Eight of the nine candidates competing in four City Council ward races staked out positions Monday night on a variety of issues ranging from crime to labor rights.
The candidate forum, the first of two scheduled during the final full week of a relatively short campaign season, was co-sponsored by the NAACP and the union that represents the city’s non-uniform employees.
The only candidate who did not appear was Michelle Green, a two-time candidate for a Ward II seat who campaigned unsuccessfully in 2012 in a field of three. There was no word about why Green was unable to attend the event.
All eight candidates said they supported the right of employees to bargain collectively in the workplace. The question was posed as part of concerns lingering from city councilors’ decision in 2011 to decertify the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2465.
Ward II Councilor James Gulley, who is competing for a third term, was serving on the City Council when that decision was made. Gulley said he wished he and his colleagues would have had more information when that decision was made.
City administrators urged Muskogee’s elected representatives to decertify AFSCME when legislators repealed a state law requiring union recognition by cities of a certain size. Even though the city had recognized the union several decades before that law was passed a few years earlier, city councilors followed their lead. The decision sparked a firestorm of criticism and resulted the following year with the largest City Council turnover since at least 1992.
“When we decertified AFSCME, we didn’t realize how important it was to the employees to be represented by the union,” Gulley said. “We are limited by the charter about how much contact we can have with employees. I wish we would have had more information.”
Ward I Councilor David Jones, who also is seeking a third term, said he has “some pretty strong feelings” about the issue. Jones said he supports workers’ right to organize if “a majority wants that,” but he also thinks “management has rights.”
Other candidates generally supported labor rights, with Ward III Councilor Randy Howard saying one unified “voice is stronger than a single man.” The Rev. Marlon Coleman, one of three candidates competing for the Ward IV post being vacated by Councilor Kenny Payne, made the most passionate plea for the labor rights, recognizing the role unions played in creating a strong middle-class and advocating a role for municipal leaders to protect labor rights.
Dean Swan, who is competing against Coleman and Claressa Vealy-Dyer for the Ward IV seat, also expressed support for organized labor. Swan, citing reports that federal workers who supported efforts to organize the Veteran Affairs Regional Office in Muskogee were targets of intimidation, chastised such tactics.
Vealy-Dyer, who works at VARO as a claims examiner, said she “believes we should have a voice where we all can be equal.” Vealy-Dyer, whose campaign was off the radar during the first several weeks after the filing period, did not acknowledge recent efforts to organize her workplace.
Candidates also were asked about a perception that Muskogee has an inordinately high crime rate. The question was prompted by a recent ranking circulated through social media that Muskogee was the 23rd most violent city in the United States.
All eight candidates who attended Monday night’s forum disputed the finding, questioning the data and the methodology used to determine the ranking. Most of the candidates said they thought Muskogee is a safe place to live, and some blamed the media for creating a perception that violence is rampant in Muskogee.
Candidates also were quizzed about whether the city of Muskogee should change its form of government from a weak mayor system with a city manager to a strong-mayor form. None of the candidates present supported such a switch.
John Lowrimore, who is making his second bid as a candidate in Ward I, said he would stay with the present system. He said the city “has always been that way, and it works good.” Jones said a city manager has the education and expertise necessary to oversee day-to-day operations and provides continuity in city government.
Ward III candidates Howard and Ivory Vann, who campaigned in 2008 for a City Council seat, also favor the present weak-mayor system with a city manager at the helm. Howard said a city manager is preferable because of the expertise that is needed and continuity desired. Vann said overseeing the city’s day-to-day operations requires “special degrees.”
All eight candidates also opposed the idea of imposing a special payroll tax on those who work in Muskogee but live outside the city. Candidates described the idea as nonsense, problematic, unfeasible and silly rhetoric.
Candidates have been invited to meet again at 6:30 p.m. Thursday during a forum at the Muskogee Public Library. The event is being sponsored by Muskogee Patriot Townhall.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday: Absentee ballot application deadline.
Thursday-Friday: In-person absentee voting.
Jan. 14: General election.
March 4: Runoff election if required.