Editor's note: The following questions were emailed to all four Tahlequah City Council candidates, via email, at the exact same time on Jan. 25. Candidates were told to limit each response to 100 words, and that while the Tahlequah Daily Press would not edit for grammar, spelling, or punctuation, we would cut answers that exceeded the limit. None did. The responses appear as they were submitted by the candidates, with three exceptions related to formatting for the purposes of consistency: bullet points were removed; numbers are shown with dots instead of brackets; and answers appear in paragraph form. The election is Tuesday, Feb. 9 at respective polling places, with early voting available.

1 Tahlequah city officials last year approved a mask ordinance in light of the coronavirus, and have extended its duration. Do you support the ordinance, and why or why not?

Ward 1

Long: I voted for the ordinance and I continue to support that decision. I have the pleasure of sitting on the Crisis Task Force related to dealing with COVID since March of 2020. The task force meets twice monthly to share and discuss resources and information required for us to make educated and informed decisions at the local level. We as a community must do what we can to reduce the strain on our local health care systems. Additionally, we must do all that we can to continue to keep our local businesses open and operational.

Uzzo: In light of the coronavirus, I support the Tahlequah City officials' ordinance on the mask ordinance and its extended duration. When the coronavirus was first introduced last year, there existed a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding what it was and the exact nature of its transmission. The medical professionals rely on science and evidence to support their decisions and both science and evidence had limited awareness. Face masks are an essential element of protection from the virus. While individual liberties exist regarding the wearing of a mask, I believe it displays respect for yourself and other individuals around you.

Ward 2

Baker: I support the mask ordinance. I know of many families who have had loved ones taken from them because of this COVID pandemic. Evidence has demonstrated that wearing a mask helps reduce the exposure to others and self from COVID. I liken it to wearing a seat belt, there for protection and reduction in deaths, not a burden. It might be uncomfortable or adds steps to your day, but if it save’s one life, it is well worth having to wear the mask.

Cacy: The mayor and council are sometimes challenged with making controversial decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the health and safety of all citizens, and I support their responsibility. Both of my parents have had COVID and my in-laws are high risk so I fully appreciate the importance of masks as a preventative measure to slow the spread. I also support business owners’ and individuals’ right to make their own choice without mandates and restrictions.

2 If elected, will you be responsive to the public and the local media, and answer their questions in an honest and timely fashion? Why or why not?

Ward 1

Long: Throughout my term, I feel that I have been accessible via phone, email and social media. If re-elected, I will continue to be responsive to the local media and answer all their questions in an honest and timely fashion. Additionally, I plan to continue to be available to residents outside of my traditional daytime work hours.

Uzzo: If elected, I would be responsive to the public and local media and in an honest and timely fashion. I believe that the people that elect me should have the opportunity to know my opinion on different issues. My answers will always be my honest opinion on the available information at the time. Timeliness is vague concept and based on the information. I would examine the issues and relative supporting documents and then furnish my opinion on the issue. I examine documents to indicate what it says and not what I want it to say.

Ward 2

Baker: As a city councilor, one must be able to ask and answer hard questions. Honesty and integrity are imperative and is demonstrated in decisions, words and actions. Actions should be the same as your words. It will be a duty and an honor to serve and be the voice for the people of Ward 2. I will go above and beyond to keep Tahlequah informed of the current events, concerns, finances, and communicate openly with the mayor, the city administration and to the media.

Cacy: I will always be responsive to the public. Communication is essential for trust. I want citizens of Tahlequah to be better informed and feel that their voice matters. Recordings of Council meeting are provided, but in my opinion in an unfriendly format and usually quite long for the average person. Citizens hear the decisions but not the reasons or facts associated with them. A recap of the outcome would be a good way to keep the public informed. Public forums or a social media venue where citizens could speak freely and without consequences would allow councilors to hear feedback.

3 What changes, if any, would you propose to improve the local economy?

Ward 1

Long: Local economic growth can be achieved by: additional investments in local infrastructure including: schools, police officers, fire fighters, roads and sidewalks; continued investment into quality of life amenities; such as, bike trails, walking trails, jogging trails, dog and youth parks; expanding existing economic development related partnerships with Cherokee Nation and Northeastern State University; continuing to support the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tahlequah Main Street Association with their business and tourism related initiatives. We should all shop local to support our friends and neighbors!

