Though the weather outside may have been Arctic-cold in the wake of last week’s storm, hundreds of area residents have been hot under the collar about the conditions of Tahlequah city streets. Some folks began demanding answers on the Press Facebook page over the weekend. Why, they wanted to know, had the streets not been cleared?
This question was posed late Sunday by the Press to Mayor Jason Nichols, who happened to be online at the time. But we also indicated Street Commissioner Mike Corn is the person most qualified to speak about such concerns. Though his budget may be controlled by the mayor and council, Corn’s is a largely autonomous position, and he makes the decisions as to staffing and equipment use by his department, in day-to-day operations as well as during emergencies.
Nichols pointed out that last week’s snowstorm was highly unusual for this area, and that street crews had been working around the clock. No blame was cast by Nichols, or as far as we know, by any city councilors who addressed the issue. Neither did the Daily Press or its representatives level criticism, because like the mayor, we recognize the unique nature of the circumstances.
It was disconcerting, then, when staunch supporters of Corn and his department began to point accusing fingers at the mayor and council, perhaps even without Corn’s sanction. They began lambasting the governing body for cutting the street department’s budget – which, in fact, is not true. The Daily Press attends every city council meeting and is privy to the budget. Others who zealously keep tabs on city business – like local businessman Josh Hutchins – also refuted the budget-cut claims. But those looking to kick a political football instigated a no-win, cyclical argument by insisting that since the “watchdogs” aren’t allowed in executive sessions, we’re not privy to what goes on behind closed doors.
It seems these folks are claiming that during executive session, the mayor and council – presumably with the help of City Attorney Park Medearis – are cooking the books on the budget. Meanwhile, only this tight band of their opponents – who, by the way, are also barred from executive sessions – have the low-down on municipal business. The rest of us are either clueless or covering up for them.
For those who really want the low-down, here it is: First, it’s not the responsibility of the mayor and council to run Tahlequah’s street crews. Second, despite what a small group of trouble-makers may say, the mayor and council did not cut the street department budget or hamper those employees from doing their jobs. And third, the street crews WERE, in fact, doing their jobs as they understood them, though perhaps not in the manner some folks would have liked.
Hindsight is always 20-20, but many citizens have weighed in with proposals on how Tahlequah can clear its streets more efficiently during future storms. Some have suggested we need better equipment, but as Corn himself has said, this is not pragmatic. Tahlequah isn’t Breckenridge, and such costly machines could only be used on rare occasions. That money could be put to better use on, say, filling potholes.
What Tahlequah does need is a more concise disaster plan, prioritizing which streets are to be cleared, and when and how, should a storm of this magnitude strike again. The crews did a great job clearing the bridges, but other heavy-traffic areas – like Fourth Street – remained icy as of Tuesday. It will be up to the street department, and the mayor and council, to work together to hash things out.
As discussion transpires during council meetings, citizens should take seriously their civic responsibility to make suggestions – which will be far more productive than trying to fan the flames of rumor and discord. Blame doesn’t need to be assigned; it’s sufficient to say that by working together, we can do better next time.