down” by taking a vote, but no vote or other action was taken.
Wayne Bacon, At-large Councilor and Vice Mayor, suggested that the council move forward without taking any action. “She asked and got her answer. Let’s move on,” Bacon stated.
In other business, the council voted to adopt Ordinance number 2019-10, amending title 6, chapter 10, of the code of the city of Okemah golf carts and all terrain vehicles, to require driver license and allow operation of golf carts after dark by law enforcement; and declaring an emergency.
The council also approved an agreement with Cowan Group Engineering for engineering services at the airport. There was no fee associated with the agreement, but by signing an agreement to have engineering services in place, the city is eligible to receive a $75,000 grant for the airport.
A meeting of the Okemah Utilities Authority followed the council meeting, but other than the approval of purchase orders, no actions were taken. A proposed executive session to discuss a pending claim was tabled, with Fuller saying he wanted all councilors to be present for the discussion, and council member Ron Gott was absent.
The next regular meeting of the city council is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. All council meetings are open to the public.