Uzzo: Financial statements audits are the hallmark of my profession as a Certified Public Accountant. The purpose of the audit is to issue an opinion on the financial statements prepared by the client. The opinion can be unqualified, qualified, disclaimer or adverse. John Uzzo, CPA is listed first by the Oklahoma Accountancy Board on the Approved List of Auditors of State and Local Governments. I have been a Chief Financial Officer for a number of corporations, former Controller for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a candidate for Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector.

Ward 2

Baker: People are flocking to the outdoors due to the Pandemic. Our community has the potential to increase tourism/lodging and the economic impact with the lake, river, proposed mountain bike trails and the three renovated downtown Cherokee museums. One priority is increasing public transportation availability to these sites and more. This could reduce alcohol related car accidents, promote downtown visits, and eases the burden on visitors. Tahlequah needs to embrace the increase of ecotourism. This with the increased effort to attract industry will help us gain potential company sites.

Cacy: Highlighting locally owned small businesses through tourism and shop local campaigns. Tahlequah has many attractions including the Illinois River, Lake Tenkiller, Red Fern Festival, and Tsa La Gi to name a few. We need way-finding signs in and around the city to help direct people coming in for those activities to our locally owned stores, shops and restaurants. I would like to see local dollars staying local perhaps offering incentives. ... We have a new Economic Developer and adopted the Comprehensive plan along with a strong Main Street and Chamber. I think we are moving in the right direction.

4 The city requires a certain amount of money be retained as an emergency fund. Should that requirement be eliminated or the amount of earmarked money increased? Explain.

Ward 1

Long: Previous to 2016, there was no emergency fund. If we had an emergency fund, we could have reallocated those funds to balance previous year’s deficit budgets. In 2016, the emergency fund ordinance #1234-2016 was passed by council. We are currently meeting the financial requirement for the emergency fund. However, I feel the city should make appropriations to increase the Rainy Day Fund. Please note there are all types of circumstances that would allow us the option to tap into that fund, if deemed necessary, including a decline in sales tax, natural disaster, pandemic, etc.

Uzzo: I have examined the Charter of the City of Tahlequah adopted on the 18th day of June 1940 and as amended. The mayor publishes the budget of the appropriations and encumbrances for the budgeted fiscal year. According to Section 38 of the Charter of the City of Tahlequah. The city clerk shall keep the record of appropriations and expenditures of payment or indebtedness, minutes of all meetings of the council, and such other records as the council may instruct the clerk to keep. Without legal reference to support the emergency fund, I feel that it should be eliminated.

Ward 2

Baker: The ordinance requiring the emergency fund should remain as is. This will give the council flexibility in the future to assess if it needs to be increased or adjusted.

Cacy: City Ordinance 7-114: Reserve Funds clearly defines the percentage of the generally operating budget that should be put aside for an emergency fund, and what to do should that total fund exceed the stated amount. It also defines how and in what circumstances it should be used. Emergency funds are important for the city as well as an individual. Just as individual citizens would set aside dollars for an emergency so should the City be prepared for such an occasion.

5 Do you consider yourself an adequate steward of public money and resources? Give examples to affirm your experience.

Ward 1

Long: Yes, I feel l’m a good steward and have the best interest of the city at heart. During my tenure on council, I have voted against two annual budgets under the previous administration that I did not feel were in the best interest of the city for various reasons. Additionally, I voted against several construction contracts because I felt those resources could have been better spent on street and sidewalk improvements. Therefore, benefitting more members of Cherokee County and our thriving tourism industry.

Uzzo: Financial statements audits are the hallmark of my profession as a Certified Public Accountant. The purpose of the audit is to issue an opinion on the financial statements prepared by the client. The opinion can be unqualified, qualified, disclaimer or adverse. John Uzzo, CPA is listed first by the Oklahoma Accountancy Board on the Approved List of Auditors of State and Local Governments. I have been a Chief Financial Officer for a number of corporations, former Controller for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a candidate for Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector.

Ward 2

Baker: My employment has included obtaining $23 million in government subsidized funding for housing developments. I oversaw safety practices, a supervisory staff to determine all property met standards, building codes, and I kept precise financial records. In another position, I was responsible for public resources while overseeing construction which included sanitation systems, storm water management, and electrical substations. During all my work life, I have been a good steward of public money, resources and my financial records were kept accurately and met audit requirements. Knowingly concealing or submitting inaccurate and false financial records is never acceptable.

Cacy: I have worked in public health and home care fields for more than 20 years. I am currently the director of a home care agency that is contracted with the Department of Human Services providing essential home based care for the elderly and disabled. This requires management of state funds and working within a budget on a daily basis. We are contracted to be stewards of the State’s funds and must show responsibility and transparency for what resources are used and for whom they are distributed.

6 The same day voters choose their councilors, they’ll vote on a county hotel/motel tax. Do you support this tax, and why or why not?

Ward 1

Long: This tax has been discussed for several years and I’m thrilled that it is finally going to a vote of the people for consideration and potential action. The county wide hotel/motel tax will increase revenues and allow for the expansion of our existing tourism related marketing activities. Those expanded marketing activities will generate more “heads in hotel beds” across the county. Thereby, creating a circular economic impact through our restaurants and retail establishments. This tax only impacts those visitors and guests who choose to vacation here and not our residents. I wholeheartedly support this initiative!

Uzzo: I do not support this county hotel/motel tax. In my opinion, this excise tax is regressive. This is an excise tax of four percent (4%) of the gross proceeds or gross receipt etc. and said tax will be PERMANENT (emphasis added). The proposition contains 196 words on a separate ballot requires the voter to vote Yes or No. If you are a resident of Cherokee County and do not vote No, this tax will be imposed on our current generation and future generations. The distribution county receives 25% and 75% to tourism. What a deal!

Ward 2

Baker: Yes, I support the tax because it’s a tax that visitors will pay for lodging in the county. This is not an increase of taxes on the local population. The city of Tahlequah already has the hotel/motel tax. Several other Oklahoma counties have a hotel/motel tax. If Cherokee County approves this tax, it will help increase future revenue for local businesses and funding to promote tourism in Cherokee County.

Cacy: Yes I do. It’s important to understand this is not a tax on the citizens of Tahlequah. The tax comes from those visiting the area. It would expand the existing lodging tax to include the County. The City is part of the County as a whole and we should benefit from each other. Additional tax monies will benefit tourism promotion and allow for more opportunities to bring more dollars into the community. This in turn will provide resources for more projects that are crucial to Tahlequah including streets, sidewalks, public safety and infrastructure.

7 What are three of the city’s current strengths? Three weaknesses?

Ward 1

Long: Strengths: 1. We have strong community partnerships with both Cherokee Nation and Northeastern State University that allow us to maximize our financial resources and community programmatic offerings. 2. We have a leadership team focused on financial stability and balancing our budget. 3. Both Tahlequah Public Works Authority and Northeastern Health Systems are thriving and successful trusts of the city. Weaknesses: 1. The size of our community has outgrown our form of government. 2. We have a limited annual budget that restricts large scale projects. 3. The pandemic has caused some uncertainty that has to be diligently monitored.

Uzzo: In my opinion, the three strengths of the city are in having Tahlequah as the Capitol of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Northeastern State University, and now Oklahoma State Medical School Tahlequah branch. The order is based on the number employees that are employed by organization. In my opinion, the City of Tahlequah has not benefited by this opportunity. My Ph.D. is in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Second, major weakness is the resignation of elected officials and city employees. Third, Arledge & Associates auditors’ issuance of a disclaimer of opinion as stated in the filed report.

Ward 2

Baker: Three strengths: Small town atmosphere/friendliness. The city in partnerships with the Cherokee Nation, NSU and the realization that is a win-win for all involved. Culture/History. The Weaknesses: The need for more grant writers to search and seek additional funding. Need to attract large businesses/industries that increase employment opportunities and support a sound tax base for our schools. Need to diversify our tax base by broadening the base of manufacturing, tourism, and other commercial venues that strengthen local economy.

Cacy: Tahlequah’s size is both a strength and a weakness. We are an attractive small town with small town values, close community and diverse culture, but we must be open to new ideas and people and build more jobs to keep folks here. Our location near a lake, river and amenities makes Tahlequah ideal for living, working and recreating, but far enough away from interstate highway and railways making potential employers reluctant to consider us. Jobs. We have some large employers in town but we can do more. 100 additional jobs in our community would make a difference to our economy.

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